The news that J.K. Rowling’s latest fiction title had sold only 500 copies in the months it was out before the word leaked that she was the author using a pseudonym left us feeling a strange mix of hope and despair. By way of contrast, her previous work of adult fiction under her own name sold 1.3 million copies. We felt hope because, hey, little Torrey House Press was doing as well or better promoting unknown authors as a Big Six (now Big Five) imprint. We felt despair because the market is impossibly fickle and it is truly very tough to sell books.
We decided to go with hope. It may not be intuitive or rational but we are doing an internal reorganization and instead of retreating, are increasing our focus on high quality literature. Recently we had been discussing switching our fiction/nonfiction mix to 75% nonfiction or more and cutting our fiction title acquisitions down to as few as one a year in an effort to increase sales. We have noted that other successful, independent, environmental publishing firms do not do any fiction. The reason is becoming obvious. Yet we found that we were simply unhappy with the idea of little or no fiction and, as we thought about it, felt our mission would suffer without it. Until now, I have been in charge of acquisitions while Kirsten and Anne have done the editing and publicity work. With the reorganization, Kirsten will be doing the acquisitions and editing of all things literary and I will be focusing on nonfiction including environmental issues and topical, environmental nonfiction, topics such as our 2015 title with author Dave DeWitt on micro farming. Our aim is for a roughly 50/50 split of fiction and nonfiction.
Kirsten has a background in Western Lit and in Literature and the Environment. Torrey House Press likes to think of itself as a publisher with a cause. We feel that literature has the key role in defining our perception of the natural world and our place in it. Kirsten sees philosophy and literature as a conversation and she wants to be an active and significant part of it. I see her, in a favorite Western term, as a pioneer, a pioneer with an idea that Western Lit and Environmental Lit are the cutting edge by which, as Max Oelschlaeger says in The Idea of Wilderness, “. . . nature’s experiment in humanity is transforming itself.” “Where is the literature,” Thoreau asked, “which gives expression to Nature?” Kirsten wants to answer Henry and to build our brand as the publisher he would use and that would do him proud.
We know that sometimes we will come out with titles that we will find difficult to sell 500 copies. We are proud of what we are producing but the market is tough. While 500 copies isn’t enough to cover expenses, it isn’t nothing. It could be enough to make a difference and move the conversation forward. Probably after I am dead, I remind Kirsten. But she is more optimistic than that and will be looking for ways to find new authors, meet the existing and established writers in the field, and publish some new, smart, high quality, literary work. A growing, high quality catalog is bound to lead somewhere interesting. Furthering the conversation will be fun. Starting this month Kirsten will be reviewing the fiction and literary nonfiction submissions I have put on the short list and I will be setting out in further search of topical, environmental nonfiction ideas. Anne, of course, will be busy helping us keep it all together and make it work.
Send us luck. Buy a book. –Mark Bailey