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Publishing in Mayberry with Algonquin:: :: ::


More than a house, Algonquin is publishing's
mountain village. You sense this may be ultra-chic
Mayberry and may (somehow) be a micro-Manhattan.
Moreover, a quick stroll indicates this certainly is literature's Main Street.

By Heather Harreld

Author Elizabeth Stone often had found working with a publishing house to be like "standing in front of an opaque curtain" with her manuscript on the other side. Not so with her current publisher Algonquin Books where, she says, "at least the curtain is translucent."

Founded as a small and independent trade publisher in 1982 by Louis Rubin, Jr. and Shannon Ravenel in Chapel Hill, N. C., Algonquin now boasts authors such as Lee Smith, Suzanne Bern and Kaye Gibbons, but still has maintained many of the characteristics of a smaller house.

While working with Algonquin for more than four years to get her book published, Stone says she felt wrapped in a small community at the publishing house, which was acquired by New York-based Workman Publishing in 1989 but still maintains offices in Chapel Hill.

While many large publishers isolate the various team members (behind that opaque curtain) from an author, Stone says she worked personally with at least 10 people at Algonquin.

But that was near the end of her seven-year journey to create "A Boy I Once Knew: What a Teacher Learned from her Student," which Stone wrote based on the diaries her former high school student Vincent willed to her after his death of AIDS. Earlier in 1998, Algonquin editor and publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt questioned why Stone was even writing the book.

"Elisabeth said to me, 'Why are you doing this? Why don't you put them away? Why are you agreeing to take this on?'" Stone says. "I thought my story was a straight woman on the East Coast pays homage to a gay man who dies of AIDS on the West coast, [but] that wasn't the story at all. [Scharlatt] said, 'I'm haunted by this manuscript.' This was someone I had not seen in 25 years."

Scharlatt's prodding - the two went back and forth about the book for several years - prompted Stone to reevaluate why she was not able to pack the diaries away.

"I realized I was not really good at dealing with the dead people in my own life," Stone says. "Vincent …really learned how to grieve and really learned how to keep those who had died - and there were many - with him. I was learning how to deal with the dead and learning from him how to deal with death. When I incorporated that into the manuscript, then Elisabeth finally said to me, 'I guess I am going to have to buy this book.' Her curiosity of why I was doing this…the way she pressed me to answer that question - it was the perfect question in response to which the whole manuscript coalesced."

The book, which was published in May, also has benefited from Algonquin's flexibility in marketing it, Stone says. It is being sold in the death and dying section at Borders and in biography in Barnes & Noble because it really defies standard classification. So, Algonquin is leveraging its links with educational organizations - because of Stone's background as a teacher - to help market the book.

"For any writer of a book the trick is to find an interest group's coattails so that it develops a home," Stone says. "[Scharlatt] titled it so the emphasis would be on the teacher/student relationship [because] this could so easily have been mistaken for yet another AIDS book, which is the kiss of death.

What fascinates me is the way Elisabeth specifically …designed it as a product. It's almost as if the manuscript is the cadaver - the title, the font, the cover illustrations and the size are really what gives the book its high concept."

Stone, who lives in New Jersey, is one of a growing number of Algonquin writers who do not hail from the South. Although Algonquin started out with a strong Southern list, Scharlatt has been working to bring the house to a larger national readership since she took over the reins as publisher and editor in 1989.

Algonquin still has its early Southern authors such as Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton, but now also features authors from across the country including Julia Alvarez, Marcus Stevens, Joan Silber and Daniel Hays. In addition, Anita Rau Badami hails from Canada, and Marlena di Blasi lives in Italy.

"We don't think of a California writer or a New York writer as regional, why would we have to think as southern writers as regional?" Scharlatt says. "A good writer tells a story that has universal truths no matter where it is set and no matter where the writer comes from. It's the universality that helps the book find a broad audience."

The company publishes about 20 to 25 new books every year, and every season a book or two pops up on the list that may not seem like the typical Algonquin book, Scharlatt says. For example, a book on Algonquin's Fall 2002 list called "Love, Loss and What I Wore" by Ilene Beckerman is completely uncharacteristic of Algonquin, it being a memoir of a woman recalling her life through the clothes that she wore at various stages of her life. It includes drawings by the author spanning her Brownie uniform to her wedding dress and maternity clothes.

"Its such a moving and funny and original piece of work that we almost had to publish it," Scharlatt says. "It was a surprise to us because we're not in the business of doing four-color illustrated books."

Algonquin relishes in breaking its own rules, such as not doing quotation books. This season's list also features a book of children's quotations with intrinsic lessons for grownups.

The publishing house, which does accept unsolicited manuscripts, also revels in discovering new authors, Scharlatt says.

"What we look for is a voice, an original voice," she says "The story on the page has to make itself lovable to you the reader. We get excited about the books when they come in, and what excites us tends to be a good story well told, whether it's fiction or non-fiction."

Within the massive number of manuscripts that Algonquin receives, similar approaches do emerge, although Scharlatt says she tries to ignore trends.

"There was a time that everyone seemed to be writing some sort of memoir. And people seemed to be getting tired of them - or thought that it was great self-indulgence, or self-congratulation or self-pity. But, I don't think people will stop writing memoir; maybe publishers will become more discriminating about those that are published."

Because it still is relatively small, the company can afford to work without a constant apprehensive eye toward the bottom line.

It has, for example, published a book of plays - notoriously hard to market successfully - by long-time author Jim Grimsley.

"Another example of that is being able to give the author the time to get the book right," Scharlatt says. "There are times when writers are pressured to get a new book out for a new season. We've never done that. That's a very big deal [because] we can say to a writer, 'Okay, the book is not ready [but] we'll bump it a season so you can keep working.'"

Visit Algonquin Publishing (Workman Publishing)


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