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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
house, which does accept unsolicited manuscripts, also revels in discovering
new authors, Scharlatt says.
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."
the massive number of manuscripts that Algonquin receives, similar
approaches do emerge, although Scharlatt says she tries to ignore
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."
it still is relatively small, the company can afford to work without
a constant apprehensive eye toward the bottom line.
for example, published a book of plays - notoriously hard to market
successfully - by long-time author Jim Grimsley.
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