Old Women, Good Time Girls, That Hockey Mom, and More: Epicenter’s Story
by Linda Carlson
Kent Sturgis is the same cheerful, self-effacing publisher today as he was 20-some years ago, when four of us in the Seattle area decided to revive Book Publishers Northwest (BPNW). Despite the international success of an Alaskan legend title and national publicity during the McCain-Palin bid for the White House in 2008, Sturgis still runs Epicenter Press from a tiny office, still watches costs with the eagle eye of the newspaper editor he used to be . . . and still shows up late for most meetings.
Founded in 1988 in Fairbanks, AK, by Sturgis and Lael Morgan, Epicenter is an excellent example of a company that identified a marketable regional focus and stuck to it—while diversifying to meet the challenges of today’s publishing environment. Sturgis, who heads the firm, is also a stellar example of someone who always seems willing to learn from others, and who devotes plenty of time to giving back; besides making that early commitment to BPNW in the 1990s, he served two terms as an IBPA (then PMA) director and then another two terms as president.
The Not-Afraid-of-Failure Advantage
Born in Alaska, Sturgis spent decades in journalism there and in Seattle and got into publishing in 1987 after Lael Morgan, then a college journalism instructor, suggested they buy Alaska Northwest Books, which put out The Milepost and other well-known books about the state. They couldn’t meet the price that owner Bob Henning wanted, but that didn’t quench their enthusiasm for books about Alaska, and it was Morgan who said that if they couldn’t buy a regional press, they should simply start their own.
“We had so much to learn about publishing books: how to edit and package them, print them, and market them, not to mention learning the business side,” Sturgis recalls. “We were so naive.”
Yet, he continues, because of their years of newspaper work, he and Morgan had developed a sense of what Alaska stories would appeal to the public. “So we had that to fall back on—but on the whole we were simply not smart enough to be afraid of failure.”
That first year, they published four titles. Morgan wrote Art and Eskimo Power: The Life and Times of Alaskan Howard Rock, about the Eskimo journalist who founded the Tundra Times and helped fight for settlement of the Alaska Native land claims. “We got a very nice review in Publishers Weekly,” Sturgis recalls, “leading us to believe, falsely, that national reviews would not be difficult to get in the future.”
He contributed Four Generations on the Yukon, a pictorial biography of the Fairbanks family that has run riverboats for decades. The duo also published a history of the Alaska constitutional convention and a history of the riverboat trade into Fairbanks.
A quarter of a century later, Epicenter has issued well over 100 books, with 75 still in print. Today most of its titles are also sold as e-books through Google Editions, and six of them are also available for the Kindle and through Smashwords. By year end, the company expects to publish as many as 20 additional titles for the Kindle and through all the formats that Smashwords supports.
Epicenter had been in business for only five years when it brought out Two Old Women, probably the most critically acclaimed of its titles and its all-time bestseller. An appalling Native American legend with an uplifting surprise ending, it was released in hardcover in 1993, and that edition has now sold 71,000 copies. Paperback rights were licensed to HarperCollins, and foreign rights were sold for 17 languages. A digital edition is available through Google Books. Altogether, more than 1.7 million copies have been sold worldwide, and Two Old Women continues to generate both sales revenue and licensing royalties.
In the late 1990s, Christy Ummel Hosler, who had joined the Epicenter staff after serving as its first college intern, entertained colleagues at Book Publishers Northwest meetings with the titles being considered for Morgan’s forthcoming history about pioneer prostitutes. That book, Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, was responsible for Morgan being named Alaska’s historian of the year in 1998, and it is currently Epicenter’s most popular title. By the beginning of this year, it had sold some 55,000 copies. Other popular titles include a pair of true-crime tales, Haunted Alaska: Ghost Stories from the Far North (2002), and Cheating Death: Survival Stories from Alaska (1997). A 2010 title in yet another genre, The Fishes and Dishes Cookbook: Seafood Recipes and Salty Stories from Alaska’s Commercial Fisherwomen, already has 21,000 copies in print.
The book that put Epicenter on the national scene, however, was Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down. “A wild ride” is how Sturgis describes what happened because his company had the only book in print about Sarah Palin when she became the surprise running mate for John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign.
As NPR reported in October of that year, “A small publisher in suburban Seattle has hit the big time with a biography of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.” It quoted Sturgis as saying, “My publishing career is probably all downhill from here. I don’t know that we could ever top this.”
Sarah, which had come out in hardcover months before Palin hit the national spotlight, had sold about 6,600 copies before McCain’s choice put Epicenter Press’s number on speed dial for booksellers, wholesalers, and the media.
“Journalists hadn’t done their homework on Palin, and when they Googled her name, all they could find was a book by a small press in the Seattle area,” Sturgis remembers. “It seemed as if they all called us at once and continued to call for days—print journalists, photo editors, talk-show bookers, columnists, researchers for columnists, foreign journalists calling from all over the world, you name it. For three or four days we could scarcely make outgoing calls. Every time we hung up, the phone rang again. Thank goodness for our cell phones.”
The Double-Edged Sword of Success
That was only the beginning. By the time the low-key Epicenter publisher was able to attend another Book Publishers Northwest board meeting, he was still stunned by the frenzy. He’d had fewer than 1,000 copies of the book on hand when McCain chose Palin. Almost overnight, it was converted to trade paper, and 60,000 copies were printed through Lightning Source. Then Epicenter cut a co-publishing agreement for a new paperback edition with Tyndale House, which printed 250,000 copies. That new paperback led to a legal tussle with Epicenter’s former distributor, an experience that Sturgis describes as “what IBPA has in mind when it offers a panel at Publishing University called ‘Surviving Your Success.’”
Although NPR titled its story about Epicenter “Publisher of Palin Biography Hits Jackpot,” and the book put the company on the New York Times bestseller list for the first (and so far, only) time, it also made it tough for anyone at Epicenter to focus on any other titles for more than a year. (Another reason publishers need that “Surviving Your Success” workshop.) In addition to licensing print editions, Epicenter licensed audio rights to Blackstone Audio Inc., and there were feelers from television producers that didn’t pan out.
Eventually Sturgis and Morgan were able to settle back down to the business of serving people who live in Alaska, people who visit Alaska, and people who want to go to Alaska. Sturgis has said that the company’s market in Alaska is one part local and one part visitors. Today he estimates 30 percent of sales are to locals and 50 percent are to visitors. “There are more than a million visitors each year, more than the state’s population,” he points out. “That gives us a fresh, self-renewing market every single year.”
The other 20 percent of sales are outside the region, and this figure that has been steadily increasing, partly because of Palin, and partly because of reality television shows set in Alaska. “There have been so many Alaska reality shows that I’ve lost track of the number,” Sturgis says, chuckling.
Tactics for a Black Bottom Line
All the success stories haven’t eliminated the recurring struggles to keep Epicenter finances in the black. Although as a for-profit venture the company can’t receive grants from nonprofits, it has been able to arrange financial assistance from such organizations as the Alaska Historical Society, which provided $5,000 as a research grant to Dermot Cole, who wrote North to the Future: The Alaska Story, 1959–2009.
Six years ago the company also established Aftershocks Media, a wholly owned subsidiary that offers consulting and mentoring, editorial services, packaging, and print management. “In 2010, we added a new element—book distribution—which has had a galvanizing effect on the enterprise,” Sturgis reports, explaining that Aftershocks currently represents 20 publishers and authors with about 25 titles among them.
The best-selling distributed title is The Alaska Cruise Handbook from Coastal Publishing (“Sells like crazy!”), which does well in Barnes & Noble stores across the United States, increasing the interest in such Epicenter saltwater titles as Bering Sea Blues and Alaska Blues, Surviving the Island of Grace, and Hooked!, an anthology of commercial fishing stories. Sturgis credits a cookbook from Saltry Press—Salmon Patties and Rosehip Pie: Art, Food, and the Coastal Life in Halibut Cove, Alaska—for broadening and prolonging the interest in Epicenter’s own Fishes and Dishes Cookbook.
Like other publishers that pursue a variety of sales channels, Epicenter is also looking at how its content might be repackaged for the education market.
Epicenter keeps overhead low with its small office in the Kenmore suburb of Seattle, one that’s now cramped with its three employees, two full-time and one part-time. Freelance editors, designers, mapmakers, indexers, proofreaders, and publicists are called in for specific projects. Morgan, who serves as acquisitions editor, has always worked remotely, usually from Alaska and more recently from Maine. (Her “day” job is also a remote one: she teaches online journalism courses for the University of Texas-Arlington.) Today Epicenter interns work remotely too. Recently, they’ve come from Western Washington University in Bellingham, some 80 miles to the north.
“The key to making such internships successful is, first, find self-starters who can work independently; and, second, take time to plan a fairly ambitious project with a schedule, clearly stated goals, and good communications via telephone, email, and, if possible, weekly office visits,” Sturgis says, adding, “Right now, Erik Fenner from WWU is doing research that we expect will lead to a turnkey marketing initiative for our Native American titles.”
With these new promotional campaigns in mind, it’s obvious that neither Morgan nor Sturgis has plans for retirement. “We’re having too much fun,” says Sturgis, who got his start as the high school “youth reporter” for the Fairbanks paper, which means he’s already spent close to 50 years in one kind of publishing or another.
Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she and Kent Sturgis were two of the people who committed to reviving the Pacific Northwest affiliate of IBPA, Book Publishers Northwest, in 1991.