Promoting the Image of Alaska

In addition to their own website, Epicenter operates the website of Jon Van Zyle, the offical artist of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Art is Van Zyle's life in Alaska, and all of Alaska has been his inspiration. "He has seen more of Alaska in a much more unique way than most can ever hope to experience." Jon has twice completed the 1049 miles of the Iditarod Race between Anchorage and Nome. From these adventures he has created the yearly Iditarod posters series commemorating the race and his involvement every year. In 1979 he was made Iditarod artist, a title he still holds today. Epicenter has published two books of his art; IDITAROD MEMORIES and ALASKA SKETCHBOOK.

Visit the Jon Van Zyle website.

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Feature

From the I.P. Archives (Sept 2003): 15 Years from Frontier to Frontier -- Epicenter Press Publishes Alaskan-Style

(Editor's note: We're posting this article because Epicenter Press is in the headlines for publishing a book about a certain Alaskan citizen...)
Kent Sturgis and partner Lael Morgan may have been clueless back in 1988 when they formed Epicenter Press in Fairbanks, Alaska –- but they weren’t afraid of a challenge. Like most who immigrated to the “new frontier” of Alaska, they had plenty of pioneer spirit and hope for the future.

“We were five time zones and 3,200 miles from New York,” says Sturgis. “Alaska had no book editors, no book designers, and no book printers. A newspaper layout artist designed our early titles.”

At this time email was in its infancy, no one had a website, and telephone calls to the "Outside" (as Alaskans call the Lower 48 states) cost $1 a minute. They had a lot to learn. Sturgis ran the company while Morgan became acquisitions editor.

Freight expense was also a killer, especially when one had to ship books from a printer in the Midwest to Fairbanks, then mail them to a wholesaler in Washington State, which in turn shipped many of them north again to customers in Alaska. “It made no sense, but that's what we did for awhile,” recalls Sturgis.

“We began every day with the mantra, ‘We're only 130 miles south of the Arctic Circle, they're not all rocket scientists here, and we're lucky if anything works,’" says Morgan. “When you start a day on that premise, it usually gets better.”

Epicenter concentrated on selling to their local market which, Morgan remembers, was tougher than selling Alaska books outside the state. “To sell non-fiction books to Alaskans, you darned sure have to get it right and be super-accurate, because they won't stand for romantic nonsense. Happily, both Kent and I were already trusted journalists in the Far North, and it certainly helped that we knew all the newspaper, radio and TV folks. We found them eager to review and report on our books, and we understood our local audience well enough that we always got good reviews.”

Epicenter published regional bestsellers about life in the North, among them GOOD TIME GIRLS of the Alaska/Yukon Gold Rush, by Lael Morgan; Tales of Alaska's Bush Rat Governor, by Jay Hammond, and Cheating Death: Survival Stories from Alaska, by Larry Kaniut. Because the local market is relatively small (about 625,000 people live in Alaska) and to grow the backlist, they looked for material that appealed not only to Alaskans but also to the more than one million people who visit Alaska each year. “We don't publish ‘tourist books’ per se, that locals have a hard time relating to,” says Sturgis. “This is a balancing act. With the exception of most memoirs and biographies, we've learned that titles popular among Alaskans likely will appeal to visitors too. So, we publish books for Alaskans. We figure the rest will take care of itself.”

When national popularity of the Iditarod race and other events increased stateside awareness of Alaska, many big publishing houses began entering the market. Epicenter managed to hold its own because their books and authors had earned the trust of their readers in a difficult field. Also at about this time, Sturgis negotiated a distribution deal with Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co. in Portland, OR, and moved their editorial and business office to Kenmore, Washington (near Seattle) to be closer to vendors and book marketers. Hence, the upstart, backwoods press fought off the “big guys,” and most of those publishers have since retreated from doing Alaska books.

Sturgis became active in Book Publishers Northwest (a regional division of Publishers Marketing Association) and learned a lot. At a PMA seminar in Seattle, Executive Director Jan Nathan suggested that the Alaskans learn about the book business by attending annual BookExpo America trade shows.

The strategy paid off. In Chicago, Epicenter recruited a co-publisher with enough capital to develop gift books for the one million tourists, business travelers and government workers who visit Alaska each year. At the 1993 BEA show in Miami Beach, Epicenter brought a title that began to generate excitement. Later that year Two Old Women by Velma Wallis won a Western States Book Award, Epicenter sold a trade paperback edition to HarperCollins, and over the next decade, one million copies of Two Old Women were sold in 18 languages. From Frustration to Euphoria

“Publishing Two Old Women was a euphoric experience that stretched on for many months and, to some extent, continues this day,” says Sturgis.

“In the spring of 1993, Robert Sheldon called with news that Two Old Women had won a Western States Book Award for creative nonfiction. In those days, the Western States Arts Federation selected winners prior to publication, then offered promotion and consulting assistance to the publishers. This was a huge boost.”

Meanwhile, Dan Levant and Elizabeth Wales of Levant & Wales Literary Agency in Seattle (now Wales Literary Agency with the retirement of Levant) read the manuscript and knew Velma Wallis had written something extraordinary -- a retelling of an ancient Athabascan Indian legend from the Yukon River about two elderly women who are abandoned by their band. Elizabeth Wales organized her first auction for the trade paperback, selling the reprint and audio rights to HarperCollins for $35,000.

Back in Alaska, there was muted criticism in Fort Yukon, the author's hometown, where some questioned whether the author should make money from a legend some regarded as community property. The Anchorage Daily News covered the issue, and their stories were picked up by other media, including the Associated Press, and the entire region awaited eagerly for the book when it was released in September, 1993.

“Some highly placed indigenous Alaskans initially felt that, although it was a true story with a happy ending, it would make their people look bad,” says Morgan. “One threatened to blow up my home if we published it. But we knew Two Old Women had a place in literature.”

“The initial printing of 5,000 flew out the door from our distributor's Portland warehouse. So did a second printing of 5,000. And a third of 7,000,” recalls Sturgis. “There was such demand for the book that Pacific Pipeline, then the region's largest book wholesaler, could not keep the title in a stock. A frustrated Helen Ibach, the buyer, was moved to tears not being able to fill a growing pile of orders. That was when I learned about ‘inventory anxiety,’ which is not always a bad thing! But I felt bad for Helen. She saw the potential of Two Old Women early on.”

For the third printing, Epicenter finally moved the film to a printer in Portland, just down the street from their distributor's warehouse. Sturgis recalls the fervor with which the book was snapped up: that autumn Gulliver's Books in Fairbanks sold nearly 3,000 copies of Two Old Women in two stores.

The book continues to sell well in both editions. Linda Michaels Literary Agency sold translations into seventeen languages, and after a decade, Two Old Women had sold more than one million copies worldwide. Epicenter plans an anniversary edition for Spring 2004, and HarperCollins has renewed its license for the paperback.

How TOW became a million-seller (sales through 2002):

64,000 Epicenter HB edition
221,000 HarperCollins SB edition
28,000 Club sales
660,000 German (3 editions)
45,000 Spain (3 editions)
20,000 Netherlands
30,000 Combined sales of 13 other translation editions
1,068,000 total

Back to Reality

“Until recently we have been a front-list driven publisher, rolling the dice each season,” says Sturgis. “The backlist wasn't substantial enough to carry the operation. We tried, unsuccessfully, to duplicate the TOW formula -- publish a hardcover edition, sell the hell out of it, and then license the paperback to a New York publisher willing to pay a large advance. Yeah, right. Quickly we learned that catching national attention for a book is much easier said than done, and recognized the need to focus on our main market -– Alaska -- if we were to survive as an independent regional trade publisher. And that is what we have done. Now our backlist accounts for more than half of annual sales.”

Still, there is much demand for Epicenter titles outside Alaska. They operate two websites, www.EpicenterPress.com, and an online art gallery, www.JonVanZyle.com, where they sell posters and prints from Jon Van Zyle, official artist of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Direct mail and carefully placed advertising in such publications as Mushing magazine generate sales at the websites and to the 24-hour hotline, 800-950-6663. Due to the enormous popularity of the Iditarod race, Epicenter books about sled dog racing sell in all 50 states, Canada, and much of Europe. And Now for Something Completely Different

Now the publisher of 80 nonfiction titles, Epicenter observed another milestone at this year’s BEA in Los Angeles: the announcement of its first self-help book aimed at a national audience. GO FOR IT! Finding Your Own Frontier, by Judith Kleinfeld, Ed.D. (November 2003; $22.95 Cloth/$14.95 Paper) provides a trail guide to the “frontier” where you find the courage to ignore things supposed to bring happiness but don't, discover buried talents, listen to your heart vs. others' expectations, and bring true meaning into your life. On the frontier, there is the greatest rush of all -- possibility.

Sturgis and Lael Morgan both have connections with author Kleinfeld. The two women were colleagues at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where Judith is a professor of psychology. Sturgis published her first newspaper column while he was managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in the 1980s. One of those columns was about how living on the frontier gives people a real advantage in succeeding in anything they want to do.

“So, it was natural that Judy came to us with her book idea,” says Sturgis. “Classification was a choice between social commentary and self-help/psychology. It underwent several transformations in nearly five years of development. We persuaded Judy, who has a wonderful knack for writing for everyday people, to throw out her footnotes and go for a national, mainstream audience.” (The word “Alaska” does not appear on the cover.)

“The book is aimed at people who feel trapped by their own and others' expectations -- people who yearn for something new and different -- and who must downscale their lives. The premise is that the readers have a good chance of finding fulfillment and success pursuing the ‘frontier strategy,’ that is, taking on core values in the American psyche-optimism, a sense of possibilities, and willingness to take risks.”

“That is also what we are doing with the help of publicist Alice Acheson and an ambitious promotional campaign -- our first national campaign for a self-help book. Outside of Alaska, our publicity focuses on the ‘frontier strategy.’ In Alaska, we are spinning it around the idea that this unusual new book from a University of Alaska professor is helping Americans rediscover their psychological roots by exporting frontier values still found in Alaska.”

Kleinfeld herself became an Alaskan pioneer when, after attending Wellesley and Harvard, followed a shared dream with her husband to go where they could make a difference; she with her interest in minority education and he with aspirations for politics and the bench. She is a popular newspaper columnist, frequent NPR guest, and her research on education, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other Alaskan social issues has been featured in many publications. Her plain-spoken style is refreshingly gruff compared to the coddling approach many self-help authors take.

“You don’t need to go to a frontier to lead a good life,” says the book’s introduction. “But you might want to give it a try. You don’t have to go out so far that you can’t come back.” “I don’t expect you’ll need much help if you decide to go. You already know how. Pioneering is part of your heritage as an American. And, as a pioneer, you become one with Lewis and Clark exploring the vast unknowns of the West, one with Daniel Boone leading his party through the Cumberland Gap or one with Bill Gates starting up Microsoft in Seattle.”

“Americans are the people of the frontier. To be there means going out on the edge, doing something different with your life, making a mark. You can pioneer wherever you are.”

“We’re all aware that Judith could have sold that book to a national house with a bigger promotion budget than Epicenter can muster,” says Morgan. “But she pointed out to us that it was Epicenter’s success as a frontier pioneer that attracted her to us in the first place. We’ve enjoyed pioneering together.”

Maybe this “frontier mentality” is something independent authors and publishers are already aware of, but to hear it from those who’ve faced the challenge of the Alaskan frontier is inspirational. If they can do it up there in the wild North, just think how easy it should be down here in the Lower 48! Choose a new frontier -- and GO FOR IT!


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