Brewers Publications Finds the Lite Side of Beer Publishing

How a small Colorado publisher made the transition from technical to mainstream publishing.
Brewers Publications (BP) of Boulder, Colorado is one of four divisions of the Association of Brewers (AOB), including American Homebrewers Assoc. (AHA), Institute for Brewing Studies (IBS), and Brewing Matters, which puts on the Great American Beer Festival. In 1985, Charlie Papazian, AOB's founder, decided to publish books as well, and so BP was officially born. The very first publishing efforts in 1986 were transcripts of various beer and brewing conferences and conventions, obviously intended for a very tight niche. That same year, BP ventured forth into how-to and technical books on brewing. These were followed by a dictionary of beer-related terms, and assorted beer recipe books. In 1990, BP started the Classic Beer Style Series, in which an entire book is devoted to a single style of beer. It continues today, now numbering 17 titles, and is a strong foundation of its publishing program.

I spoke with Toni Knapp, Publishing Director at BP, about her experiences with this transitional company, and her outlook on publishing today.

IP: When did you take the plunge into books that would enter you into general trade publishing?

BP: The Great American Beer Cookbook took us into untried waters. It's a great book, but our big mistake was in its spiral-binding, which made it a difficult sell. Another live-and-learn issue was that the cookbook market was an unknown to us.

IP: How did you reach out to customers other than homebrewers?

BP: During this entire period, book sales and distribution was pretty much limited to the AOB membership, it's Beer Enthusiast Catalog, and through beer supply shops and wholesalers. Publishing dates occurred when there was a book to publish, not according to standard industry seasons. We realized we needed to change to meet the expectations of the book trade. Big changes came in 1997 when it was decided that BP needed to be a "real" publishing division: We joined with National Book Network as our national distributor, and Gazelle Book Services Ltd. for the international market, attended major industry trade shows, and became strongly involved in the publishing community. When PW published a boxed announcement about our joining NBN, we knew we had "arrived".

IP: How did you change your image of publishing only technical and how-to books?

BP: We developed a new logo that's crisp and contemporary; and an imprint, Siris Books, that would publish non-technical titles. It was time to publish books about the other side of beer. Surely, there was another side.

IP: And surely there was a boom occurring in the world of brewing, brew-pubs, and the general appreciation of beer.

BP: We were reacting to that trend, and between Spring '97 and Spring '98, BP published 14 titles, up from its historic average of 1-3 annually. This proved to be too much too fast, and we then had to reevaluate our publishing program. In Fall '98 we took a daring step by publishing Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Buhner. It won four significant national awards in '99 and is now in its second printing. IP: What did you learn during this time of adjustment?

BP: When I made a career move to Brewers Publications, coming from a well-recognized medium-sized trade publisher, I hadn't fully understood what a tight niche market existed for books on beer and brewing. But, I realized that independent publishers who succeed have done so because of their determination to do what they love and do best. The books they publish are the books they love, and they tend not to stray into unknown waters. Their lists are very clearly defined and refined, and they've stayed true to their publishing philosophy. I think, too, that it is because we become so personally involved with every title and every author.

At the Rocky Mountain Book Publishers National Conference in Portland last November, I attended a seminar with author Ursula LeGuin, Neal Maillet, executive editor for Timber Press in Portland and Dennis Stovall, publisher of Blue Heron Publishing also in Portland. The session was about how small presses can court and/or keep big authors and why many name authors are happy to switch to small presses. Well, it came down to TLC--for the author and the book. The publishers cared in every sense of the word. That's what real success is all about, and that's what sets independent publishing far and away above most of the big boys. It was a huge renewed revelation to me, as bottom lines had been getting in the way.

I will confess that I frequently asked myself if there was literary value to what I was doing. After daily and continuing attitude adjustments, and a lot of whining about not being able to, I can say that, yes, we can publish really creative books. I learned this the hard way.

IP: What brought you to this realization?

BP: Any one subject, in any niche, has vast, new worlds in it. I found that beer itself existed before civilization as we know it, with foundations deeply rooted in ancient world cultures. As a social bonder, it forges friendships, diffuses differences, and becomes a metaphor for the vagaries of life. Beer can be the subject for books on gardening, cooking, business, essays, etc. But we've also learned to grow our list carefully and thoughtfully. You might say we are following our publishing bliss with an eye on the bottom line.

What all this means is that the potential and possibilities for terrific books on the subject of beer are probably endless. It's what we do best, and finding new, fresh ways to say beer is a challenge we meet each day. For other independent publishers, I'm sure that the same is true of their lists.

So when things look bleak--trends have changed, sales are down, and John Grisham writes a book on beer for a publisher other than us--I remind myself why I do what I do. We're all in this together for the same reasons.