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Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin Books
Originally published November/December 2012
Thirty years ago, an unlikely story began to unfold with the launch of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Co-founded by Louis Rubin and Shannon Ravenel, the upstart literary press sought exceptional writers, many of them Southern. Almost immediately, Algonquin scored critical success with books from the likes of Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons and Larry Brown.
Managing the fledgling company was a labor of love. Rubin and Ravenel were the only full-timers – and didn’t draw salaries for the first six years. The original editorial office was in a shack in the back of Rubin’s home on Gimghoul Road. Later, they moved to an office, then a small mill house in Carrboro. The staff, small and congenial, brought their dogs to work.
A Southern Accent
Fast-forward three decades: Algonquin, which was acquired by Workman Publishing Company in 1989, now occupies an entire floor of a low-rise building in a leafy office park off Weaver Dairy Road and employs 15 in Chapel Hill. The sales staff is located in New York.
Alas, no dogs roam the office these days. Otherwise, many of the Algonquin’s special qualities persist. Editors select a modest number of manuscripts – about 15 to 20 per year – both fiction and nonfiction, to publish and strongly support so that they may succeed in a highly competitive marketplace. Algonquin authors like McCorkle, Lee Smith and Robert Morgan continue to provide the press with a Southern accent. But the company has evolved from being a regional publisher to one of national stature. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was a breakout bestseller – made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson – and other books have won commercial, as well as critical, success.
An Improbable Venture
Algonquin will mark its 30th anniversary in the coming year with a series of special events. It also will honor its origins by purchasing back the paperback rights to some of its earliest titles – like Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, Raney by Clyde Edgerton, Big Fish by Daniel Wallace and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez – and reissuing them with new covers and reading guide material. “We want to celebrate the authors who helped make us who we are,” says Ina Stern, associate publisher and a member of the editorial board.
Also on tap for 2013: Algonquin will publish new novels by Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith and Robert Morgan. And another new venture will be the debut of a line of titles for young readers, aimed at middle and high schoolers.
In the beginning, Rubin and Ravenel didn’t imagine enormous commercial success; they just wanted to help young writers get a toehold in the publishing world. Rubin hatched the idea for a Chapel Hill-based company after he participated in an academic panel on Southern writing in New York and realized that young Southern writers had trouble getting published without industry connections.
“I thought, ‘Why not start a publishing company to help young writers launch their careers?’” Rubin recalls. So he contacted Ravenel, a former student of his at Hollins University, to ask if she was interested. She said yes right away. Using their personal funds and some help from a few investors, they started Algonquin Books, publishing their first list of four books in 1983. (They decided to call the company Algonquin (the name of Rubin’s boat) after their original idea for a name – Bright Leaf Publishing – struck some as conjuring up images of the tobacco industry.)
Both co-founders had the literary background to tackle such an improbable venture. A distinguished writer, editor and teacher, Rubin taught for 22 years in UNC’s English department, following 10 years at Hollins. Encyclopedia Virginia describes him as “perhaps the person most responsible for the emergence of Southern literature as a field of scholarly inquiry.” Ravenel’s credentials were impressive, too: She had worked as an editor at Houghton Mifflin publishers and was for 20 years the series editor of the annual anthology, Best American Short Stories.
Many of the early authors had been Rubin’s students and friends and all benefited from his encouragement. McCorkle was one of those. “I was lucky to have been around in those early years and to have known Louis,” she says. “He has a gift of nurturing young writers and helping them achieve success with their careers.” Algonquin published her two first novels simultaneously in 1984 – a publishing milestone – and both were well reviewed in The New York Times.
While Algonquin was building its reputation for finding and publishing literary work by emerging young authors, the business side faced challenges. By 1989, it was clear that help was needed, so Rubin and Ravenel went to New York to talk business with major publishing houses. In the end, Algonquin was bought by Workman, a large, independent publisher best known for nonfiction and calendars.
Making an Imprint
From the beginning, Workman was committed to maintaining the character of the company while making it stronger, says publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt. “We could maintain the quality of the books, while providing more muscle in terms of marketing and sales.” Workman also made the important decision to keep Algonquin in Chapel Hill. “We have the best of both worlds,” Scharlatt acknowledges, “with a foot in North Carolina and a foot in New York.”
Rubin retired in 1991. Ravenel stepped away from her full-time role as editorial director in 2001 and now oversees books for Algonquin under her own imprint, working with authors like Julia Alvarez, Robert Morgan, Smith and McCorkle. The marketing focus began to encompass social media and online features to engage readers, as well as continuing to work with independent bookstores, a strategy that has been vital from the early days. The scope of books published broadened to a larger national canvass.
But the essentials remain. Algonquin is selective, but it supports its relatively few titles with vigor. “We are known for getting behind all the books we publish with all our marketing experience and sales clout,” says Stern.
And she and the editors are always seeking the highest quality when they review manuscripts. “We are looking for an original voice,” she says. “Many themes are similar, and so much depends on the way the story is told and the energy in the writing.”
Among Stern’s favorite Algonquin titles? One is Life After Life by McCorkle, her first novel in 17 years, which will appear in the spring. Although Algonquin has published many of McCorkle’s short story collections over the past three decades, her new novel is a major cause for celebration. “It’s the best thing she’s ever written,” enthuses Stern.
And so, with its enduring constants of excellent writing and a home in Chapel Hill, it seems that the best is yet to come for the little publishing house that could. CHM