The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 29th

Algonquin Does Big-City Business in a Small Town

You want to publish a book, so you cross your fingers, send off your manuscript to some slick, big-city publisher, and hope for the best .

Or, you could walk down the street and discover one of the top names in publishing - in your own backyard.

But don't let the local address fool you: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill is nationally known, and it competes in the same league as the biggest New York City publishing companies. Unlike some of its competitors, however, Algonquin mixes small-town friendliness with a commitment to quality writing.

According to Editorial Director Shannon Ravenel, what separates Algonquin from the crowd is an openness that is often lacking in the impersonal world of publishing.

"We attract writers simply by being accessible," Ravenel said. "We try really hard to read any manuscript that comes to us."

This is quite a challenge, considering Algonquin receives some 1,200 full manuscripts a year and only publishes 25 titles.

Yet it is a challenge that Algonquin welcomes - the long-standing mission of Algonquin has been to provide a chance for both new and established writers to have a fair reading.

When Ravenel and Louis Rubin Jr. founded Algonquin in 1982, locating it in the South made a lot of sense. Rubin, who at the time taught creative writing at UNC and had also taught at both Hollins College and Johns Hopkins University, saw Algonquin as a solution to a problem faced by many young writers.

"Louis felt it was harder and harder for students to get published," Ravenel said, "and he wanted to start a publishing company located in the South where students would have access. He had a feeling such a thing was needed.

"People really appreciated that the company felt informal but also professional," Ravenel said.

"We still have no secretaries, and we all answer the phone. We want to be a company that feels very willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts, a place where you can get a good reading without an agent."

It has been this approach that has allowed Algonquin to survive a rocky financial start.

"It was very hard in the beginning not being associated with a larger company," Ravenel said. "Louis and I worked the first five years without salary, and we were constantly running out of money to pay bills."

But Rubin, Ravenel and a dedicated core staff persisted, publishing the early works of such notable authors as Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton. Even though Algonquin did not have the money at the time to offer large advances to such authors, writers continued to publish their works through Algonquin.

Even after Algonquin was purchased by the independent Workman Publishing in 1989, a sense of loyalty more than an eye for financial gain still characterizes Algonquin and its staff.

"People have been very loyal," said Ravenel. "We're still not hugely profitable. We're here in a very un-cute old millhouse in Carrboro, but we're nationally known. There's a lot of enthusiasm here, and people don't tend to leave even though they could probably make more money elsewhere."

Even if they can't claim to be millionaires, Algonquin staffers can boast that they've been the first to publish numerous well-known and respected authors, from Robert Morgan to Julia Alvarez. Along with literary fiction, Algonquin publishes nonfiction and two calendars each year.

Its number one criterion for publication, though, is still good writing, Ravenel said.

"I can kind of tell right away if there's a real level of skill there," she said. "I look for engagement with whatever the author is trying to do."

The good writing that Algonquin seeks is certainly not limited to that from Southern writers.

Although it is responsible for launching the writing careers of many of the finest Southern writers, taking Algonquin for a regional press is a mistake that Algonquin staff will quickly correct.

"It doesn't hurt that we have an association with Southern literature, but we don't want to be limited," Ravenel said. "We do restrict ourselves to books about the United States, but our books are sold across the country, so we can't just have Southern books."

Associate Publisher Ina Stern agreed. "Algonquin isn't that different (from a New York City publisher) because of the fact that we're a company with a national reputation, and we deal with the same people and contacts and the same issues," she said.

Although the company is based in small town North Carolina, Algonquin actually has an advantage over a major, big-city publishing house, Stern said.

"It's a nice place to work, a more congenial atmosphere," she said.

"Also, we reach the same review media as a book published by a company like Knopf, yet we're a little off the beaten path, so there's added interest."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.


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