Charleston publishing firm finding successful niche

COLUMBIA -- A publishing firm working out of a quaint, red-roofed former grocery store at the corner of Percy and Bogard streets in old Charleston churns out best-sellers.

You might not find any titles from The History Press on The New York Times' Sunday list. But the 5-year-old company sells books at places such as Bert's Market on Folly Beach or the visitors center at Ninety Six National Historic Site.

Don't scoff. Those non-traditional sites for book sales have helped The History Press buck the recent economic downturn. The company published 20 titles in 2004. The five-year list of titles tops 500.

History Press' sales have topped 200,000 books this year. The subjects range across 20 states, with titles such as "The Wilmington Shipyard: Welding a Fleet for Victory in World War II" or "Explorations in Charleston's Jewish History."

History always ranks among the top publishing genres. It was No. 3 in sales nationally last year behind biography and romance, according to Michael Norris, editor of Simba's Book Publishing Report newsletter.

Operations such as History Press "are something the publishing industry needs to talk about more often," Norris said. "It's not all about blockbuster novels put out by the major publishing houses. There are so many opportunities with niche publishing."

What started around founder Kirsty Sutton's dining room table in 2004 expanded to the downtown Charleston home office, a warehouse a few blocks away and a satellite office in Salem, Mass. Another office in the Midwest is scheduled to open early in 2009.

"We definitely have hit a niche in the market," said Julie Foster, managing editor of History Press. "There are so many towns and communities that haven't had their history told in print."

Sutton first hit on that pent-up demand as founding editor of Arcadia Publishing, which created hundreds of books filled with old photos and postcards of local landmarks. Some of History Press' titles also are photo-driven, but most use words to tell the story. Almost all are printed in paperback form.

Potential authors are recruited from county historical societies or at local museums. Most already have done the research involved. Some already have done the writing.

Eric Williams researched local histories for 27 years to improve the tours he guided as a park ranger at Ninety Six National Historic Site. Two years ago, History Press published "Old Ninety Six: A History and Guide," written by Williams and his friend and fellow park ranger Robert Dunkerly.

"It was one of my personal goals," said Williams, who plans to retire in January. "I wanted to be published as a historian before I retired."

The book sells well at the national park's visitors center in Greenwood County, and Williams gets a kick out of seeing it on the shelves in the big chain book stores in Greenville.

Williams is typical of History Press authors.

"There are outstanding local historians who have been working for decades keeping a town's or a county's or a region's history just because they're passionate about it," said Brittain Phillips, History Press' chief operating officer.

Williams and Dunkerly have received a couple of royalty checks. But they were more interested in telling the area's story than in making money.

The History Press, however, aims to turn a profit. The business plan is to sell small quantities of lots of books. The typical History Press title might have a press run of 1,000 to 1,800.

"For each one, we try to determine how many we're confident we can sell in a year or a couple of years" Phillips said.

Sometimes, the popularity of certain books surprises them. They've already done three press runs for a history of the Miller & Rhoads department store in Richmond, Va., selling nearly 5,000 copies since it came out in November.

The academic heft of the history in the books has wide range -- from short collections of ghost stories to a four-volume collection of "South Carolina's Military Organizations During the War Between the States." Some of the History Press titles include the footnotes, detailed bibliographies and expanded indexes that help researchers. Some don't.

The academic press has taken notice of History Press' rise. Alex Moore, acquisitions editor at USC Press, suggests the authors of less scholarly submissions that come across his desk take their work to History Press.

"It's an interesting enterprise," Moore said. "They fill a niche we can't fill."

Moore sees merit in some History Press books though he isn't a fan of some personal memoirs. He hopes people won't look at History Press titles as "the book of record on any particular subject."

"They're improving all the time in terms of quality," Moore said.