The little publishing house that could
by Stephen McDill
Published: March 8,2013
“We are in a world that is changing at a faster pace,” says Gwen McKee, editor-in-chief of the small Brandon publishing company Quail Ridge Press.
Publishing in America has changed in the last quarter century with the rise of the Internet and e-readers, the decline of local bookstores and ebb of even larger retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble.
That being the case, one could compare Quail Ridge Press in Brandon to the fast and nimble bird.
Like the Northern bobwhite quail, small and independent book publishing firms are on the decline nationwide. Even global firms like Random House and Penguin aren’t immune to mergers and acquisitions. Today, anyone anywhere can self-publish from their computer and then market the e-book online through a variety of sites from Lulu to Amazon.
“Smaller houses are having trouble but if you pay attention to the times and don’t fight change you have a better chance of staying alive,” says Gwen, who along with her husband Barney founded Quail Ridge Press in 1978.
The overwhelming success last year of one of their titles “Great Food Fast” has brought national attention to Quail Ridge and its saving niche of publishing cookbooks.
Written by pressure cooking expert Bob Warden, “Great Food Fast” has currently sold more than 145,000 copies and was the fifth best-selling cookbook in America in 2012, according to trade magazine Publishers Weekly.
Warden is a frequent guest on the popular retail channel QVC and has sold more than 200,000 copies of previous pressure cooking how-to books.
“Cookbooks are the least risky book to publish and a cookbook lasts longer if it’s a good one,” Gwen says. The Louisiana State University journalism and English graduate loves to cook and says that in a slow economy, cookbooks can actually help families save money by learning to shop for and cook their own food instead of eating out all the time.
Gwen says coming in ahead of mega-large competitors like Random House and Simon & Schuster and its millions of dollars in advertising and promotional budgets is a “David and Goliath” win for Quail Ridge Press.
“There are hundreds of thousands of books out there and only a 1,000 are published annually,” she says.
Quail Ridge wasn’t always a national contender. The McKee’s started the business with what could have been a potential flop.
After marrying Gwen, Barney had gone to art school and designed books in Chicago before moving home to Baton Rouge to work for LSU Press. Years later while helping start University Press in Mississippi, he brought home a little manuscript called “The Twelve Days of Christmas Cookbook.”
“Two turtledoves, dinner for two,” Gwen says was the general theme. “University Press couldn’t publish it.”
Gwen and Barney laid the manuscript out on their dining room table and got to work on editing and layout. It was a gamble for the couple who had already suffered two freelance publishing setbacks with biographies of a local theater and LSU basketball great Pete Maravich, both of which didn’t turn a profit.
“You try to have more winners than losers,” Gwen says. “Publishing is a gamble.”
Fortunately, “Twelve Days” sold out within three weeks of its release date. “We had to move the car out and pile books in the garage,” Gwen says. “We had a lot of help. Relatives were selling it to schoolteachers. My mother was selling it in beauty shops.” After 12 printings and nearly 40 years “the pretty little red book” as Gwen calls it is still available through the Quail Ridge website.
“It caught on and I knew I could retire from University Press and do this full time,” Barney says.
Quail Ridge’s anchoring success came in 1982 when Gwen started work with co-editor and friend Barbara Moseley on a series of “Best of the Best” state cookbooks highlighting food from across the United States. Other similar projects flew off the shelves thanks to help from QVC and later Amazon.com.
Gwen says one of their gumbo recipe books even caught the eye of Julia Child and the popular TV chef complimented her on it after they met at a Nashville book fair.
The family-owned operation has always included the McKee children, who grew up binding books and playing in the warehouse.
Today, Gwen fondly refers to their help as a “coast to coast” venture. Their son Shawn owns a local software business and helps with technical issues at Quail Ridge while their other son Brian often assists with copy editing and promoting from his home in Portland, Ore. Their daughter, Heather lives in Boston is currently developing a mother/daughter, cookbook with Gwen.
“We’re continually printing books,” Barney says. Future plans for Quail Ridge include more e-book titles and full-color releases of all of their “Best of the Best” books along with guidebooks that are chock full of historical, cultural and event information.
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