Nancy Curtis is the publisher and primary editor of High Plains Press, a micro-publishing company specializing in Western Americana, poetry, and memoirs of the American West and headquartered on the family cattle ranch near Glendo, Wyoming. The press has published over 60 books since 1984, winning five Western Heritage Awards for outstanding poetry from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, two Willa Awards from Women Writing the West, the Best Woman Writer award at the High Plains Book Awards, as well as other recognitions. The press was recognized by Western Writers of America with the Lariat Award for special distinction in support of western books and authors. In 2011, Nancy received the Governor's Arts Award from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead.
Nancy Curtis is also co-editor, with Linda Hasselstrom and Gaydell Collier, of three collections of women's writing published by Houghton Mifflin: Leaning into the Wind (1997), Woven on the Wind (2001), and Crazy Woman Creek (2004). She will be one of our keynote speakers at the SCN Stories from the Heart Conference, April 11th-13th, 2014.
Read Susan Wittig Albert's review of Leaning into the Wind for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers for the Story Circle Journal
Posted on 02/17/2014
Tell us a little about yourself, Nancy.
I was raised on the working cattle ranch where my husband and I now live, and we live in the house where I grew up. I love learning new things and think curiosity might be one of my best assets. I'm somewhat of a Renaissance woman if that means I can do a lot of things with mediocrity. I've definitely gotten more detail oriented and better at the fine points as I've gotten older. Someone described me as very "down-to-earth" the other day. I don't know if that is a compliment or not. It sounds pretty uninteresting, but I suppose it helps when it comes to business decisions and organizing book manuscripts.
What do you think are the primary reasons you became an editor and publisher?
I love language and words and working with people and stories. I also like design and find designing covers more like playing than working. I'm not particularly motivated by making money, so I'm willing to work for not much more than the joy of trying to make good books.
And the love of language and words led you to establish your own press? Tell me how that happened.
I'd always been interested in writing. I had an English degree and as an English teacher I was a school newspaper and yearbook sponsor. I knew a couple of women in the state who had small presses and helped regional authors get their books in print. They both folded up shop. I knew people who had written good regional books, but no one was publishing those geographically regional books. The nearby university presses, like the University of Nebraska, would tell authors they liked their books but there wasn't enough of a market for Wyoming books to make them profitable. They'd suggest that the author get a grant from Union Pacific or a bank or museum to help pay for the book. That works for some authors, but a bank or institution is only going to help publish a book every now and then. So I decided to give it a go.
Once you decided to "give it a go" what was the next step? How did you prepare yourself? How did you get started?
I published a little chapbook of poetry with sixteen poems by sixteen poets and that went pretty well. Then I decided to go to the University of Denver Publishing Institute, which is a month-long course about only book publishing, all day, every day. Most of the students there wanted to go to New York and work for big publishers. I never wanted to work in New York or Boston. I wanted to stay in Wyoming and work from where I was—a ranch in the middle of nowhere. But all the things we learned there could also be applied to a small press, maybe with some adapting to a Wyoming scale.
Strangely, my experience as a faculty yearbook sponsor had taught me quite a few things about book production. I knew fonts and design basics and the language of book publishing. So I came home and started publishing. At first I had a couple of other part-time jobs, but gradually I was able to do it full time and later to hire an assistant.
Your desire to work from a "ranch in the middle of nowhere" led you to establish High Plains Press. But besides the location and subject matter, are there other characteristics that distinguish High Plains Press from other publishers?
As a small independent publishing company, High Plains Press has to be committed to every book we publish in order to stay in business. We need to sell them to get our investment back. We try to publish books that will continue to sell for years, which is one reason we publish a lot of history and almost no travel books. History doesn't change too much; travel books are outdated before they come out. I'm all about building relationships. Real people answer the phone here. In my region, I know the bookstore owners, the wholesalers, the gift shop owners, the museum store manager, and many of the writers and readers. We're all in this together. I treat them as friends and some of them become friends.
In your experience of Wyoming and the region you must have found some things that are unique. What have you learned through your work about the state and its people?
Wyoming is a state that hasn't had all the "rough rode off" yet. People are still pretty straightforward and really do believe in the Cowboy Way. Wyoming is a boom and bust state because we rely on energy industries and agriculture and aren't very diversified. When ag or energy goes bust the whole state feels it. When things are booming we build wonderful facilities that then may have to last until the next boom. People who live in this atmosphere don't go overboard because they've seen the economy change overnight. There are so few of us that people don't need to put on airs because we know each other personally. We don't put much weight on appearances or degrees. We might be considered backwards; we still read books on paper.
"We still read books on paper"—that's a wonderful answer, and true for many of us booklovers! On another subject: You've learned many things about the publishing business that other people might not know. What are some of them?
The one thing about publishing I gently explain to people over and over is that Stephen King does not pay a publisher to print his books and get them on bookstore shelves. The publisher pays him for the right to publish his book. The publisher takes the financial risk from the time the book is under contract.
An author who wants to sell books should ask herself who is going to read the book. A book written for "anybody" is often read by "nobody." If the book is written for a targeted audience it becomes much easier to sell than if it is written for a "general audience." A regional book, or even a local book, can sell really well if people take ownership of it: it can become "our" book rather than the author's book. There is nothing wrong with writing a book intended for a small group that is passionately interested in the subject. For instance, our book about sheepwagons sells well. People either have no idea what a sheepwagon is (the Library of Congress tried to catalog the book under "sheep, transportation"—as if sheep drive around in little wagons) or else they know, love, and long to own a sheepwagon and will buy five copies of the book. There is also nothing wrong with an author who doesn't care whether anyone ever reads the book, although that attitude can present some interesting challenges if she changes her mind later.
You seem to wear a lot of hats as an editor and publisher. What are your main goals in your work?
As an editor I like to help the author write the best book she can. As a designer, I like to make books with covers that attract readers and an interior design that is pleasing to read. As a marketer and publicist, I like books that are "the first, the best, or the most important" book on a subject, because that gives it a selling platform. As a publisher I enjoying getting to know and appreciate the authors and their knowledge and abilities. As a business person I like books that sell well in the first year and continue to sell steadily, though more slowly, for years to come.
And I'm still striving to publish a perfect book. If that ever happened, I'd be very excited.
You've been in the publishing industry during an interesting time—the move from "books on paper" to digital, from large press houses to small, independent publishers and self-publishing. What are some of the changes you've seen in the business since you founded High Plains Press?
When I began, there was no typesetting and page design on computers. There was no fact checking on the Internet. A publisher spent a great deal of time writing specifications for typesetting and design. Editing was done with pencils, green ones. Making changes once the book was typeset was expensive. When I started, I had typesetting done in Barnstable, Massachusetts, because they knew about book typesetting there. Any change involved clearly defining the "fix," mailing it to them, and hoping it was correct when I got it back in the mail two weeks later. It was a miracle if a cover came out the way a designer envisioned it. We have more control now—a typographical "fix" takes two minutes on a computer—but editors are expected to do things that used to be "jobbed out." However, it's definitely easier for someone who lives away from the population centers to get the job done.
It's clear that you love what you do. Can you tell me some specific things you love about your life and work?
I love working from my home. I can let a week go by without starting my car. Of course, I do have to drive thirty miles to a grocery store and 200 miles to find an Apple store if my computer goes haywire. But there is nothing like being able to wear slippers to work or drop everything and watch our granddaughter ride her horse. When I can't figure out what an author intends, I can put a load of laundry in the washer and watch the agitator go around and around for awhile.
I love that I get to learn a lot about a new subject or a different way of life from each book. I immerse myself until I become almost an expert. Then, about the time I am sick of the subject, we are done with the editorial work on the book and can move on. I get to select another subject to learn about. At High Plains Press, I make most of the important decisions and have no one to blame but myself if things don't turn out the way I hoped. I've never worked with a really difficult author; I've had good working relationships with every author I've worked with.
That work must have given you an insider's view into the American book culture. What are some of the changes you see coming?
It will be interesting to see how digital sources of information progress. I think we're already becoming ambidextrous. We're learning which stories and information we want to read on paper and which we want to read on a screen. We're learning which material we want to own and place on a shelf and what material we're satisfied to read quickly and set aside, knowing we can get it again if we want it.
Books are a strange commodity; people love to own them. We've never needed to buy books because we can get them free in libraries, yet people stand in line to buy them. They feed something deeper in us than just a need for information or entertainment. I'm not at all sure that standard business principals apply to the book industry. Would you buy a car if you could go to the library and check one out for free? Several years ago libraries tried checking out artwork. People didn't do it. What is it that makes books different? It is all about the stories and the information, not whether we read them from paper or on a screen.
What are you looking forward to at the Story Circle Conference?
For me it's always about the people and their stories. I'm looking forward to meeting new people and hearing theirs.
To find out more about Nancy's life and work visit the High Plains Press website.