New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.
Chronicle Books and McSweeney's are the best-known publishing houses on the West Coast, but there are a proliferation of small presses in Northern California worth getting to know. Peter Goodman, the publisher of "quality books about Asia," was kind enough to speak with me about Stone Bridge Press, which he founded in 1989.
How did a publishing house exclusively focused on Asia get started in the Bay Area?
What better place for it, considering the long Asian influence here, the resources available, the strong academic departments at Cal and Stanford, and the shorter plane ride to Asia!
Actually, the decision to establish Stone Bridge Press here was a mix of personal and strategic. I grew up in New Jersey and was coming back from almost 10 years in Japan. I had had enough of the hot summer weather and wanted to locate some place where a Japan-interest press could fit in, find authors, do business, etc. I had spent a couple summers in L.A., which culturally would have been a good choice as far as Asia goes, but I didn't care for SoCal that much. Portland and Seattle were of interest, but at the time way smaller then (1985) than they are today. So, the Bay Area was the only choice, and the East Bay because of Berkeley. It was cheaper than the city.
You sold Stone Bridge Press in 2005, and then bought it back. Why the change of heart?
A long and complicated and somewhat disturbing story. The short form: I sold SBP in 2005 to the same people who bought Cody's bookstore the following year. Cody's drained all their money. That coupled with Japan's own economic and book-industry woes drove the Japan company toward bankruptcy. A couple companies, including Stone Bridge, escaped into another Japanese organization, but that company had enough problems in Japan and couldn't deal with Stone Bridge. I was still the chief executive at Stone Bridge, and in the end I decided I didn't want to see Stone Bridge disappear and with it all the work we had done over the years, so I agreed to reacquire it. This was just before the huge shift to e-books, and if I had known that we'd be spending so much time fixing electrons into Kindles instead of rolling ink onto paper I'm not sure I would have made the same choice.
What kind of books do you produce?
A mix of Japan-related topics in the "trade" category, meaning not academic or professional. We have original fiction and literature in translation, books on culture, design, gardens, language, manga/anime/film, spirituality. I consider almost anything Japan-related of potential interest. And in the past two years we've been doing books on China and the Chinese language. And we have a couple books that don't fit any of these categories too (like books on yoga and Sanskrit).
Do you seek out new authors, or do you find them in the "slush pile?"
Both. In our small interest area we are pretty well-known so we do get a fair number of solicitations, many of them very promising. Too bad we can't do more.
How many people are on your team?
Me, my assistant, a production person, a publicity person, plus all the good folks at Consortium, our distributor, who manage a lot of the customer and vendor relationships.
What was the bestselling title from Stone Bridge's 2012 list? Do you have a book that proves to be a perennial favorite?
Our bestseller in terms of quantity was China Survival Guide, a compact and inexpensive travel book. It is also our top-selling e-book. A clear indication that popular interest in China is steadily growing. Our Kanji Pict-O-Graphix, a very cool-looking guide for people learning Japanese characters, has done consistently well for almost 20 years (and we just released a mini-version in color this past fall).
Where can interested readers find you books?
Theoretically they are available through our distributors to every bookstore and on every online storefront in North America, Europe, and Asia and from every e-book retailer. But there are not so many booksellers that stock our titles, or it is very hit or miss, depending on each bookseller's sense of its community. We are perceived, rightly I suppose, as a "niche" publisher, and many physical booksellers can't afford to cater to niches, which is why online sales here and overseas are so important. I really do appreciate the role that booksellers play in our communities, but unless you are on either of the coasts or a university town, you probably won't find our books on the shelf, so our support to brick and mortar booksellers is similarly measured.