If the ghost of Christmas future had appeared in Shannon Ravenel's office at the end of 1999, flipped the calendar ahead exactly one year, and plunked Ravenel back down in her office circa Christmas 2000, the editorial director of Carrboro's Algonquin Books might have been able to watch herself slowly packing books, correspondence and unread manuscripts into moving cartons. And if she noticed the wistful smile on her doppelganger's face, Ravenel might have turned to her spectral guide and said, "I have retired, is that what you're telling me, spirit?"
After 40 years of working in the publishing industry, by the end of 1999, Ravenel was restless and tired. She had worked hard and accomplished almost everything she'd set out to do after taking her first job writing advertising copy for Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1960. The publishing house she founded in 1983 with Louis D. Rubin Jr., Algonquin Books, was a success, the authors she edited had won countless awards, and at age 61, she was one of the most venerable figures in her literary community.
She might be forgiven, then, for assuming that her future incarnation was packing up the office in order to ride off into the sunset.
As it turns out, while Ravenel might be wishing a fond farewell this year to both her job as the editorial director at Algonquin Books and to the cramped building it has been occupying on West Weaver Street, she is hardly giving up on publishing. After making noncommittal retiring noises last year to the head of Algonquin's parent company, Workman Publishing, Ravenel was made an offer she couldn't refuse. Sometime this year Algonquin Books will appoint a new editorial director so that its director for the last eight years can fully assume the mantel of her own imprint, Shannon Ravenel Books. As for the idea of retiring? "I was easily talked out of it," Ravenel says.
In the meantime, as this story goes to press, Algonquin Books is loading up the moving trucks and relocating to larger headquarters only three miles away.
"I'm not even sure where it is," Ravenel says jokingly on the phone from her old office, referring to Algonquin's new digs on Kingston Street in Chapel Hill. She sounds relaxed and already somewhat relieved to be shedding responsibility for the approximately 1,500 manuscripts and several thousand submission queries Algonquin receives each year. As editorial director, Ravenel oversaw a department of three acquiring editors and one managing editor. Among other things, she was responsible for reading every book the editors proposed for publication, overseeing the printing of books, and writing or approving all marketing copy.
As head of her own imprint, Ravenel will work by herself and will be responsible only for four to eight books a year. Her roster is already half full, with essay collections by Larry Brown and Tony Earley, a legal thriller by Tim Junkin and a literary novel by Suzanne Berne rounding out her spring 2001 season. She says she will continue to oversee Algonquin's annual New Stories From the South anthology, and will work with authors she has long edited, like Clyde Edgerton, Lewis Nordan and Jill McCorkle.
According to Ravenel, the offer by Workman Publishing's Peter Workman was such a surprise that she went speechless when told. "I wasn't entirely sure how such a thing worked and indeed what I've found out since is that each publishing imprint is its own thing," she says.
Her goal for the new imprint is to focus on literary publishing, which means that at 62 Ravenel has come full circle. When they founded Algonquin Books, both she and Rubin were firmly committed to literary publishing, but they were equally determined to make it on their own as a commercial press. After years of riding the financial ups and downs of the mercurial publishing industry, Algonquin was acquired by Workman Publishing Company in 1989. "I had worked really hard to try to toe the line about being literary," Ravenel says. "It really takes its toll."
Ravenel says Peter Workman has taught her about the compromises that have to be made in order to keep an ambitious publishing house healthy, but in retrospect she finds those compromises relatively painless. After the acquisition, Algonquin's catalog began to include various nonliterary material. "I learned from Peter that you can publish other things to keep the bottom line healthy, and that doesn't have to mess with your image," Ravenel says.
Like many commercial publishing houses, Algonquin's catalog now regularly includes material such as calendars and cookbooks, but the retail appeal of these items hasn't overshadowed Algonquin's literary offerings. If anything, Ravenel says, the change toward accommodating the commercial realities of publishing has allowed her to make more literary acquisitions, and has led to some of their more spectacular successes. Three Algonquin titles, including two by Kaye Gibbons, have been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her monthly book club. At the time of Winfrey's choice of Robert Morgan's Gap Creek, Algonquin's hardcover edition was the only edition of the book available, resulting in over a half million in sales. Algonquin's sponsorship of Suzanne Berne (author of A Crime in the Neighborhood) brought her Britain's top-paying literary prize, the Orange Award, while Larry Brown and Lewis Nordan have each received the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. And this summer, Steven Spielberg begins production on the film version of Daniel Wallace's novel Big Fish, the film rights of which were purchased last year by the producers of American Beauty.
A year ago, when Ravenel considered retiring from publishing and was thinking about what to do next, her thoughts turned to the possibility of writing criticism and reviews. But that flirtation with the Dark Side is indefinitely on hold. This spring, for the first time, four new books will arrive in stores with "A Shannon Ravenel Book" inscribed along the top edges of their covers. These books will be serious and literary, and their sponsor will be on the phone, exhorting writers at newspapers and magazines across the country to pen reviews of them and to run features about their authors. Instead of writing reviews, Ravenel will be reading them; and, whether she ignores the critics or takes them to heart, whether she finds herself smiling or wincing, with her own name listed on the books right above the names of their authors, Ravenel will know more than ever what writers mean when they speak of their books as their children.