The art of creating a book with Jan Pogue of Vineyard Stories

jan-pogue-c
Photo by Gail Daman

Art and commerce often make uneasy bedfellows, but Jan Pogue has arranged a successful marriage of the two at Vineyard Stories.

A seven-year-old venture born of necessity, will, and vision, Vineyard Stories is moving from survival to thrival in a topsy-turvy book publishing world.

“We are committed to making beautiful books that are meaningful to their readers,” Ms. Pogue said in a recent interview.

By next spring, Vineyard Stories will have 27 titles in print, more than she and her late husband John Walter imagined when they began Vineyard Stories in 2005. Mr. Walter, a founding editor of USA Today, had retired as executive editor of the prestigious Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspaper and was hired in 2002 to edit the Vineyard Gazette. Ms. Pogue, a career journalist, book writer, and editor with an Atlanta-based publisher, packed up and they became Island residents.

Less than two years later, Mr. Walter found himself unexpectedly unemployed and the couple began looking for another career. Vineyard Stories was their answer. Three years into the enterprise, Mr. Walter, then 61, died following surgery in September 2008. The company had just embarked on its most ambitious project to date, the story of “Morning Glory Farm,” now in its third printing.

Ms. Pogue spent some time with The Times recently talking about life and the art and commerce of publishing at her Edgartown home and in her droll office, a tree house aerie in her property.

Books are being published at a record level yet major publishers are shrinking their book lists. What’s going on?

Jan Pogue: I guess the single biggest reason is that the internet has impacted book publishing just as it has newspapers, particularly prior to Kindle books. The big houses cut their losses and focused on the Grisham type, which give them long publishing runs, and the effect has been to leave out the “little book.” It’s interesting to look in the public library at all the little books – but from big names – that used to be published because they were worthy of being published. Now the need is for profit.

What does that mean for authors and for you?

I don’t need to support 5,000 people in an office in New York City. My purposes are: A) not to make tons of money and that part is working very well [she laughs], and B) to publish books important to the reader that have some sense of mission behind them. Books that are crafted with text, art, and design that make the people who wrote them feel good about having done the work. For example, e-books are successful today but they are not the right platform yet for my books.

People are really lost in the publishing world today. They cannot find agents. Do you know that many publishers no longer edit manuscripts? They want to receive an edited manuscript and a marketing plan. They want books that will generate an eight million copy press run.

I’m not that. I have some qualifications and a good body of work – 27 books published through 2012. I’m a custom publisher and I’m tough. Eighty percent of the time you’re paying me to beat you up, to shape that story you have. I have two novels to read right now and I have to decide whether they will they sell. I don’t want [my authors] to get in a precarious financial situation. At the end of the day, we’re all friends and neighbors here.

In the first few years, Vineyard Stories was adamant about publishing only Island-connected non-fiction, but you’ve expanded into other genres. Why?

There is a departure from the original mission. I am all about keeping up with the business and I took a serious look at my business a year or so ago and realized I’d been busy but had an okay year, not a great year. I began looking at other things.

Kay Goldstein gave me a fiction manuscript entitled “Star Child.” We crafted a deal under which she’s doing marketing off the Cape and Islands. She is very good at marketing. That book is a great book, reminiscent of the classic “The Little Prince,” and it’s going to sell off-Island.

Many of your recent books incorporate edgy and really complex design, like “My Blue Butterfly.” Why?

The challenge was attractive. “Butterfly” is an upside down children’s book, in English on one side and Spanish on the other. It isn’t a translation but two separate stories of two girls striving to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. And they meet each other in the middle of the book.

So is Vineyard Stories a different company today?

Mission and vision are the same. We’re going to make goddamn beautiful books, relating text, layout, and art to each other. I like beautiful and readable books. The company is following that path, it’s just getting bigger. The Island allows it, has made my company. It wouldn’t have happened, even on Cape Cod. There isn’t the diversity and oddness. I mean oddness in a good way that inspires people of an artistic nature.

The changes in publishing are akin to an old forest that is eventually replaced by new forest growth. And here I am, greeting the sunlight.

For more information go to vineyardstories.com.