Updated February 5
Jan Pogue’s business approach runs counter to the old dictum that “it’s not personal, it’s business.” Vineyard Stories, her 10-year-old Island publishing company, is a business, but it’s also very, very personal.
Ms. Pogue has decided to stop and smell some roses, and in doing so has opted to close her successful publishing business in 2016, rather than sell it or become an absentee owner. The Times spoke with Ms. Pogue last week from her winter perch in the high desert of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, three and a half hours north of Mexico City.
“I’ve thought about selling. Several people have shown interest in the business. I just feel that my name is on the business, and I wanted its Vineyard spirit to remain intact. If it were to change, I couldn’t live with that. So I want to close it, very clean, my reputation and the company’s reputation of serving its authors intact,” she said.
On the face of it, her decision stands in opposition to the entrepreneurial script: Bootstrap an idea, build the brand, then cash in. That’s not the story here. The story here is that Vineyard Stories is an affair of the heart, a legacy created by two people who loved each other, loved words and stories, and an Island community that returned the love.
It’s also a story about the human condition and recovery from loss. John Walter and Jan Pogue were big-city journalists who moved to the Island in 2002 to escape the daily deadline pressure cooker and to savor their lives together with their kids, Lily, Christian, and Alexander, a Boston resident.
Mr. Walter retired at 55 as executive editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Ms. Pogue was involved in contract book publishing in Atlanta. “The plan was to look around for something that engaged us. One day, Dick Reston [then publisher of the Vineyard Gazette] called and asked John to come in. John fell in love with the Island as soon as he got off the plane.
“So John became the editor and publisher of the Gazette; we were going there. It took me longer to adapt. I could see the lure of the place, but I wasn’t sure it was for me. I remember getting off the plane for the first time — in snow and cold — thinking “Where the hell are we?” she recalls.
The idyllic retirement ended suddenly when Mr. Walter’s Gazette job unexpectedly ended after less than two years. “So we were here, a place John adored, with a seventh-grader who did not want to leave. We began looking around for things to do. We were OK financially, not rich, but we had both made good money,” she said.
Ms. Pogue was encouraged to begin Vineyard Stories by her former employer, the contract book publisher in Atlanta. “So we tried it. We weren’t expecting to make any money, and thought maybe we’d publish four or five books, maybe do it for five years. We didn’t have a formal business plan,” she said.
In 2008, three years and five books later, Mr. Walter entered a Springfield hospital for surgery to treat a facial nerve condition. He died following surgery. At that point, Vineyard Stories was on the cusp of its landmark project, a book about Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.
“I just knew that book would be successful. I just knew it,” she said. She also knew she wasn’t capable of pulling it off then. “I called Jim and Debbie Athearn [owners of Morning Glory Farm] and offered to find them a publisher. Or they could wait a year and see where I was,” she said, pausing for a moment. “They decided to wait a year. And they supported me. So many people showed up to support me and my family in that period,” she said.
A year later, Ms. Pogue dove into the project with deliriously good results. Morning Glory Farm, and the Family that Feeds an Island, written by Tom Dunlop and photographed by Alison Shaw, became a national award-winning local cuisine book on its publication in 2009. Ms. Pogue is fiercely protective of her clients, and does not share business details about their books. “They are not my books. The books belong to my clients,” she says.
Industry estimates, however, hold that more than 20,000 copies of Morning Glory Farm have been sold to date, one of at least two Vineyard Stories books to sell more than 20,000 copies. Published reports say that Island author Susan Branch has the other, A Fine Romance, Falling in Love with the English Countryside, also with Vineyard Stories.
The Vineyard Stories business plan itself evolved. The plan sort of found the company, as Ms. Pogue explains it. “We found a niche between self-publishing and traditional publishing. We didn’t have the money to start a publishing company,” she says.
Vineyard Stories is a hybrid that has developed from a once-serene, now convulsive publishing industry that has a record number of titles and fewer traditional houses.
Authors pay Vineyard Stories for expert writing, editing, photography, and top-quality production and printing. “They pay the money and we hope for the best,” she says. “The advantage is that they own their book. Traditional publishers, not the authors, own the books. They can do anything they want with them. There are no big advances anymore, and authors have to do their own marketing. If they’re going to do the work, they should get the profits,” Ms. Pogue says. Her view is that “I haven’t gotten rich doing this, but I’ve been fairly compensated for my work.”
One benefit that prospective clients get from Ms. Pogue is that she tells them the often painful truth. She will not take on projects with slim chances of success.
Jan Pogue is a tough and plain-talking woman, no question. Real journalists who spend 20 years on the street tend to be that way. Many embrace cynicism as a defense mechanism. The fact that Ms. Pogue has not become cynical is an aberration, and makes her a more interesting story. Take her real reason for shutting down rather than selling out. She wants Vineyard Stories to be preserved, as she and Mr. Walter created it.
“Vineyard Stories is an extension of my relationship with John, of our lives together. It’s also our legacy to the Island. What we did could only have been done here with its rich history and creative talent, and its sense of community,” she says.
So for now she’s planning four books in 2015 and two more (“… well, maybe three”) in 2016.
After that? “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next in my life,” she says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ms. Pogue took a year off from work following the death of her husband, John Walter, in 2008. In fact, Ms. Pogue returned to work after a two-week hiatus, and among other things, completed the work associated with publishing Morning Glory Farm, and The Family That Feeds an Island. The book was published nine months later in September of 2009.