Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Publishing Perspectives: A Conversation with Nancy Curtis, High Plains Press

High Plains Press, located near Glendo, Wyoming, has published 40 books since its beginning in 1984. The company now publishes about two books a year and focuses on history of Wyoming and the West. Poetry has also been an unexpected success for High Plains Press. They publish an occasional slim volume of poetry, under the series title “Poetry of the American West.” 

Books published by High Plains Press have won four Wrangler awards for poetry, a Spur Award for non-fiction, and several Willa awards. Curtis and High Plains Press have received the Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award and the Western Writers Lariat Award for support of authors and books.

We interviewed High Plains Press publisher Nancy Curtis to ask about getting published and about the changing publishing landscape.

How did High Plains Press get its start?

About 30 years ago, the only two small press publishers in Wyoming I knew of folded their tents, and I started thinking about filling the vacancy as a regional publisher. I'm the kind of person who likes to be "certified" before I do something, so I went to the University of Denver Publishing Institute which is a month long course on just book publishing, all day long, every day. I did not see any reason why I could not apply the things I learned about New York book publishing to an operation on a much smaller scale, and I thought I could do it as a home-based business. So I started High Plains Press. The first book I published was a Western Writers of America Spur finalist in the cover design category. That got the press some publicity, and I started getting good submissions from experienced writers.

We've found what we can sell best from where we are is Old West nonfiction connected to Wyoming. So cowboys, outlaws, lawmen, homesteading women, and history have become our bread and butter. We've also had some success with memoirs and poetry.

What qualities in a book make you sit up, take notice and consider it seriously for publication?

I heard an editor of a small press say once that they liked to publish the first book on a subject, the best book on a subject, or the most important book on the subject. That is what we'd like to do. The editor also said "they also did all those other quirky books the editors liked." Sometimes we too like to take a chance on a quirky book. I like to learn, so I like a book that teaches me things I didn't know about Wyoming history and culture.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes you see authors make? 

I think it is a rare person who can put it all together. The more I know about books, the more I realize how hard it is to write one. Some writers have stories to tell, some are good at organization, some are research whizzes, some can write flawless sentences, some can spell, some like finding or taking photographs, some can put together a good narrative thread, some know all the footnote forms, etc. But it is a rare author who can do it all. Authors need to be aware of their weak areas and seek help and keep learning in those areas. There is a learning curve to writing a book and almost no one can just sit down and write one without study and pain.

I heard on TV once a good selling author say that he got a new word processing program. So to learn it, he went to the basement and wrote his first book. It made me mad. It devalues the work of writing and puts it in the category of typing.

I had an author tell me the other day I could put his chapters in whatever order I wanted. He said James Galvin didn't tell a story chronologically so he didn't think chapter order was important. I want an author to give thought to the person reading the story and to have a good reason for the book to be in the form it is.

When I look at a manuscript I have to try to determine if I can make back my expenses. I pay for the editing, the design, the cover art, the printing and binding, the marketing and I have to believe that I can sell enough copies of the book to make my money back. I wish authors would ask themselves who was going to want to read the book. And the answer can't be "everybody" because if it is "everybody" then it is probably really "nobody."

To sell a book, I need to be able to say what the book is about. I can't get a bookseller to stock the book by saying "it is little stories about the author's life growing up in Wyoming." If I can say the book contains new and exciting information about Butch Cassidy or it is a photo-intensive history of the sheepwagon or it is a biography of a little known but important frontiersman, at least the bookseller knows what it is.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a publisher?

The changing marketplace. And I just don't mean just Amazon and ebooks. I'm all about relationships. So I am frustrated when I build a relationship with a book buyer at a gift shop or a travel stop or a wholesaler and then suddenly they are gone. We work hard to convince book buyers that our books will sell: that they are good stories, honestly told and professionally produced, that readers like, and that we ship the right titles on time with reasonable terms. Then that person is gone on to work in the coal mine, or that store closes, and we start over.

The publishing landscape seems to be changing with more self-publishing and electronic publishing options. Where do you see the future of traditional publishing going?

I think they are just alternate ways of delivering content. Radio didn't die when TV came along. Movie theaters haven't closed with the introduction of streaming. But I think certain kinds of books are likely to be kept on a shelf and other types are more disposable and are more likely to be read on a Kindle. I do give thought to whether a manuscript will make a book that is a keeper.

As far as self-publishing, we all know examples of successful self-publishers. But publishing in the broad definition is not easy. Getting a book in print is much easier, but there is much more to publishing than ink or toner on paper or converting a manuscript to an ebook format.

But publishing is fun because I get to learn new things and work with authors who are fascinating people.

Visit High Plains Press online at www.highplainspress.com.


  1. Go Nancy! Congrats on the interview!

  2. Thank you for this informative interview. I enjoyed using the link to learn more about High Plains Press. Keep up the good work being done at Writing Wyoming and at High Plains Press.


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