Issue 9.1: February/March 2006

You Take Manhattan

story by Paul Wood
photos by Steve Brinkman

 

Let’s face it. Publishing is all about New York. It’s about power brokers and deal makers, boardrooms on the twenty-fifth floor where “literature” is a fast-moving commodity, where corporate lackeys strain to see the marketing wave that’s three waves out and scorn the heaps of well-meant manuscripts festering in the corner. It’s a world in which short men with wavy white hair and three-piece suits delight in poking their fingers into the chests of writers, saying “What the hell would make anyone want to read your book?”

On second thought, let’s not face it. After all, this is the age of the Internet and the cell phone, the age of lightning-quick manuscript submission, digital printing technology and on-line bookstores. Why not do publishing from the frizziest outback of America—say, from a weather-beaten country town on a remote Hawaiian island? Why not set up shop in a seventy-year-old, one-story house where time has warped gaps into the walls, gaps through which you can see ti leaves shining in the easy breezes? Why not do mainstream business from an inconsequential distance of 6,000 miles and, from there, watch your books ascend to the New York Times bestseller list?

Why not, indeed. Inner Ocean Publishing is doing exactly that from the Maui town of Makawao.

Makawao is about as far from Manhattan as a United States citizen can get, both in geographical location and in psychological dislocation. Far from being an international hub, it is just a place where two skinny country roads happen to intersect. One of these roads wiggles its way up the hump of Haleakala’s north rift zone, which is a natural breakwall against the rain-heavy winds from the Hana side. Tradewinds over Makawao tend to bring clouds and rainbows and then evaporate. The crossing road basically divides the area into pineapple fields (below) and cattle ranching (above).

At this crossroads, back in Territory days, local entrepreneurs constructed a couple of rows of shops on the model of a Hollywood western set. Inner Ocean Publishing operates out of one of those old buildings, wedged between a concrete supply yard and a take-home pizza shop. The building is what they call a “cane house”—a well-built plank box with nine-foot-high walls and a cheap roof that’s as old as your grandmother.

Why here? Says John Elder, who founded the company in 1999, “I’d rather live Upcountry and visit Manhattan than live in Manhattan and visit Upcountry.”

By the way, “Upcountry” is more than just a physical location—more than just a swath of Haleakala’s slopes and gulches with Makawao town at its scratchy hub. Upcountry is also a state of mind created over decades by a lot of alternatively minded settlers—from paniolo to painters, healers to higher-consciousness seekers, boutique merchants to body workers. Makawao still has olden days holdouts: Komoda’s bakery, Kitada’s diner. And yet within the same block or two, you can get yourself a massage, a Balinese blouse, a hypnotherapy session and a sack of medicinal herbs from China.

This context sheds some light on Elder’s comment that “Makawao just seemed like the logical place.” Inner Ocean Publishing’s mission is to produce books that promote personal growth and progressive action.


 

Elder came to publishing idealistically and perhaps naively. A successful businessman whose own personal growth had been illumined by “the right book at the right time,” he wanted to seed the marketplace with works of esoteric spirituality. Although Inner Ocean’s early titles were all beautiful products, only one of them—The Paradoxical Commandments by Kent Keith—managed to find readers in any quantity. Three years into the business, Inner Ocean found itself sitting on a backlist that was as dormant as Haleakala. That’s when John Elder found Karen Bouris and handed over his job as publisher.

As the marketing director handling acquisitions for Harper San Francisco, Bouris had no intention of giving up her upper-floor corner office with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, her mainstream role in corporate publishing and her roots as a Berkeley progressive. But she yielded to the temptation to run her own book company—albeit in the wilds of the Hawaiian nowhere.

Her first move was to expand Inner Ocean’s mission to include women’s issues, progressive politics, environmentalism and easy-access personal growth. One of her best decisions was to approach MoveOn, the website that has galvanized protest against the current administration. Using the Internet, she and her few staff members contacted the grassroots network, gathered and edited contributions and published the book MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country. Suddenly Inner Ocean was on the bestseller list.

This work made connections with author/columnist Arianna Huffington, who put Inner Ocean in contact with CODEPINK, the women’s antiwar movement. Out of that came another Bouris-guided anthology called Stop The Next War Now, with a foreword by Alice Walker and seventy-plus contributors, including Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi and Cindy Sheehan’s in-print debut.

This tactic of conceiving books from scratch, then finding and helping the people who can write them, runs counter to mainstream publishing and the abiding attitude that “I’m too busy; don’t bother me until you have a manuscript I can sell.” But this tactic—cooperative creation—is now an Inner Ocean signature.

For example, the Inner Ocean title Single Women of a Certain Age includes twenty-nine essays by women on the topic of “unmarried midlife.” It was edited by Jane Ganahl, who writes a San Francisco Chronicle column called “Single Minded.” Inner Ocean came up with the idea and made it happen. Ditto with 50 Simple Ways to Save the Ocean and Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick, a collection of essays by women. “Most of what we publish starts as an idea we have,” says Karen. “Then we find the organization or the person.”

She calls corporate-style publishing cynical. “When you churn books out, it’s no fun.” Instead, she and the team of seven in that tight cane house publish twelve titles a year, one a month. “So we can really champion each book,” she says proudly. “To have the opportunity to promote a book you believe in deeply—it’s a gift.”

She admits there are disadvantages to Upcountry operation. She can’t feel the café buzz, the energy of close quarters. But in the ensuing no-buzz silence, she says, “Hawai‘i offers us the clarity and creative space to come up with ideas. We’re not inhibited by corporate structure. We have a sense of optimism, that we can do it. We have the eagle’s vantage point out here. We can see what’s going on and come up with creative answers to questions people are asking.”

One such question that people in the publishing industry ask when they speak on the phone to Inner Ocean Publishing: “What was that? An explosion?”
“Something hit our roof.”
“Oh, God!”
“Don’t worry. It was an avocado.” HH