Behind the Scenes
Sasquatch Books editorial director Gary Luke
Seattle Times book critic
What is Sasquatch Books?: Sasquatch was founded by the owners of the Seattle Weekly in 1986 to publish the regional travel guide "Best Places Northwest." The success of that book allowed Sasquatch to expand to a point where it now employs a staff of 18 and brings out roughly 30 books a year, including travel guides, gardening manuals and general nonfiction. What "Best Places Northwest" illustrated to its publishers at the time, Luke explains, was that there was a huge interest in regional content. "The next author that the press signed up was Ann Lovejoy, and she's been a wonderful author for us, with great, well-written, almost literary garden writing, as well as very practical books."
Luke's background: He was raised and educated in Seattle, and attended Western Washington University in Bellingham, where he read mostly 18th- and 19th-century poetry and drama. At some point he read Joan Didion's essay collection "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and Tom Robbins' novel "Another Roadside Attraction," and thought this "new stuff" was pretty interesting too — enough so that it drew him to a career in the book industry. Luke learned his publishing skills in New York, where he was a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and also worked at New American Library, Dutton and Dell-Delacorte. He took the helm at Sasquatch in Aug. 1994.
How far has Sasquatch come in 17 years?: "When Sasquatch first started publishing books," Luke says, "they were black and white — and that was it! Like Model-T cars, they came in one color." Since then, Sasquatch has grown in its production sophistication. Luke cites Lovejoy's gardening books, with their color photographs and opulent book design, as an example. He adds: "We've grown as a regional publisher, first serving the Pacific Northwest, pushing our region up to Alaska, down into California, across over to the Rockies. At this point, we have a largely regional — Western regional — publishing list, with the occasional completely nonregional book."
Luke's daily routine: "A lot of meetings," he says. "Putting books together is very much a joint effort. On any given day, I'm considering books that are just about to go to the printer, books that are just going into the design phase, books that are in rough manuscript that need revision, and ideas that aren't even under contract yet. So I think about those stages: what's going to happen next month, what's going to happen six months from now, a year from now, two years from now." He puts in a full office day — from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. — but all his reading is done in the evening or on the weekend: "When I was becoming an editor, I remember someone saying to me that being an editor is like being a grad student, except that there's no Ph.D. at the end of the road. There's only homework — every day, for the rest of your life."
What guides decisions on what to publish and how to publish it?: "When I'm considering a project, one of the first things — after 'Yeah, I'm interested in that book' — is: 'Well, how is it going to play out financially? How long is it going to be? Are we going to do it in hardcover or paperback? Is it black and white? Is it color? If there's color in it, who's going to supply the photographs and how much is that going to cost?' So you're playing with all of those factors. Then I have to walk down the hall to sales and say, 'Here's this book. How many copies do you think we can sell?' And you'll either see a set of beautiful numbers, or something that is so depressing that you wonder why you come to work every day."
Where do Sasquatch's books come from?: "We'll take 'em any way they come. In any given year, I would say 10 to 15 percent of our list is agented." (The agents can be local, from California, or New York.) "The bulk of our books are probably invented right here. We decide we want this kind of gardening book, or want to do a new spin on a regional cookbook. This fall we're coming out with a book called 'Book Lust' by Nancy Pearl. A couple of us here know Nancy, and in our push to go beyond just this regional thing — looking for something that is recognizable and of great interest regionally, which we can push out across the country — Nancy, as the ultimate recommender of what to read, came up. We went to her with that idea, and she ran with it."
Why Sasquatch doesn't do much fiction: "Fiction is a particular beast in the publishing world. I think if you're going to do a certain genre — say, a regional mystery — you have to be really plugged into it. Without all that groundwork and all those connections being made, I don't think that we would serve that book very well. I can't even imagine how you would regionally publish fiction. Maybe in the South you could do it. Here, I'm less confident — although I can't wait to read Jonathan Raban's novel." (Raban's "Waxwings," due out this month, is set in Seattle.)
How does he envision the future of Seattle publishing? Will it be stealing any fire from the New York scene?: "The way New York publishing is going — the decline in interest in the small and medium-sized book, the absolute need to publish celebrities — can only create opportunities for small publishers, medium-sized publishers, creative publishers and regional publishers."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company