on this story
Knox Lit 101
Overmountain Press in Johnson City started out on a whim 30 years ago. Now it's a well-regardedand burgeoningimprint of Appalachian literature.
by Adrienne Martini
At first, Johnson City seems like an odd place to picture a thriving book publishing house. After all, as any New York publisher could tell you, there are few in the isolated, rugged eastern third of Tennessee who can either a) read without talking out loud or b) can afford a leisurely break from brewing corn likor to edit pages with big, two-syllable words on 'em.
But there is a bustling little publisher in town that has churned out more than 200 expertly edited titles in the last 30 years, thank you very much, and has a unique cadre of fans who snatch up Overmountain Press' books as soon as the ink is dry. Perhaps this success was simply built by specifying exactly what you have to offer the reading public that no one else can. Those who want tomes on Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, or Cherokee history, genealogy, guidebooks, Melungeons, as well as Southern Appalachian history, legends, folklore, cookbooks, or ghost stories know that Overmountain will scratch their itch. Also, the publisher offers children's titles, the most popular of which has been Francie Hall and Kent Oehm's Appalachian ABC's, which sticks to its theme with definitions like "R is for rhododendrons" and accompanying homespun illustrations.
"You can't get more dedicated readers than those who are interested in Southern Appalachia," says Kelly Biddle, owner of Eliza's Bookshelf in Greeneville and current marketing coordinator for Overmountain. "Nobody else does it on the scale that we do," continues Beth Wright, granddaughter of founder Archer Blevins and current production coordinator. "We are specific to Appalachian history."
The Overmountain label got its start when Blevins decided to publish a manuscript by Pat Alderman called The Overmountain Men, which Alderman had brought into Blevins' then 10-year-old printing company, Sabre. Rather than simply produce the book as a vanity title, with the printing paid for by Alderman, Blevin decided to absorb the cost to print and sell it. And, presto: A new publisher was born.
Sabre is still based in Johnson City, still prints Overmountain's titles (hardbacks, however, are shipped to either Kingsport or South Carolina due to binding issues) and, incidentally, is home to the staff's offices. It's an unassuming building, low and beige, on the industrial side of town. The instant you walk in, you are almost knocked over by the acrid odor of ink and by the sight of a dingy-yet-homey reception area. The family owns most of this particular block of the downtown, and has plans to move the ever-growing publishing end to another building on the same block. As it is, the back room is filled with stacks of brown cardboard boxes full of titles and there are hundreds more in the basement. Orders stand by, ready to be shipped to small booksellers who carry their titles, individual customers, or online retailers like amazon.com. Both the standard and four-color presses, as well as the bindery, are at rest, but only so that the operators can sneak in a lunch.
Wright is bubbly when she talks about the family business she's been knee-deep in since childhood. "I indexed a book in sixth grade," she says. "Now I do a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing," she adds while she laughs. You get the feeling nothing would be further from the truth.
Recently, Overmountain scored a coup. Roger Baum, great-grandson of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, called Overmountain out of the blue and said he was looking for a "small, aggressive publisher," according to Wright. She sent him some information about the company; then he offered her the chance to print a "new" title by his great-granddad, The Green Star of Oz in honor of the 100th anniversary of the start of the series. Wright jumped at the chance to add it to their line of children's titles. "This is something really, really huge," she gushes.
The new Oz title is one sign of success: authors coming to the publisher instead of the other way 'round. Not only does Overmountain now have to sort through stacks of unsolicited manuscripts (and Wright admits that it is tough to reject would-be authors), it has to deal with off-the-cuff suggestions from its authors.
A couple of years ago, Overmountain regular Charles Edwin Price and Macavity-winner Deborah Adams pitched Overmountain on launching an imprint for Southern mysteries. The publishers bit and Silver Dagger was born.
"[Price and Adams] wanted an author-friendly publisher for good Southern mysteries, where authors would be treated as authors, not numbersa safe haven for writers," Wright explains. At Silver Dagger, each author is knee-deep in the publishing and marketing processand has the luxury of being able to add input at any point along the way, which is a drastic change from the machinations in the New York world of publishing.
"Large houses aren't giving them the opportunity," comments Ben Kneisley, Silver Dagger marketing coordinator, "and we're just as good as anything coming out of New York City."
Admittedly, the Silver Dagger imprint is still young, with only nine titles under its belt, including the hot selling Three Dirty Women and the Garden of Death, a Julia Wray Herman mystery about a body found buried under some azaleas. Wright lets slip that some "big name" authors are in negotiations with Silver Dagger, but declines, with a twinkle and a laugh, to name any names.
One thing Wright will admit is that East Tennessee has been wonderful to her family's endeavors and there are no plans to relocate to a more literary clime. "This is the most beautiful place in the world," she says. "The region has been this good to us, why should we leave?"
July 13, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 28
© 2000 Metro Pulse