Press for Success
High-Lonesome Books is a plucky little publishing house.
By Leo W. Banks
JANUARY 12, 1998: SILVER CITY, N.M.--The headquarters of High-Lonesome Books looks nothing like the concrete and glass palaces of New York publishing. The tip-off is Little Walnut Creek. It pours across the dirt road leading to the white ranch house that doubles as an office for Dutch Salmon and wife, Cherie. Most times of the year the creek is shallow enough so that cars can cross without water leaking in the doors.
Visitors appreciate that kind of convenience, and they like the beauty of this hot and harsh southwest New Mexico landscape, so isolated that the only sound on a recent afternoon is the wind tearing through the cottonwoods.
"We have a garden, goats, chickens, hound dogs, and a barn full of books that we refuse to trash up by putting those ugly bar codes on the covers," says Salmon, a 52-year-old publisher in coveralls and a crewcut. "We haven't lost money on one yet."
That's as close as Salmon comes to a boast. He's a reserved sort, an environmentalist who loves to hunt, a kind of renaissance rustic who has parlayed his passion for literature into an 11-year-old venture that produces three or four books a year. He and Cherie are swamped with writers' proposals and their list is more or less set for four years. It consists of mostly western Americana, and books about hunting and outdoor adventure, set everywhere from Colorado in the north, down to Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.
Observant Arizona readers, especially those in Tucson, are familiar with the High-Lonesome name. Local editor and writer Neil Carmony has published seven books with Salmon, including two volumes of a diary kept by Tucson saloon-keeper George Hand. Whiskey, Six-Guns and Red-Light Ladies and The Civil War in Apacheland have together sold more than 9,000 copies.
Carmony's latest collaboration with Salmon looks like a success as well. The book--Apache Days & Tombstone Nights--is the autobiography of John Clum, founder of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper.
But the company's Arizona books range well beyond history. The catalogue offers everything from a 1922 first edition of Payson author Zane Grey's Tales of Lonely Trails, his best-selling work of non-fiction, to a signed first edition of Chuck Bowden's Mexican adventure Mezcal.
If you've been hunting for David E. Brown's Arizona Game Birds, published by UA Press nine years ago, or a copy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1952 work, The Mesquite Problem on Southern Arizona Ranges, High-Lonesome has those, too.
Some might say Salmon got into publishing by sneaking in the back door. But it was more like dynamiting a hole in the roof and rappelling down.
In 1986, he wrote a book about his canoe trip down the Gila River with a cat and a dog. After a fistful of rejection slips, he got a contract from the University of New Mexico Press. But he bailed when the editor insisted on deleting major portions of it. "I'd reached the breaking point," says Salmon, then a staff reporter for the Silver City Enterprise and a stringer for the Albuquerque Journal. "I had to see it in print."
He emptied his savings for the cash to print 2,000 copies and hit the road, hawking his own work in such literary salons as Las Cruces, Benson and Tucson. Gila Descending became a small hit that has since sold 5,500 copies. The success convinced Salmon he could make money publishing other writers, too. His first project was the 1987 resurrection an out-of-print work called Meet Mr. Grizzly by Montague Stevens. He was a classically educated Englishman with one arm who used dogs to hunt grizzly bears in the New Mexico outback.
The book got a plug in Outdoor Life Magazine that resulted in sales of 500 copies, and a small ad in a hunting dog magazine produced 500 more. "That's a thousand books at $12 each," says Salmon, a former Minnesota farmhand and Texas schoolteacher. "For a guy living in an adobe shack renting for $150-a-month, that's big bucks."
These days press runs at High-Lonesome average 2,000-3,000 copies. Twice a year, Salmon goes on marathon sales trips across New Mexico, Arizona and west Texas, usually staying with friends. Sometimes he drops off as few as three books at the gift shops, museums and independent bookstores on his route.
Most sales are through High-Lonesome's quarterly catalogue, mailed to 3,000 customers. The response rate is an impressive 50 percent. "A company like L.L. Bean is lucky to get two percent," says Cherie. "Even when they don't buy, some people send back a dollar to help pay for the catalogue."
High-Lonesome's monster bestseller was a stroke of pure luck, hitting at the right time in 1996. Everybody's Comet, A Layman's Guide to Comet Hale-Bopp, by Alan Hale, a New Mexican and one of the discoverers, sold 17,000 copies in nine months.
"Other presses can't match this guy who sells books from the back of his van," says Neil Carmony, whose first career was chemistry. "Dutch doesn't have overhead so he can keep prices low, and he almost never publishes a dog. He knows what'll sell and what's going to stink up the place."
Salmon's persistence works well with Cherie's business sense. She has an MBA and was an accountant at a copper mine when Dutch first set eyes on her in a Silver City honky tonk in 1988. "I went out and read his books and thought he was pretty good," says Cherie. They got hitched, and three years ago she began full-time work in the book business.
"The usual thought is you have to get bigger, but we don't want to," says Salmon. "We decided not to hire employees because it keeps the government out of your business, and not to open a store because we didn't want to come under local ordinances either."
"Besides," says Cherie, "we can go fishing, or Dutch can hunt squirrels."
Or they can work their part-time trades. The couple sells goat cheese and eggs around Silver City, and they lead fishing trips into the Gila Wilderness with pack goats hauling the gear. They also raise greyhounds.
One of their favorite pastimes is a sport called coursing. They walk the desert until a greyhound jumps a rabbit, then watch as the rabbit churns up clouds of dust running away at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. A coursing hound only has a one in four chance of catching a rabbit. If not, the rabbit lives. "If the dogs make a clean kill, we bring it home and cook jackrabbit chile," says Salmon.
But the daily demands of publishing usually keep the hounds penned, especially after a catalogue mailing. Cherie has to stay put to answer phones and juggle the couple's 2-year-old son, Bud. Then she's up late at night packing books for the morning trip to the post office.
Dutch takes three hours every afternoon to bang away at his own writing. His latest book, The Catfish As Metaphor, is the story of the 10,000-mile, cross-country fishing trip he took in 1993. He calls it a Travels With Charley or Blue Highways, with fishing as a narrative thread. "I try to relate fishing to the larger issues in life," explains Salmon. "So far no one's interested and I'm not going to wait forever. I'll see it published one way or another."
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