In his role as editorial director, Gary Luke has guided Seattle press Sasquatch Books across some of the most turbulent years the publishing industry has ever seen. He helped develop a small ancillary publishing concern into one of the very best regional presses in the nation. As Luke prepares to retire from his role at Sasquatch, we called him to see what he's learned and what's next.
Hi! Happy retirement.
And how long have you been at Sasquatch?
It will be 25 years.
Can you talk a little bit about what you were aiming to do when you started Sasquatch and maybe how it's changed over the years?
Well, first of all, I didn't start the press, it was started by David Brewster-
Right! Yes, sorry, of course. I knew that. I just like to start all my interviews with a huge mistake.
So it was started by David Brewster at the [Seattle] Weekly, and it had been running for a couple years. I knew Skip Berger from junior high school, and we stayed in touch while I'd gone off to New York. He called one day and asked if I would ever consider moving back to Seattle, because they were looking for an editorial director for Sasquatch. It was basically about the only job I could have imagined moving back to Seattle for. And so I did that.
I used to say when first starting out that Sasquatch should aspire to be the Random House of the Pacific Northwest.
Kind of ironic.
I know. And up to that point, Sasquatch's great successes had been all around the Best Places travel guide books, and things like that. So I think the goal was to test the boundaries and the possibilities of regional publishing.
In retrospect, it seemed very smart for an alt-weekly to have a publishing arm, especially with books like Best Places. When I moved to Seattle in 2000 I had my Best Places guide with me, and it incorporated a lot of that alt-weekly feel — the reviews and the voice-y familiarity with the city. What was the relationship between the Weekly and Sasquatch like? I just can't think of anything contemporary that exists like that.
I'm sure it exists somewhere, but we operated pretty separately. I think that the connection to the Weekly manifested in the writers who were there. Oe of the early ideas that I had was I wanted to do a biography of Mount Rainier. And so, I just walked down the hall and sat down in [then-Weekly writer] Bruce Barcott's cubicle and asked if he wanted to do that, and fortunately he did. And that book is still in print, The Measure of a Mountain.
Do you think that there's a model for regional publishing beyond Sasquatch? Every region has a publisher, although I would say that most of the places where I've lived, those regional publishers have not been of Sasquatch's quality. It seems like the regional publishing model is either changing drastically or it's going extinct.
I think that it was possible to thrive as a regional publisher in the Northwest because we have a very healthy bookstore ecosystem. In other parts of the country, you don't have that. Like in Los Angeles for example, they don't have stores like Powells, and Elliott Bay, and Village Books, and Third Place. They're, I think, predominantly served by chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble. So that's a big piece of the ecosystem that has to be in place in order for regional publishing to survive.
How did you as an editor work to capture the flavor of the region so well, especially one that went through as many changes in the last 25 years as Seattle and its surrounding areas did?
Well, first of all is to meet writers who self-identify as regionalists. In doing that you get a sense of what this ecosystem is like. Obviously you have to read every publication that comes out. And then once the Internet was invented there were all those other doors that opened up.
Of course you love all your babies equally, but are there any books or experiences that stand out particularly as you're rounding the bend to retirement?
Certainly I think of Bruce's book, The Measure of a Mountain. And Nancy Pearl's books, Book Lust and all of the others, those were a blast to publish. Nancy was a friend of the press, and creating that book and the way it resonated with people... I think we thought it would sell at about as far as the KUOW radio signal went and it just kind of went viral.
Then there's a new author that I've published over the past couple of years, a naturalist named Leigh Calvez, and she wrote a book called the Hidden Lives of Owls, and another one called The Breath of a Whale. She writes about nature and she covers the science stuff, but she also brings out and explores the spiritual side of nature. [Spirituality] used to be forbidden territory to go into [in nature writing] and now I think there's this opening, and I think she does it really well.
Of course, fairly recently, you shepherded Sasquatch's transition when it was bought by a big New York publisher. It seems to me that you kept the voice intact, which is very impressive. I think a lot of people, maybe even me, when they first saw the announcement that Sasquatch had been bought by Penguin Random House, were a little skeptical that the books would lose what made them unique. Can you talk a little bit what the transition looked like and if you had any guidelines for keeping keeping the press's essential Sasquatch-ness?
Well, that's what they wanted. That's what they acquired, a regional publishing company. During the transition, the phrase that kept coming up, was 'we don't want to mess with the magic.' So they offer market intelligence and guidance in terms of the business end of things. But as far as the publishing program goes, that's really up to us. And we don't have to call them and say, "Well, I'm thinking about acquiring a book about Capitol Hill."
That seems maybe not unique, but at least a little special in terms of print. So what have you been doing to prepare for the lack of you?
Well, we hired a new editorial director, Jen Worick, about a year ago. It's been a year-long period of taking over the management of the editorial team here, and she's doing a great job of it. So, there are projects that I have here that I'll hand off to people and they're fully capable of running the place without me. I don't think it's going to be a huge transition at this point. I think the important task was to get a good editorial director in place. We also have other strong editors.
So, I mean, what are your plans? Are you just out? Or are you going to be doing other things in the literary world?
First of all, I'm going to read already-published books. I've got a whole wall of them and I keep thinking that one day I will read things that have been out for longer than six months.
Is there anything you've been dying to read?
Right now I'm reading Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. It's a very funny novel of manners, and marriage, and divorce in New York. And then I'm also reading The British Are Coming, but I think it's going to take me until the end of the year to finish that, it's such a massive book.
Both books have nothing to do with the region.
And so what else are you going to be working on?
I hope I'm going to find some way to connect. I have a certain level of expertise, I think, and I'm going to find some way to plug myself into the literary/writing/book world here. I haven't figured it out yet.
And I'm going to work to get Elizabeth Warren elected.
What is that going to take the form of? Volunteering?
I don't know. Volunteering and donating every time I get — well not every time I get an email.
They send a lot of emails. Oh my God.
Yes, they do.
Well, I hope that you'll be in touch when you do find your new way to plug into the book world. And I think that, as I've gotten to know Sasquatch staff over the years, it seems like the people you have now are pretty exceptional. I think you are leaving it in good hands. They're just really capable, and fun, and smart. Building an organization that can survive your passing is a big deal. And I think you've got a good crew there.
Yes, they are great book people. And the designers, who you probably have never encountered, make our books look great. We have production editors who are so careful, and are obsessed with squeezing every error out of a book so they're perfect. That takes a lot of dedication and professionalism, and I think that we have that here.