Local Publisher Spotlight: Bergamot Books

  • July 26, 2012

Sarah Vogelsong looks at a Washington, D.C. publisher, Bergamot Books.

Local Publisher Spotlight: Bergamot Books
by Sarah Vogelsong

Once upon a time — about a hundred years ago — Washington, D.C., was home to four daily newspapers, six Sunday newspapers and a host of weekly publications that kept residents up-to-date on the affairs of their hybrid North/South, national/local city.

But in the first half of the 20th century, the number of media outlets shrank dramatically, with the Washington Post assuming dominance over the market and transforming itself into a paper of national stature. With this constriction and the economic decline of many American cities in the 1970s and 1980s, many people forgot that the District of Columbia was not just a symbol of the nation at large but a place with a unique population and history of its own.

In recent years, memories of this history have been resurfacing. Dozens of blogs and websites, such as Ghosts of DC and Greater Greater Washington, have sprung up to examine the intricate history and culture of the Federal City. One enterprising woman named Gail Spilsbury has taken this mission a step further, founding one of the city’s only independent book-publishing companies, Bergamot Books, for the purpose of helping local writers and organizations get their work out to the community.

“D.C.’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance with its history,” Spilsbury tells me. “People are very interested right now and active. … I wanted to start a press where authors who were writing local history could find a local company.”

Spilsbury took up this mission back in 2003, after undergoing the arduous process of publishing her own first book, Rock Creek Park.

“There was no place that [people could] just bring their book and publish it,” she says. Consequently, drawing on her background as a book editor for the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art, Spilsbury founded Bergamot, employing a range of freelance editors and designers.

Initially, Bergamot followed a traditional publishing model and produced the kind of museum-quality illustrated histories Spilsbury had worked on at the National Gallery and the Smithsonian. Her clients were a mix of individuals and institutions such as the Phillips Collection, the German Historical Institute, the Kreeger Museum and Steve Dryden, program manager for the Friends of Peirce Mill, who in 2009 published Peirce Mill: Two Hundred Years in the Nation’s Capital — a work that was favorably reviewed by the local media and still sells well in places like Politics & Prose bookstore.

“Washington is very much concerned with the big picture and the political world, but Washington also has a great local history and an interesting environmental history that really deserves more attention,” says Dryden. “A place like Rock Creek Park, which is a very important park in the history of park development and the history of Washington …  hasn’t gotten as much attention.”

Now, Spilsbury is turning to new ways of publishing to direct attention to these overlooked areas. After spending several years in other cities, including San Francisco, New York and Boston, she is moving back to Washington at the beginning of June to devote increased attention to Bergamot and get its new print-on-demand program off the ground.

“POD is an easier system,” says Spilsbury. “It’s a beautiful system, it’s win-win for everyone. There’s no waste. You don’t have to order 5,000 copies.”

For books whose primary audience is D.C. residents and are unlikely to sell widely outside of the area, the advantage of controlling print runs is clear.

“The market in D.C. is doable,” Spilsbury explains, “because we know who is going to buy and where.”

Authors who turn to Bergamot for POD publishing can select the services they need from a variety of packages, with the most basic offering light copyediting, basic design and printing. More substantive editing and marketing are also available for higher prices, although the services and costs are generally tailored to fit each individual project.

“Marketing is the biggest challenge for authors and publishers … but especially for POD authors,” says Spilsbury. To get the word out, Bergamot works to market and promote books by getting them reviewed in local papers, setting up Webpages, using social media and arranging talks at local bookstores and cultural venues. Spilsbury has been busy recently marketing her own book, Washington Sketchbook, a collection of city sketches made at the beginning of the 20th century by the physician and author Robert Dickinson. Still giving talks on the work, she most recently appeared at the Arts Club of Washington.

In addition to offering POD, Bergamot will continue to publish works through traditional means. Spilsbury reserves the imprint for works that meet high-quality publishing standards.

“Bergamot is a seal of approval,” says Spilsbury. “If a book doesn’t follow the standards of manuscript preparation, completion and citation, I’m not going to put my imprint on it.”

Spilsbury hopes that Bergamot will play in integral role in the growing literary and arts community in Washington.

“There’s always been a community of writers here who specialize and write about the local scene — the real Washington and the real Washington area,” says Dryden. “There’s a whole community and a whole legacy of those kinds of people. … Over the years, I think we’ve made a real contribution to people’s understanding of the area.”

Such a task is inevitably an ongoing project, one that is both demanding and engrossing. But Spilsbury is optimistic about the endeavor: “We work as a labor of love.”

More information about Bergamot Books can be found on its Website, bergamotbooks.com.

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