A Small Publisher Seeks a Big Book
Piermont’s Bunker Hill Finds a Niche In a Difficult Business
Ib Bellew and Carole Kitche Bellew of Bunker Hill Publishing work out of their home in Piermont. (Valley News — Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Book publishing has become something of a bruising business, especially for the small fish. A handful of giant companies control most of the market, and the greater ease and lower cost of self-publishing has made it an increasingly viable option for authors who might otherwise turn to a small press.
So people who start a small publishing company do it because they love it. That’s the case with Carole Kitchel Bellew and Ib Bellew, who run Bunker Hill Publishing out of their home in Piermont. Since starting their company in 2002, two years after they met, they have turned out more than 60 titles, including five new books released this fall.
Since moving to Piermont in 2005, the company’s list has taken on a local flavor. Bunker Hill has published books by Cornish gardening writer Henry Homeyer, South Strafford artist and illustrator Josh Yunger, former Valley News publisher Walter Paine and Lyme architect Don Metz. The fall list includes a book for young readers by Quechee author Charles Egbert and another that features poems by Suzanne Nothnagle, of Hartland. One of Bunker Hill’s big sellers was Favor Johnson: A Christmas Story, a 2009 children’s book by Willem Lange and illustrated by Bradford, Vt., artist Bert Dodson.
That was when, “for me, publishing started to feel good,” Carole said in a recent interview at the Bellews’ home. The book quickly sold out its initial printing of 3,500 and brought Bunker Hill to the attention of regional booksellers.
They are hoping for a similar bump from a book on Bunker Hill’s fall list, A Child’s Christmas in New England, written by Robert Sullivan and illustrated by Glenn Wolff, whose first book together, Flight of the Reindeer, is considered a Christmas classic. The initial print run is 10,000 copies.
The importance of a big book is not lost on Ib Bellew, who has been in publishing since 1973, mainly in London.
“In publishing, one book always makes a publishing house,” he said. “Once you’ve got one, you’ve got the distribution. It’s almost self-fulfilling.”
To illustrate this phenomenon, a few days after we spoke Bellew emailed me the obituary of Nick Robinson, a London publisher who secured the United Kingdom rights to Chinese novelist Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby. “It sold more than 200,000 copies,” Robinson’s obituary in London’s Daily Telegraph reads, “and with the proceeds Robinson was able to secure the future of Britain’s oldest independent publisher, Constable & Co., which he bought to create Constable & Robinson.” Robinson also had the savvy to snap up the rights to books by the great Boston crime writer George V. Higgins.
The son of a Danish mother and an Australian father, Bellew was born in Paris and raised in England. He speaks self-deprecatingly, as befits an Oxford University graduate.
Carole Kitchel Bellew also was born in France and learned to walk while making the passage across the Atlantic in 1948. She and Ib were introduced by her mother’s best friend. Ib was still living in London and at first, the publishing house was set up in London and Boston. The American operation was more successful, and Ib moved to Boston, hence the name Bunker Hill Publishing. Carole sold a home in Boston and an antiques cooperative she owned in Concord, Mass., when they moved up to Piermont.
Although she had no experience in publishing before they met, it was Carole who suggested starting a publishing house.
“It’s a very people-oriented business,” she said. “It really fit as far as something I enjoyed doing.”
A small imprint is more personal than a big publisher, Ib said. “If you want relationships with authors, you ain’t got much option but to do it on your own,” he said.
Authors have a say in a book’s design and the Bellews do all the editing. They hire a freelance copyeditor to read through the final edit.
They bought their home in Piermont to be closer to Carole’s daughter, who lives in Orford. Carole is a sister-in-law to Ann Kitchel, owner of Strafford’s Huntington Farm, and a cousin of Vermont State Sen. Jane Kitchel.
The Bellews work at neighboring desks in a tiny loft office. Their cozy log cabin overlooks fields that run down to the Connecticut River. The house is full of art and books, including a packed basement library that followed Ib from London.
Authors have begun to seek them out, in part because self-publishing is really one of the only other options for regional authors. Even at Bunker Hill, the successful author is the one who goes out and promotes his book. Starting last fall, Bunker Hill also started to make its new titles available as e-books.
While they have found a niche in regional books, the Bellews have also started to make a name by publishing books in conjunction with museums. They have also published some photography titles, as well as a book by journalism luminary Harold Evans. They pick the titles that interest them, even if sales don’t seem guaranteed.
“Realism is difficult in publishing,” Ib Bellew said. Bunker Hill is still operating in the red, and while the Bellews are happy to subsidize it with the earnings from their previous lives, they’re hoping it will start to carry its own weight.
Maybe that big book they’re waiting for is on its way. They have a children’s book written by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins in the works for next year.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.