Upper Valley authors find a format that fits small-town history

  • Arcadia Publishing issued Frank J. Barrett Jr.’s pictorial history of Woodstock in 2017.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/12/2019 9:21:20 PM
Modified: 4/12/2019 9:21:10 PM

Since boyhood, Frank J. “Jay” Barrett Jr., has collected vintage postcards of Hanover, where he grew up.

In the 1990s, he pitched to a publisher the idea of turning his trove of images into a book. They asked if he could guarantee sales of 100,000 copies.

“The letters of rejection were polite,” Barrett said during an interview Wednesday in his architecture firm’s office in White River Junction.

But not long afterward he discovered Arcadia Publishing. The company, an offshoot of the British company Tempus Publishing that had only recently established itself in the U.S., had a formula for getting visual history into print.

After attending an open house in the company’s office in a former mill in Dover, N.H., Barrett signed on. Hanover, New Hampshire, a book in Arcadia’s “Images of America” series, which are recognizable by their sepia-toned covers, came out in 1997. Since then he’s done four more books, two on Hanover and one each on Hartford and Woodstock.

The books conform to a “canned format,” Barrett said. But that format, which specifies the number of pages, that all chapters must start on a right-hand page, that captions must be no more than 70 words long, among other details, turns out to be a great way to get visual history into print.

“Whoever came up with the idea, I think was a genius,” Barrett said.

The “whoever” was English publisher Alan Sutton, who created a series of books called the “British Isles in Old Photographs,” and later the “Images of England” series. Sutton founded Tempus Publishing in the United Kingdom and Arcadia Publishing in the U.S. not long afterward.

Arcadia merged with The History Press about a decade ago and moved its operations to Mount Pleasant, S.C., but it maintains a presence in New Hampshire in the person of editor Erin Vosgien, a 16-year veteran of the company who works out of a home office in the small Rockingham County town of East Kingston.

Overall, the company has published around 14,000 titles around the country since 1994, Vosgien said in a phone interview.

The Upper Valley alone features more than a dozen titles, mainly about towns, but also about other geographical and social features. In addition to Barrett’s books, local authors have produced volumes about Thetford, Lyme, Claremont, Haverhill and East Haverhill, New London, Norwich and Windsor. There are books about Lake Sunapee, the Cornish Colony, the Tunbridge World’s Fair and King Arthur Flour. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Shribman co-authored Arcadia books about Dartmouth football and hockey with Jack DeGange, Dartmouth’s former sports information director. There’s a book about the Appalachian Trail in Northern New England and one titled Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont.

The books are quite different from town histories, which tend to be dense with text and light on visuals, Barrett said. People like history, if it’s served up in images, he added.

“Some of my friends and acquaintances sort of scoff at it, like it’s lowbrow stuff,” Barrett said. But the quality of an Arcadia book depends on the author and the resources available, which is true of books in general.

Margaret Cheney, who co-authored Norwich with Frances Niles, said she can see where people who encounter the books on store shelves might think that. “I suppose that because it’s a formula, such a book could be formulaic,” she said.

Cheney, who worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., before moving to Norwich full time, said she found that her reporting and editing skills translated well to the “Images of America” format. As in journalism, “We did our best to use pictures that had people in them,” which readers tend to find more interesting, Cheney said. The book came out in 1998.

Arcadia’s books aren’t meant to be blockbusters. Barrett gets a royalty check each year, but it’s pocket money. During a phone interview, Cheney dug out her first royalty statement from Arcadia: The book had sold 158 copies, and she and Niles earned $139.71.

“You have to do it because you love the history,” Cheney said.

The company finds its titles partly by contacting historical societies and partly by reading proposals from would-be authors. It’s about a 50-50 split, Vosgien said.

The company pursued a book about Woodstock, Barrett said, contacting him to see if he’d be interested in writing and organizing it. He was, and he worked with the Woodstock History Center to produce it. For his books on Hartford and Woodstock, Barrett split royalties with the town historical societies that provided the photographs and other materials.

Since the Great Recession, Arcadia has asked its authors to identify where their books could be sold, Vosgien said. “We have to promote these locally,” and in the 2008 downturn, many local stores closed, she said.

Having produced so many books about individual towns, Arcadia is now turning toward titles that are more thematic, which opens the door to a wider range of authors.

“We have to look at what else we can do,” Vosgien said.

Barrett sees potential for more “Images of America” books from the Upper Valley. He’d love to produce one about Lebanon, for example.

“In some ways, it has a richer history than Hanover, more diverse,” he said.

In Barrett’s view, Arcadia performs a valuable service for writers, historians and historical societies. His five books remain in print, available to anyone who wants to see what the Upper Valley looked like.

“There is no way I could have gotten all this material into print in any other way,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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