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The Pennsylvania Book Publisher with a Purpose

Ever since I was a kid, my room has been over-flowing with books—science fiction, history, action, classics. You name it, I read it. So, this week I was thrilled when I got to fulfill the life-long dream of bookworms everywhere; to go behind the scenes and learn about the people who make books.

I sat down with Bruce Franklin, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin’s brother John Franklin, and it was obvious how his passion for history had bound him to his latest project: Westholme Publishing, an independent body of authors which he alone directs out of his 19th century farmhouse in Yardley, PA. Right away he took me to his library, which, brimming with books, showed me that his passion for pages is what it takes to be a wholesome book-maker. Here’s what else Bruce had to say about his verbatim adventures:

Maureen Petrosky Lifestyle [MPL]: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got here?

I was studying for my Ph.D. at University of Chicago when I got a part-time job working at the U. Chicago Press in production. Someone was leaving and they offered me a full-time job—so I stepped up.

I was what we call “A.B.D.”—all but dissertation—I had given up on it. I learned how books are designed and produced and how to get rights.

Bruce was so passionate about writing history that he couldn’t wait any longer. He got a position at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Press house, which is where he learned about publicity and marketing, rounding out his publishing repertoire.

We don’t have a T.V. in our house. An avid listener of sports radio, Bruce instead stresses the importance of reading to and with his two kids. After all, it would be hard to resist getting lost in that library he’s created.

MPL: So, how did you start Westholme Publishing?

I began my career in university press publishing, but university presses operate on a different model than trade presses. They are constricted by the expectations of their authors and their mission to the academy. I wanted to publish books I like to read and admire. Every publisher has a unique set of ISBNs, the numbers that identify individual books, and I bought 1000.

I guess I was optimistic!

It turns out this was a genius move. In 2003, when the Seabiscuit movie came out, Bruce took on a re-print of the 1940’s original story by a then-famed horse-track writer.

Through production contacts, I figured out how to re-print the book. 

This re-print turned out to be a wild success. He was quickly featured in Publisher’s Weekly and he sold upwards of 20,000 copies.

MPL: How does the book publishing process work?

First, we take 10 weeks for the editorial process. Bruce takes the book from beginning to end and shares directly with the authors his own insights and edits. In Westholme’s earlier days (that’s still the first decade of the 2000s) he worked with an author, Hugh Soar, exclusively over fax machine.

He was located in the U.K. and we talked back and forth over fax machine. I used floppy disks, but even then floppy disks were outdated. 

Luckily the book, “The Crooked Stick,” was a niche hit and it caught the eye of Erich Eichmann, reviews editor of the Wall Street Journal. A colleague of his was a long bow fanatic and that led to a major review in the paper. Bruce keeps in touch with Eichman and the two share a passion for discussing books and publishing.

MPL: What has been one of your best-received books? 

It was To Raise Up a Nation by William King. He’s a truck driver who would think through everything while driving and then go to the public library when he was free to write the book. Usually I say, ‘If you get bored, cut it,’ but this one was exciting all the way through.

In fact, this book sold more than 5,000 copies and was given the Outstanding Academic Title award by Choice magazine, which reviews academic libraries.

This title is considered “tenure-granting” for university professors. 

In other words, it was an overwhelming success for Bruce, who does all of this work from the comfort of his 19th-century farmhouse.

MPL: Tell me about your authors. How do you find them and who are they?

I have authors all over the world. I was recently working with an author who’s living in Chile, and many are from the U.K.  I sometimes commission books, but I also get plenty of proposals. The great thing about commissioning a book is that you have no competition.

As tribute to Westholme’s global reach, it turns out that Pope Francis has gotten his hands on a copy of Saint Katharine, one of Bruce’s Fall 2014 new releases, a nun who defended the rights of African Americans and Native Americans to equal education across the country.

MPL: Who are your biggest fans?

I target general readers of history, mainly guys in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are passionate about history.

He explained that the unsung heroes and unwritten stories make his publishing house stand out among the rest.

MPL: What do you think about e-books? Do you think people would rather hold a book than see it on a screen?

Contrary to what some suppose, I think they are ideal for older readers. E-books have allowed an older generation of reader to continue to enjoy their pastime, a “bonus” market, if you will, from the intended younger, digital audience that first spurred e-book development. In addition, those with eye problems, young and old, have benefited from being able to adjust the size of the type on the screen.

For my business, it’s great because those over 40 do begin to lose the ability to read smaller type.

People buy books to take a break from their screens. But, I can’t imagine [print] books going away anytime soon because so many people are still writing away. And I still get the thrill of seeing how a finished book looks.

MPL: Who else is on your team? Who does marketing for you?

I have a group of people who have been with me since the beginning. My designer is in Brooklyn, my proofreader in Oregon, my cartographer in Oklahoma, my indexers in Maine and Indiana, and my copy editors in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Virginia. I do all the marketing, editorial, and production tasks myself, and anything else that needs to be done.

And it’s clear his hard work has paid off – this year was Westholme’s 10th birthday!

Interview and Story by Jack Meyers

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