The demise of the physical book may well be exaggerated, thanks to the efforts of dedicated publishers like Pasadena’s Colleen Dunn Bates, founder of Prospect Park Books.
By Cuyler Gibbons, Photos Courtesy Prospect Park Books
Collen Dunn Bates was enjoying a successful career as a magazine writer and guidebook editor when the economic disruption wrought by new internet inspired business models suddenly resulted in fewer opportunities and paychecks for writers like her. When a literary agent who knew her background brought her a potential book deal, she took it. “ e Unofficial Guide to California” went through Five editions and several printings, and ultimately gave rise to a second book called “Storybook Travels,” which was sold to Random House, one of the Big Five publishing houses.
Dunn Bates was thrilled. To be picked up by one of the major publishing houses was a huge achievement, and, she thought, a major advantage over books with less significant backing. Unfortunately, she says, she found “the whole process to be disheartening.” It turns out that marketing budgets, even at major publishing houses, are paltry to nonexistent, so with the exception of A-list best-sellers, few authors are able to get the word out about books of quality that may appeal to a more targeted audience.
Where the big boys had failed her, Dunn Bates believed she could succeed on her own. She determined to take matters into her own hands and self-published a guide to Mammoth and the High Sierras. She has come to think of this e ort as her master’s degree. Con dent in her skills as an editor and writer, she wanted to better understand the required marketing and distribution functions. “I did it as a learning experience,” she says. “But I got bitten by the bug and decided to do it for real on my own.” And with that, Prospect Park Books was born.
Before becoming a Pasadena resident in 1992, Dunn Bates admits to underestimating the city she now calls home. “Frankly,” she says, “before moving here from (a tiny place in) Silver Lake, I thought Pasadena was where fun went to die.” She’d even written a column for Angeleno making fun of Pasadena’s boring, staid reputation. But by 2006, she’d lived in the Crown City for 14 years, raising her children here, and had acquired a profound love for Pasadena. “It is simply an amazing city,” she says.
Dunn Bates decided it was time to build her own publishing company. She named it Prospect Park Books after the street on which she lived, and launched it with the book “Hometown Pasadena.”
It was, as the name implies, a paean to the city Dunn Bates and the four friends she got to help write it called home. Although she’d given herself two years to sell the 5,000 copies she had bravely printed, “Hometown Pasadena” was a hometown sellout by New Year’s Eve. A second successful edition followed, along with several reprintings, and Dunn Bates found herself at the helm of a bona de publishing company.
“It’s just like Random House,” she says with a wry smile, “only smaller.” For a while, she admits she “had to be willing to not make any money.” But the company has now become “something truly sustainable.” After attempting the “Hometown Pasadena” formula less successfully for other cities, Dunn Bates turned to fiction and published the very successful novel “Helen of Pasadena” by local author (and Pasadena magazine columnist) Lian Dolan. Since then, she’s never (or rarely) looked back, successfully publishing roughly 12 to 15 books a year building a solid catalog of more than 70 titles across a number of genres, including cookbooks, mysteries, regional focus and literary general fiction.
Four years ago, Dunn Bates let “Hometown Pasadena” go out of print. Prematurely, it seems, based on the response she received from her hometown. A number of places, from Vroman’s to the Norton Simon, which had seen great success with the book, clamored for its return. Prospect Park has answered the call and will be “reinventing” the title with a rerelease this September. The new book reflects Dunn Bates’ 12 years of experience running Prospect Park.
“The First book was really just friends getting together,” she says. This time, she wanted “more diversity, more voices, more writing,” and she was able to tap a broad group of talented writers she’d met through her publishing work. In addition to Dolan, who wrote the opening essay for the reissue, other local contributors include Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine, mystery novelist Naomi Hirahara, and children’s author Raphael Simon.
Los Angeles magazine recently made the argument that L.A. has become a publishing town, prominently featuring Prospect Park Books as a case in point. While we are delighted to affirm their judgment, given Dunn Bates decision to reissue “Hometown Pasadena,” we’d like to jealously suggest that Prospect Park Books more properly makes Pasadena a publishing town. Just sayin’!