People’s Press spotlights the local and personal |

People’s Press spotlights the local and personal

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN – When Sandy Munro set out to write his first book, “Finding Uri,” the Aspenite had appropriately personal aims for the extremely personal story. Munro wasn’t thinking of book deals, national distribution or the design of the finished product; he just wanted to get down in words the story of how, in his 60s, he discovered the father he never knew through a box of newfound letters.

“I would have been happy to do five vanity copies to give to family members,” said the 69-year-old Munro, known best in Aspen as a musician and owner of the former Great Divide Music Store. “I figured, first thing is to write a book. So I never even gave those things a thought. For so many fledgling writers, the idea of even getting a publisher – that’s like, ‘Oh, wow!'”

Last week, Munro was slightly in awe to find himself on a conference call with five women from Newman Communications, a Massachusetts-based public relations firm that specializes in promoting books. The crew was planning strategy around “Finding Uri,” a handsome, 156-page softcover book set for a June 14 publication. The book – which is centered around a series of letters written between Munro’s mother, and his father, a World War II Navy pilot who later died in the Pacific, but also touches on music, the military, and the Munro family history – will be available nationally.

Munro is one of many Roaring Fork Valley residents who have had one of those, “Oh, wow – I’m a published author!” moments over the last few years. Common to all those stories is People’s Press, a publishing company founded three years ago by Carbondale resident George Stranahan. The original vision of the Stranahan-owned company was small in scope: Warren Ohlrich was folding up his Who Press, which had released locally oriented publications, mostly trail guides. The company had a well-established footing for distribution in the valley, which Stranahan thought could be expanded.

“At first, I thought of it like a locavore business – Western Slope authors, regional distribution. We’ll write the stories we like to read in this valley, and we’ll read the stories we write,” Stranahan said. The company, renamed People’s Press, got off to a strong start; one of its first publications – Stranahan’s own “Phlogs,” a coffee table book of his black-and-white photos with text about nature, history, war, memories and more – earned a Colorado Book Award. But Stranahan learned that, given the decline of local booksellers, staying small probably would have meant vanishing altogether. “We soon realized, that’s not a very good model, based on what bookstores want.”

So People’s Press has moved into expansion mode. Last fall, the company – which has no offices, but has a staff of four, and a five-person editorial board that meets monthly to decide what to publish – struck a deal with Connecticut’s Globe Pequot Press that will give People’s Press national distribution. All of the People’s Press books are listed in the Globe Pequot catalog that merchants from coast to coast can order from.

Along with expanding their reach, People’s Press is about to increase significantly the number of titles it produces. Munro’s “Finding Uri” is the start of a ream of new books.

On June 19 comes the publication of “Road to a Miracle” by Mark Shaw, a co-founder of the Aspen Daily News. The book tells how Shaw’s stepsons got entangled in a controversy with notorious college basketball coach Bobby Knight, and how that episode led to Shaw’s unexpected spiritual journey.

“Snowmastodon! Snow Day Adventure,” a children’s book by Basalt writer Amiee White Beazley and northern California illustrator Paul Antonson, is set for a June 24 release. (A public launch event will be held on June 25 at the Viceroy Snowmass.) On Aug. 9, People’s Press will simultaneously publish two titles by Denver author Mark Stevens: a reissue of 2007’s “Antler Dust,” a mystery set in the Flat Tops mountain range that became a Denver Post bestseller; and the sequel “Buried in the Roan,” set on the Roan Plateau and featuring Allison Coil, the hunting guide/heroine introduced in “Antler Dust.”

And Aug. 15 brings “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” a coffee table book devoted to the late, political-minded Aspen artist, by Aspenite Daniel J. Watkins.

On the horizon from People’s Press are a novel, memoirs, a book of poetry and three cookbooks.

• • • •

A physicist and an heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune, George Stranahan has exhibited a wide-angle business and social vision that has resulted in such endeavors as the monthly magazine the Mountain Gazette, the Aspen Center for Physics and the Woody Creek Tavern. He has also frequently shown a willingness to back other people’s visions, a habit that led to Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey (a brand that was sold, and now, like People’s Press, has a nationwide presence).

“I think that’s who George is. He’s a person who’s always supported dreams, who invests himself in other people.” Munro said. “Even if he didn’t have a publishing company, I would have sent it to him.” Stranahan was among the first to get an early chapter of what would become “Finding Uri.” “He said, ‘Sandy, I want to publish your book. And where did you learn to write like that?”

People’s Press was formed to tap resources like Munro – people with a story in them and the ability to tell it, but probably without the know-how and means to turn their tale into a book available for sale. (People’s Press works with two separate business models for its writers: a traditional, royalty-based agreement, and a patron-based system where the company assists writers in lining up outside backing.)

“It gives us an opportunity to connect with the breadth of experiences that are in this valley,” said Aspen native Mirte Mallory, the director of People’s Press. “There are so many accomplished people here, and the more we can honor them and memorialize them with a book, then we will have done our job.”

While the five-member editorial board – Craig Wheeless, who is the company’s book designer; director of communications Catherine Lutz; editor Nicole Beinstein Strait; and p.r. director Christine Benedetti; plus Mallory and Stranahan – aim for a diverse output, with poetry, cookbooks, trail guides and more, they are also looking for a common thread in their publications. The books are all highly personal, with a strong setting, rather than books that reach for the mass market. So while there is a mystery series in Mark Stevens’ books, his stories have a strong environmental perspective and are set in an identifiable place with real-life issues. “Snowmastodon” plays off the discovery of the bones of ancient animals in Snowmass Village.

“With People’s Press, there’s a sense of place in the stories we tell,” Mallory said. “We want people to connect with a place, and a person.”

“That’s the kind of publisher they are. You can find a very personal story and pitch it to them,” said Beazley, the “Snowmastodon” author. “There’s a publisher out there – here – that will stand up and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great story.'”

• • • •

The book-publishing industry is not a place to turn to these days for such optimism. Digital technology has changed most every aspect of the business, from how books are published to where they are sold and, with the Kindle and other e-book technologies, to how they are read. But People’s Press is betting on the idea that a publisher can be sufficiently flexible, savvy and small to succeed.

“In today’s age, with the death of the bookstore, it’s a unique operation,” said Watkins, the 27-year-old, first-time author behind “Thomas W. Benton.” “It’s a beautiful thing, to step into this volatile, changing arena and do quality books. The money doesn’t make sense.”

Stranahan, though, doesn’t intend to ignore the bottom line. “It’s not a hobby,” he said. But he has some confidence that, given modest expectations, the numbers will make at least some sense.

“Here’s a fact: There are a million new titles in English each year,” he said. “We want to stand out enough that we break even. We’re a lean organization, so success can be just a few thousand books, not a few hundred thousand. At the end of the year, we’ll know if this is profitable or not. And if the data says, Go ahead, we will.”

Part of the People’s Press method is to take their writers by the hand and lead them to a finished product. Noting how easy self-publishing has become, Mallory said, “We’re not just a publisher. We’re a guided publisher. We work with our writers; we go on a journey. It’s very collaborative. That’s a reaction to publishing becoming so corporate, it’s dehumanized.”

“Mirte and Catherine [Lutz] – they call themselves guides, and it’s such a true definition of what they do. They guide you through the publishing process,” Beazley said. “I don’t know if I could have found another publisher who cares as much. To an outside publisher, it would have been just another story. To People’s Press, I think the story really mattered to them.”

Mallory made a strong request that this article make it clear that prospective writers need to submit answers to a guideline before their book idea is considered. She’s worried about being inundated with phone calls from would-be authors floating half-baked ideas.

It is a legitimate concern. The fact is, there are many worthwhile stories out there, waiting to be published. It is why People’s Press exists.

“People will just tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a book,'” Stranahan said.

Any good children’s book should have input from an expert – a child. So it is with “Snowmastodon: Snow Day Adventure,” a book for which author Amiee White Beazley happily shares credit with her son, Tanner.

The Beazleys – like virtually every family in the region – had gone to Snowmass Village one weekend last November, when some of the bones that had been dug up at Ziegler Reservoir went on display. On the way home, Beazley and 5-year-old Tanner began riffing on who those characters might have been before they were mere remains. They conjured a main character, Mastodon, who spies Mt. Daly, and tells his friend, Sloth, that he intends to climb it. Sloth joins him, and the two encounter a few more animals – Beaver, Salamander and Bison – who each lend their distinctive brand of assistance. (Spoiler alert: Mastodon and Sloth make it to the summit, then ski and snowboard down to the reservoir.)

“We got home, I popped open my computer and wrote the first draft,” said Beazley, the editor of edibleAspen and a freelance writer. “I’ve changed it a lot, but the storyline is basically what we came up with in the car.”

A good children’s book also requires a top illustrator, and Beazley thought back to an old friend from college, Paul Antonson, who she hadn’t contacted in years. Turns out Antonson had developed a specialty in furry beasts and mountains, and was just making a transition into children’s books.

The next step – finding a publisher – turned out to be easier than Beazley ever imagined. She sent a proposal and rough draft to People’s Press, thinking they might be interested in a story with a local setting that, with adventure and ancient creatures, had broad appeal.

“I knew they hadn’t done a children’s book,” she said. “But I think they saw it could make an impact on readers in the valley, and that’s part of their mission – stories that will resonate in the valley.” Beazley, whose author’s note and glossary in “Snowmastodon” explains some of the science behind the story, adds that it is also, in a way, a universal story: Mastodons existed all over the globe.

While creating a storyline, finding an illustrator and landing a publisher were easy, Beazley found that actually writing the story was a challenge.

“It’s such a difficult editorial process,” she said. “Because every word matters, and it has to work on several different levels. And it has to work with minds that are like sponges.”

– Stewart Oksenhorn

When Sandy Munro received a box of 190 letters – letters that he didn’t know existed, between his mother and the Navy pilot father who had been killed in combat when Munro was 3 – he didn’t take the obvious route of tearing into them immediately, to gain whatever insight might rest in that correspondence. Munro approached them deliberately, with a plan.

“I realized, I had to think about this,” said Munro, who received the box in 2007, following the death of his mother, Betsy. “They were real emotional letters, and when I saw how emotional I was going to get over them, I saw I shouldn’t willy-nilly read them, picking out one, then another.”

The plan wasn’t simply to take his time opening the letters; it also included documenting the process, and gaining a bigger context in which to form an image of his father, Uri. So in addition to writing about opening the letters, Munro also began to read books about the Pacific battles of World War II, in which his father fought and died.

What emerged was “Finding Uri,” a book that touches not only on the letters and the thoughts Munro began having about his father, but also about music (Munro is a bluegrass player and former music shop owner) and the military during World War II (like Uri, Munro was a naval pilot), Munro’s close relationship with his paternal grandfather, Alec, and family history. Over a three-year period, Munro consulted with several writing mentors who advised him on the proper balance of these elements.

For Munro, what came out of the writing was a deeper appreciation of family.

“It burned the idea of family into me. It made the whole concept of our family history more poignant to me,” said Munro, a 69-year-old married father of two. “And it made me see the effect on my mother: Someone gets lost at war, and it never goes away. The loss stays forever. She had two more marriages, including one of 30 years, and she never got over Uri. You could see that in her relationships, her emotionalism. The one true love in her life was the one she could never get over.”

Munro feels he has not exhausted himself as a writer. He is already at work on a next book, tentatively titled “Forty Years on the Divide,” that focuses on music, and his experience owning the Great Divide Music Store in Aspen.

– Stewart Oksenhorn

D.J. Watkins hadn’t spent much time in Aspen, didn’t live through the ’60s and ’70s, and knew nothing of Tom Benton, the artist most firmly connected with Aspen political movements of several decades ago. But as soon as Watkins saw a piece of Benton’s work – “Korea, Vietnam, Iraq,” a 2006 silk-screen print hanging in the Woody Creek Art Studio when Watkins made his first visit to Aspen, in 2008 – he felt a kindred spirit with Benton, who had died just a year earlier. Benton’s piece, bloody and accusatory, reminded Watkins of the series of “Terror” prints – “skulls, blood, very ‘In-your-face, Bush,'” Watkins said – he had made at tiny Baker University in his native Kansas.

“Korea, Vietnam, Iraq,” the 27-year-old Watkins said, “resonated with what I was doing. I thought his art was great design, great message. I was passionate about it.”

That passion led Watkins to Benton’s widow, Marci, and then to George Stranahan. Though more than 50 years separated the two, they found much common ground in politics, an interest in art and an admiration of Benton’s work. “The political artwork Tom did – for me and George, that’s where it began,” Watkins said. “The anti-war, anti-Nixon stuff, we were both into that.”

Stranahan cooked up the idea to have Watkins catalogue Benton’s work – Stranahan’s own collection of more than 50 pieces, as well as substantial collections owned by Woody Creek writer Joe Henry and by the Aspen Historical Society. It quickly snowballed into a bigger project: the coffee table book “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” featuring 160 images; 10 poems by Henry; a foreword by Stranahan; a reprint of a 1970 interview with Benton; and chapter introductions by Watkins.

A centerpiece of the project – and of Benton’s output – are the Aspen Wall Poster series created around Hunter S. Thompson’s failed run for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970. The posters, featuring text by Thompson, were sold for 50 cents, and demand, spurred by advertisements in Rolling Stone magazine, was enormous. The book marks the first time they are being published since the early ’70s.

“Those wall posters really capture Hunter and Tom and this area at a pivotal time. A really interesting time,” Watkins said.

– Stewart Oksenhorn

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