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Speaking Volumes: Distinctive titles lay foundation for new Hub publishing house

The Boston Herald  |  March 28, 2003

Byline: Rosemary Herbert

He's youthful, handsome and surrounded by women of good taste.
No, he's not the new "Bachelor.''
The man in question is Stephen Hull, 45. Books are his passion. And to indulge that passion, he's spent more than a year putting his heart, soul, publishing industry experience and financial resources into founding the new, Boston-based publishing house Justin, Charles & Co.
" Basically, I'm giving it everything I've got,'' Hull said during an interview in his Park Plaza offices.
That's good news for readers and writers alike in a day and age when most important independent publishers of the past - Knopf, Farrar Straus & Giroux, Ecco and others - have been gobbled up by conglomerates whose business decisions are driven by the bottom line. High overhead has forced big publishers to take fewer chances on new writers, trim their lists of talented but modest-selling authors and cut back on line-by-line editing of the works they publish.
Another loss in the age of mega-publishing is a sense of the personality of each publishing line. Today a few imprints, such as Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, reflect the taste of a powerful editor. Otherwise, it is difficult to predict the type of reading you will get from books issued by a particular publishing house.
Hull hopes his two decades of publishing experience will help him buck those trends and make sound business decisions, too. He has worked as a sales rep and development editor for Boston-based Little, Brown; marketing director and nonfiction editor for Zoland Books in Cambridge; and senior editor for Allyn & Bacon in Needham.
" I do have a business plan,'' he said, "but I hope it is designed to take advantage of a good confluence of my interests and publishing opportunities.''
The 13 books he is publishing in his first year represent his interest in jazz and blues, history, popular culture and mysteries.
Books already published include Patrick Dillon's "Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madame Geneva,'' about the 18th century gin craze, and English mystery writer Scarlett Thomas's "Dead Clever.'' Books to be published this spring include "White Male Heart,'' Ruaridh Nicoll's psychological thriller set in the Scottish highlands; "Blue Note Records,'' Richard Cooks' history of the great jazz label; and Boston writer Bill Eidson's edgy crime novel "The Repo,'' set in Charlestown and on the water.
About half of the new books were first published in England. By purchasing U.S. rights and ready-to-publish "set files'' for them, Hull also bought time to do careful line editing of brand-new manuscripts such as Eidson's.
Some of the titles were scouted out by Kim Hjelmgaard, Hull's staff member based in London. Others were acquired by Boston-based editor Carmen Mitchell. The mysteries were vetted by Cambridge bookstore owner Kate Mattes, whose "Kate's Mystery Books'' imprint appears on them.
Mattes said working with Hull is a dream come true. Other than asking herself whether a particular book would sell well in her store, she leaves the business decisions to Hull while she looks at manuscripts to see if they have something fresh to offer readers.
Hull admitted there have been better times to start a publishing house.
" If I could go back to 1957 and start publishing Henry Miller, I would do that,'' he said. But there are advantages to launching in a down economy, including the lower cost of borrowing capital and a great deal on his office space.
Justin, Charles & Co.'s location has its pluses, too. "Boston is traditionally the brain trust of the nation. It's easy to find high-quality people to work for us here,'' Hull said. "And Boston is a longtime publishing hub, with both a great tradition to live up to and many other houses in town - such as Houghton Mifflin, Beacon Press, David Godine, Pearson Education and the South End Press - all doing good work right beside us.''


Rosemary Herbert is the Boston Herald's book review editor.

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