Cattle rancher Nancy Curtis can name the date when she graduated from novice to professional publisher: It was the day her husband jerry-rigged a bale-feeder, freeing her mornings for negotiating with authors and wholesalers instead of pitching hay bales off the back of their pickup to feed cattle.
Curtis launched High Plains Press in 1984 from her home near Glendo, Wyo., (pop. 195) after watching the last of several short-lived publishers leave the state. “Gee,” she recalls thinking, “if I’m going to do it, now’s the time.” The endless chores she shares with her husband—while also helping out at her mother’s and brother’s adjoining ranch—made time tight. She was convinced that if she “took it slow and steady,” she could “publish books that wouldn’t make a lot of money, but are important.”
Curtis, who writes poetry, occasional prose, and even has written one book, realized she potentially had more talent as a publisher—particularly an eye for work other people would buy. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wyoming and graduated from the University of Denver Publishing Institute.
Investing $4,000, she bought newspaper ads recruiting poets for her first book. Reprinted three times, Wyoming Promises proved that her instincts for choosing a modestly marketable book were as fine-tuned as they were for pinpointing which heifer would calve first each spring.
High Plains Press was a one-woman operation. Curtis scouted for writers, negotiated contracts, edited manuscripts, designed book covers, lined up printers, personally peddled her books at bookstores and libraries, and stored her unsold inventory in the same ranch workshop where her husband, Doug, built their bale-feeder. Now, an assistant helps out in the winter and she hires a freelance editor to wrestle some of her books into shape.
Early on, she occasionally pretended to have a staff. Once, when a book manufacturer was scheduled to call and she needed to feed the cows, she recruited her mother to answer the phone.
“Just tell them I’m at a meeting and take a message,” Curtis instructed her. “Okay,” her mother said, “I’ll tell them you’re meeting with your production staff.” Ever since, Curtis announces to cows she’s feeding, “Well, girls, I’ve called this meeting today to talk about production.”
In a typical year, High Plains Press publishes no more than four books, usually a poetry collection and three Western histories. The poetry attracts the most acclaim: Three volumes have earned the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s prestigious Wrangler Award. But Curtis soon learned that, “though poetry wins prizes, history sells.”
Lisa Knudsen, executive director of the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, respects Curtis’ achievements. Lasting 18 years in today’s super-competitive market “really takes extraordinary business acumen, persistence, and common sense, as well as a sense of what the public really wants,” Knudsen says.
Two histories Curtis published this year illustrate her diversity. Chip Carlson’s Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon re-examines key evidence in the still-smoldering debate over the 1903 hanging of Horn, allegedly a hired gun for rich cattlemen bent on driving sheep farmers out of business. Nancy Weidel’s Sheepwagon: Home on the Range is a pictorial history of the sheepherder’s version of an Airstream mobile home. Curtis says no other books document the wagon’s role in taming the West.
Sheepwagons also are sparking new interest as yard art, she says. (Nicole Kidman once gave a restored sheepwagon to then-husband Tom Cruise.) But what really persuaded Curtis was the passion and persistence of Weidel, who unexpectedly showed up at her ranch with mesmerizing photos and anecdotes. “Sometimes I just go with the heart,” Curtis admits.
Her authors say Curtis has more than heart to recommend her. Now working on his fourth High Plains Press history, Wyoming author Larry Brown was skeptical before first contacting Curtis, wondering “what kind of publisher lives in Glendo?” He found her to be the consummate professional. “I’d do a book with (her) on a handshake,” he says now.
So why hasn’t Curtis adopted the suggestions of many supporters that she publish more books? “I’d rather publish the best books I can. And I like the liberty to publish what I love.” She laughingly adds, “As long as I don’t lose too much money!”