Bill Finley special for the Arizona Daily Star
If you are in one of the many gift shops in Yellowstone National Park, you will find Rio Nuevo books. If you’re in the historic La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe, you’ll find Rio Nuevo books. And if you drive down Bonita Avenue near downtown Tucson, you’ll find… well, you know.
Rio Nuevo is Tucson’s largest independent publisherand it’s back in business after a two-year lull due to the pandemic.
In the past nine months alone, Rio Nuevo Publishers has released five new titles, ranging from a Day of the Dead Cookbook to an encyclopedia of poisonous animals.
Local legend Jim Turner offered an easy-to-read history of our state in “Arizona”. Another well-known Tucsonian, Gerald Dawavendewa, explored Hopi spirituality and astrology in “Taawa Codex.” Bob Rosebrough gave us the biopic of an insider from Gallup, New Mexico, in “A place of thin veil.”
People also read…
“It’s great to redo books,” confessed editor Aaron Downey. “In 2020 and 21, I think we released a grand total of two. I wouldn’t say we’re back at full speed yet, but we’re getting there.
Rio Nuevo is a regional publisher that limits its reach to adult nonfiction about life in southwestern, western, and northern Mexico. That said, it’s surprising how much he finds to say.
“Our target audience isn’t huge,” Downey said. “But in this space, we have a very wide range of interests: history, art, food, animals, culture. … We care a lot about all these things.
There are dozens of independent presses in the West, many of them in Arizona. Rio Nuevo isn’t the biggest, releasing only four or five titles a year. But when it agrees to take on a project, Rio Nuevo promises to do it right.
“We’re nothing without good authors, and we want to deliver a book they’ll be proud of,” Downey said. “They are the creators. We just help with the packaging.
Exhibit A: When the COVID-19 lockdowns began in 2020, Rio Nuevo had just started printing a cookbook titled “Dinner with the Dead, A Feast for the Souls on the Day of the Dead.”
“When we saw we wouldn’t have room to sell it, we stopped the press,” Downey recalled. “Then later when things started to open up again, we didn’t have enough money on hand to finish it.”
So Rio Nuevo launched a Kickstarter campaign, asking for help. Donations totaled $27,000, the presses rolled, and the gorgeous hardcover cookbook is now on sale.
“Mariana Nuno and Ian McEnroe had been working on this book for five years,” Downey said. “They put everything they had in there. We just had to find a way to get it printed.
Exhibit B: “Navajo Code Talker Manual” looks like a WWII military codebook. The concept came from an Ohio art student’s project that Downey saw online. It’s bound at the top, printed on thick paper, and includes tabs, flyers, and other fun tools that teach the reader how to crack the Navajo code.
“When we put it up for competition,” Downey said, “none of our regular printers could do it. I finally found a printer who specialized in board games. The book is out now and looks great.
While Rio Nuevo is a “regional press”, it would be easy to substitute “local” for “regional”. Not only do many of its authors live in Tucson, but most of the editors, researchers, indexers, and designers that the company engages with to produce each book.
“We try to keep everything as local as possible,” Downey said. “If we can find people in Tucson, we will. If we can find people in Arizona, we will. We want our employees to know who we are.
No page is left out, so to speak. If there is a question about a word in Navajo, Rio Nuevo will call one of his friends in the country. If a book can be upgraded with a map, it hires a cartographer.
A standout feature of a Rio Nuevo release is the quality of its covers. “Despite what we say, we judge all books by the cover,” Downey said. “Good blankets are absolutely important.”
From the author’s point of view, there is another big advantage. In addition to running Rio Nuevo, Downey is the general manager of Treasure Chest Booksone of the leading distributors in the West.
Credit their co-founders, Tucsonans Ross Humphreys and Susan Lowell. They launched and linked the two together in 1999.
“One of the huge advantages we have as a publishing company is that we distribute our own books,” Downey admitted.
Like Rio Nuevo, Treasure Chest targets the West and Southwest. It’s big enough to market 350 different publishers, but still small enough to be nimble. As the number of independent bookstores dwindled, Treasure Chest found other places to sell books.
“Now you can find us in hotel gift shops, convenience stores, truck stops, national and state parks, botanical gardens, museums… ‘anywhere books are sold,'” Downey said. .
Death Valley? Crater lake? Tohono Chul? Check, check, check.
“We also sell to a Native American museum in Arkansas,” Downey said.
Rio Nuevo and Treasure Chest Books now share a warehouse and offices in the same location on Bonita, a few blocks from a house that once belonged to Lowell’s great-grandparents.
Luckily for the rest of us, it’s safe to say they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
For the record, Rio Nuevo Publishers (rionuevo.com) is unrelated to the Assessment District which funds downtown redevelopment projects.
Rio Nuevo’s first featured author was co-founder Susan Lowell. By 1999, she had written seven books, including “The Three Little Javelins.” The other co-founder, Ross Humphreys, is her husband. They met in the newsroom of the Tucson Citizen. She was a journalist there, he a photographer.
According Bookdepository.comRio Nuevo and Treasure Chest have now published and marketed some 200 books over the years.
While Rio Nuevo is Tucson’s largest independent, our largest publisher is University of Arizona Press. Its fall catalog lists 20 new books to be released over the next six months.
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