Rewriting the Book

Rewriting the Book

Perhaps Helen Fisher continues to work full-time at the age of 86 for the same reasons that she has been successful her entire life. She doesn’t slow down, she’s usually one step ahead of the competition, and she has always taken risks.

Fisher’s career spans more than  five decades, and these days she’s still active as publisher of two specialized book publishing imprints — California Bill’s Automotive Handbooks and No Nonsense Fly Fishing Guidebooks.

Fisher is soft spoken and easy going. Her well-coiffed hair and conservative attire don’t give the impression of a trend-setting risk taker. She speaks humbly about the success she and her late husband, Bill Fisher, enjoyed throughout life as if her vitality is nothing extraordinary.

“I won’t say success was easy,” she reveals. “I would say we took risks that most people wouldn’t. Bill was very confident that he could do things better and differently, and some didn’t work, but most of them did.”

Bill Fisher’s roots were in advertising but perhaps his true talent was uncovering niche areas of business to move into. When the couple ventured into publishing it was actually because of one of Bill’s hobbies — automobiles. In 1964 they started HP Books, named after the term “horse power,” and brought out their first title on Chevrolet’s Corvair.

Over time, Helen notes, “This little hobby had grown so big and required so much time that Bill actually gave the advertising agency to one of the key people who worked for us. He said, ‘Jim you’re either out of a job or you own an agency,’” she adds with a laugh. He continued to run the agency for many years.”

That early foray into automotive how-to’s proved to have staying power. There are revised versions of California Bill’s Chevrolet GMC & Buick Speed Manual still being sold today.

When the gas crunch hit around 1973, Bill realized that people would be traveling less. He and Helen talked about the kinds of activities people did at home. The goal was to generate manuals on just about any hobby people were exploring.

One of the ideas that propelled the growth of HP Books was camera manuals. The Fishers decided to approach camera companies to borrow their latest models, and then create detailed books on their use. A simple letter to Canon started the ball rolling, and eventually HP published manuals for all the major 35mm SLR camera brands.

As the company expanded, Helen began taking on new duties. She remembers how she found the courage to follow change. “Bill gave me a confidence I did not have.”

The first time he encouraged her to rent a car and travel alone, she was apprehensive. “You can do it,” Bill told her. And she did. Soon after, she was flying solo to Los Angeles to oversee food photography. Eventually, she would spend 14 to 16 weeks a year in California, staying at the same hotel, where everyone came to know her. Helen also found herself traveling to France to work with a famous cookbook author. She didn’t like air travel, but overcame her fears with her husband’s encouragement and was able to enjoy herself in Paris.

Helen’s youngest granddaughter, Gaby Fleming, remembers her grandmother being there for her throughout her entire life. When she was in college, Helen would come for visits and ask her about her aspirations, prompting the young student to become excited about future opportunities.

After graduating from NAU, Gaby moved back to Tucson and started working at the publishing company her grandparents started. She was trained in graphic design and Helen encouraged her to learn Web design as well. At that point, a true mentorship started.

Helen’s advice definitely came in handy a few years back when Gaby decided to quit her steady job to set out on her own. She was afraid to let her grandmother know. “I was going back and forth with this idea for quite sometime. I wish I would have talked to her about it sooner because when I mentioned it to her, she said, ‘You should go for it. You need to take risks if you want to be happy.’ She is my grandma but she’s my mentor, too, and I may not have made that decision if it weren’t for what she said. I’m a lot happier now and I’m glad I did it.”

Helen’s specific niche within the publishing company was developing cookbooks. It helped that she had taken more than 50 cooking classes while living in Palo Alto, California, before moving to Tucson in 1972. Bill’s skills in photography coupled with her know-how in the kitchen led to one of the couple’s most successful ventures.

Their full-page color photos of completed dishes ended up being a big hit in the cookbook industry, inspiring other authors and publishers to do the same.

In 1975, Helen worked with author Mabel Hoffman, who also was a food stylist, and published a book that became a New York Times best seller. Six million copies later, Crockery Cookery is still selling.

Of the 57 cookbooks the Fishers produced, the food item that presented the biggest challenge — ice cream — also was Helen’s favorite. Trying to take perfect photos of homemade ice cream is tricky business. It’s all about capturing the perfect drip, which means timing is key because the dairy-based product will melt quickly under studio lights, leaving food stylists and photographers scrambling on every set up. Photographs for one book could end up taking weeks with only one shot produced per day.

There was risk involved with the chocolate, too, as Mable Hoffman gained 25 pounds during the creation of Chocolate Cookery, according to Helen.

Helen remembers feeling flattered when the owner of Sunset magazine, Melvin Lane, told her at a book show in Los Angeles that he wanted her to know that Sunset’s next set of books was going to include color photos.

On the Fishers’ watch, HP Books grew to 125 employees, but the founders were becoming worn out with the pace of their enterprise. They sold the company in 1979, but the family didn’t want to be out of publishing altogether. The family started the Fisher Books, later purchased an educational publisher, and still publishes books on cars and fly fishing. All five of Helen’s grandchildren have worked in the various publishing companies.

The people Helen has worked with throughout the years have been an inspiration to her. She remains in touch with many of her former staff and colleagues. She says when they get together, “It’s always food, food, food.”

About her career of working with authors and photographers, she remarks, “It’s been a wonderful thing I never dreamed I’d be involved with.” — Cristina Manos