War of the Heavy Weights

This old cowtown is finally big enough to merit a splashy, 500-page coffee-table book filled with full-color photos and glowing prose. But Denver's collective coffee table may not be big enough for two of them.

The new year will see the appearance of a pair of lavish profiles of Denver, each running up to 500 pages full of drawings, pictures, history and bits of arcana about our once-humble town. But even book-loving Denverites may hesitate to plunk down $50 two times over for such a loving ode. Both tomes will also include dozens of paid profiles of local companies, a sponsorship twist that means a book can potentially turn a profit before it even shows up in bookstores.

"It's most unusual for two of these books to come out at the same time," acknowledges Chuck Parks, whose California-based Heritage Media Corporation is publishing one of the books. Parks offers his best wishes to his rivals, adding that they'll need all the luck they can get. "I wish them well," he says, "but I don't think they'll succeed."

Heritage will open the first volley in the coffee-table clash when 15,000 copies of its Mile High City: An Illustrated History of Denver hit the stores sometime this spring. The book is by well-known local historian Tom Noel. Heritage has published similar illustrated histories of New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Noel, who teaches local history at the University of Colorado at Denver, says the book is a welcome break from his scholarly work. "This is a chance to do a lighter, more whimsical history focusing on people and places," he says. "I'm playing the role of both photo editor and writer on this."

The book will include reproductions of dozens of old Denver postcards Noel has collected for years, many of them hand-painted. "I rarely deal with publishers who can afford color," adds Noel. His book will trace the evolution of Denver from a tawdry mining camp at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River to the sprawling metro area of today.

Coffee-table books aren't the usual work of academic historians, acknowledges Noel. "Some look at this as 'historian for hire,' but I see it as a chance to get the word out to people who don't normally read history," he says. Noel adds that his publisher promised no editorial interference in the part of the book that he is writing.

The book will be sponsored by Historic Denver Inc., which will collect an undisclosed amount of the proceeds. Half of the book will contain histories of local companies, many of them written by CU-Denver graduate students. But don't expect any accounts of union-busting or monopolistic scheming. The corporate histories must be approved by the companies that are paying for them, a list that includes US West, the Adolph Coors Company, the Brown Palace, King Soopers, and the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland.

Meanwhile, a rival ode to the capital of the Rocky Mountain empire will show up in bookstores next fall. That book, tentatively titled Denver: Crossroads to Tomorrow, will be written by local freelancer Jeff Miller. Unlike Noel's book, Miller will focus on present-day Denver. "Our book won't be big on history," he says. "I don't consider us to be in head-to-head competition." Instead, Miller will devote chapters to different aspects of contemporary Denver, including the arts, transportation and business.

Miller's book is being published by Montgomery, Alabama-based Community Communications, which has produced similar books for Kansas City and Fort Worth. It will include 200 full-color photographs and will be sponsored by United Way, which will share in the proceeds. Local-company profiles will be written by Brad Smith, a reporter for the Denver Business Journal.

"We try to do everything we can to produce the book locally," says Ron Beers, president of Community Communications. Several Denver photographers have been hired to work on the book, and the company is now approaching businesses, asking them to sign on for the profiles. Beers says about 5,000 copies of the book will be in stores sometime next fall. He's confident his book will succeed, even with the competition.

Beers and Parks used to work for the same company, a now-defunct publisher. Now both men are in the coffee-table-book business, creating civic paperweights from coast to coast. The rivalry in Denver is apparently being reenacted in other locales--Parks says both firms are working on books in San Jose. "We're friendly competitors," he adds. "Ron likes to follow me around."

Parks thinks his company has the vital corporate sponsorships sewn up in Denver. "We've already talked to just about everybody in town," he says. So far, Heritage has signed on more than 150 local companies. For his part, Beers says he's confident his company can make a successful pitch as well. Large companies like Coors are buying space in both books. "We're looking at about 450 pages," he says. "It will be a pretty good size."

Many of the companies profiled in the two books are expected to buy copies as gifts for clients. Both books will retail for around $49. Noel knows some of his colleagues may look askance at his venture into subsidized history, but he says many of them have forgotten the profession's roots. "History was often written in the past by court historians and sponsored historians," he says. "A lot of professional historians are contemptuous of these books, but I've had a good experience with this.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers