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Pelican Publishing to be acquired by national publisher Arcadia

Gretna-based book publisher founded in 1926 will join nation's largest publisher of local and regional history books
Credit: Pelican Publishing
The spines of some of Pelican Publishing's thousands of titles.

Pelican Publishing, the largest and most established independent book publisher in the New Orleans region, will be acquired by Arcadia Publishing, the nation’s largest publisher of local and regional history books, the two companies announced Thursday.

A news release announced that Arcadia will acquire the “significant majority of Pelican’s assets.” The transaction will close in May. Terms were not disclosed. Pelican president and publisher Kathleen Calhoun Nettleton will continue working with Arcadia after the deal is finalized, according to both companies. Nettleton’s family has owned Pelican since 1970.

Pelican, founded in 1926 and headquartered in Gretna, has a catalog of more than 2,500 titles including hundreds of local and regional history books. Recent titles include a history of Pontchartrain Beach by Bryan Batt and a book of essays celebrating New Orleans’ tricentennial, edited by Errol Laborde. A series of local history books by Peggy Scott Laborde have joined a catalog of classics by Mary Lou Widmer, John Churchill Chase and Lyle Saxon. The company also published an eight-volume series of New Orleans architecture by the Friends of the Cabildo.

The Pelican catalog also includes best-selling cookbooks and food history books from Leah Chase, Kit Wohl, Poppy Tooker, Frank Davis and Justin Wilson. It also publishes children’s books, with “The Cajun Night Before Christmas” now in its 25th printing and one of the longest-running holiday best-sellers. Pelican’s "See You at the Top," a self-help book by Zig Ziglar, sold more than a million copies.

“Pelican has been publishing in New Orleans for almost 100 years,” said David Steinberger, Arcadia’s president and chief executive officer, in a news release. “It is a publisher that fits well with Arcadia’s mission, which is to connect people with their past, with their communities and with one another.”

Arcadia, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, is best known for its Images of America book series, which features 14,000 titles and histories of cities across all fifty states. Its New Orleans titles have included histories of City Park, Lake Pontchartrain, Maison Blanche, K&B, local television, radio and the Italian, Jewish and African-American communities. The company employs a hyper-local focus in its approach to publishing books. “Written neither for a general audience nor an academic one, each title is conceived with a fanatically specific market in mind,” wrote Ron Charles in The Washington Post last month. The article was headlined "In the age of distraction, one small publisher keeps local history alive in sepia tones," referring to the covers of Arcadia books, which feature an historic photo of a book subject in a sepia tone.

Pelican Publishing’s history includes works by William Faulkner, whose first trade publication was published by the company; and Stuart O. Landry, who ran Pelican until 1966. Betty and Hodding Carter owned Pelican until 1970, when Dr. Milburn Calhoun and his wife Nancy purchased the business. Dr. Calhoun, a full-time physician, served as president and publisher, running the company with a firm hand and personal touch. His interest in Civil War and Confederate military history, for example, made Pelican one of the country’s leading publishers of such titles. When he died in 2012, his daughter Kathleen Calhoun Nettleton, became president, sharing ownership of the company with her uncle, James Calhoun, a former Pelican executive editor.

Despite changes to the publishing industry and a perceived slump in book sales, this has been a time of growth for Arcadia Publishing, which was founded more than two decades ago. In 2018, it was purchased by a group of investors led by Michael Lynton, the former CEO of Penguin, and Steinberger, the former CEO of Perseus Books. Best-selling biographer Walter Isaacson, a New Orleans native, recently joined the company as an investor, serving as editor-at-large and senior adviser.

“Books about local history and culture are crucial to enhancing the fabric of American life,” said Isaacson in the news release. “As a child growing up in New Orleans I loved many of Pelican’s titles, so it is especially meaningful to have them as part of the Arcadia family.”