Photo courtesy of Olivia Ficken.
Tom Bailey, author
Tom Bailey, author of The Complete Guide to Northern Gulf Seafood.
If the late writer and theorist Joseph Campbell’s legacy can be summarized in any singular piece of prevailing wisdom, it’s his edict to “follow your bliss.” For Bluff Park resident Tom Bailey, that path to bliss has been 30 years in the making.
With the October 2013 publication of his latest cookbook, The Complete Guide to Northern Gulf Seafood, Bailey said he’s officially devoting this next chapter of his life to his own source of bliss: writing.
Bailey, 66, a longtime employee of The Birmingham News, is no stranger to the publishing world. He’s served as managing editor and in leadership with the paper’s custom publishing division, while also nurturing a side custom publishing business, Seacoast Publishing, since the early 1980s.
“It all started shortly after I became managing editor of the News,” Bailey said. “One of the things I missed in that role was writing. If you are managing, you are not writing. So I started a hobby of writing books on topics that interested me the most.”
True to the publishing house name, Bailey, along with his wife, Janis, focused exclusively on beach-oriented books. The process accompanying his first book, Vacation Guide to the Alabama-Florida Gulf, turned out to be a learning experience.
“We published 10,000 books — way more than we needed, but we didn’t know any better,” Bailey said. “And it was financed on borrowed money, in the early ’80s when interest rates exceeded 21 percent.”
Realizing no one would be knocking at their front door for copies of the book, Bailey became his own traveling salesman.
The first stop led him to the former Brookwood Convenience Center, where he knocked, well before opening hours, on the glass door of Alabama Outdoors until an annoyed store attendant finally came over to speak with him. By his own admission, Bailey’s sales pitch was less than stellar.
“With this ‘What do you want?’ look on his face, this fellow sat there staring at me as I tried to tell him about the book,” Bailey said. “And when he asked me how much I wanted for them, I didn’t know what to say, and I told him as much.”
Instead of dismissing the eager, if not naïve, Bailey, the store clerk laughed, invited him inside the store, and gave the young Bailey a crash course in book retailing 101.
“He asked if it was the first time I’d done this, though I’m sure he knew the answer,” said Bailey, who took his newfound book sales knowledge and put it to profitable use, eventually selling that 10,000 copy inventory to every fish market, tackle store and retail shop he could find.
As it turned out, Bailey’s timing was perfect. He pitched a dive shop to carry copies of his first title only to find that the shop’s owners wanted a book of their own. An avid scuba diver since the age of 15, Bailey jumped at the assignment.
He also found that fish markets wanted their own cookbooks, so he agreed to that. The pattern, fueled by a serendipitous mix of determination and luck, found Bailey eventually publishing upwards of 70 titles under the Seacoast Publishing imprint.
Fast forward to 2014. Bailey’s hobbies still include all things pertaining to the coast, but he has good reason to want to keep things close to home.
“My grandkids are the people I want to do a lot more with over the years,” Bailey said. “I want to quit knocking on doors.” In a gesture allowing him to focus more on family and his own writing, instead of everyone else’s, Bailey said he plans to close Seacoast Publishing in the short term.
That decision became the foundation of the book pitch that would eventually become The Complete Guide to Northern Gulf Seafood.
Covering the best of northern Gulf seafood (from Tampa, Fla., through the Texas coast), Bailey’s book shines the spotlight on fish caught in the region; fish that is less commercial in nature and that is most likely to be at his readers’ neighborhood seafood market.
“My mission was not only to showcase the fish of our region, but to capture the essence of the taste of the Coast,” he said, noting a few of the book’s highlights, including chargrilled amberjack, stuffed scamp and wine sauce, and smoked mullet, what he describes as “an everyman kind of dish.”
“The book represents the collective pallet of the people who work and live in these areas,” Bailey said. “Some recipes even came from old boat captains, and the recipes are so simple, which also keeps with the book’s theme. We wanted to keep these recipes simple enough that anyone could go to a grocery store and find what they need. They can prepare these dishes in a beach condo, where they might have limited cookware. There is no need to fill up a cabinet of special spices and ingredients.”
In retirement, Bailey said he also intends to devote more time to elementary school focused writing workshops, a longtime passion. In recent years, he’s been a well-known face to writing and literary coaches throughout the Hoover area, making stops at most every Hoover area elementary school to help third- and fourth-grade students foster their creative thinking.
To learn more about Bailey and his work, email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.