Publishing Hawaiian Style

By Benjamin “Buddy” Bess
Wednesday - January 04, 2006
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(from left) Bess Press publisher Benjamin “Buddy” Bess conducts a sales meeting with Ryan Nomi, Joel Cosseboom and Susan Cho
(from left) Bess Press publisher Benjamin “Buddy” Bess
conducts a sales meeting with Ryan Nomi, Joel Cosseboom
and Susan Cho

When I moved to Hawaii in 1976, I couldn’t find work right away. I lived in the University of Hawaii faculty housing with my wife, Dr. Ann Rayson (an English professor), and ended up spending a great deal of time exploring the islands, bodysurfing at Sandy’s and playing basketball on the public courts. In the long run, this was a great opportunity for me - it was a solid introduction to the unique “localness” that makes up Hawaii: pidgin, body language, ethnic diversity, food, family and the environment. Developing an understanding and appreciation of Hawaii’s culture had a profound impact on the path I would eventually take with my own publishing company, Bess Press.

In 1978 a state law was passed mandating that Hawaiian history, language and culture be taught in the schools. Before moving to Hawaii, I had sold books for New York publishers. In Hawaii I visited every school in the state in promotion of educational materials - so, I felt I had the background to address the need that had opened up. Ann and I founded Bess Press shortly thereafter and used our life savings to revise and print two textbooks.

It took off from there, and our passion for Hawaiian culture, history and language continued to further shape the books we publish. Each and every title we publish is special to us. My philosophy is simple: I look for well-written content and try to couple it with the demands of the marketplace. I think that much of our success is because we work closely with authors, illustrators and photographers, so the works are the best they can be. Because most projects originate in the Pacific region, the content reflects a deep-found sense of place that hits home for readers.

We still publish textbooks, but most of our publications today are an eclectic selection of general trade titles for kama’aina and visitors that represent the diversity that defines Hawaii. From Hawaiian Country Tables to Hawaii’s Spam Cookbook, from Pidgin to da Max and Da Kine Dictionary to Elvis in Hawaii, and from The Musubi Man to The Story of Hula, Eddie Would Go and Then There Were None, we now publish and distribute 10 to 20 new titles each year.

We’ve recently begun publishing a variety of original books on other Pacific cultures as well as pocket guides for travelers like Pacific Island Legends and Pearl Harbor Insider Guide.

We’re also building a great collection of children’s books with accompanying read-along/listen-to CDs. Such multimedia sets are very important for young learners - not only are they fun, but also they appeal to the many different modes used in the learning process.

I’m also very honored to be an active board member of the fledgling Hawaii Book and Music Festival, which helps fund local literacy groups. This year’s festival will be held April 22 and 23 at Honolulu Hale and is sponsored by Bank of Hawaii. More information on the event can be found at

What’s on the horizon at Bess Press? A biography of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole titled Iz: The Voice of a Nation, the Food Lover’s Guide to Honolulu by local “foodie” favorite Joan Namkoong, and an ABC book called From Aloha to Zippy’s: A Keiki Alphabet Book, among other titles. The latter has been a typical Bess Press production with the entire staff helping to create the book.

Thirty years ago while body-surfing at Sandy’s, I found it hard to imagine what my future would hold. I’ve been lucky and grateful for the great employees, authors and illustrators I’ve worked with, and I look forward to another 30 years of publishing for Hawaii’s people.

Next Week: David Livingston, president of Trimark Hawaii

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