Last night, I had the privilege of attending a celebration of the publication of Gerald Cloud’s John Rodker’s Ovid Press at the Grolier Club in New York City. It was an enjoyable evening of book talk, anecdotes, and of course, wine! Gerald shared how he chose Rodker as the topic of his dissertation, a great story that we hope he will share on this blog sometime soon.
Gerald also signed some copies of his book at the event, and three signed copies are still available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you are interested in purchasing one, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Laura Williams, Publishing Director
In early 2006, however, John told me that it was time for him to retire. I had known this time would eventually come (though I had been hoping he would work into his 90s!). But when he talked about the books he wanted to write and the travel he wanted to do, it was hard to come up with a convincing argument for postponing retirement. I then had to make yet one more decision. I was going to turn 60 in February of 2007, so perhaps it was time to think about slowing down and eliminating some of the stress in my life. I knew that my stress level could only increase once John had gone, as he was going to be hard to replace. My time at the beach house was so relaxing that I could visualize a lighter work load with more vacation time. I loved reading and collecting (especially in the field of Delaware history). Was this the time to sell the publishing business?
Months went by with different possibilities being discussed on a daily basis. I had a publishing director who wanted to retire and was only hanging on to keep me from being without a competent person to run that part of the business. It occurred to me that I had a smart young man named Mark Parker Miller working for me as a book cataloguer in the antiquarian side of the business, and that he might have the makings of a publisher. Mark had finished the course work for his PhD in art history and was in the process of writing his thesis. I had very good experiences in hiring art history graduates from Delaware (Andy Armacost being the prime example). I asked John if he would take a month to train Mark, and he gleefully agreed, finally seeing the beginning of his retirement on the horizon. The training took place in the spring of 2006 and Mark is now going full throttle with 24 books under his belt (with John’s help) in 2006, 16 in 2007 and 21 to-date in 2008.
A great help was the addition of Laura Williams in early 2007 as our Marketing Communications Specialist. Her skills at electronic marketing and PR have had a major impact on sales. [Update to 2010: Mark Parker Miller left Oak Knoll at the end of 2008, and Laura Williams has been enjoying her new role as publishing director for the past two years.]
So here we are in the year 2008 after 30 years of publishing in a very specialized field. The publishing world has changed a lot since I first started and will continue to re-invent itself in the future at an ever quickening pace. University presses are being told to make a profit for their universities, as the prestige of having a press is being diminished by hard financial times. As a result, more manuscripts are being offered to us. Oak Knoll has published books with CDs in the back and links to online databases, unknown technologies when we started. Short print runs and print-on-demand seem to be here to stay. Bibliography as a subject begs to be available online, as any good bibliography is always a work in progress. Where will this lead us?
Our marketing strategies have also changed. In the old days we bombarded our customers with letters—now we do it with email programs like Constant Contact. Our weekly strategy meetings are often more about the timing and extent of our email campaigns and an analysis of our Google statistics for the past week than planning the production of a book.
So how do I feel about our role for the next 30 years? Early this year  Oak Knoll Press was given the Institutional Award by the American Printing History Association in recognition of its services in publishing books that advance the understanding of printing history. When accepting this award, I reminisced about Oak Knoll’s past much like I have done in this short history and ended up telling a story of a recent sales call with a relatively new employee. The gist of that story was that the new employee was my youngest son Rob, who had graduated from college and was now working in the business. My other three children (Jenni, Paul, and Wendy) have each chosen other careers outside the book world. Oak Knoll may not end up being Rob’s life work, but for now—it is great to have him with me. Either way, I hope he will enjoy all of the fun, travel, and friendships that I have had for these first 30 years.
The always present problem of lack of space reared its ugly head yet again in 2001—we had run out of room in spite of our expanded 5000 square foot third floor lease. This is such a sickness with booksellers. They can never be happy with the space they have and must keep expanding. John published 21 titles in 2001, and we had bought a large antiquarian collection, so space was at a premium.
We decided to lease half the first floor of our building and move our publishing fulfillment and shipping to that floor and even pretend to have a real bookstore presence. We moved in and John found a huge assortment of blue metal shelving being sold at a very good price by a warehouse. We bought the shelving and installed it on the first floor. These bookcases were handy in keeping a small number of each publishing/distribution title arranged by stock number and readily available for order fulfillment. Most of the inventory was kept in a large warehouse in the Newark, Delaware, area as New Castle is not very truck friendly, and we had no docking area at our Delaware Street location. New Castle is a charming city but doesn’t have much in the way of retail street traffic, so street sales didn’t increase much. However, the rent was very reasonable, and we had a lot more space.
Meanwhile my “other job” became closer to a full-time position as I was elected President of ILAB during the Scandinavian Congress of 2002. Millie and I have been to many Congresses, but this whirlwind trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark was one of the best.
John managed to get out another 21 titles in 2002 and followed up with 21 more in 2003, 21 in 2004 and 18 in 2005. I must admit that I did not have as much time to give him as I had before taking on the Presidency of ILAB, but he was becoming an old hand at our type of publishing.
And of course, the strangest thing happened—we ran out of space again in 2005. The antique mall and tea shop had left the second floor, leaving it as empty space. I really didn’t need to be on the first floor, so I discussed the idea of leasing the entire building from the owner and taking on the responsibility for one monthly rental payment for the entire building. I would need to find appropriate sub-leases for the first floor to partially defray my costs. He agreed, and John yet again got a major task—find renters for the first floor, and move our operation from our half of the first floor to the second floor, thus adding 2500 square feet to our space. If we worked it right, we could significantly increase our space and reduce costs by sub-leasing the entire first floor, while moving books out of the Newark warehouse to further reduce our overhead. As usual, John accomplished this task in record time, and now our inventory shares the second floor with Annie Oakley’s ghost.
Our relationship with Staikos grew exponentially as we got to know and trust each other. John was a comrade to Kostas in their mutual love of the history of the growth of language, and they went to a number of conferences and archeological sites together. I decided to visit him in Athens while on one of my European trips and scheduled a flight from London to Athens in March of 2003 to spend time with him. As many of you probably remember, that is exactly when the Iraq War began and the Greeks were not in favor of what the US had done. Kostas picked me up at the airport and a normal 40 minute drive took over three hours because the entire city of Athens was rallying against the war.
My arrival day was especially interesting as Millie and I had donated a large collection of books to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the Egyptian Embassy in Athens had planned a large reception in our honor that evening. Kostas and I got to the hotel and I barely had time to change into better clothes for the reception which was luckily across the street from my hotel at the Embassy. I was awarded a very large medal by the Greek supporters of this library at the reception and the Egyptian ambassador was the picture of charm and culture in what had to be an awkward situation.
Kostas was the perfect host and showed me the city as it was my first trip to Athens. I was invited to his home for dinner that night which again proved a bit strange as he lives right next to the President of the Greek Republic and soldiers were everywhere as I attempted to get there for the dinner date. After a number of checks I was pointed to the correct building where I was warmly welcomed by Kostas and his sister. I was shown parts of his personal collection which were soul-stirring to an antiquarian bookseller. When it was time for dinner, Kostas pointed me to a chair and commanded that I sit there. Not aware of the social etiquette of the Greek dining experience, I sat as instructed and had a glass of wine as booksellers are known to do. Kostas, with that impish smile I have grown to enjoy so much, then quickly opened the curtains in front of me and there, under floodlights, was the Acropolis. I was stunned with the magnificent view.
My next visit to Kostas was immediately after a Prague Committee meeting of the ILAB in 2007 when Millie and I flew to visit him. We did some serious work on publishing projects while Millie toured the city. His charm was apparent and showed Greek hosting expertise with great aplomb. It was Millie’s birthday and he planned a very nice birthday dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. Our relationship with this man continues to grow as we utilize his letterpress shop to print books for our publishing program and publish new titles that he writes for us.
After taking a break for a month to prepare for and recover from Oak Knoll Fest, we are now back to our weekly excerpt from Books about Books. The story continues…
A traumatic change in our lives occurred in 1998, when we moved the business one block up the street to the third floor of the massive building called the New Castle Opera House. We had moved from Newark to 414 Delaware Street in New Castle in 1979, up the street to 212 Delaware, down the street to a renovated 414 Delaware, and now we had run out of room again. We had a three-story Victorian building with a finished basement full of books and had to get them all to the third floor of the Opera House at 310 Delaware Street.
I had walked past this huge Opera House every day while walking to work. The building had been built by the Masons in 1879 and was typical of many such buildings that have survived to this day. The Masons would create an opera house with high ceilings and a stage on the second floor, meeting space on the third floor, and shops on the first floor that were leased to pay for the building. Each floor contained about 5000 square feet of usable space. Annie Oakley and other famous nineteenth- and twentieth-century actors and performers had danced, sung, and acted on the still-present, well-preserved stage. The first floor had seen a number of businesses come and go during the period I had my business in town including grocery stores, antique stores, and restaurants. There was a cooperative antique mall and tea room on the second floor. However, there was no elevator in the building and the very high ceilings (22 feet on second floor and 11 feet on the third floor) made the third floor a very difficult space to rent. The property owner was a very nice fellow who owned a large computer business in Pennsylvania and had bought the building as an investment property. He had originally worked as a stock boy in the grocery/convenience store that had been on the first floor, so he had fond memories of New Castle. He had spent some serious money preserving the building but it still lacked the essential elevator, modern air conditioning, and heating for the third floor.
I approached the owner and suggested that I would be willing to lease the third floor if he would put in an elevator and modernize the space. The third floor space was empty at that point and wasn’t earning the owner a dime. We worked out the details over the next number of months and signed a basic five-year lease with renewal options in the spring of 1998 with a move-in date of August, as that is when the elevator was to be completed. Hiring Office Movers, Inc., turned out to be a good idea, as the elevator wasn’t finished for another month after our move in and wouldn’t have been nearly as efficient as the moving van/huge crane/and men hanging out the third floor window scheme that they used. The move was disruptive to business, as might be imagined, as all the books had to be put away again in the new space.
The problem of owning an empty 414 Delaware Street proved not to be a problem at all, but a sales opportunity. While teaching at the Rare Book School in Colorado Springs in 1997, I had announced my intention to move my business in New Castle and thus could offer a ready made bookstore all set for a new owner. And the new owner would get the mentoring of an established business right up the street! This appealed to James Goode, one of the students, who bought the building and set up his book business specializing in the sale of rare books on architecture. James fit right into the social life of New Castle, but was more a scholarly author, researcher, and aficionado of the rose than a bookseller and moved back to Washington, DC, three years later, after selling the building to someone who made it into the Velocipede Museum it is today. The money I got from the sale was used to buy a nice beach-front property that Millie and I continue to enjoy.
Another example of this synergy between the publishing and antiquarian businesses was brought about by an interesting request for bookbinding titles that we received from Marianne Tidcombe, noted English author (though American-born). Marianne told me that she was working on a project to honor Bernard Middleton, the pre-imminent English bookbinder. Important bookbinders around the world would be asked to contribute a gold-tooled binding on a copy of Middleton’s memoirs that had been printed by hand by Henry Morris at his Bird & Bull Press. Twenty-five binders would be chosen and they would be paid for their work when (or if) the collection of bindings would be sold. I was asked to help find the binders, plan an Oak Knoll Press title describing this project which would be accompanied by full color plates of the bindings produced, and then sell the collection as a whole if possible, or piecemeal if it could not be sold as a collection. What a combination of antiquarian, new book, and publishing goals!
The letters to binders were sent out and 25 were chosen to participate. Each binder was asked to price their book and then produce it on schedule. The bindings were eventually mailed to London and assembled in Bernard’s living room. I flew to England to view this unbelievable collection of bindings with Marianne and Bernard. I’ll never forget the magic of walking into that room (I seem to remember candles burning in the background) and feeling the impact of seeing them as a group. We photographed them and produced a book entitled Twenty-Five Gold-Tooled Bookbindings, an International Tribute to Bernard C. Middleton’s Recollections (Bib. #78). The book was produced in a limited edition of 250 hardbound copies, 400 paperback copies, and a number of copies in sheets. The books themselves traveled as an exhibition from The British Library to Rochester, New York (Cary Collection at RIT, home of Bernard’s personal collection of books on bookbinding), and then on to the San Francisco Public Library. It was with great pleasure that I announced that I had found a private collector who was as impressed with this collection as I had been and bought it as a whole, thus preserving it intact.
We also experimented with finding ways to get a selection of our titles into the new bookstore market. We signed an agreement with the Lyons Press of New York in 1997 to act as our distributor for our popular titles (Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors was the star in the line). This company produced an interesting collection of books of their own and distributed a few, selected small publishers. Nick Lyons proved to be a real bookman and gentleman of the old school of publishing with great personal interest in fly-fishing and the production of limited edition books in that field. We increased the print runs of the titles that we gave to them in hopes that they would sell well. The Carter sold extremely well and others sold moderately well. Eventually we discovered that we were mostly just circulating money without much profit coming back to us. The large jobbers tended to order large numbers of copies of books in the hopes of selling them and then sent them all back to Lyons if they didn’t sell. The jobbers demanded large discounts, returned damaged books and didn’t need to worry about their order size since they weren’t paying for the books to begin with. We ended our relationship with the Lyons Press in April of 2000 and put the other distributors on a “proforma” basis and elected to do what we do best—market and sell directly to the end customer.
Check back Friday for more from Books about Books.
Under the Good Ship von Hoelle (1996-2006), continued.
John made sure we got more involved with international trade shows. The British Library’s presence at the London Book Fair in the spring of each year gave us the opportunity to travel there to be part of the excitement and even borrow a table and chair on occasion to meet with one of our authors. John was a fixture at this spring event and always managed to visit family in Wales during this time. David Way also helped guide us through the intricacies of the Frankfurt International Book Fair where Oak Knoll had a booth. Every publisher should exhibit at this Fair at least once, as it is an event that cannot be forgotten.
Back in the US, we published the first in a series of titles written by the New York antiquarian booksellers Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern (Bib. #65) in which they reminiscence about their lengthy experience buying and selling rare books. They wrote with charm and painted vivid portraits of many of the famous collectors and dealers of their day. I had known them for a long time and had even reprinted a series of their catalogues as one of our first publications (Bib. #4). They had proposed me for membership in the ABAA in 1978. Over the years we published five of their titles including New Worlds in Old Books. This excellent book was distributed as a gift by Brigham Young University to all members of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) in tribute to these two fine booksellers. Near the end of their long and productive lives, they submitted a manuscript to us that I felt needed additional work. I called them and talked over my thoughts as gently as I could but my suggested changes were not well received. Much to my regret, they did not talk to me again before they died.
On a happier note, I want to give an example of how the antiquarian business helped the publishing business. As I was President of the ABAA in 1997, I flew to the President’s Meeting in Sydney, Australia with Millie. This was my first trip to Australia, and it was a beautiful experience much enhanced by the warm nature of the Australians. I had gotten to know a number of the other Presidents at the various congresses that Millie and I had attended. The leader of the Japanese book market was Mitsuo Nitta, whose father had started Yushodo, a bookselling-publishing firm in Japan in 1932. Mitsuo is a very special person with great people skills and an aggressive business drive. He has taken his company to new heights while still taking part in many ILAB meetings. He is so highly thought of by the ILAB that he was one of the few booksellers ever named as a Member of Honour of the League. I had previously discussed with Mitsuo the possibility of Yushodo distributing Oak Knoll Press books into the Japanese market, and he invited me to Japan after the Sydney meeting to meet with his various company executives to discuss the proposal. Millie flew back to the States, while I flew to Japan and booked into a small hotel next to his business. I then spent the next three days meeting the various department heads and gaining an understanding of how business methods differed in Japan from America. Richard Carpenter, their English language translator, was assigned to look after me and proved to be a real God-send as he took a liking to me and helped guide me through the intricacies of Japanese business protocol.
Three days of interacting with each department head led to a final dinner in which I was formally told that Yushodo would distribute our titles. This formal acceptance was accompanied by a rather large order of books!
Check back Friday for more from Books about Books.
And thus the interesting ten-year saga of the John von Hoelle days began. John had been in the publishing business for many years and was one-fourth owner of Dyne-American Publishers, a much bigger publishing company than Oak Knoll. In those days of wild publishing acquisitions, his imprint had been bought out by ABC Publishing, a larger company. He was also a retired military officer, although he never was that comfortable talking about that early phase of his life. All I know is that he attended the annual meeting of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in Washington each year and was busy writing a definitive bibliography on non-fiction Cold War espionage literature. John was a book collector with a collection of over 3,700 espionage novels. He decorated his office with photos of himself and friends in various third-world countries in appropriate costume. John had authored 14 books and had a special interest in early language (he could read and write ancient cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics). I could never break him of the habit of calling me “sir.” I always felt a little funny being called “sir” by a man five years older than I am, especially when I was in my usual summer dress of tennis shorts (just in case someone called for a game, of course!).
John had a wealth of knowledge about the book industry although he had never really been in our type of business. He had certainly not experienced print runs of 500 copies before, as most of the titles he published in his prior business often had several zeros added to that figure. John brought experience, calmness, and the uncanny ability to solve problems. I knew that if I had a problem that needed fixing, John would fix it. He relied on me for the financial analysis and the selection of manuscripts; I relied on him for everything else (including the embellishment of a story when needed). He was the perfect representative for our company when doing trade shows or in contract negotiations with authors and vendors. He also designed most of the book layouts and dust jackets of our books. He had a ready smile and a pleasant personality, and he actually wore a coat and tie.
John quickly made his impact felt and 1996 saw us publish 14 titles, which was the largest number we had done in a single year. One of his special feats that year was to help get the final permission to reprint the Pforzheimer catalogue (77), a legendary bibliography that had never been reprinted. We waited forever to get the final signature on the deal because the decision maker, Ross Perot, was too busy running for President to get around to something as mundane as signing one of our contracts.
The other major event that happened in 1996 was my election as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). It also was the year that the Americans hosted the Congress of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers in Los Angeles and San Francisco (trade show), so I was a very busy person. The ABAA represents one of the 20 countries that make up the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). My biggest goal was to use the new tool of the internet to help spotlight these two organizations, and sometimes I was probably overbearing on the subject (my French colleagues called me Mr. Internet with perhaps just a bit of sarcasm in their voices). But it also allowed me to do a great deal of foreign travel and form friendships and business relationships with people all over the world.
One day after work last week, I was walking across the street in Trolley Square in Wilmington and saw a man who looked extremely familiar. I got closer to him and realized that it was a well known book-lover in the book world by the name of Mark Samuels Lasner. He wondered why I was in Trolley Square instead of back at the shop in New Castle, and I explained to him that I recently moved into the area and was renting an apartment in the building 50 feet away from us. To his surprise, he said that he was living in the same apartment building as I was (now I can call on one more person to have an after-work drink at the popular bars down the street).
After chatting it up a bit, he told me about a couple events that are going to be happening in October. One was called “Useful & Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites.” Mark told me that the University of Delaware was going to host a number of exhibitions and talks that will interest bibliophiles in the area of the Pre-Raphaelites. The other event was APHA’s “Learning to Print, Teaching to Print: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” which focuses on the evolution of the teacher and apprentice relationship and the way teaching has changed.
I didn’t know much about each event at the time, so I went back to my apartment to dig some more information up on them and found them relatively easy to find online. Information can be found on them here: Useful & Beautiful and Learning to Print.
- Rob Fleck, Library & Antiquarian Sales
Last week I watched The Proposal with Sandra Bullock. She plays a high-powered Editor-in-Chief at a major book publisher, and her character is the stereotypical boss from hell (at least at the beginning of the movie. By the end… well, I won’t spoil it for you). Whenever she leaves her office, her assistant sends an instant message to the rest of the company, warning them that “The witch is on her broom!” I hope that my fellow Oak Knollers don’t feel the same way about me! Although, in a publishing department of 2 full-time employees, total, my assistant doesn’t have anyone to warn!
But it’s always interesting seeing how Hollywood depicts the book world. This movie was more accurate than most—we see Bullock’s character looking through proofs at her home while eating breakfast (I’ve done that!), and we hear of her attending the Frankfurt book fair (I’d love to do that!).
Has anyone else seen any interesting portrayals of the book world on screen lately?
- Laura Williams, Publishing Director