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.
John cranked up the publishing program to 17 titles in 1998 and 23 in 1999. We were especially happy to publish Jane Greenfield’s ABC of Bookbinding (Bib. #84) as it fit in well with our other ABC book. Jane’s Headbands (Bib. #26) had appeared in a second edition with us in 1990 and still sells well today. Jane has recently passed away and will be missed by all.
We published Anthony Rota’s Apart from the Text in 1999 (Bib. #105). Anthony (and his wife Jean) and I went back a long way in the book business starting with the day he helped me purchase the remaining inventory of Deval and Muir. He was a Past President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (England) and was on the Committee and eventually President of ILAB. He often counseled me on the politics of this group and mentored me in every way he could. A dinner with Jean and Anthony (don’t dare call him Tony) was always full of great food, great wine, and charming talk. He tried to keep me from being too aggressive in my plans for carrying forward my ILAB agenda and sometimes I listened and acted in accord, and sometimes I didn’t. None of this affected our good feelings and trust for one another. We also published his autobiographical Books in the Blood (Bib. #179) in 2002, which is an excellent read.
The 26 titles published in 2000 was our new record for number of books published in a year, but what made it a special year was the publication of The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance by Konstantinos Staikos. Kostas Staikos is a well-known Greek architect and historian with an abiding love for the history of libraries. In his spare time, he had formed a remarkable private collection of books tracking the development of Greek printing throughout the world, rescued a Greek letterpress printing shop, and become part owner of a large, modern printing plant in Greece. To call him a true Renaissance man is probably an understatement.
One day Andy Armacost, our Director of Antiquarian Sales (1995-2004) fielded an incoming call from Mr. Staikos, who asked if we would be interested in publishing an English language history of the library that he had written and published in Greek. Andy turned the call over to John von Hoelle who listened with respect, but also with the reserve that must be used for all authors calling out of the blue with potential major publishing projects. We had no idea why this man had chosen to ask Oak Knoll Press to publish his book until a call later in the week by Nick Basbanes about another matter shed some light. Nick had visited Staikos in Greece to interviewe him for a book about collectors. His mention of Oak Knoll Press must have resonated with Kostas and resulted in that phone call.
Kostas’s book has become one of our all-time best sellers, which was surprising to us as the price of $125 was higher than most of our titles. It was so well produced and beautifully illustrated that it captured the spirit of our book world. It went into a second printing and laid the foundation for Kostas’s series entitled The History of the Library in Western Civilization, which will be six volumes when finally completed (Kostas is working on volume four at present [update—he’s now finishing volumes 5 & 6!]). This work is an obvious labor of love by a dedicated bibliophile and scholar. Each of the three volumes to date has received critical acclaim from the library world.
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.
Another new idea for promoting Oak Knoll occurred in the fall of 1994 when we sponsored the first Oak Knoll Fest, using the second floor of the New Castle Opera House (more about this later). We thought that a good way to emphasize our specialty area of books about books and fine press printing would be to host an event that combined speeches, a shop sale, and tables of private press books with their actual printers standing behind the table.
That first Fest attracted ten private press printers. John Randle, the noted English private press owner of the Whittington Press, gave our key-note address on Saturday evening. We have held a Fest every year since and now attract an average of 40 private presses each year to this two-day event. Hundreds of presses have participated over the Fest’s fourteen-year history. The Fests have provided an excellent venue for customers to view our publishing titles and for Oak Knoll to solicit new publishing manuscripts. The Fine Press Book Association was founded by printers sitting in my living room during our Fest and has become the premier organization of private press owners.
Quickly jumping ahead to 2000, I must show you a picture from our Oak Knoll Fest VII in which Gloria Stuart of Titanic film fame came to New Castle. I’m sure that many a publicist would have died for this opportunity. Gloria Stuart had won an Oscar for her role in the 1997 movie Titanic, but not many of her movie fans knew her as a letterpress printer. She came to New Castle this year and “held court” in such a sweet and gentle manner that she captivated the hearts of all who met her. Our publishing sales went up during that Fest!
We published the seventh edition of ABC and Oak Knoll’s first reprint of Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography in 1995, which completed our trilogy of the three most important bibliographical manuals, which also included McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description.
However, there were the beginnings of troubled waters in late 1995. An unfortunate marriage to an American girl had made Paul’s life in America very difficult, so he took a leave of absence and traveled home, and in early 1996, he announced that he had decided to resign and return permanently to England. His resignation left us with a big void to fill. We interviewed many people in hopes of finding just the right person who could fit into our small publishing/antiquarian business (and do the work for as small a salary as possible!). I hired a young man who met these criteria, but he immediately proved the old adage of you get what you pay for. He was a disaster. Meanwhile, Paul had already returned to England. I then interviewed and hired John von Hoelle, one of the great decisions I have made in my life.
Check back next week to hear how the Press fared under “the good ship von Hoelle”!