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Books about Books Part 13: A Visit with Ruari McLean

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Another important stepping stone in our history occurred in 1997. The long saga of St. Paul’s Bibliographies reached the end of one era and the beginning of another as Robert Cross decided to retire and sold me his company. I was especially interested in the rights to bibliographies that he had tied up via his contracts and his large stock of unsold inventory. We sold a large portion of the Publishing Pathways inventory to The British Library and gave them UK sales rights for these and future projects, and I had a series of special sales to convert inventory into cash. Robert agreed to continue on in the role of a consultant, helping us find new titles and keeping old author friends in our camp. We had a splendid event in honor of Robert at Stationers’ Hall in London, where I felt a bit overwhelmed with the history of the grand building.

Ruari McLean in front of his home on Mull

Ruari McLean in front of his home on Mull

During this trip to England, I traveled to the wilds of Scotland to visit Ruari McLean (1917–2006) as I heard that he had some books for sale and that he had written his autobiography. Ruari lived on the Isle of Mull, which is a rugged island off the west coast of Scotland, so it was quite an adventure to get to him. He had retired from his life in the book production business and was spending his time writing books about various subjects, while still doing some typography projects. He lived by himself (his wife had passed away) in a desolate location on the coast overlooking the sea. Getting to the Isle of Mull required taking a train to Glasgow and catching another much smaller train to the coast town of Oban, where a 45-minute ferry ride got you to Mull. Getting to Glasgow from London was easy enough; however, Ruari had not looked at the train schedule closely enough for my Thursday trip to Oban. Trains don’t run to Oban on Thursdays! So back to the hotel I went and became a tourist in Glasgow for a day.

Ruari's home on Mull

Ruari's home on Mull

Friday proved more successful, and I found the small train and positioned myself at the window in preparation for a scenic morning trip through the countryside. Just before leaving, a young burly Scotsman staggered into my car bringing a large bag filled with cans of beer. He had obviously been enjoying the highlights of Glasgow and was now quite well prepared for his journey back to Oban.  Much to the amusement of the other passengers on the train, my car-mate started singing old Scottish songs at the top of his voice with only brief pauses to refresh himself from the slowly diminishing supply of beer that he had brought along. Song after song was sung with no sign of slowing. Finally, the conductor came through the car, and I thought my concert was surely going to be ended. “Hi Jamie,” says the conductor, “I see that you have been having fun.” With that the conductor joined him in a song, and then left for the next car. Our concert continued until the beers were gone and sleep overtook my musical friend.

The ferry to Mull from Oban had spectacular views, and Ruari was there at the ferry dock waiting in his car to drive me to his home. We looked at books he had for sale all afternoon, though none turned out to be ones that I wanted. He had already either sold or given away most of his better books. However, he still had a number of manuscripts for books that he had written that were of interest to our publishing program. He cooked a meal for me that evening preceded with and ended by a selection of single malt scotches that I could not refuse out of politeness. The next day I have a hazy recollection of seeing the island of Iona before being put back on the ferry for my long trip back to London. I met him once more when Millie and I and our youngest son Rob went to Scotland for a two-week traveling holiday in 1999. We stayed at Traquair House, the oldest Scottish castle, for a few days, and Ruari drove down to have lunch with us. He was pressing me to publish his war memoirs, but I had to turn him down. Oak Knoll Press co-published How Typography Happens (Bib. #132) with The British Library in 2000 and co-published Ruari’s autobiography True to Type (Bib. #147) with Werner Shaw at the end of 2000.

Bob, Ruari McLean, & Rob Fleck at Traquair House

Bob, Ruari McLean, & Rob Fleck at Traquair House

Books about Books Part 8: New Partnerships Emerge

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment
Robert Cross of St. Paul's Bibliographies (on right)

Robert Cross of St. Paul's Bibliographies (on right)

The end of 1992 also saw the start of a long process of publishing with St. Paul’s Bibliographies, the English company owned by Robert Cross that I had mentioned previously. We had established contact with Robert a number of years before and stocked his titles in our New Books Department. He had started St. Paul’s in 1979 after a distinguished career in the publishing field. Robert knew everybody worth knowing in the English publishing scene and proved quite adept at seeking out dormant rights for important bibliographies from other publishers. He often took those bibliographies and found that special breed of authors known as “bibliographers” and got them to revise an older bibliography or provide a new one. This was quite a feat as the royalty payments for such small print run books often added up to the equivalent of only pennies an hour for all the time spent in doing the bibliography. I believe bibliographers deserve a special place in heaven for their unselfish efforts.

Robert had established the Winchester Bibliographies of Twentieth-Century Writers series with me as co-publisher in 1992 and taken on the publishing of the Publishing Pathways series, which had strong and continuing sales. We saw each other quite frequently on business but always with social times together and developed a mutual respect and friendship. He had been using one of Fred Ruffner’s companies, Omnigraphics, to distribute his titles in America and I suggested to him in early 1993 that the Cross-Fleck relationship had reached the point where Oak Knoll should take on these books as part of a distribution arrangement. The idea was suggested to Ruffner through Cross’s contact at Omnigraphics, Jim Sellgren. The idea was met with favor, and the entire inventory of books was shipped to Oak Knoll under a partial purchase and partial consignment arrangement in October 1993.

First distribution title for The Caxton Club

First distribution title for The Caxton Club

We published eight new titles in 1993 and seven in 1994. I found a new way to increase our publishing program—distribution for other organizations. In late 1994, we were asked by the Caxton Club of Chicago to help sell copies of their Club History as part of our publishing list. We worked up a very straightforward contract with our attorney. Oak Knoll would not pay any of the production costs, but would hold inventory of the book and pay the Club 40% of the retail price of the books when we got paid (all discounts to booksellers and distributors came out of our share).

Based on the success of this deal, I decided to see if other organizations might be interested. There are many organizations that want to produce manuscripts by their members but do not know how to market a book or sell into the library market. Selling to this market was a specialty of Oak Knoll, so it made perfect sense to offer this service along with advice on retail price, print run, and production costs.

The American Antiquarian Society elected us their distributor in August 1995, the Bibliographical Society of America in May 1996, the John Carter Brown Library also in May 1996, the Library of Congress (selected titles) in June 1998, and the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia in January 1999. Since then we have signed up the Manuscript Society, the Typophiles, Catalpa Press, the Bibliographical Society (selected titles), and many other organizations. These distribution deals have increased our publishing list to over 1000 titles of which only about 300 are Oak Knoll Press publications. Booksellers and distributors love this arrangement, as they can deal with one business instead of fifty when fulfilling orders for customers.

Check back next week for more from Books about Books!