A new perspective on some old family publishing history
After Making Information Pay on Thursday, I had lunch with Michael Cader. One of our topics was some statistical research he is doing on the question “how many orphans”? This is his research to reveal, but I will only tell you “not nearly as many as I thought.”
Part of what I learned from Michael is that the annual output of new titles as measured by Bowker from the 1920s until the 1970s was about ten thousand titles per year. It is several hundred thousand now. This put a piece of Shatzkin family publishing history into an entirely new perspective for me.
My father, Leonard Shatzkin, had created the Dolphin Books imprint at Doubleday in the late 1950s. Jason Epstein had gotten Doubleday into the “quality paperback” business early when he founded Anchor Books in about 1953. Len was “Director of Research” (that’s another story) at that time, with a big focus on strengthening the sales organization. He did so largely through a 1950s version of “automation” (which required a large roomful of worker bees at Doubleday’s plant in Garden City): a vendor-managed inventory plan that wrote the orders for the stores based on physical inventory counts the Doubleday reps sent from the accounts (instead of orders!)
In 1957 or 1958, they put 800 stores on the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. Backlist sales quadrupled. Cost of sales quartered (they had added a lot of sales reps, so travel expenses were cut sharply.) They wanted more books!
But the Doubleday editorial department said, “there really aren’t any more books. We see all the books that are made available; we buy the ones that are worth publishing.” So management created a new imprint, called Dolphin Books, and it reported to Len.
Tom McCormack, later the dynamic CEO that built St. Martin’s from a relatively insignificant player importing Macmillan UK titles to an industry powerhouse, was a young editor there at that time. Dad had Tom start making lists of all the public domain books and what editions were available of them. As I heard the story (and Tom may read this and correct me), Tom said to Len: “I get it; we’ll figure out which books haven’t been done and do those.” To which Len said, “No. We have the strong sales force. We pick the ones that everybody does, because those are the ones that sell [no BookScan back then; no B&N or Amazon either]. We’ll push somebody else off the shelf.”
Anyhow, Dolphin was a big success. Two other things about those times:
Buying a paperback houses was seen as the way to get into the paperback business because of the perceived need of a backlist to be viable. That was the way to get one.
Mass markets really were paperbacks. The trade paperback business was small and academic. And mass market was distributed through IDs.
Well, Len didn’t believe in ID distribution; he believed it was inherently inefficient and the mass market business would ultimately choke on its growth. (It took 20 or 30 years for that to become obvious, but he was right.) So he wanted to create a paperback line which created its own outlets, using the same rack-jobbing (inventory selection) techniques he had developed for the Doubleday Merchandising Plan.
Len also thought he had a better way to get to a backlist than to buy one. He would create one by publishing a very large number of titles — 50 new ones per month. The plan was to do this for three years which would give him 1800 titles in print. Presto, instant backlist.
Ray Hagel, the CEO of the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, was recruiting Len from Doubleday and bought into this idea. Hagel was early in the curve of the go-go 60s, acquiring companies with stock. While Len was there, he acquired Macmillan Publishing, Free Press of Glencoe (bringing the soon-to-be-legendary Jeremiah Kaplan to New York publishing), Brentano’s Bookstores, and, if memory serves, a planetarium-creating company in Baltimore. And he financed Len’s vision: a new company called Collier Books.
So, starting in about early 1962 I think, a box of 50 new Collier Books titles would arrive at our house every month. And did for about a year or so. Collier Books started branching out. They created Modern Masters for Young People, children’s books from famous authors (Robert Graves, Louis Untermeyer) in a series overseen by a young neophyte editor named Harlin Quist, who also later made quite a name for himself publishing original children’s books. They had a line of study guides. They started publishing hardcovers. They even had a line of books that anticipated computerized teaching: you read a chunk, you get a question, and a choice of four answers. You turn to a different page based on which of the answers you chose, which told you if you were right or wrong and addressed your specific misunderstanding if you were wrong. Lots of smart stuff!
But then the stock market turned sour. Crowell-Collier stock went down. All the transactions they’d done using the stock for leverage were now jeopardizing management’s control of the company. Expenses had to be cut. And the very ambitious Collier Books rollout had to be curtailed.
This meant my father had to fire a lot of people. Although Ray Hagel offered him a 50% salary increase to stay at the company (and, by this time, Dad was running other divisions, including Brentano’s), Dad took the whole Collier Books thing too personally to consider it. He left and went to McGraw-Hill a few months later.
But here’s the thing talking to Cader made me realize on Thursday.
When Dad published 600 new titles a year (more really, because 600 was the number for the rackable paperbacks) at Collier Books, he was increasing the industry output by SIX percent! To put that into context, we’d be talking about a new company today publishing about TWENTY THOUSAND new titles a year to have an equivalent effect on industry output. I have known this history for a very long time. I have a whole new appreciation for what Dad did in this context. It’s one of those times I wish I could tell him.
From now until May 28, every post will end with a word about my speech at BookExpo at 11 am that morning. Called “Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Product-Centric Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric Web World. ” If you’ll be in NYC that day, please come. Posts between now and then will tell you a bit more.