Books about Books: A History of Oak Knoll Press, Part 12: Marketing Experiments
By Bob Fleck
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.
To be continued …
Bob Fleck founded Oak Knoll Books in 1976 to fill a void in the booksellers world. Today Oak Knoll Books maintains an inventory of about 20,000 titles on books about books and a rapidly growing backlist of over 950 titles published and distributed under its imprint, Oak Knoll Press. Bob Fleck is ILAB President of Honour. He was ILAB President from 2002 to 2006. Each Friday the Oak Knoll Biblio-Blog publishes an excerpt from Bob Fleck's autobiography (“Books about Books“, published in 2008). The excerpts are also presented on ILAB.org. Thank you very much to Bob Fleck for giving us permission.
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>>> Robert D. Fleck, Books about Books. A History and Bibliography of Oak Knoll Press 1978-2008
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