And Then the Husbands Phoned In…


Last week’s column about publishing trade paperbacks first and letting them earn their way into hardcover publication (rather than the other way around) brought a delightful and informative email exchange with California writer Lois Levine.

If you read yesterday’s New York Times piece about authors establishing themselves on the Internet by selling enough self-published books to lure New York publishers into offering a contract, here’s how this was done in BC [before computer] times.

The only difference is that Lois and co-author Marian Burros didn’t have a clue to what they were doing, as evidenced by Photo #1. (Burros went on to write for the old Washington Star and now the New York Times, but that would come much later.)

Self-published edition in mimeo

1) Self-published edition in mimeo

Here’s how the email exchange went after Lois read the column asking publishers to start the publishing process not with hardcovers but with trade paperbacks:

Lois: You are probably not old enough to remember that my first cookbook, “Elegant but Easy,” was published in paperback by Collier Books (1968). When it became their best-selling book, it was then brought out in hardcover by Macmillan. It still sells, though Marian Burros and I revised it in 1998 for Simon & Schuster. It has sold more than 500,000 copies.

Pat: Do you remember why Collier started with the paperback? Did S&S start with the hardcover in 1998?

Lois: Collier Books at that time had an idea that they could make a big splash if they brought out lots of paperbacks, so they bought our book as one of 100, I think, that they were going to use in this experiment. When it became their best-selling book, they had their Macmillan division bring it out in hardcover. Yes, Simon & Schuster started the book in hardcover, but now it’s in paperback.

Pat (After I asked her to send photos of the covers): I must say Photo #1 doesn’t look like it came from a New York publisher.

Lois: Right, that is the original, the self-published edition that we mimeographed in my Connecticut basement, collated in my house with the help of my mother and all her friends and sold ourselves with a reorder form in the back. We had sold almost 3000 copies before Collier came to us, having seen some of the publicity we also did on our own. The ’60s were the “do it yourself” days when two naive housewives could actually have a best seller. I often thought our story would be a fine movie with Doris Day playing me.

2) First Collier edition, 1962

2) First Collier edition, 1962

Pat: Had you tried to submit the book to mainstream publishers first?

Lois: I could have papered my walls with rejection letters. Even looked into Vantage Press but we were astounded that they wanted US to pay them. They kept sending us special delivery letters reducing the price, but we said no thank you.

It was about two years of rejections before we mimeographed the first 250 copies and thought we would have them for shower gifts, hostess gifts for the rest of our lives. The first batch sold out in 10 days and we then rented an electric mimeograph machine and did 500 copies. After they sold we had them professionally printed — 1000 at first and then another 1000 before Collier came to us.

Pat: How did you distribute? Did you get the book into any bookstores?

Lois: No, the mimeographed books were sold by word of mouth only as we had a reorder form in the back of the book.

Pat: Did you do any publicity – author appearances, interviews, after Collier picked it up?

Lois: Oh my gawd…did I do interviews: TV on the Joan Rivers show, radio call-in shows in New York (once with Margaret Truman hosting) and DC (where Marian’s husband and mine called in pretending to be disgruntled cooks), years and years of talks to women’s groups all over the country, et

Pat: What did your husbands say when they phoned?

3) Collier's 6th printing, 19653) Collier’s 6th printing, 1965

Lois: I don’t remember exactly, but they pretended that they had followed a recipe that didn’t work. We recognized their voices, though. It was hard not to laugh as we answered their nonsense questions.

Pat: Do you still make public appearances?

Lois: My favorite story happened a few years ago when I was in New Jersey visiting an old friend. Trader Joe’s had just come to her area, so she asked if I would go with her to point out some of my favorite items.

As we were going down the aisles with my comments, we noticed a woman following us. She got up her nerve to push a jar in front of me to ask if I liked it. My friend Barbara said, “She knows because she is from California and that is where Trader Joe’s began. Anyway she writes cookbooks.”

When the woman asked which one, and Barbara said, “Elegant but Easy,” the woman pointed me out to her friends as “the famous author” and they followed me up and down the aisles as if we were doing a commercial for TJ’s.

Pat: Tell us about the jacket designs over the years.

Lois: The inside was always the same, but publishers kept changing the photo on the cover. They even had one with a picture of a crown roast, although there was never a recipe for it in the book.

A Fine Old Tradition

I have heard stories like this from all over the West for nearly 40 years. They reveal an aspect to book publishing that’s too often forgotten – the love of expressing oneself in writing, the love of publishing from the ground up, the love of family and friends exuberantly creating an actual publishing bee to get that book out there to like-minded readers.

Collier's 7th printing, 1965Collier’s 7th printing, 1965

The self-published version of “Elegant but Easy” doesn’t look very polished, but one feels that love just by looking at the cover. Imagine the power of word-of-mouth that could sell 3000 copies simply through an order form in the back.

Until recently I haven’t heard as many stories like this from Eastern states because the closer one got to what used to be called Publishers Row in New York, the less the impulse to self-publish seemed to occur. Standing in midtown Manhattan with a half-dozen corporate monoliths towering above, it was not easy for an author to think, hey, I can do this on my own.

Perhaps that’s why yesterday’s New York Times made self-publishing sound brand new and dazzling and thriving, which it is of course in its present incarnation of POD (Print On Demand) technology and Internet downloading.

But we shouldn’t forget that self-publishing has been a fine old tradition in many areas of the country, and that the impulse to self-publish is valued because it comes from the heart, from the ideal of many different voices expressing many different ideas, and because sometimes it produces a gem like “Elegant but Easy.”

5) Collier's eggroll cover (no recipe for eggrolls inside), 1968

5) Collier's eggroll cover (no eggroll recipe inside), 1968