Q: Jill, you’ve posted several times on book-related lists about starting Purple House Press because of a recognized need in the area of baby-boomers wanting copies of their childhood books and those books being too expensive now for most non-collectors. How did you recognize this need? Were you a seller of children’s books before?
A: I sold out of print books for four years, concentrating on hard to find children’s titles. I noticed different people were requesting the same titles over and over again. Since the demand was growing as more people came on the net, the prices of these books rose dramatically, placing the books out of most people’s price range.
Q: And how did you originally get into the bookseller business?
A: I quit my job after 13 years as a software engineer, to spend more time with my children. After being at home a few months, I began collecting the books I had enjoyed reading over the last 25 years or so. I began buying so many books that I had to start selling some of them to pay for new books I wanted, and this led to bookselling!
Q: What first brought the idea into your head that you, personally, could be capable of being a publisher of books? Did you have a background in any type of publishing?
A: Well I naively thought I knew about books, since I sold them. I learned quickly that I knew nothing about making books, but with the help of the net and trial and error, I’ve learned a good deal over the last year and a half. There will always be more to learn in this job!
Q: How did you get started on deciding to be a publisher did you approach it as any start-up business, with a business plan, budget, and financing?
A: When I saw the price of my favorite childhood book, “Mr. Pine’s Purple House” by Leonard Kessler, hit the price of $300 on ABE, that was when I decided to do something to save all these great old stories from extinction. Because if a little children’s book costs $300 only few people will be able to afford it, they won’t let their children hold the book or sleep with it, so I knew these stories would die out with the generations that grew up with them when they were more accessible. It is very important for children to be able to handle their books, sleep with them, color in them, get them sticky with peanut butter! I did do a business plan and had a rough budget, using money from my bookselling savings and a family loan.
Q: What steps were involved, as far as finding an experienced book printer to work with a start-up publisher? Were there minimum print runs required?
A: Most printers are more than happy to help new publishers. They can be found easily on the internet. There are a few publisher’s organizations out there to help independent publishers too, PMA, SPAN and I find the pub-forum email list (similar to Biblio but for publishers) to be the biggest help. With print on demand (POD) there are no minimum print runs, but I prefer the traditional method of printing and binding so that I can choose all the elements that go into our books. All of our hardcover chapter books are Smyth sewn – not just glued to the binding, they are covered in cloth and not paper over boards, and I choose thick natural color paper. I usually print between 3000-5000 books per run, pretty small in the publishing world! We try to offer signed limited editions of 200-250 books for the collector, when the author is willing.
Q: How did you first contact authors, and did you find the authors receptive to the idea from the first?
A: I sent letters to their previous publishers, I contacted author’s guilds, I located some through genealogy web sites, I had my lawyer find one author and I also used switchboard.com! Most authors like the idea of their books becoming available to a whole new generation, but when I was starting out it was tough. I had nothing to show the authors except my desire to revive their stories. A few turned me down in the beginning, later one author said he talked it over with his character and she decided she belonged to another place and time. This one really threw me, because I wanted to bring the character back so much, that when he said no it was like a death in the family. I grieved for her.
Q: Are all your authors living and are all of the books you’ve produced or plan on producing still under copyright Protection (if not, are there any procedures that have to be followed on works on which the copyright has expired)?
A: No all of our authors are not living, unfortunately. I would love to have talked with all of them, because working with these wonderful people has been a great benefit that I never expected. They know so much, have such great stories to tell about their books, and about publishing decades ago. I know how the ideas for some of these stories came about, I know Leonard Kessler had to make 26 complete dummies of his first book before it was accepted! Even if an author’s work is under copyright protection and I have an agreement with them, I am not allowed to print their books until the publishing rights have been returned from the original publisher. Even if the book has been out of print for 50 years, in most cases the original publisher still has the rights to them! When authors request the rights to revert back to them, it can be a long process – one book took seven months.
Q: You’ve been remarkably good at getting advertising for your publishing business. Would you care to give us any tips on how to do this (all of us could stand to advertise our own businesses, I’m sure)?
A: The one ad I took out was a total flop. Susan Halas taught me how publicity works and has been a lot of help in attracting publicity for Purple House Press (of course I’ve learned how to do this too, but don’t always have the time!).
Anyone can sit down and write an email telling a magazine, web site, news station, or newspaper an idea they have for a story. And if your story idea is unusual, you are likely to get a call back. Of course the story idea is about you or your business; most important it mentions how what you do is of interest to their audience.
Find the person to send the email to on a web site’s “Contact Us” page. Send it to anyone who might be interested in what you’re doing. Keep your email brief and snappy. I don’t just write to the book review section in newspapers, but the lifestyles, family and science/technical sections as well. The coverage they provide will be better than just a book review, and they are more likely to be interested in bookstores. Is your store different? What services do you offer to the community? Do you have a store mascot? Start with your community paper and build up from there. Once you have something in print, send it to the other places you are contacting. And don’t give up!
Q: Do you plan to get into publishing other types of books?
A: I plan on sticking with only children’s books. I enjoy them the most and there are so many good books out there waiting to be saved! I honestly believe that there will always be a market for these stories which are from a simpler time, without the gimmicks associated with them – no tv show, no line of clothes, no toys – just a great read.
Q: Do you have any plans on publishing original, new books, rather than only doing reprints of previously published books?
A: Well Leonard Kessler is writing a new adventure for Mr. Pine so we’ll see what happens with this story! I would love to print an all new Mr. Pine book for the world to read. I don’t have any plans right now for doing any other new books, although people frequently ask how they can submit their manuscript! I’ll never say never, but for now we are concentrating on older titles.
Q: Along the same lines as the question above, are new, unpublished children’s book authors contacting you now about their books (you could end up being the Helen Gurley Brown of children’s book publishing!), rather than you having to seek them out?
A: Well I guess I touched on this in the previous question, yes I am asked frequently about how to submit manuscripts, I’ve had agents contact me and authors themselves, but I have to be pretty choosy now on what we reprint. I plan on reissuing 6-8 books per year.
Q: It was quite exciting about one of your books being featured on Amazon. Can you tell us a bit about how that came be?
A: The book is Mr. Pine’s Purple House, it was my favorite as a child. I enrolled it in the Amazon Advantage program for publishers in September 2000. It was doing fine there, then in June I got a call from Amazon saying they would be placing a large special order for the title! They reviewed it in an Amazon.com Delivers email sent to 500,000 customers, mentioning it was Jeff Bezos’ favorite as a kid! Just this one little sentence zoomed Mr. Pine all the way up to #15 on their bestseller list, it stayed in the top 100 for several days, and now six weeks later it is still at about #600. This little book, in which Mr. Pine makes his house stand out from 50 identical house by painting it purple, teaches children about nonconformity. As Amazon says, “it is for readers who will one day grow up and dare to be different”! It is wonderful to know that Mr. Pine may have influenced Jeff Bezos as a child and started him on the road to build Amazon!
“Dare to be different” is now our motto at Purple House Press!
Q: Well, do you plan to remain a bookseller, or is the publishing end of your business going to take over (and which gives you the most satisfaction)?
A: As an out of print bookseller I loved reuniting people with treasured memories from their childhood, now I do that on a larger scale! I always plan to sell books, but I am concentrating on our new books now. This is a time consuming job! I do the book design, handle the printing, distribution, packing, publicity, etc.
The part I enjoy most, aside from working with our authors and talking with people who’ve been searching for one of books for years, is the book design. I love, love, love taking a tattered dj and restoring it using Photoshop. Sometimes I have to spend several weeks on each one, but it is worthwhile when I see the finished product. I also enjoy adding a picture of the author to the jacket, and having the author write a new foreword to the book. I feel like its my contribution to the history of the book.
Q: Any comments, tips, hints, advice, “I told you so’s, or just words of wisdom for us about where you see the children’s market heading?
A: When I first started last year, one printer stupidly kept telling me over and over, “I don’t see how you’ll make any money.” Another company did some prepress work on a dust jacket for me and so totally screwed it up that I had to hire another company to fix it. It was so expensive, that I went out, bought a Mac, Photoshop, and Quark (a typesetting program) and taught myself book design. It was a large investment but paid for itself after just one book, I also believe I spend more time on the books getting them “just right”. So that is my big “I told you so!”.
I don’t think ebooks will take off in the childrens’ market although a lot of people are gearing up for it. I think children have to touch and hold their books, and turn real pages. Print on demand may be the way of the future, but they have to offer options, like color, glossy paper and lower prices!
My advice is that if you believe in something, believe what you can offer is different or better than what is out there, then give it a try and don’t give up!
Interview by Shirley Bryant