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'Not for the Average Reader'

May 10, 2007 By:
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This has come to be the season of the small press, at least as far as this column is concerned. Several months ago, I initiated a series of articles about Dryad Press, which is run out of Maryland by poet Merrill Leffler pretty much all by himself.

Then, when I was in the midst of reading, writing about and glorying in those titles, I was contacted by the public relations organization that represents Turtle Point Press, another small operation run out of a tiny office in New York City pretty much singlehandedly by Jonathan D. Rabinowitz. He identifies himself on his business card as publisher, but he manages to do just about everything else when it comes to his extraordinary line of books.

Rabinowitz, who is in his early 60s, but who sounds on the phone like a man in his 30s, with all the spirit and energy that that implies, fell into publishing -- head first, you might say. He began his working life at his family's chemical company in his home state of New Jersey not long after his graduation from Columbia University, where he'd majored in art history. He and one of his brothers had each inherited a portion of the business in 1966 after their mother's death. (The business had been founded by his father and an uncle).

In time, Rabinowitz started the international sales division of this dye-stuffs company and traveled all over the world. The organization grew considerably, and was eventually sold in the mid-1980s (and has since been sold a few times over; in addition, his brother Josh and his father have started another business together, even though the elder Rabinowitz is now in his late 80s).

Jonathan stayed on with the new company for five years, but then realized he didn't want his contract renewed, and yet had no idea how to proceed. Publishing was something he knew nothing about, and when he stumbled into it, he went about the whole operation, by his own admission, in a totally haphazard manner (though he appears to have loved every minute of it). He knew a painter named Susan Barnes, who'd written three stories that when put together added up to a novella. He brought it out in a tiny edition. As he said, he and Barnes, together, "made their own book," titled Earthquake.

"But not a single one was sold, not even to her mother," Rabinowitz said in a recent interview. It was sent out to critics, but no one bit. "And I understand why now. It's not really a normal book -- it's neither fish nor foul."

Still, the work had its fans. "The editor of the Alaska Quarterly Review loved it so much he published the whole thing in an issue of the magazine," said Rabinowitz. "And this coming fall season, I'm bringing out a trade edition since it never really got a chance" to find readers, added the editor.

In this unsystematic way, the Turtle Point Press was initiated -- and the acquisition of books, most of which have to do with literature or art, two of Rabinowitz's consuming passions, has continued in the same manner.

Soon after the publication of the Barnes book, Rabinowitz, who was then living in Manhattan with his wife, stumbled across an unknown item titled Toys of Princes by Ghislain de Diesbach in a used bookstore he liked to frequent. He had been on his way to meet his wife and her boss for dinner (Rabinowitz's wife is a trust estates attorney), so he hopped on the Fifth Avenue bus with more than his customary curiosity about his newest acquisition.

"I started reading these stories and I was over the moon," he said. "I told the group at dinner about the book and my wife's boss suggested I republish them, especially since they'd been translated by the poet Richard Howard and she just happened to know Howard and had his phone number."

After some prompting, Rabinowitz called the poet, and another publishing project was born.

The Backlist Increases

And this is how it has continued for more than a decade.

At a party one night, Rabinowitz met Lynn Chase, Chevy Chase's stepmother, who said she knew about a novel that had been "rejected by everybody." The reason? It involved an inner-species love affair. With a sheep. Rabinowitz was more than intrigued. And when he learned that the author was Brian O'Doherty, his favorite teacher at Columbia, he jumped at the chance. And so he published The Deposition of Father McGreevy. "I wanted to do this as a major book, and it became a wonderful success."

Another great joy of Rabinowitz's publishing project thus far has been issuing the work of Bruce Kellner, emeritus professor at Millersville University. The editor called Kellner's Kiss Me Again an "underknown book," a series of essays in the center of which rests a play based on the words of Alice B. Toklas. It is a fixture of the Turtle Point backlist.

It was Kellner, as these things seem to evolve for Rabinowitz, who told him about Lord Berners, another great find whose works were misplaced for far too many years but have now been returned to print by Turtle Point.

"Another of my discoveries that I'm very proud of is Lord of Dark Places by Hal Bennett," said the publisher. "It's the only black novel on my list and deserves to be resurrected. Playboy said of Bennett that he was the most promising literary figure of 1966-67. The book had been originally published by Norton, but they destroyed much of the press run. It turned out it was just too hot to handle. But now I've got it."

Turtle Point Press books are generally released as paperbacks, and are kept on the company's backlist or as on-demand titles. Rabinowitz explained that all of his contracts specify eventual on-demand publication after the initial run and whatever subsequent printings might occur.

"I've done some hardbacks," he said, "but only when I know I can sell the paperback rights. The problem is that selling hardcover rights overseas is impossible these days. You can't sell to the U.K. anymore. They're just not buying them. There are very few good bookstores left there."

How he does it all in this age when the bottom line rules in mainstream publishing seems to be through an act of sheer will. Not that Rabinowitz doesn't feel the financial pressure; in fact, he said he probably feels it more than other small presses.

"I am not a 501(c)(3) business. I get no grants. And I suffer like everybody else from the whole notion of returns. I was recently telling the poet David Trinidad, one of my writers, that I was thinking of renaming Turtle Point the 'Boomerang Press.'

"I've decided to take the first part of 2008 off," he continued. "I plan on returning to the business in fall 2008 on a non-return basis. That will probably appeal to the authors far less. And the discounts to bookstores will definitely be less. But I just don't think it's fair for publishers to be asked to be in the consignment business. I refuse to do it any longer."

During his time off, Rabinowitz said he plans to work on his own art, which his business has taken him from, and think about "the sorts of books I'd like to do next, books that would lend themselves to a non-consignment business, a no-return business."

"I'd like to do more art books," he added. "I have a visual aesthetic, which is why my books look the way they do. I'd like to combine my interest in art and literature in a very different way and possibly do some books that are art objects in and of themselves."

His impatience with how publishing is structured stems from his sense that "there should be no bottom line" in the book business.

"One has to think [as a publisher] of succès d'estimes, contributing to the greater good, sharing the joy and exercising one's taste. Of course, everything I've done comes from love" -- his affection for his writers and their work and the joy of putting things out into the world.

And he admitted that there have been all sorts of rewards that come along with this type of work. A number of his titles, with a minimum of fanfare, have sold well: The Driveway Diaries, a nonfiction book about life in Vermont, went into three printings; The Diary of a Forty-Niner, supposedly a "lost memoir" of a gold miner, was widely reviewed and did very well, in its publisher's estimation. Last season's "pet project"

Martian Dawn by Michael Friedman, a debut novel, caught on on the Internet.

And many of Turtle Point titles have either won awards or been nominated for them:

· O'Doherty's Deposition of Father McGreevy was shortlisted for the Booker Prize;

· Trappings by poet and translator Richard Howard won a Lambda Award and Plasticville by David Trinidad was a nominee for a Lambda, as well as being a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets;

· Love As War by George Stade was a finalist for the Grub Street Award;

· Tales Out of School by Benjamin Taylor won the Harold Ribelow Award for the best Jewish novel of the year;

· Reading and Writing by Julien Gracq was a finalist for this year's French American Foundation Translation Award;

· I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone by Anna Moschovakis was a finalist for the Norma Farber First Poetry Award issued by the Poetry Society of America; and

· Touch Wood by Joe Ashby Porter was chosen the WKET book of the month by Kentucky Public TV and radio.

And this fall, Rabinowitz is set to publish probably his most ambitious novel, James McCourt's Now Voyagers. At 1,000-plus pages in manuscript, it's a book that more mainstream publishers had looked askance at. But not Rabinowitz. He's taken on the challenge and seems emboldened by it. He can't seem to wait until the publication date.

As Rabinowitz himself is the first to admit, Turtle Point Press books are not for the average reader. But those with a love of literature should definitely track down this ambitious press and its many titles.

Of the dozen or so volumes Rabinowitz sent me to provide some sense of his taste as a publisher, there were beautiful diversions like the little fable The Green Parrot by Princess Marthe Bibesco (a close friend of Proust) and unknown, unexpected delights like Jules LaForgue's Berlin: The City and the Court and Chapters from Childhood by Juliet Soskice, the forgotten sister of Ford Madox Ford, along with serious critical studies like the little-known French writer Gracq's Reading Writing.

But for my money the best of the lot were the three autobiographies by Lord Berners and the diary of poet Charles Henri Ford.

Berners was without question one of the great British eccentrics of all time. His real name was Gerald Tyrwhitt, and he lived from 1883 to 1950. Aside from being a writer, he dabbled in composition and was a diplomat of distinction. At his great house, Farringdon in Oxfordshire, he kept whippets that wore diamond collars and his doves were dyed in various pastel shades, using vegetable dyes.

He also trained a parrot to walk across the floor of Farringdon House underneath a bowler hat, so it looked as if the hat were moving of its own accord.

Witty and Supple Prose

Lord Berners also happened to be in possession of one of the wittiest and most supple prose styles in the British isles, if not well beyond. He produced stories and fables which are written in the smoothest, least forced manner (Turtle Point has also published a volume of them) but I prefer the memoirs: First Childhood, A Distant Prospect and the brief, uproarious addendum to them called The Château de Résenlieu, about the author's stay in France as a young man.

A passage from the latter will have to suffice as an example of these splendid works:

"The luncheon hour had been delayed for our benefit -- usually the midday meal was at half past 12. Two more members of the household appeared in the dining room. One was an anaemic looking youth with a black beard whom Madame O'Kerrins introduced as her nephew and addressed as Gerard. He was only a few years older than myself but the black beard created a formidable impression of seniority. The other was a diminutive woman with a tight little face, a swarthy complexion and rather beady eyes. Her dark hair was scraped up into a knot on the top of her head. She was very plainly dressed in a tailor-made costume but a profusion of oriental jewelry, bangles, necklaces, brooches added an exotic touch to an otherwise prim exterior. She looked like a secretary who told fortunes as a sideline. She was a distant relation of Madame O'Kerrins and helped in the administration of the household. Her name was Mademoiselle Laurens but she was always known as 'Baghdad.' Her father had been Consul in Baghdad and she was born there. Even the servants referred to her as Mademoiselle Baghdad."

As for the poet Charles Henri Ford's diary, titled Water From a Bucket, it covers the years 1948 to 1957, and is a classic of the genre, filled with scads of literary gossip, all of it delivered in a wildly funny deadpan style.

Add to these The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O'Hara, an exquisite little gem extracted from the larger anthology of poet Schuyler's letters that Turtle Point puts out, and you have a fine sampling from one of the most adventurous and satisfying publishing efforts in this country.

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