While many businesses apportion donations to the arts as a specific fraction of profits, book publishers contribute their share right off the line, printing small runs of arcane poetry that barely sell even to the author's relatives. Operating budgets end up paying the piper. Notes Jeffrey Weiss, a words worker in the chic Chelsea district of New York City, "There's not a bottom-line orientation in the industry."
That is an observation with portfolio. Tracing an openly commercial path across the foothills of literature, the company that Jeff and his brother Daniel co-founded in 1980 has been showing the fast route to profitability in publishing -- obscure writers be damned. Their Cloverdale Press Inc. has held the top 10 positions on weekly Waldenbooks juvenile best-seller lists for most of two years, and often has as many best-selling adult paperbacks as companies a hundred times its size.
A glance at the titles involved, however, suggests that no Cloverdale-generated opus ought realistically to aspire to be another Great Gatsby. Good Gatsby, barely: The company caters to what the trade irreverently terms the mass market. Not a full-service publisher in the traditional sense, Cloverdale is deep into book packaging -- a relatively recent and acutely dollar-conscious branch of the business, of which there are perhaps 50 practitioners in the country. The intent of such packagers is to conceive of inexpensively printable ideas that will be sopped up by the millions -- swashbuckling potboilers, fad-oriented how-to instructions, fact-stretching biographies, and the like. The prospectively hot bundle is then offered to major publishing houses on a royalty basis. Once a concept gets snapped up, the packager arranges to have it written and prepares the type and art for the printer. With little risk (a packaged title can break even at 10,000 copies sold), the old-line house simply stamps its imprint on the spine and distributes the items -- not to bookstores so much as to airports and supermarkets, where cultural standards are less rigorous.
Named after a boyhood telephone exchange in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cloverdale got started after the fiscally green Weiss brothers abandoned lofty positions with conventional publishers to leap blindly into packaging. Luckily, it was a soft landing: One of the Weisses' first projects, a slick spoof of an L. L. Bean catalog, became a smash hit, selling more than 1.5 million copies. Now Cloverdale is a three-story, 30-employee operation that claims to be party to around 75% of the book-packaging deals being struck today. And lots are: This year, around 200 titles will be produced by Cloverdale, a breakneck pace of four books a week. It is not unreasonable to assume that come December 31, the close-holding Weiss boys, at ages 37 and 42, could be looking at $5 million in revenues.
Both to help direct that flow and to generate considerably more of it, this year Jeff authored Beat the Market, which offers $25,000 to the reader whose stock selections perform best. But dangling prizes as lures is no more novel than an IBM clone, admits Weiss, who borrowed the scheme from Masquerade, the English treasure-hunt book. Similarly, Cloverdale's fitness series, 30 Days to a Flatter Stomach (or thinner buttocks, upper arms, and so on), is also on uncallable loan from a competitor. "We don't have to be geniuses," Weiss modestly shrugs. "We merely look at the best-seller list."
Even so, Cloverdale's richest pay dirt, as it were, has been struck through its keen market instincts. The Weisses have created a horde of teenage buyers for their Sweet Valley High series of novelettes. More than 6 million copies in 12 languages already have been sold. A hard act to follow? Not for Cloverdale. It has been enlisting authors for a subteen line of Sweet Valley Junior High. Crows an unabashed Jeff Weiss, "If we could sell drapes between covers, we'd do drapes."