For Publisher Of Literature, Printed Word Is His Reward
Monday, January 26, 2009
For Roger Lathbury, a George Mason University professor, owning his own publishing house -- which he operates out of his actual house in Old Town Alexandria -- has yielded two major highs: He once published a book of satirical poems about the Barbie doll, called "Kinky," which sold a more than respectable 7,000 copies.
(The title of the book's third poem surely would entice Washingtonians: "Barbie, Her Identity as an Extraterrestrial Finally Suspected, Bravely Battles the Interrogation of the Pentagon Task Force Who's Captured Her.")
And, in a burst of international news in the late 1990s, Lathbury mysteriously acquired and then mysteriously lost the rights to be the first to publish, in hardback, J.D. Salinger's last piece of fiction, "Hapworth 16, 1924."
Even as the publishing industry's titans in Manhattan reel from layoffs and discouraging retail sales, Lathbury's 25-year-old firm, Orchises Press, based in his home's atticlike fourth floor, keeps ambling along, producing about three books a year, always on Jan. 27 in honor of his beloved aunt's birthday. This week, Orchises -- which Lathbury named after an orchid in a Robert Frost poem -- will publish two poetry books, including one about terrorism and torture by George Witte, the editor in chief of St. Martin's Press.
Lathbury's life as a part-time publisher, whose glamorous duties include making regular stops at the UPS customer service center to ship books, is a window into the literary industry's minor leagues, their financial constraints and against-all-logic persistence.
And Lathbury's doggedness also shows how someone can move on after a missed chance at fame and eternal literary dividends, after he lost the rights five years ago to publish the Salinger novella, which has appeared only in the New Yorker. It is the one subject Lathbury refuses to discuss.
"I don't know how much that would have changed my life -- I got more manuscripts for certain after that. . . . People were calling from South Africa," he said. "I really am focused on what I have published and what I am going to publish."
What compels a man, 63, to run a side business in publishing books mainly of poems, as well as reprints of classics, in the year 2009? Not money. Orchises, which has published 115 titles, nets about $12,000 annually, so he and his wife, Begoña, who home-schools their 14-year-old daughter, largely live off his GMU and Orchises incomes. And, he said, recent copyright laws have made it impossible to reprint many popular classics -- a strategy that accounts for much of his revenue -- because relatively recent works by Ernest Hemingway, for example, are not yet in the public domain and therefore too pricey or unavailable to publish.
Instead, Lathbury, an English professor, pushes onward by relying on his childhood interest in typography and his love for teaching American fiction and British poetry. As a child growing up in New Jersey, Lathbury was fascinated with hot type; he even started a rubber-stamp business at 14. (His original name was Roger Lewis, but when he and Begoña married, they selected "Lathbury" as their last name from a character in a Barbara Pym novel.)
In the 1960s, as a high school student, he read D.H. Lawrence's controversial "Lady Chatterley's Lover" out of defiance and unwittingly fell in love with books. "I thought Lawrence had the answer on how to live and what was wrong with the world," Lathbury said. He went to Middlebury College, got a master's degree in English from Indiana University and by the 1970s had a job at GMU.
When his father, Thomas Lewis, died in 1982, he inherited several thousand dollars and figured he could capitalize on advances in photo composition and typesetting and publish books by his GMU colleagues and friends. He launched Orchises and scored his first success by publishing a hard-to-find W.H. Auden poem.
"It is," Lathbury said recently while editing a manuscript, "a primordial fascination." He continued: "It seems a miracle that something could be created, like a book. It answers the feminine part of me, as if I'm about to give birth."