By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
A day spent with Lathbury last week offered a peek into all the tasks behind the small-time enterprise. The morning began with two missions: a walk through Old Town to a nearby copy center to ship seven copies of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" to a library distributor, and a drive to a UPS center to mail 10 copies of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" to the bookstore at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
Because Orchises makes most of its revenue by publishing unusual reprints of classic literature in the public domain -- such as a facsimile of the original edition of James Joyce's "Ulysses" -- these morning trips are critical. As Lathbury loaded two Giant grocery bags with the shipments in his home's entrance hallway, he discussed the importance of being in a niche market and why his version of Wilde's book is special.
"I published one that no one else had -- a facsimile of the first edition, which I bought for $250," Lathbury, dressed in worn corduroys and a fleece shirt, said. "Leonard Smithers was the only one who would publish Wilde. I love rogue publishers."
With that, he padded out of his home, across from the Torpedo Factory Art Center.
He walked 10 minutes to Kinko's to ship the Wilde books and drove to the UPS center to mail the Shelley books. It was, he said, "an emergency shipment": The University of Alabama apparently wanted "Frankenstein" right away, but Lathbury was worried that if he used his Discover card for express delivery, he wouldn't be reimbursed completely. "If it's $12 versus $8, I'll go for the 12. If it's $30 versus eight, I'll go for the eight," he said. "We're not AIG."
When he arrived at UPS, he found Phyllis Campbell, a longtime clerk at the Alexandria location. The two go back 16 years, a relationship, he told her, that's "lost in the mists of time." Lathbury handed over several silver dollars; she's a collector and she usually pays him back for his ritual. This time, she didn't have the money, so she wanted his address. He handed over his Orchises card, which bore only a post office box number.
She asked for his street address. "I don't want people knocking on my door, asking, 'Will you publish my book?' " he said.
Campbell then sorted out Lathbury's shipping debate. It would be $20.91 to express-ship "Frankenstein" for guaranteed arrival by Monday. It would cost $9.86 for a not-guaranteed Monday arrival.
"Hell with it," Lathbury said. He plunked down his Discover card and paid for the cheaper deal.
Lathbury's true passion is editing and design. George Witte, the St. Martin's editor whose Orchises poetry book "Deniability" comes out this week, described Lathbury as hands-on and quick. "Without Roger and other publishers like him," Witte said, "there would be so many books that go unpublished strictly for economic reasons."
Witte, who in March will read at GMU's Fairfax campus and the Writer's Center in Bethesda, went with Orchises primarily because it's hard to get poetry published by bigger presses. (St. Martin's, he said, does not publish poetry.) "There aren't many slots at the big publishers," he said. "I didn't want to ask them -- it didn't feel right."
When Lathbury returned home, he set to work on a manuscript of poems that, in a rare exception to his schedule, Orchises will publish in September. He pulled out the manuscript, "Subway Figure" by Bruce Bennett, and looked at the poem called "Seeming." It began:
What you see is what you get
seems a simple statement; yet
somehow nothing seems to be
quite the thing you seem to be.
"I like that Bruce! More of that! More of that!" Lathbury said.
Then Lathbury saw a note from Bennett, requesting a slight change. He wanted the first line italicized. "I don't think he has to do that, but . . . " Lathbury said, shrugging, and pausing for a moment, "he's the author."