Dover Publications does everything backwards. It publishes the wrong kind of quality. It has the wrong kind of management, even the wrong street address. Or so conventional publishing wisdom would have one believe.
In these woeful days of conglomerate take-over, who ever heard of a multimillion dollar business that is essentially a mom-and-pop operation. Of working out of offices in lower Manhattan's warehouse district, as far as possible from chic watering holes and cheek-by-jowl with companies like Consolidated Loose Leaf, the Acme Heel Corp. and the Iron Cross Rehearsal and Recording Studio. Of using superior quality paper, binding and covers for paperback books and still keeping prices low. And most especially of putting out books of a diversity that would cause other publishers to gnash their teeth in despair.
"String Figures and How to Make Them." "Grammer of Colloquil Tibetan." "An Introduction to Symbolic Logic." "You Can Grow Camellias."
"The Complete String Quartets of Mozart." "Civil War Uniforms Coloring Book." "Einstein's Principle in Early Photograps." "Victorian Cemetery Art." "Boomerangs: How to Make and Throw Them." "Designs on Prehistoric Hopi Pottery." "Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets." "The Care and Breeding of Goldfish." "The Story of the Titantic As Told By Its Survivors." Etc.
"Mr. Cirker," says one of his employes, "has an extremely wide range of interest." "I'm no Renaissance man," he replies. "I'm just curious, is all."
In 1942 Hayward Cirker and his wife Blanche started a reprint company they named after the apartment house they lived in. The very first book published was suggested by a scientist friend who told him "there was a large group of American mathematical pysicists who needed books that were out of print or costing $15 to $20, which then was like $50." So Cirker took a chance and published the non-scintillating "Tables of Functions," which, 50,000 copies later, is still on the Dover list.
Lots of books are still on the Dover list, something like 2,300, with 160 to 180 more added every year, a very tidy sum when measured against an editiorial staff that is below a dozen, the Cirkers included.
"We hate to see things go out of print," says vice president and general manager Clarence Strobridge, shaking his head at recent losses like "Bird Display and Behavior" and "The World's Chess Championship of 1937." "They really have got to be wanted by the world at large."
What Dover thinks the world wants include in eclectic, slightly off-beat and highly scholarly collection of topics, all of which delight their intended, albeit specialized, audiences.
Art directors, for instance, devour Dover's Pictorial Archives, the world's single largest source of copyright-free art. Chess lovers bask in 65 separate titles, fans of classic fantasy and detective novels get all the Wilkie Collins, Freeman Crofts and Sheridan LeFanu they can handle, and amateur musicians receive full-size scores reprinted with wide margins for dozens of classical works, from Bach to Wagner. And that is only the merest beginning. "We publish for the curious and interested adult, for people more or less like us," says the quiet, genteel Strowbridge. "We seem to hit everybody in their weak spots."
Though many people think of the Dover as strickly a reprint house, saving money by reproducing properties languishing in the public domain, this is not completely the case. Close to half of Dover's books, titles like "Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension" by Rudolf v. B. Rucker, are original works, many of the reprints are new compilations of disparate material, and they don't come cheap.
"We spend substantial sums of money on rights," Cirker says, "hundreds of thousands of dollars a year."
One of the marks of Dover's quirkiness is that what it doesn't publish is as interesting as what it does: no current fiction, biography or autobiography, hardly anything on politics or current events, in short nothing that even remotely smacks of bestsellerdom. "Strange but true, we avoid obvious commercial viability," says Cirker. "We are sort of working the back-waters of publishing."
Instead of lusting after trendiness, Cirker stresses his 60-plus Nobel Prize winners, old favorites like E. A. Abbott's "Flatland," a quarter-million copy seller over the decades Dover's published it, as well as classics like Agricola's "De Re Matallica," a 16th century Latin treatise translated in 1912 by Herbert Hoover, who advised Cirker "you'll lose money" on the reprint. (He didn't.)
With a list like this, press runs in the low thousands are common with Dover, for Cirker prides himself on "not differentiating between markets: a small one is as important as a large one if the book is important. We never say 'Let's get rid of the damn thing, we have a novelty book that'll sell 50,000 copies.' We see publishing as a long, long continuity."
More than that, Dover makes sure its books will be around physically to enjoy that continuity. The paper used is opaque and designed to resist discoloration or brittleness. Pages are sewn in signatures, a method even hardback publishers are abandoning. The covers are laminated right at Dover's Varick Street officies and can be cleaned with a lamp cloth.
"Quality is sort of a philosophical position, a point of view, because the difference between a well-produced and a poorly produced book doesn't represent that much of a difference in price," Cirker says. "And I don't care what the subject of the book is, we try and do as good a job as we can. We make our books on paper dolls the best darn paper-doll books ever done; we give them as much care as Einstein's books because to people wholike paper dolls this is important. We don't just knock them out."
Though it might not be obvious to the non-industry eye, Dover does have its own methods of cutting corners. "We're very careful not to over-produce, overpackage a book; we want to make the best use of space," says Clarence Strowbridge. "You can add an awful lot to the cost by using techniques we feel are not worthwhile. Exotic and expensive things like printing illustration with a 300-line screen, where we feel the results don't justify the added expense. We don't want to lavish money on a thing."
Lavish or not, Dover books tend to win friends and influence people, ranging from more conventional publishers, who according to Strowbridge are "intrigued we can do the things we do, things that are not economically feasible for them" to readers who sometimes make pilgrimages just to view the Dover offices.
When Dover books draw complaints, as sometimes happens, the problem according to Strowbridge is a feeling that "the book is badly out of date, that with so many new developments in the field it's worthless, a disservice to reprint it." Yet even these complaints are looked upon kindly, as signs of a public that feels a rare personal attachments to Dover and what it does. "We're not swamped or stoned in the streets," says editor Stanley Applebaum. "But we do have a very lively readership."