Q&A: Applewood Books

Presidents and First Ladies of the United StatesFor devoted readers, few things in life are as exciting as the prospect of a new book. Often, however, our bluestocking fancy is tickled by books that already have been out in the world a spell and yet are new to us. Case in point: the classic volumes brought to Bas Bleu’s shelves by the folks over at Applewood Books. From vintage childhood favorites (Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and The Haunted Attic starring Judy Bolton) to historic treasures (The Presidents of the United States), each Applewood title offers a vital glimpse into “America’s living past.”

This week, we’re chatting with Applewood founder and president, Phil Zuckerman, to learn more about the wisdom of the past, the importance of listening to your fans, and the benefits of a snowstorm for an inveterate book lover.

Bas Bleu: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of Applewood Books and its mission “to build a picture of America through its primary sources.”

Phil Zuckerman: Applewood Books began in 1976. Two years earlier, I had graduated from college in Colorado with a degree in Literature and Classics and headed to Boston with all of my worldly possessions, which included a printing press. After a few years of working in printing and publications around Boston, I had decided to start a publishing company. One day, while snowed in with my printing press and lots of time to dream, I grabbed a printing block and carved an image depicting a wooden apple: Apple (the fruit of knowledge and my mother’s maiden name) and wood (a material for building). That weekend I named the company “Apple-wood Press.”

I hand-printed and hand-bound Apple-wood Press’s first book, a 100-copy limited edition of four courtly love poems from the thirteenth century dedicated to my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Disty, who was traveling in China for the year. On July 4, 1976, America’s 200th anniversary, I finished binding those first books. It took seven years of experimenting with different content and formats and partnering with Ned Perkins, a college friend, before Applewood Books settled on its mission and my life’s passion: telling stories about the lives of Americans who came before us.

Having published a book about writer’s homes, we realized the power of telling the stories of historic places. So we began simply reissuing, without changing a word, a few timeless and overlooked copyright-free primary sources: The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child and The Way to Wealth by Benjamin Franklin. These books are still two of our bestselling works. Each year we expand the geography, chronology, and subjects of the books we publish and distribute, “building a picture of America.” The printing press I brought from Denver still sits in the entry of our offices in Carlisle, Massachusetts—a reminder of the importance of building knowledge (apple-wood) with your own hands and making publishing a personal endeavor.

Babys OperaBB: You recently partnered with the American Antiquarian Society to rerelease a selection of children’s books from their collection. What do these books, some of which date back to the nineteenth century, offer readers that contemporary titles perhaps do not?

PZ: Understanding what life was like in the past helps to inform our present and our future. A contemporary book connects with a modern reader, but does not raise the fundamental question that we are asked in reading books from the past: Are we that different from those who came before us? The American Antiquarian Society collection gives us a window on what life was like in previous centuries for young people, their parents, and their teachers. Through these books that aimed to inculcate good values to children, we see what values were important to Americans in days gone by. The 21st-century child needs to better understand and appreciate differences to make our smaller world a better place. What better place than in the pages of children’s books from another time for a young child to discover how our differences in the end make us the same?

BB: What other organizations have you partnered with? 

PZ: Partnering is a big part of our mission, because it gives us access to and helps us publish many more books from America’s living past. We have so many mission-based customers— museums, national parks, libraries, bookstores, corporations, and, yes, catalogers. Each of these has a story to tell, and many of these stories are based in their history and involve a book.

Harper's Weekly Civil War SamplerMost of our most important books come from partnering with history-based organizations, such as those we’ve partnered with over the last year: the Preservation Society of Newport County, New-York Historical Society, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, House of the Seven Gables, Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Octavia Books, Orchard House, University of Florida, and Winterthur Museum and Library.

But many of our partners have been corporations: Disney, Pillsbury, Franklin Templeton, LL Bean, HP, Apple, and Montgomery Ward. These companies each have had a unique reason to join with us in our efforts, but each has contributed to creating a richer mix of content for all to enjoy.

BB: Is it common for Applewood to receive requests from consumers to reissue specific books, perhaps long-ago childhood favorites that are out of print?

PZ: Yes. We receive many requests from consumers, and we are always looking for more. We are in the process of developing our brand using social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Our Facebook page (http://facebook.com/ApplewoodBooks) provides a daily story that connects with one of our books. Where possible, we are linking to our partners’ retail sites for sales. These new and evolving ways of connecting with individual consumers are not necessarily intended to sell products but rather to build our brand and let our audience tell us what we should be publishing.

Our sales are mostly to companies who sell to others, so we often don’t hear about the books that people remember fondly from their past and would want to own. Finding ways to uncover more long-ago favorites for children and adults is an ongoing part of our publishing program. So suggest away. We’re listening!

Under the LilacsBB: In your opinion, what makes a story so timeless that it can be enjoyed by multiple generations?

PZ: A timeless story is a great story told by a great storyteller. It must be filled with a character or characters that come alive. The story must raise our hopes, increase our fears, make us laugh, make us cry, cheat death, bring new life, teach us, touch us, give us a reason to cheer for the good guy and root against the bad. It must take place in our imagination. It must be carried with us long after it is read. It must imbed itself in heart, mind, and memory. It must be broadcast to others or it will fade. There are so many stories that are timeless that have been forgotten.

BB: How long have you been working with Bas Bleu?

PZ: We have been working with Bas Bleu since 1998. Five years ago, Jill Christiansen joined Applewood Books as Sales Manager. Her passion for Bas Bleu and Applewood has yielded a wonderful working relationship.

BB: Which of your titles have proven the most popular?

PZ: Our children’s books are definitely our most popular. In unit sales, we sold eleven million copies of a Walt Disney Bambi pamphlet. The original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, celebrating its 75th birthday in 2014, has sold about 3 million copies since 1990. We sold hundreds of thousands of the facsimile reprints of the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books we published between 1998 and 2010.

Our edition of George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, rules that George Washington wrote down when he was young, has sold over a million copies. It is part of a series of little leatherette books of American wisdom that all sell very well for us. The books in this series are used by many companies as a corporate gift.

Also very popular are the contemporary regional children’s books published through our Commonwealth Editions imprint: books by Ed Shankman and Dave O’Neill (I Met a Moose in Maine One Day, My Grandma Lives in Florida, Bourbon Street Band is Back, and others), by Martha Zschock (the Journey Around… series and the Hello! series), and the Find-the-Animals books by Sage Stossel (On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC).

BB: With your keen eye for true classics, do you see any contemporary children’s literature that’s destined to become a classic in the future?

PZ: I don’t get a chance to read contemporary children’s books, but you’ve now inspired me to start buying them for my future grandchildren and great-nieces and -nephews. I hope you’ll let me come back in a few years and answer this question. There would be no greater pleasure in the world than having time with the next generation to discover together the answers to this question, because there is no greater joy than sharing the stories in great books with the ones you love.

BB: Many thanks to Phil for sharing Applewood’s story with us this week. Be sure to check out No School Tomorrow, specially republished by Applewood for Bas Bleu, on our website!

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