End of an era
by Tad Wise
With American publishing in a tailspin, longtime local resident Peter Mayer has sadly announced the closing of the home office of the Overlook Press, the much-acclaimed small publishing house which began here 38 years ago and, while creating a backlist of new and once-forgotten international classics, ushered many Woodstock authors into print. The Overlook office in lower Manhattan will remain open.

In 1970 Peter Mayer was already the wunderkindt of the New York publishing scene, having risen through the ranks to head Avon Publications at the unprecedented age of 34. Despite this ascendance in the mass-market world Mayer remained an insatiable intellectual of almost unsettling energies, who, like his father, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany, never lost sight of his European roots. To honor these, the younger Mayer suggested that father and son independently publish a single book. It would be a compendium of Aufbau, the valiant New York City-based German newspaper begun in 1934, which had served as a lifeline for exiled Jews the world over. The younger Mayer knew the undertaking would not conflict with his "day job" at Avon and he did not expect to sell many copies. To his surprise, the book did quite well, especially in Europe. The next year, this modest success in hand, Alfred Mayer asked his one son, "Why don't we publish some more books?" At these words, in 1971, the Overlook Press was born.

The first office contained nothing but a box of Jiffy bags, a gummed tape dispenser, and a notebook to record transactions - orders never exceeded a single copy. The building itself was called the "apple house," situated below the orchard at Peter's newly purchased Lewis Hollow homestead. The main house had been the tavern of the "Irish village," which flourished during California Quarry bonanza. Town historian Alf Evers was the closest neighbor. Over the shutters on either side of the office door were painted Goethe's invocation: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

So began Alfred "Fredy" Mayer's second career, as a publisher. For son Peter, it was an excuse to get even less sleep; five days a week he ran Avon until 5 p.m., then headed to a tiny Manhattan office and worked 'til 11 for Overlook. On Fridays he drove to Woodstock with a girlfriend and spent the weekend working for both companies. In '76 Pocket Books wooed him away from Avon. Two years later he accepted the position of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Penguin Group; he was head of the largest publisher in the English speaking world. Flying back and forth between London and New York, Peter left his father to run his love-child, the Overlook Press, but the young magnate was always a call or fax away. A passion for mass-market success existed simultaneous with the lover of the overlooked, the forgotten and the arcane.

The History of a Small Town Library was an early title, and it was Ellin Roberts, Head Librarian of its subject - the Woodstock Library - who gave Peter Mayer the historic tip: Doubleday would not be reprinting Alf Evers book, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock. In 1972 Overlook republished the book and Mayer negotiated for Evers to write two sequels, the first a book on Woodstock proper - Woodstock:History of an American Town - which would prove to be a classic and took Alf seven years to write. The second book about Kingston took the elderly author 12 years to complete. Alf's last days were filled correcting the proofs of the book with the assistance of Ed Sanders. He died at 99 in 2006. Kingston: City on the Hudson was published in what would have been his 100th year. "Alf's work is another case of an author adding more to Overlook and me than I ever could repay," Peter told me, "but his books live, and that's saying something."

Other local authors include Kenneth Wapner, David Ballantine, Sylvia Weinberg, Graham Blackburn, Spider and Anita Barbour, Les Walker, Maria Bauer, Barry Ballister, Jeff Milstein, Robert Thurman, Ed Sanders, Howard Koch, Robert Starer, Frank Mele, and another neighbor, who in addition to three titles, also contributed several logos, covers and posters for Overlook. When asked when his company began its long association with Milton Glaser, Peter Mayer, at a manuscript-strewn kitchen table, had this to say:

"Milton was a friend long before he became an Overlook author. A kindergarten peer of mine was working with the young Milton Glaser in his small Pushpin Studio. Milton lived only a few blocks away from me in New York and somehow, by accident, his house in Woodstock was only two houses away from mine. I spent lots of time with Milton and have ever since. One day I said to him, 'You know, Milton, someday someone ought to publish a book about your work,' because he was very well known in the world of design. He said, 'Well, ask me.' I said I'd never published a visual book before but, if he was serious, I would do it at Overlook, if he would help me. We published Graphic Design in 1973. It is still in print today, certainly the most famous book ever published on the subject. When I agreed to publish Milton's book I did not know I would be publishing a classic. One never knows these things. One just does one's best to publish the author and his book."

As the list grew, Janelle Perry, hired straight out of Onteora High School, came on board to assist "Fredy" Mayer. Since his death in 1984, Janelle has managed the mothership office in all its locations including its last home across from the Bearsville garage.

Fast on the heels of Graphic Design, Overlook published its first bestseller in 1974, written in the 17th century by a famous samurai. Peter explains, "The Book Of Five Rings is basically a book of strategy for enthusiasts of kendo, a martial art based, of all things, on wooden sword fighting. I came across it at the Frankfurt Book Fair when a small British publisher, Clive Allison, asked me if I would help him out by importing to the U.S. half of his original run of 3,000 to make his print run viable. The book was charmingly produced and I remember Clive told me that the Japanese business community used it as a guide to business strategy. It has now sold over 700,000 copies and the first intimation we had that the book had a broader appeal came when we discovered that on the last page of a best-seller called The Last Of The Ninja by Eric Von Lustbader there was a reference telling the reader that many of the ideas in the book came from The Book Of Five Rings published by the Overlook Press. The author was nice enough to note its price and our address. Before long $10 bills started heading our way to Woodstock. It got a second wind when a famous advertising guru wrote an article in a business magazine saying that the book was, as he put it, 'Japan's answer to the Harvard MBA'. We put it on our jacket. More $10 bills came through the mail and my father ordered more Jiffy bags. It got a third wind when articles started to be appear everywhere about the surprise bestseller published by the small company in Woodstock. We had no publicity department in those days. But magic was afoot.

In 1997 Peter left Penguin and London and flew back to New York City to run Overlook Press full time. But by that time the "tiny office" in Manhattan had dwarfed the Woodstock office, and the Darwinian realities were clear.

"Overlook has published a great many Woodstock authors and we owe each of them a debt. Some have sold fantastically well and some not so well and some right in the middle. Publishing success is a mystery - success depends on the book itself and its appeal to a hard-to-figure out public. Sales success depends on the reviews a book gets, but success, whatever that word means, also depends on the marketplace, on the cover or jacket, on the booksellers' belief in and display of the book, etc. You know what they say, 'Success has many parents but failure is an orphan.' I'm 72 and cannot tell you in most cases, unlike the Book Of Five Rings, why one book sells and another doesn't. But I love all of my children.

"It's true that for most of Overlook's 38 years, Overlook lost money, but not a great deal and, fortunately, I had good jobs in the larger publishing world in New York and London to cover our losses. We have been fortunate that the The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Book World and nearly all of the high-end publications have been very generous with their review space - so has Woodstock Times, Publisher's Weekly - and the reviews with very few exceptions have been very favorable. I think reviewers like the fact that we are independent and produce surprises on a regular basis."

Mayer talks about the closing and what it means to him.

"Overlook in Woodstock never was the main distribution center. The Woodstock office took on the significant role of the sale of Overlook books to non-bookstore accounts, special sales outside of the book trade, book clubs the likes of the Book-of-the-Month club, exports to Canada and the rest of the world. The actual publishing was done in New York City, and as Overlook grew, our offices in New York grew. Today they are in Soho, where the editorial, art, marketing, production, sales and publicity functions are conducted.

"Only very recently did we come to the realization that the Woodstock office had to close, largely because the industry has changed so much. It became a heavy financial burden. I tried for nearly a year to keep both New York City and Woodstock operations going, but as the recession bit deeper and deeper, we finally felt we could and needed to operate Overlook from one office, which is the way virtually every other publisher in America runs.

"This is very sad, as the people in the Woodstock office - especially Janelle Perry who worked at Overlook almost straight from high school - are part of our lives. Both her family and mine over these years know each other so well... And Paul Maloney and Rubin Abraham and Linda Jackson also put in good time together. I even thought that I would one day retire to Woodstock and run Overlook from there, so this Woodstock office means a great deal to me and to my daughter Liese. But the kind of business outside the book trade that Overlook once had has gone via other channels, what with chain booksellers, a smaller number of independent book sellers, Amazon, the diminishing importance of book clubs, the arrival of the internet and e-books... and a great many other factors.

"The considerable gloom in U.S. publishing seems a premonition for other countries. What is happening here with the dismissals of company heads and editors at Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Houghton Mifflin, Random House, Nelson, Harcourt Brace, and Scribner's, is a function of a very weak retailing scene, not only for books, but in retailing in general.

"I hope the work done at Overlook in Woodstock contributed to the Woodstock scene and to publishing. I think of my dad alongside Janelle, Irwin Rosen, Maureen Nagy, Paul Maloney, Rubin Abraham and Linda Jackson, all of whom over the years were nourished by Overlook and who, in turn, nourished Overlook's books and authors. I will really miss Overlook in Woodstock. Overlook in New York City is great, but it's not the same. Woodstock is what I call home."++

© 2008