I Was Peter Possum
In the 1960s, Grolier Enterprises was run by four dynamos: Founder Elsworth (The Shark) Howell, whose real love was judging dog shows; Vice President Bob Clarke, who started in the Grolier mail room; Vice President of Marketing Ed Bakal, a rough-hewn ex-paratrooper; and Vice President of Creative Lew Smith, a low-key, creative genius.
Grolier’s business at the time was selling Dr. Seuss books to kids. The competition was Weekly Reader Book Club and Scholastic’s paperback book clubs, which sold books to students in classrooms through the teacher.
Using the Scholastic paperback model, a guy named Joe Archy started the Willie Whale Book Club. Howell watched it grow and told Archy he was interested in buying it. They signed confidentiality agreements and, stupidly, Archy laid out his entire business plan and results for Grolier to see. Whereupon Howell told Archy that he had decided not to buy Willie Whale and started the Peter Possum book club offering children’s paperback books. Archy sued and lost.
I was Peter Possum.
Brand new to direct marketing, I was handed the book club to start from scratch and run. The only ground rules: All titles had to be 64 pages and in the public domain—Howell was not about to pay royalties. They could, however, be in full color.
I was expected to do everything—find royalty-free books, put them into production, write and design the mailing pieces, work with the list people, figure out keys with Grolier’s production wizard Mike Chomko, count orders (if any) and tally up money.
A direct mail virgin, I charged forth. Every time I found myself in over my head, I would yell for help and one of the four partners would immediately clear his desk, sit me down and talk me through the problem. I can say it was the greatest job I ever had, and I earned what had to be the equivalent of an MBA in book club management in three months.