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.
I quickly became an expert in copyright law, ran all over New York buying out-of-copyright children’s books with magnificent artwork by great illustrators of the past such as Beatrix Potter, Walter Crane, Edward Lear, L. Leslie Brooke, Gustav Doré and Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monville. The design of the covers was elegant and practical—much white space with a four-color illustration in a center oval. It was practical, because money was being saved by not varnishing the covers. Had unvarnished ink been used on heavily designed covers, little fingers would have become dirty and the cover and pages smudged.
The test mailings went out, and bags full of orders and cash piled in. It was a raging success.
The four partners ganged up on me. Instead of allowing me to roll out with our successful test that offered nine books, I was told more is better and ordered to go find 15 more titles. The covers now were to be solid colors and varnished. I said, “Yeah, but don’t we want to mail the old mailing against the new one?” I was shot down. “We know this business. The more titles the better. Color covers are better. Do as we say.” And, oh, by the way, I was told to start a book club for the next grade levels.
So I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. My then wife left me. What had been a beautiful, easily readable mailing brochure to teachers and kids was a jumble of mousetype with book illustrations smaller than postage stamps.
So did The Gold Mine Book Club for older kids.
My mentor and friend, Lew Smith, left to go work for Lester Wunderman, and I was fired shortly thereafter.
The direct marketing rules indelibly etched in my mind: (1) Let people own their jobs. (2) Test out of a successful control s-l-o-w-l-y. (3) Never abandon a successful control because you’re bored or think you know better. (4) Always back test. yy
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He is the author of three marketing books and three published novels. You are invited to visit him at www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.