Dover Publications Inc.
Dover Publications Inc.
Sales: $28 million (1997 est.)
NAIC: 51113 Book Publishers
Dover Publications Inc. publishes paperbacks, many of them reissued out-of-print works whose copyright has expired. Dover has been called “the L.L. Bean of books,” for its appeal to mail-order customers, who provide the company with a significant share of its revenues. The publisher is also respected for the high quality of its paper, printing, covers, and binding, despite charging prices lower than other publishers for comparable works. It protects the paper covers with laminated plastic coating and stitches the signatures together tightly instead of merely gluing them, a shoddy practice engaged in even by some hardcover publishers.
Hayward Cirker graduated from the City. College of New York during the Depression, with a background in the arts and sciences but no specific skills to win him a well-paying job. Attracted to publishing, he started at the bottom—as a $15-a-week shipping clerk for Crown Publishers Inc. Two years later, having helped Crown establish a mail-order division, he was a salesman at $50 a week. In 1941 he and his wife Blanche opened Dover Publications, with their savings of a few hundred dollars, as a buyer of remaindered scholarly books which were then sold by mail order, originally working out of their own apartment in New York City’s borough of Queens. The company name was not the result of a bookseller’s Anglophilia but came from the name of their apartment house.
Art, Music, and Science Books: 1943-87
Dover, which soon moved to tiny but cheap quarters on Manhattan’s lower Fifth Avenue, published its first book, Tables of Functions with Formulas and Curves, during World War II. The German copyright of this out-of-print reference work for physicists, mathematicians, and engineers had been voided by the federal government because of the war. To avoid paying a typesetter, Cirker photographed the pages and had the work printed by the offset process. It seemed unlikely to become a best-seller but was still in print 47 years later, by which time some 60,000 copies had been sold. Cirker quickly displayed a penchant for profiting from similar overlooked, esoteric works.
The success of this work inspired Cirker to root out other scientific classics. In order to reprint a woodcut-illustrated Renaissance-era Latin mineralogy work, De Re Metallica, he obtained permission from the translator, former president Herbert Hoover, who warned him he was going to lose money. The work was still in print in 1987, its publisher having sold 40,000 copies. In addition, Cirker persuaded Albert Einstein to allow Dover to reprint The Principle of Relativity, overcoming the physicist’s objection that the work was obsolete. It proved one of the firm’s best sellers and was still in print more than 35 years later. By 1978 Dover had published works by some 62 Nobel prizewinners.
Dover came out with its first nonscientific book in 1946, Clarence Hornung’s Handbook of Designs and Devices, a collection of geometric shapes still in print 40 years later. This was followed, over the next 35 years, by hundreds of other reproductions of design books that made Dover an essential reference source for graphic artists seeking (noncopyrighted) ideas. Dover also began reissuing art books—for as little as $5—among them large, quarto-size collections of graphics by Gustave Doré, Albrecht Dürer, Francisco José de Goya, Giambattista Piranesi, and James McNill Whistler. These books tended to be oversized in format because Cirker was determined to keep the reproduced matter true in scale. Dover eventually would claim to hold the world’s largest collection of copyright-free art.
Beginning in 1955, Dover also reprinted classic works on photography that had fallen into neglect, including an abridged version of Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering Human and Animal Locomotion. In 1979 the publisher offered this nearly century-old, 781-plate classic in full, at a price of $100. Other photographers represented in the Dover catalogue included Bernice Abbott, Andreas Feininger, Lewis Hine, and Man Ray. Reprints of music scores of classical composers became a mainstay of the firm about 1970. Its 200 music titles in 1987 ranged from Elizabethan keyboard scores to ragtime rarities and full-score versions of all the operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Making a decision to reprint a work was only the first step; finding the right copy to reproduce often posed a problem. “Sometimes we have to wait to find a library that will lend us a rare edition,” editor-in-chief Stanley Applebaum told Daniel Cohen of Smithsonian in 1987. Dover corresponded with dozens of museums and collectors to find what it wanted. “We once reproduced a pre-first edition volume of Goya etchings, then valued at $100,000, from a Harvard library,” Applebaum added. “We drove it to the printer and stayed while they did it.” Applebaum added that he obtained movie stills from the old Astoria Studios in Queens, Piranesi drawings from the Morgan Library, and rare advertising posters from the New York Historical Society.
A Potpourri of Titles: 1951-87
Dover contributed to the transformation of the book industry in 1951 by issuing some of the earliest standard-sized paperbacks, a format that came to be called trade paperback. At that time paperbacks were pocket-sized mass-market items typically placed by magazine distributors in wire-frame drugstore displays selling for 25 cents and featuring sexy and/or lurid cover artwork even for classic works. Dover proved it could sell quality paperbacks for $1 or even $2 and eventually abandoned hardcover publishing almost entirely. It did not concentrate on bookstore sales, refusing—unlike the rest of the industry—to accept unsold returns from retailers. Nevertheless, by 1980 most bookstores had some Dover books, and many even had a special Dover corner. Moreover, Cirker was willing to fill any order, even for a single copy.
Everett F. Bleiler joined Dover in 1955 as advertising manager. A Harvard-educated anthropologist/archeologist familiar with at least a dozen languages, Bleiler was presumably, as he later told Michele Slung of Publishers Weekly, “the only ad man in New York with two years of Sanskrit.” In addition to supervising direct mail and writing all the advertising copy, he helped Cirker with cover designs and choice of art works. In his “spare” time Bleiler also began editing, and writing forewords, for the line of Dover fiction reprints that he introduced. He anticipated the counterculture in reissuing classic tales of the supernatural by such writers as Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, E.T.A. Hoffman, M.R. James, J. Sheridan LeFanu, and H.P. Lovecraft.
Bleiler also sponsored the resurrection of musty Victorian horror writers such as Amelia Edwards, Vernon Lee, G.W.M. Reynolds, Mrs. J.H. Riddell, and J.M. Rymer. Sensing an interest in early detective fiction, he also reintroduced R. Austin Freeman, Jacques Futrelle, J.C. Masterman, and Arthur Morrison to the public. Many of the above works were published in facsimile editions.
Cirker’s own uncanny antennae for the trendy enabled him to further anticipate the counterculture of the 1960s by reprinting popular editions of such classic works as the I Ching and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By the early 1980s Dover’s reprint of Howard Carter’s 1920s book on the unearthing of the treasure of the pharaoh Tutankhamen (“King Tut”) was selling about 100,000 copies a year. Dover also foresaw the growing interest in American folk crafts, republishing Marguerite Ickis’s Standard Book of Quilt Making and Collecting in 1960 and introducing pattern books for needlepoint enthusiasts the following year. He reprinted ragtime scores in advance of the revival of Scott Joplin’s reputation, published chess texts from 1957, well before Bobby Fischer spawned a new generation of fans, and issued books on sci-fi films prior to the making of Star Wars. But Cirker confessed to missing the boat on such 1960s cult figures as Marshall McLuhan—who offered his first book to Dover—and Buckminster Fuller.
In 1959 Dover moved its quarters to Varick Street, in an industrial area on the west side of lower Manhattan that would only 20 years later emerge as part of fashionable TriBeCa. Dover was unique among major New York publishers in having a printing plant on its premises, used for its covers, catalogues, flyers, brochures, posters, and other mailings. The Varick Street offices also housed a bookstore carrying every Dover book in stock and regularly offering half-price sales on damaged books. The actual shipping came to be performed in a warehouse in Mineola, a Long Island suburb. By 1983 all operations except editorial had been moved to Mineola.
- Dover is founded to sell remaindered books by mail order.
- The company publishes its first book.
- Dover begins publishing in the trade paperback format.
- Juvenile books are introduced and prove a lucrative line.
- Dover is turning out 170 new titles a year.
- Dover introduces $1 paperbacks of classic works.
- The publisher’s catalogue lists more than 7,000 titles.
Dover began publishing original works in the early 1960s, and they represented about 60 percent of Dover’s list by the early 1980s. Among the most popular authors was paper-doll artist Tom Tierney, whose 40 cut-out volumes began with figures of 1930s movie stars and continued with Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino dolls outfitted from their best-known roles before progressing to theater, opera, sports, fashion, and politics celebrities as well. Many submissions came unsolicited, with all given careful consideration, according to the staff, except for poetry, which was automatically returned. Dover’s editorial vice-president said in 1981 that recent trends included a marked increase in craft books, including woodworking, dolls and dollhouses, and stained glass. Where a trend was spotted—such as children’s coloring books—Dover would commission books. Dover kept its costs low by paying authors a flat fee rather than royalties. This fee was as low as $1,000 in some cases.
Business Practices: 1975-2000
Like the reprints, Dover’s original books were not intended to be best-sellers, and no print run was ever higher than 7,000. About 1975 Dover, while continuing its no-returns policy, began courting bookstores by offering a 40 percent cash-with-order (COP) discount on shipments and free delivery on such orders over $35. This offer was an instant success, and by the summer of 1981,6,000 of Dover’s 14,000 accounts were COPs. Dover’s 15 commissioned sales representatives were visiting 1,000 stores regularly, with the rest of the accounts serviced by mail. The firm had annual revenue of $15 million by the 1980s.
By 1983 Dover was turning out 170 new titles a year, had 3,000 books on its list, and was shipping six to seven million books annually. “You can do as few as 1,500 or 2,000 of a distinguished title if you can reach the right market,” Blanche Cirker told John F. Baker of Publishers Weekly in 1983. “And once a book is published, it’s our philosophy to keep it in print as long as possible,” Haywood Cirker added. Dover’s special interest free catalogues listed from 100 to 300 titles each in such categories as art instruction, chess, cookbooks, fiction, juvenile works (beginning in 1960), music, nature (starting in 1951), photography, pictorial archives, social science, and New York subjects (from about 1970). Some 15 to 20 percent of its sales were coming from abroad. The Cirkers usually visited the annual Frankfurt international book fair, looking for books to reprint, such as complete sets of music scores.
Readers sometimes went ballistic when Dover finally lost patience with a slow-selling title and allowed it to fall out of print. During the 1960s it quietly dropped some titles, including its reprint of Arthur Cleveland Bent’s 26-volume Life Histories of North American Birds. ’ ‘We immediately got a flood of mail from discomfited bird watchers,” reprints editor John Grafton recalled to Daniel Cohen of Smithsonian in 1987. Dover, which restocked the missing works, made penance by publishing A Natural History of the Ducks in 1986. Published in two hardbound volumes, this 1920s opus, long out of print, was priced at $100. Another deluxe undertaking—at least for Dover—was its clothbound editions of the works of Henry David Thoreau.
The main mailing list of 500,000 names—culled from persons who received a catalogue, answered an advertisement, or filled in a coupon—had been computerized since 1974. These names were divided into dozens of groups according to the subjects they purchased. At least one-third of all sales were being made through direct mail and, taking into account store sales inspired by the buyer having read the catalogue or seen an advertisement, were perhaps as high as 50 percent. In order to save mailing costs, Dover often stuffed its outgoing envelopes with a variety of flyers, self-mailers, and other pieces. Mailings ranged from about 5,000 for specialized items to the full 500,000 and went out virtually every day except for the three weeks just before Christmas, when such an effort was considered a waste of time.
Dover introduced a new series of $1 paperbacks, Thrift Editions, in 1990. It included such classics as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Some 100 or more titles were expected within four years. Dover planned to publish 300 titles of all kinds in 1990. These releases and the firm’s backlist of 4,000 titles were selling for at least 30 percent below comparable books in the retail market. The company was debt free and had a pretax profit of about ten percent on revenues of around $25 million in 1989. Sales came to about $28 million in 1997. Dover’s catalogue had more than 7,000 titles in early 2000, when Hayward Cirker died at the age of 82.
Harcourt General, Inc.; The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.; Random House Inc.
Baker, John F., “What’s Doing at Dover,” Publishers Weekly, August 14, 1981, pp. 20-22, 24-26.
Cohen, Daniel, “How to Succeed in Publishing with Nary a Best-Seller,” Smithsonian, July 1987, pp. 83-86, 88, 90, 92.
“From Durer to the Kin-der-Kids,” Art News, January 1982, pp. 20,22.
Kalmus, Yvonne, “Dover, a Rich Source of Photohistorical Books at Reasonable Prices,” Popular Photography, August 1983, pp. 28, 30.
McKinley, Jesse, “Hayward Cirker, 82, Who Made Dover a Paperback Powerhouse,” New York Times, March 11, 2000, p. A13.
Meeks, Fleming, “Mom-and-Pop Publishing,” Forbes, September 17, 1990, pp. 70, 74.
Poli, Kenneth, “Critical Focus,” Popular Photography, January 1980, pp. 8, 126-27.
Slung, Michele, “E.F. Bleiler,” Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1978, pp. 16-18.
Tebbel, John, A History of Book Publishing in the United States. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1981, Vol. 4, pp. 403-04.
Van Gelder, Lawrence, “A Bookseller’s Tale and How It Grew,” New York Times, October 9, 1983, Sec. 21 (Long Island), p. 2.
“The White Clips of Dover,” Time, March 27, 1978, pp. 97-98.