August 28, 2014

Between The Giants' Toes

Andre Henderson | 7/1/1996
It is late morning on a sunny spring day, and work is getting off to a slow start at Pineapple Press.

The problem is not the weather. Although sunlight streams through the windows of the converted two-story wooden house which serves as Pineapple's offices, the publisher's employees have been on the job since 9 a.m. Rather, the problem is Murphy, the cat which belongs to Sarah Cussen, 15-year-old daughter of David and June Cussen, founders of Pineapple Press and its guiding lights. This morning, a doctor diagnosed Sarah with serious allergies. Murphy is the prime suspect. If Sarah has to part with Murphy, there will be serious repercussions. June is tired after a morning in a waiting room, and David is worried.

Family life has a funny way of intruding into business affairs at Pineapple Press. In fact, the two are so closely intertwined at this mom-and-pop publisher that they are often indistinguishable. "Doing books in the garage and working at the kitchen table sounds hokey, but that's the way it is," says 55-year-old David.

Hokey it may be, but that's the type of commitment it takes to succeed as a small publisher. The world of books is dominated by giants, and finding a place between their toes is no small feat. It helps to have a fortune to invest and a lifetime to devote to the task. Or, if you are like the Cussens, you start late, find a niche, and exploit it. Then you devote your life to the project. There are as many as 30,000 publishers in the U.S., according to the Small Press Center, a trade association based in New York City. Of all of them, however, there are only 12 that matter to most readers. These are the "majors," the Manhattan-based mega-publishers which decide what books will comprise tomorrow's best-seller lists. Their ranks include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House and Macmillan.

Most others qualify as "small press publishers," a category which encompasses everything from state-subsidized university presses to publishers of a book a year. Many, like Pineapple, are regional in scope or technical in nature. "It's easy to become a small press," says Karin Taylor, executive director of the Small Press Center. "You get hold of a manuscript which someone else has written, you get an ISBN number [International Standard Book Number], and you put out the book."

Pineapple's niche is Florida and its hidden treasures. Much of its catalogue is non-fiction, aimed at visitors. "Baseball in Florida" appeals to sports-lovers and spring-training groupies. "Florida's Birds," a reference book, includes glorious artwork by Karl Karalus, a world-renowned nature illustrator. Compilations of "Cracker literature" and tourbooks of historic homes, lighthouses, Gulf Coast islands, and the houses of Key West and St. Augustine are some of the more tourist-friendly offerings.

Pineapple's fiction selection is small but selective. Novels from Patrick D. Smith draw upon Florida's history; a mystery from Virginia Lanier, "Death in Bloodhound Red," tells of dogs and deceit in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp; and a series of "Cracker westerns" spins classic cowboy yarns. In a class by herself is Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the grande dame of the 'glades. Pineapple offers both Douglas's autobiography and her classic text "The Everglades: River of Grass," which launched her fight to protect these cherished wetlands some 40 years ago.

All told, Pineapple Press carries 120 titles. "There are so many voids in Florida literature that we have lots of room to publish basic materials which focus in microscopic ways on Florida. As we see gaps in existing literature, we can fill them, if we can find a good writer who knows his subject well," says David

That's the beauty of small publishers like Pineapple; their size means simplicity. They can produce books quicker than the majors, target their audiences with specialized publications, and utilize less conventional means of doing business, like mail-order sales.

Today, Pineapple adds 12 to 14 books to its lineup each year. Its most successful titles move about 3,000 or 4,000 copies annually, which means that the company generates about $1 million in sales, all told.

By industry standards, Pineapple is small potatoes. There were 51,863 titles released in 1994 (the last year for which figures were available), slightly more than its average of 50,000. That year, the industry had $19.85 billion in sales, according to "Publishers Weekly," its top trade publication. At Pineapple Press, June handles editing and production, which constitutes everything from editing copy to massaging egos. Pineapple farms out a few copy-editing jobs but covers the rest in-house. David is responsible for external affairs, including marketing, distribution, promotion and administrative acquisitions. In all, Pineapple has six full-time employees and several part-timers.

How do they know what to publish? Like most publishers, big and small, the Cussens rely on that instinctual, most unscientific of barometers, the nose. "It's so expensive to try to determine what to market. We just know," says David.

In 1994, a manuscript for a backwoods murder mystery appeared at Pineapple Press. Three chapters into the book, David was spellbound. June read the book separately and flagged it, too. The Cussens' instincts, honed by years in the trade, proved accurate. Since its publication in 1995, "Death in Bloodhound Red" has sold steadily. More importantly, HarperCollins Publishers picked up the paperback rights to the book, and the Cussens negotiated TV and movie deal options on it.

Selling paperback rights is common practice among regional publishers and constitutes a welcome source of income. Several recent national best-sellers were plucked from small publishers, including "The Celestine Prophecy" and "The Christmas Box." Pineapple Press routinely sells paperback rights. But that is not to imply that small publishers' experiences with the majors are always pleasant. Whether they like it or not, small-press publishers constitute something of a farm league for the major book houses. Small publishers separate the literary wheat from the chaff, mold the more promising performers, and back their talents with capital. Just as small publishers draw upon local talent, so do national publishers draw from small publishers, skimming the cream from their rosters. "If we invest in an author first, then we can lose out," says June. We knew them when Pineapple Press recently got burned in this fashion, and not for the first time. It sold the paperback rights to a Pineapple book (which the Cussens would rather not name) to HarperCollins, then received several phone calls from a company representative anxious to talk to the book's author. Soon after the two made contact, the writer stopped returning the Cussens' telephone calls. "I don't blame authors for wanting to go for the big-time, but we put a lot of heart and soul into each project," says David. Only a handful of Pineapple's authors have agents. In part, this is due to Pineapple's size. But the absence of agents is also a tribute to the close working relationship which Pineapple enjoys with its authors and the flexibility it offers. Patrick D. Smith knows this to be true. A recent recipient of the Order of the South, an award conferred upon such literary notables as Eudora Welty and James Dickey, Smith has been published by Little, Brown and Co., W.W. Norton, Dell and other majors. But none of these publishers could accommodate Smith's 1984 novel, "A Land Remembered," the epic saga of a 19th-century Florida family. "The novel was extremely long, about 850 pages" he recalls. "The publishers in New York wanted to put out the paperback first, then release a hardback version. I wanted to do just the opposite. I met David and June at a writers conference and told them about it: hardback first, then paperback. They said that it was no issue for them, and they took the book and published it." "A Land Remembered" became a best-seller after New American Library purchased the paperback rights from Pineapple Press.

"It's hard to establish a real personal relationship with one of those huge publishers in New York," says Smith. "You're one on a list of hundreds of writers."

As Smith's experience suggests, the Cussens know what writers want, and they deliver it. "Their contracts with authors are above standard for the industry, and their calculations for royalties and payments are accurate and on time," says Robin C. Brown, a Fort Myers physician and author of "Florida's Fossils" and "Florida's First People: 12,000 Years of Human History." Pineapple rarely offers advances to authors ("that would eat up a lot of working capital," says David), and Pineapple Press's royalty payments, based on a percentage of sales, are usually issued twice a year.

Better than grading papers

David and June may not be national powers, but they know their market. Some publishers tout a book for three months, then drop it. Pineapple Press not only reissues old works, it hypes its own books long after their initial publication, sometimes up to three years afterwards. "It's like a TV program: a lot of people miss it the first time around," says David. Faithful attendance at trade shows also keeps the word out. Pineapple Press exhibits at most major state book conventions, including the book fairs of St. Petersburg, Miami and West Palm Beach, and those of the Florida Library Association and the Florida Association of Media Educators. David is in close touch with booksellers, especially major independents like Haslam's in St. Petersburg and large retailers like Barnes & Noble, whose cavernous venues permit display of local literature.

Pineapple Press typesets most of its publications in-house, farming only a few out to free-lance labor. With help of a fully armed Macintosh 9500, the business is able to undertake complex graphic design operations. These capabilities may be seen on the second floor of Pineapple Press's offices. Here, where the production work takes place, the walls are decorated with framed reprints of old covers of Pineapple books and catalogues. At one end of the office hangs the publication guide for spring 1996, which features high-resolution color miniatures of book covers. The artwork gets progressively more primitive until the eye reaches June's office, where Pineapple's earliest art gives testimony to its humble beginnings. A graduate of Northwestern University and holder of a master's degree in English literature from San Francisco State, June had no experience in the publishing world before embarking upon the Pineapple venture. She's a veteran schoolteacher, who uses her knowledge of the three R's to handle Pineapple's in-house editing and production. "I used to grade papers, now I grade manuscripts," she cracks. David, on the other hand, brought significant experience to the game. He began working for Boston's Allyn & Bacon after graduating Northeastern University and serving military time, and lived successively in Germany, Italy, Paris, San Francisco, Mexico and Belgium.

In 1975, David was tapped by the International Thomson Group to set up an office in London. Within four years, however, England had lost its charm for the Cussens - especially their child, Thomas, who was in and out of hospitals for a year and a half.

So the Cussens fled England for the more forgiving climes of Englewood, Florida. For a while, David and June did home improvement, walked the beaches, and enjoyed quality time with the family. Then they got restless. "We wanted to learn about the Florida environment, so we looked for books to read on birds and fauna, only we discovered that there was very little out there," says David. Sensing an opportunity, the Cussens decided to publish their own books. Pineapple Press was incorporated in 1982 and produced its first two releases the following January.

In the highly speculative worlds of books and music, there is no such thing as a sure bet - unless it has been printed before. Publishers often avoid risk by reissuing old titles which have proven their worth; Pineapple's first and second releases were reprints of books originally issued in 1888 and 1910. "Florida Days" and "Florida Trails" sold modestly but well enough to draw attention to the new company.

As June continued her editing duties, David took to the road in a beaten-up beige Volvo. Armed with a trunk full of books, he visited booksellers and wholesalers across Florida, seeking outlets. Orders began to trickle in. At first, Pineapple's catalogue grew by two books each year. The operation broke even in its fifth year.

Although they will deny it, the Cussens appear to be making room in their stable for flashier titles. Pineapple Press now offers a Florida guide to "thrill sports" and a compilation of Florida's editorial cartoons. "My Brother, Ernest Hemingway" came out in April, an intimate biography which has drawn national attention. For all the pizzazz, however, Pineapple's best-selling title remains "Florida's Birds," the pedantic guide for birdwatchers. So it is ironic that a publisher like Pineapple would have close contact with Hollywood. And yet it does. The company has sold film rights to numerous projects to movie studios in Hollywood. It has also sold options on several titles to producers, including the novels "Saint" (a comedic romance set in South America) and "Orlok," and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas autobiography, "Voice of the River," published in 1987. Douglas, who is 106 years old and lives in Miami, has spent her life agitating against racism, sexism and the degradation of the Florida Everglades.

Eschewing cash for trash

Film making is a capricious process, of course. "We've yet to see anything, but it's nice to keep getting those checks for the options," says June. Film options can yield between $5,000 and $15,000, while advances on royalties for paperback rights typically generate between $5,000 and $25,000, according to June.

It is just as well that Pineapple has not become a darling of Tinseltown; it is not a role which the company would bear well. Besides the risk entailed in such dealings, the Cussens eschew formulaic plots and stereotypical characters. Pineapple Press is doing nicely in its niche, thank you very much, and has no plans to change.

So, Pineapple Press would not carry tomorrow's best-seller even if a fortune was to be made?

Put it this way: One of David Cussen's colleagues not long ago oversaw the release of a sanctimonious self-help manual called "Life's Little Instruction Book." Dispensing advice like "Stay away from nightclubs," the book infected the best-seller charts for months and spawned numerous sequels.

"I wouldn't publish that trash," David mutters.

As he says this, he is standing in Pineapple Press's warehouse. Cartons of books are stacked to the heights of its 5,000 square feet. Boxes which were once lifted by hand are now conveyed by the squat yellow forklift which sits in the middle of the warehouse.

Cussen hopes to rent more storage space in the near future, but only if the growth which fuels that need can occur under the principles he holds dear. "It is not our goal to publish 1,000 books a year," says David. "We want to publish books which interest us."

That, in a nutshell, is the secret of Pineapple Press. What David and June like, they produce. So far, what is good for the business is good for the family - and vice versa.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

Florida Business News

Florida Trend Video Pick -

Space Launch System
Space Launch System

NASA is ready to move forward with the development of the Space Launch System -- an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. 

Earlier Videos | Viewpoints@FloridaTrend

Ballot Box

When will you retire?

  • Soon - within a year
  • 2-3 years from now
  • 4-6 years from now
  • 6-10 years from now
  • 10+ years from now
  • I can't envision retiring
  • Already retired!

See Results

Ballot Box
Subscribe