Guest Book Review 

January 31, 2024 By Donald J. Geldernick

In December 2023, UW-Madison alumnus Donald Geldernick (Class of 1968) contacted staff at College Library about the possibility of viewing an item in our collection. He was anxious to see a limited edition publication we had recently acquired. His response to our arrangements reads, “Thank you so much for accommodating my desire to see the recent special book, “Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing & Bookselling in the 20th Century.” I read the book the very day I drove up from Elgin, IL – all 544 pages in 4½ hours. It is the most beautifully presented book I have ever seen.” We are pleased to share his review of this title.

Review of Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing & Bookselling in the 20th Century, published on September 23, 2023, which Buz Teacher edited with his wife, Janet Bukovinsky Teacher.

Not many will get the joy of absorbing Buz & Janet’s newly edited book, an oral history of American book publishing & selling. Initially released in a run of only 1600 copies, it is expensive to ship and costs $200. While writing a book about the history of American publishing, Buz Teacher solicited essays from some 114 published, successful authors and industry experts. He wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publishing company he started in 1972 with his brother, now known Two Trees Press.

He enjoyed the quality of the responses and decided to publish the essays instead of the initial book. There are other books that relate the history of publishing in America better. But the charm of this book is that the editors did not alter the perspectives of the writers or sift them through a ready-made mold. They just tell their own stories for the reader to enjoy.

This is perhaps the most unusual book I have ever read. First off, it is expensive. My library said it exceeded their budget constraint; only three university libraries in my area had ordered it. Conveniently, my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin – Madison had a copy in their undergraduate library and agreed to hold it for me while I drove the 130 miles to read the 544 pages.

The first encounter is like no other. The book is large, printed on thicker, quality paper. It comes in its own custom box and cover-wrap. You feel like you are stealing something from the Smithsonian and running out the back door when you first open the volume. The book is peppered with photos showcasing the cooperation of Publishers’ Weekly.

My interests in this title were several-fold:

  • Am writing my own book series about parent-lead groups learning through wilderness nature and survival exercises. Our books are based on the original journey of Marquette & Joliet attempting to “discover” the magical route to the sea and China via The Grand or Mississippi River.
  • I had previously organized a consortium for future writers called “How to Write, How to Research; How to get Published” which highlighted the work of Dr. David J Langum, Sr., and his book: The Joy of Scholarship.
  • I wanted to see the milestones of the publishing industry for the last one hundred years. I thought this could be a scout and guide for me as I continue the publishing path.

I was surprised that I had to cull these milestones out. The editors did not try to change the narratives their chosen experts shared. They just let them ramble on like they all were at one big cocktail party, detailing their challenges and accomplishments. This gives an excellent view for college students beginning their careers. Most contributors here showed how they stumbled and struggled early on in their publishing careers.

Several themes are pervasive: fear of not making enough salary or sales, of a member of the supply chain going bankrupt and not paying them. Fear of mergers, staff reductions; injuries from favoritism. We see that everyone involved loved reading, stories, the tactile texture and pictures in books. Perversely we are reminded that not many authors succeed.

Notable influences and changes in publishing started probably with a surge in demand after WWII when soldiers used the GI Bill to go to college. They bought books. Other surges resulted from the introduction of paperback books (which made prices lower), the “Malling of America” and mega-bookstore chains like Kroch’s and Brentano’s, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and even Christian book stores. And the impact upon publishing continued with Oprah’s Book Club, serial books offered by Time and St. Martin’s Press. Increased attention given to books in The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times propelled even more interest.

Books, by their nature, started appealing to basic hobby curiosities, not just intellectual ones. Childrens’ books, published rarely during the Great Depression, returned with colorful, popular-themed stories and pop-ups. We learned that the title and spine are the best and most important advertising for a publication. Kroch’s & Brentano showed the whole face of the book on its shelves and rapidly drew more interest.

Pocket sized books made them more attractive to carry around. The Prophet sold one million copies with no advertising, just on the appeal of its title. Then came an avalanche of two things: art books brought real art into your home and small publishers reduced costs by reprinting books whose copyright had expired; and with a better cover, of course. Then outdoor sports books brought in people who were not known for reading books. These were followed by trade and specialty subject books.

Some authors found remarkable success by producing books in a series. Many people became almost a cult following. Computers did not replace reading; they drove new markets for evolving knowledge in technology and provided us with two new reading mediums: eBooks and CDs. Digital editions also allowed hyperlinks to be imbedded in the books.

And to illustrate the frustration that goes with the long hours of work and waiting, we find the story of a famous author who masked his pain. His tombstone reads: “Here lies Charles Tuttle. They said he would never stop drinking. Well, he has.”

Then came the print pre-curser to Google: The Whole Earth Catalogue. And suddenly, bookstore aisles had life-sized display models. People wanted to read something to get excited about: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Disney: Hyperion, mixed media, mass marketing. Then we see the emergence of American Book Sellers Association, Broadcasting Education Association, Books-in-Print (searchable database), and pop-up books for young students.

Now we are waiting for the next disrupter to grab our attention; to start a new trend. Too many choices and Tik Tok has made us impatient with seeing more than four words.

Hats off to Buz and Janet Bukovinsky Teacher on their exciting new book: Among Friends. It gives you the career and life experiences of over one hundred people. I confirm, the book must weigh fifty pounds. RARE indeed.