How they bungled THE BOOK OF Dallas

It was a natural: three people who know the city well and who have solid backgrounds in publishing and journalism put their heads together to produce the definitive book on Dallas. A beautiful book, with a lush design and four-color photography. A balanced book, with sharp insights and critical observations from some of the city’s leading figures.

Their idea is greeted with support and enthusiasm in local circles, and they are easily able to sign up such movers as Erik Jonsson and Stanley Marcus as authors of essays in the book. Within a few months a major New York publishing house also signs up, providing prestige as well as financing. Local booksellers; pitch in with equal enthusiasm, planning promotional campaigns to introduce the book at the peak book-buying season.

It may have been a natural, but it never quite became a success. The venture failed to generate much heat or light, and response to the book has generally been one of disappointment, leading Stanley Marcus to remark, “It was one of those ideas that started out in a blaze of glory and ended in a trail of dust.” Tracking the idea’s brief history teaches a lesson in the vagaries of book publishing.

The Book of Dallas, as it came to be called, is the brainchild of Aaron Priest, a former Doubleday salesman in Dallas and now a literary agent in New York. “I had the idea about four years ago when I was living in Dallas, ” he recalls. “It was the perfect place for a good, expensive coffee table book. It’s a place with a lot of civic pride.” The first person Priest contacted with his idea was Evelyn Oppenheimer, the respected book critic of classical music station WRR-FM. Priest wanted Oppenheimer to edit the book, but she felt the project was too big to handle alone. Priest next contacted Bill Porter-field, a client of his, offering him the co-editorship. Porterfield, an experienced journalist, demurred at first, but Priest was able to persuade him to join the project, saying he would try to sell two of Porterfield’s other book ideas. (He subsequently sold Porterfield’s H.L. Hunt biography to Viking.) Porterfield and Oppenheimer became good friends while working together on the project and speak warmly of each other. “It was a perfect collaboration,” says Oppenheimer. Porterfield describes Evelyn as “the anchor” and himself as “the sail.”

It was Priest who conceived the format of the book, essays by people who are household names in Dallas, such as Jonsson and Marcus. Porterfield argued that the contributors ought to be broadened to reflect the diversity of the city, and he selected Rabbi Levi Olan, SMU’s Toni Beck, businessman Walter Humann, columnist Blackie Sherrod and author A.C. Greene so that the book would not be “an unblinking celebration of Dallas.” He also insisted that a single team of photographers-be assigned to the project in order to achieve “one total impression that had integrity.” He chose Bob Smith and Laura Garza, the latter having worked closely with him at Channel 13. “The photographs are really a cross section of Dallas,” he says. “To offset the North Dallas tone of the production I insisted that the photos reflect the other side of life in Dallas.”

The contract with Doubleday was signed in May, 1975, and Aaron Priest says the advance was “in the low five figures.” Contributors were paid an “honorarium” of $1,000 and were given the freedom to write what they wanted within certain space limitations. Stanley Marcus recalls he had about three months to work on his piece. Evelyn Oppenheimer says several months were given to editing because many of the contributors were not professional writers. The written chapters were delivered to Doubleday in the fall of 1975, one full year before the scheduled publication date of October 1, 1976. However, editing suggestions went back and forth between New York and Dallas and checking and re-checking of facts delayed the final version until the spring of 1976 when the last corrections were finally made.

Normally a book takes four months to be produced after the final version is set. Timing in this case was crucial: The Book of Dallas was designed to be a Christmas gift item and, as such, had to be in bookstores by October in order to capitalize on seasonal sales. Few people realize how important Christmas is to the book business in the United States. Fully one third of all book sales take place in the months of November and December. For higher priced books, especially coffee table books, the holiday season is almost all that matters: almost 75 percent of sales are rung up on Christmas season cash registers.

The original editor for the book, Larry Ashmead, left Doubleday for Simon and Schuster just around the time the manuscript arrived. His former editorial assistant, Cathleen Jordan, was promoted to editor and took over the book. By all accounts, even with the slight time pressure created by editing delays, everything was going as smoothly as could be expected up to the time that the book was ready to go into production.

Doubleday is not known primarily as an art book publisher, and in this case they chose to send the book to an outside printer rather than do it in their own establishment. Once in production, the book almost ran aground. Cathleen Jordan says the reproductions of the photographs caused much of the trouble – the colors were not right and many had to be redone. Porterfield attributes part of the problem to a strike at the printer chosen by Doubleday. It’s difficult to pin down the exact cause of the delays that began to pile up because Jack Grendin, manager of Doubleday’s production department, refuses to talk about the matter over the telephone. His reluctance is understandable, because the crippling delay in production caused havoc among Dallas’ booksellers and almost sank the entire project.

The delay was not the only problem, however. The product itself has been severely criticized for its poor graphic design, both inside and on the cover, for poor binding, for poor quality paper and for poor layout. Stanley Marcus labels the production “mediocre.” Aaron Priest says the book “looks like sale merchandise.” In his review in the Times Herald, Mike Carlton wrote accurately, “The reproduction is muddy . . . the layout is embarrassingly amateurish, looking more like a high school yearbook than the product of two years labor.”

If the book’s production quality is poor, the price certainly isn’t. Double-day originally planned to charge $35 before Christmas and $39.95 thereafter, an often-used sales stimulant among coffee table book publishers. Because of the printing delays, however, a last minute decision was made to charge a flat rate of $35. In order to change the pricing on the jackets, the corners were clipped, and the new price was pasted on. Many booksellers have criticized the high price tag, but Cathleen Jordan defends it: “People just don’t realize the high cost of color separations. The book contains 180 color pictures, and that fact alone drives up the manufacturing cost tremendously.”

Due to arrive in Dallas on October 1, the books did not make it until December 6, and even then they had to be sent by air freight at considerable extra expense to Doubleday. Many bookstores in Dallas had planned big promotions for the book, but the delay in arrival left them high and dry. “We had been preparing for this for an entire year,” says Steve Mathews, buyer for Taylor’s. Taylor’s had ordered 500 copies, which is a very high order on a book of that price. The store planned a “premiere” autograph party for their customers and the book’s contributors for early October. When the book had not arrived by Thanksgiving, they decided to bail Aaron Priest

out and scrap all plans for promoting the book. Even so, Taylor’s sold 250 copies in the two weeks prior to Christmas, making The Book of Dallas its most successful book of the season in profitability.

Cokesbury also planned an extensive promotion that actually began before the books arrived. They placed advertisements in local magazines and even created a T-shirt which they planned to give away with each purchase of the book. “Our long-range promotion backfired when the book didn’t arrive,” says Chris Huffman, promotion supervisor at Cokesbury’s downtown store. “The whole momentum of the thing was lost. It was a terrible situation. The book had such potential. We thought we could move about 1,500 copies, but we ended up selling no more than 400.”

Concepts in Print, a new bookstore in Richardson, scrapped together a champagne autograph party at the store on Sunday evening, December 12. They

Bill Porterfield

sold some 115 copies on that occasion alone, showing the book’s potential. “The book did extremely well,” says David Levitan. “It was our biggest seller of the season in terms of units sold. Still the delay was disastrous. The book also got mixed reviews in the newspapers, and with so little time left to shop, people then didn’t even get to look at it.”

Aaron Priest doesn’t think delay was the book’s major fault, although he concurs that it damaged sales considerably. He sums it up this way: “The text is excellent. The photographs are brilliant. (Really, when we first saw the slides, we considered only doing a photo book.) But in a book of this type the production is at least as important as the content. It’s got to look expensive. What you’ve got here is a $35 book and a $12.95 production job. The inside jacket corner is clipped, and it has a pasted-on price. It makes the customer wonder if the bookstore is trying to rip him off. The projections were to sell 20 to 30 thousand copies. They’ll be lucky if they sell 5,000.”

Porterfield disagrees with Priest’s estimates. He says the book’s sales are approaching 10,000 and that Doubleday is considering a second printing. (Cathleen Jordan won’t say what the actual sales figures are, and she says the notion of a second edition is “a purely business decision which will have to be made when all the facts are in.”) Porterfield is disappointed with the quality of the reproductions, saying, “They are not splendid.” He agrees that the book is overpriced. He is generally pleased with the way things turned out, however, especially with the book’s “editorial integrity.”

Perhaps no book could have lived up to the expectations which surrounded this undertaking from the beginning. But the sad fact is that this book, which its authors hoped would stand as the definitive work on Dallas, will never be judged on its merits because too many other things have gotten in the way. “We are terribly sorry it happened,” says Cathleen Jordan, “because we believed so much in it. We did everything we possibly could.”

And Doubleday hasn’t surrendered any of its confidence in the project. As soon as its bindery can get back into operation (it was temporarily knocked out by the fuel shortage in the Northeast), the publishers are planning to produce a deluxe edition of The Book of Dallas: 250 copies specially printed and bound at a price of $150 each. Nobody at Doubleday, however, is willing to predict a date for delivery, and Dallas booksellers aren’t holding their breath.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.