In its 101 years, family-run Ottenheimer has published it all, from vaudeville jokes to Bible verses. Its latest bes seller: children's pop-up books.


April 01, 1991|By Graeme Browning

When Allan Hirsh III boards a plane bound for Bologna, Italy, this afternoon he'll be hoping for the same kind of luck he had seven years ago.

In April 1984, Mr. Hirsh, president of Baltimore-based Ottenheimer Publishers Inc., and his father, Allan Hirsh Jr., the company's chairman, were wandering the aisles at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair, the largest convention of children's book publishers in the world.

Little had caught their fancy during the several days they had spent at the fair, and they were looking at the displays once more before leaving for home.

Suddenly, the younger Mr. Hirsh recalls, he stopped in front of a small booth festooned with books of fairy tales whose scenes literally jumped off the page.

Instead of having a hard outer binding and paper inside, the books were made entirely of thin cardboard. Parts of each scene had been cut and would stand up on cardboard hinges, away from other parts of the scene, as Mr. Hirsh turned the pages.

The books were colorful, simple and appealing. Best of all, the Spanish printer that had developed them was offering them at an unbeatable price, he recalls.

While most books of this type -- called "pop-ups" in the publishing industry -- were selling then for $12.95 and more, Mr. Hirsh says he realized immediately that the Spanish format "would allow us to retail pop-up books for under $2, and there was nothing in the marketplace anywhere near that at the time."

The two men bought the North American rights to the books immediately at the fair and produced and sold almost 1 million of them within 18 months. This year, the elder Mr. Hirsh estimates Ottenheimer will sell almost 5 million children's pop-up books, making it one of the foremost producers of this increasingly popular literary genre.

That's no mean feat for a 19-employee company that emerged from a bankruptcy reorganization just three years ago and now operates out of a handful of cramped offices in a small brick office building on Reisterstown Road.

Yet Ottenheimer has always been a survivor, even among the roller-coaster fortunes of the publishing industry.

Founded in 1890 by two teen-agers who pirated vaudeville jokes and printed hand-colored postcards of Baltimore sites, it now publishes 200 titles a year, including children's books, cookbooks, home repair guides, games and puzzles, dictionaries, encyclopedias and a Bible illustrated by Norman Rockwell.

If you're looking for one of the company's products, however, don't go to your corner bookstore and expect to pull from the shelves a book with "Ottenheimer" stamped on the spine.

The company is a book "packager," not a book "publisher." And that difference, though subtle, means that for all its recent success, Ottenheimer is known by only a handful of the millions of people who read what it prints.

L Book packagers do almost everything in the field of book pub

lishing that an established publishing house does -- from creating an idea for a book, to contracting with an author to write it, to designing, typesetting, printing and binding it.

The only task a packager does not do is distribute the book, says the younger Mr. Hirsh, an easygoing 42-year-old who is the fourth generation in his family to head Ottenheimer, which was founded in Baltimore by his great-grandfather and his great-uncle.

Instead, the packager usually delivers the finished book to a publishing house that, in turn, stamps its own name on the book and distributes it through its in-house sales force, Mr. Hirsh says.

"We're very much like an independent movie producer. We create the product and somebody else delivers it to the audience," he adds.

While book sales by U.S. publishers have practically doubled since the early 1980s -- from $8.1 billion in 1982 to $15.5 billion last year -- the number of books that have been packaged has grown even more dramatically.

Ten years ago, Ottenheimer was one of the few book packagers in business in the United States. Today, industry experts estimate that at least 500 book packagers operate in this country and Canada, and that one in every six books sold in North America is packaged.

Packaged books, in fact, have included titles that have been both the staples of generations of readers and the highlights of recent best seller lists.

The National Audubon Society's bird books, first published by Alfred A. Knopf in the 1950s, were packaged books, for example. So were the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins series.

"Imagine: John Lennon," which sold 100,000 copies, in five foreign-language editions, was a packaged book. The list also includes "The Joy of Sex" (packaged by Mitchell Beazley for Crown Publishers), "The Hite Report" (packaged by Regina Ryan Publishing Enterprises for Knopf) and "What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School" (packaged by John Boswell Associates for Bantam Books).

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