Sidebar June 2007

Storybook Ending

Virginia Postrel tells the tale of how an enterprising first-time publisher gave the beloved children's book Mr. Pine a second life.
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In early 2000, Leonard Kessler got a letter from Jill Morgan. Then he got another copy. And another.

Morgan was a former software engineer and young mother with an entrepreneurial dream: She wanted to publish out-of-print children’s books, starting with her own childhood favorite, Kessler’s Mr. Pine’s Purple House. First published in 1965, it had gone out of print in the early 1970s, leaving baby boomers like Morgan bereft of Mr. Pine’s bedtime charms when their own children came along.

Morgan had done some work tracking down out-of-print books for clients and found a particular interest in kids’ books, which often commanded high prices. Old copies of Mr. Pine were selling for $100 to $200 on Ebay. “I would see dealers buying it on Ebay and turning around and selling it on bookselling sites for $300,” says Morgan. There had to be a market for new versions.

So she sent Kessler letters at every address she could find—his publisher, the Authors Guild, and (after an Internet search) his home in Florida. She said she had loved the book as a child. Would he take a chance on her new venture?

Kessler, now 86, was thrilled. “What publisher really loves the book that they publish?” he says. “I said, ‘It’s yours.’ And she took off. She changed my life. She brought me back to life again.”

The first new edition was published in the fall of 2000, with a new foreword by Kessler. Almost immediately, the book found an audience. Lots of people were glad to see their childhood favorite back in print. One of those fans was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com. After his mother discovered Mr. Pine’s rebirth, Amazon featured Mr. Pine’s Purple House in its weekly email to customers. The book shot quickly to the site’s bestseller list.

Since then, Morgan’s company—appropriately named Purple House Press—has sold about 12,000 copies of Mr. Pine Purple House, in three editions. Its catalog has grown to 30 titles, including two other Mr. Pine books.

The hardest part of her business, says Morgan, is “finding the author, finding who holds the rights, and convincing them to let us do the book. It’s getting easier because we have a track record. With Leonard, it was a leap of faith.”

Kessler couldn’t be happier. Since Morgan’s letter, he’s started writing and painting again. He’s mastered Photoshop and learned to navigate the Internet. Morgan’s interest, he says, “was a release, an opening again. It brought Mr. Pine back. He’s really a great character. I think he’s me, really.”

Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor. Her favorite out-of-print book from childhood is You Will Go to the Moon.
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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.
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