Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Crowded Life in Comics –

         It Is Over at Dover

by Rick Marschall

Conversations with friends recently have revealed to me that many fans of comics, cartoons, and vintage graphic art are not aware that Dover Publications has gone belly-up.

Many of us cut our eye teeth on Dover books. Their variety of titles often introduced us to great artists of the past, and amazing works. And then, unless we happened already to know someone’s work, Dover books would feed our creative and intellectual appetites.

Dover’s catalog was, of course, far wider and deeper and higher than cartoons and graphic art. History, music, literature, poetry, technical books, incunabula, children’s books, instruction, patterns and clip-art, medicine, religion… Dover’s catalog was like a veritable library of old-fashioned Dewey-decimal cards in drawer after drawer.

I am sure many readers share my own experience with Dover – and maybe with the very same books – as I first discovered in grade school and high school the work of Heinrich Kley, Wilhelm Busch, Howard Pyle, Peck’s Bad Boy, and the “color” Fairytale books of Andrew Lang.

The company and its distinctive operation was the brainchild of Hayward Cirker. The quiet, distinguished man and his wife Blanche began Dover as sellers of remaindered books and then tentative reprinters of out-of-print books. Hayward was an omnivore, cognoscente, and (respectfully, admiringly I write) an intellectual vacuum cleaner. He claimed merely to be “curious.”

In fact his system was to seek out (mostly) public-domain books, free of editorial and royalty encumbrances; avoid setting new type or re-designing the original books; occasionally offer new and learned Forwards; design new covers; and, mostly, issue as paperbacks. Dover was a pioneer in the format of what became known as Trade Paperbacks – removing the stigma of cheap pocketbooks, not only by respectful designs but by using (and asserting the commitment to) quality paper stock and sewn signatures, not glued pages.

The other distinctive of his business model, providing the ability to keep his titles with astonishingly low price-points, was to avoid the publishing industry’s traditional Returns policy. Many bookstores and chains still order books and retain steep percentages when they sell… or if they sell; and then they have the right to return them to the publishers. For publishers this is cumbersome; unstable; required paperwork, shipping, and warehousing challenges; and results in damaged stocks. For authors, it justifies the slow reporting and payments of royalties.

Dover sold their books to interested retailers at steep discounts, but outright – no returns. Shops would have to order carefully, but would re-order; and sometimes patiently wait for the right customers to make happy discoveries. Lower overhead, all around, especially for Hayward, whose catalog eventually included thousands of titles.

If Hayward Cirker was the brains, Stanley Appelbaum was the feet, executing matters as a junior-Cirker – no less curious, no less intellectual. He saw to administrative matters at Dover, but also collected, edited, and contributed – for instance the superb collections cartoons from Simplicissimus and L’Assiette au Buerre.

Harvesting the vineyards of Public Domain could be seen as commercial rag-picking, but the taste of Dover’s offerings and the quality of its productions made the publisher a pre-eminent house, and a respected, and reliable, resource for people like “us.” In the classical-music recording field (in which Hayward and Dover briefly dabbled) it was practiced by labels like Musical Heritage Society, Nonesuch, and Turnabout buying European companies’ masters and releasing budget LPs.

Perhaps the greatest example of harvesting Public-Domain material was George Macy of the Limited Editions Club. Commencing in 1929 and continuing for many decades, the LEC designed elegant books, every one different in size, paper, and illustrations; all strictly limited to 1500 copies signed by the illustrator or designer, and numbered; in slipcases. With few exceptions the books were classics of world literature (therefore out of copyright), a happy coincidence that allowed Macy to engage designers like Bruce Rogers and W A Dwiggins, and arrange for illustrators ranging from John Held Jr and Boardman Robinson to Picasso and Matisse. I have acquired more than 130 LECs and purr like a kitten when I glance at my bookshelves.

I first met Hayward Cirker about 40 (gulp!) years ago. We had discursive conversations on discursive topics, but, strangely, this man of eclecticism and many accomplishments was not decisive. I almost did a half dozen books for Dover – one would have been great cover art from Puck, Judge, Life, and other vintage magazines, and caused me to remove covers from issues in bound volumes in my collection – but none happened until, years subsequently, a version of my first collaboration with Dr Seuss.

No editor or packager would have gotten rich working with Dover; I think they paid $1500 for projects. But the honor of being inside the tent where those Heinrich Kley books were born provided some alternative compensation. Other compensation was his invitation after every meeting in his office in an unpretentious office near the Holland Tunnel on Varick Street in lower Manhattan, to stop in the large stockroom of their titles and “pick whatever books I’d like.”

Hayward Cirker died in 2020. Dover (named for the Long Island apartment building where he and Blanche lived in the 1940s) continued on. Then it was sold, I think twice, and eventually filed for bankruptcy. I might have been as much in the dark about its demise if I were not one of its authors and on the court’s list of affected parties. I doubt there are few monetary assets to divide in a bankruptcy proceeding.

After all, it was a privilege, in a Crowded Life, to not only be in the center for a little bit of a publishing entity that was a major factor in my growth as a fan and scholar; but even to do a book with Dover’s imprint. I used to hum, and am, again, the lyrics of Vera Lynn’s classic song, “There’ll be bluebirds over / The white cliffs of Dover...”

A letter from publisher Hayward Cirker before we first met. Ironically, it had been several months previous that I had submitted a proposal, among several, to package a collection of Verbeek’s Upside-Downs. He wrote in this letter, inquiring if I would write an introduction to such a book he was considering! (It never did come out.)

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  1. It's a surprise to hear of Dover going out of business, because I bought many of them over the years. My first was "3 Martian Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs," which cost me $1.75 in 1962. After reading your post I went to my bookshelves and found it; the binding is still tight, pages not brittle, but still supple, and the promise on the cover, "Large clear type for enjoyable reading" is still true. Oh, yeah! Also 16 reproductions of J. Allen St. John illustrations! At the time I didn't know what "public domain" was, but over time I found out, and appreciated this book, and Dover, all the more.

  2. While Dover and its parent company did go bankrupt, Dover has published several items in January 2021, including the recently in the public domain "The Great Gatsby", as well as some adult coloring books. Possibly a bankruptcy court supervised action.

    Steven Rowe

  3. Also remember their old-school clip art books, with one-sided pages for the low-tech pasteup desk. A bit later came the era of CD-rom sets boasting tens or hundreds of thousands of images, often with a big assortment of Dover-branded antique cuts. Still have some of those sets, and use Dover cuts to this day.

  4. I met Hayward when he agreed to publish my first book, "Cut & Assemble Classic Sportscars" back in 1988. I went in to their office on Varick Street. We talked a little about cars and his love for his AMC Pacer! What an incredibly eclectic catalog of wonderful knowledge that no Google search could replicate.