Ray Strobel sat down to tell us about the publishing game. Here are some of our titles, he said, dropping a stack of books on the table. We spotted How to Hang a Spoon, The Jewish American Princess Handbook, The I Love to Fart Cookbook--also the star-crossed Cliff's Notes on Men.
He handed us the Dutch edition of The I Love to Fart Cookbook. It's a treasured keepsake Strobel doesn't let out of his sight.
Anyway, he began, he'd been running a couple of restaurants in the south of France for two years and he came home broke. This was around '81. What he needed now was a business "that was fast to get into and would generate a fast cash flow."
Why not literature? Strobel and his brother Lee, who was a reporter at the Tribune, and a couple of other guys sat down in a bar and wrote The Jane Byrne Coloring Book. A kid out of Notre Dame whom Strobel hasn't seen since did the drawings.
"I made 40 grand on it in three or four months," Strobel told us.
Is the author of the I Love to Fart Cookbook really named Travis W. Pacone? we wondered. No, said Strobel. That's because the author's really a second-grade schoolteacher in New Jersey.
Byrne and Fart were issued by Blue Frog Books, whose symbol happened to be a red pig. This level of whimsy suffused many of Strobel's publishing projects. Because of the time it took to find retailers who would carry Fart in their establishments, Strobel's second title to reach the marketplace was The Jewish American Princess Handbook.
"The Princess book was so strong it sold itself," Strobel told us. He moved over 100,000 copies.
"The very first two books I did were big hits, and I thought this is easy," Strobel mused. "And it took me six years to realize how tough it is."
By this stage Strobel had a partner, Michael Mervis, and the two of them agreed a tonier imprint was called for. Thus Turnbull & Willoughby Publishers, Inc., came into being.
"Power Lunching was our first hardbound," Strobel reminisced. "We printed 12,500 and all of them were ordered. We were just starting to print more when the first orders started coming back." We asked what the problem was. "It should have been a long magazine article. It was interesting stuff to know, but do you want to spend $14 on the subject?"
Strobel became reflective. "One thing that was not wrong. Most businesses die from undercapitalization, and we had access to a lot of cash. But it's a lot more complicated business than anyone realizes.
"Both my partner and I are creative types. We probably needed a guy in there who's left-brained to say 'No, Ray! Don't publish The One Minute Gynecologist!' Which we did."
A few books, like the spoon hanger's guide, scored big. "I don't know anything about spoon hanging," protested cartoonist Joe Martin (creator of Mr. Boffo), to whom Strobel offered the commission. "So what. Just make it up," said Strobel. He remembers, "It took him three weeks. We sold 45,000 of them."
But The Jewish American Prince Handbook met a more typical fate. "I knew it wouldn't be as good as the first one," Strobel explained, "but I was so sure it would be at least 40 or 50 thousand copies I printed 40,000, which was an absurd thing to do. I didn't have the orders to back it up, and I sold 20,000."
Then there was Turnbull & Willoughby's foray into children's literature--Arnold Palmer and the Golfin' Dolphin. "A beautiful book, all in color," Strobel said. "We printed I think 15,000 hardcover full-color books. It'll make Christmas presents for every kid I'll ever know the rest of my life.
"We got ourselves slowly into a hole, slowly in a cash crunch," Strobel mourned. "And then, when the lawsuit hit . . ."
Last September, Turnbull & Willoughby brought out Cliff's Notes on Men. Cliffs Notes--and there is a Mr. Cliff, says Strobel--sued Turnbull & Willoughby, the book's author Tom Olcese, Strobel personally, Contemporary Books, which distributed the book, and Harvey Plotnick, president of Contemporary.
"Every piece of advice we got from lawyers was that we were in the right, but right or wrong sometimes doesn't count," Strobel said. "It's who can last the longest. Especially with a company with cash-flow problems."
Suddenly, Strobel's suppliers would only ship COD. Legal fees piled up. Other book projects had to be canceled. A couple weeks ago Strobel threw in the towel, agreed to pay $5,000 damages, and went out of business.
Strobel told us this story in the Blue Frog, the bar he runs on LaSalle Street while he tries to figure out what to do next.
"I've had a bunch of little businesses and never got myself in trouble before, but when I did it I did it right," Strobel told us. "When all is said and done, what I owe personally is $177,000."
One of the world's great achievements that we didn't know about until the other day is the spiritual union between the people of Germany and the people of Turkey.
A young photographer from Madison, Wisconsin, just put this sturdy affection to the test. It survived.
The mischief maker was one Alan Luft, who went to West Berlin last summer to take pictures of Turkish "guest workers." Walter Breuer, director of Chicago's Goethe Institute, a cultural center funded by the West German government, had thought Luft's plan was terrific. Breuer began publicizing Luft's exhibit, "Turkish Culture in the 750th Year of Berlin," before he'd even seen the pictures.
In fact, Luft finally showed up with the 28 photos for his exhibit only five hours before it opened.
The Turkish consulate sent a delegation to the reception. One asked Luft the $64 question.
"Where's the culture?"
Breuer tells us he was wondering that too.
Pictures with titles such as Turkish Workers Bathing and Turkish Boy and Tree clearly scanted folklore. The Turks viewed Turkish Bazaar with particular alarm. This is not a bazaar, they told Luft. This is not a place where vegetables and scarves are sold. This is some sort of radio store.
We asked Candan Azer, the Turkish consul general, to enlighten us on the German-Turkish relationship.
"Our friendship started in the Ottoman period," Azer explained. "There was the famous Berlin-Baghdad railroad, which runs still. The Ottoman sultan visited the German emperor William II in the early 20th century. The kaiser visited Istanbul."
Then came World War I.
"Yes, we fought together and we lost together," said Azer. "And out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire came the Turkish Republic. As Germans say, if the end is good all is good."
The million Turkish Gastarbeiter or guest workers in West Germany are the one fly in this ointment. "In the 60s, when our German friends were in need of some additional manpower, they asked whether we could provide them with some workers," explained Azer. "We agreed to that, and now there is a Turkish worker community. And now Germany, apparently from an economic point of view, doesn't need them anymore in the same quantity. They would be very happy if any agreement could be reached with Turkey to have some of the guest workers return to Turkey."
These, then, were troubled waters Luft dared wade in. He could have shot the Turks with an eye to everyone's feelings and he did not. As Breuer noted, "They have their culture too, they have their festivals. And nothing was seen of that."
Candan Azer called his good friend Josef Enzweiler, the West German consul general, to express his dismay. Enzweiler called Breuer. Breuer knew what to do.
He changed the exhibit's name to "Turkish Families in Berlin"--a shift that did not sit well with the artist when he eventually found out about it. Nor was Luft amused to hear that a week before the exhibit was scheduled to come down, it was moved out of the library--on grounds that the space was in heavy demand for other events--and into Breuer's own offices, where it could be visited on request.
"This is a gross breach of professional courtesy," Luft wrote Breuer.
"Nothing serious," says Consul General Enzweiler. "A mistake that we tried to correct."
"They changed the title of the exhibit, which was very kind of them," says Consul General Azer. "This was done on a personal and friendly basis, reflecting the whole Turkey-German friendship."
"This was an exhibition with the best intentions," says Breuer. "The only difficulty was the title, nothing else. He doesn't know so much about Turkish culture. He calls one photo Turkish Bazaar and it wasn't a bazaar at all. Such things embarrassed our Turkish visitors."
Alan Luft says there is an old, abandoned railroad station in Berlin in which Turks have opened shops that sell records, videotapes, radios--stuff like that. The station, which he photographed, is now known locally as the "Turkish Bazaar."
"My point," says Luft, "is that as these Turks immigrate into West Berlin, their traditional life is changing.
"I've been treated very poorly," he grumps, "and I'm basically pissed about that."
Yes, but the historic Turkish-German relationship is rock solid. All it lacks is a sense of irony.