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A Way With Weird : Ten Speed Press Founder Phil Wood Has Made a Small Fortune Publishing Books No One Could Imagine in Print

December 08, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Like most publishers, Ten Speed Press founder Phil Wood is hardly fond of lawsuits. But he's already licking his chops over the third threatened suit against Ernie Mickler's "White Trash Cooking," a Ten Speed imprint.

The 1986 cookbook--which sold a phenomenal 300,000 copies in its first year, or roughly twice as many as "The Joy of Cooking" sold in the same period--contains recipes for such delicacies as "Uncle Willie's Swamp Cabbage Stew" and "Tutti's Fruited Porkettes," named for a cook "who learned to make her porkettes by using a Hawaiian recipe combined with Southern ingredients. You cain't git trashier than that."

The first suit against "White Trash Cooking" was filed on behalf of a woman whose photo appeared on the book's cover, admittedly without her permission. Wood says the suit was settled out of court for $50,000.

The second suit, threatened by a hot-sauce company whose logo also appeared on the cover, was dropped when the logo was removed in a later edition.

But the potential lawsuit Wood truly relishes comes from the Junior League of Charleston, S.C. According to League president Sally Rhett, portions of the "exact text (in 'White Trash Cooking') were taken from the League cookbook, 'Charleston Receipts,' " a plagiarism involving "more than 20 recipes."

Hopes to Have Fun

"We anticipate having quite a bit of fun with this," Wood says, sitting in a paper-strewn office full of books, toys and Ming antiques.

"(Some of) the recipes in question involve squirrel and possum. I'm interested, if it goes to court, in asking the Charleston ladies--they're all married to lawyers--how they learned to cook squirrel and what method they use to skin their possums."

It is vintage Wood. As nearly anybody in the book industry will tell you, he may well rank as the most unflappable, unconventional and jovial publisher in the business. Even among eccentric independent publishers, the man who proudly prints the recipe for "rack of Spam" is considered unique in that a remarkably high proportion of the weird books he publishes actually go on to make lots of money.

According to Wood, Ten Speed Press and Celestial Arts (the metaphysical house he acquired five years ago) will sell about $10 million worth of books this year, more than a few of which were initially rejected by East Coast publishers. Ten Speed alone has produced such unlikely winners as "What Color Is Your Parachute" (the career-planning guide with more than 3 million copies sold to date), "The Moosewood Cookbook (1 million in print) and "The New Laurel's Kitchen" (1 million in print). But, along the way, Wood has earned a reputation for something even more remarkable in the publishing industry--treating writers with extraordinary care and kindness.

"He really cares about his books and his authors, probably in reverse order," observes Brad Bunnin, a Berkeley-based attorney who negotiates publishing contracts for authors, several of whom have signed with Wood. "Phil loves to stick his thumb in the eye of New York publishing. He's been successful. He can afford to take risks. His publishing interests are pretty eclectic."

The term is accurate but probably inadequate when it comes to describing the tastes of a man whose current Ten Speed offerings include "How to Get Your Child a 'Private Education' in a Public School," "Louder and Funnier" (on public speaking), "How to Repair Food," "Kill as Few Patients as Possible" (on being the world's best doctor), "The Alligator's Life History" and "How to Have Sex in Public Without Being Noticed" (a humor book).

Intuition for Sales

Says Andy Roth, owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley: "He (Wood) has an extraordinary . . . intuition about what's commercially successful, something you wouldn't automatically assume. It's not that hard to tell a new Michener book is going to sell a lot of books, but Phil Wood seems to be able to find unknown kinds of books that are extraordinarily successful."

This sunny winter day in Berkeley, Wood is dressed, by all accounts, rather conservatively. Though he's known to favor antique Hawaiian shirts and sandals, he's wearing conventional shoes, dark pants and a warm, sienna-colored shirt that's a bit too tight, hand-stitched at the lapels and not tucked into his pants.

Sipping coffee, the 50-year-old publisher is describing his Southern California roots (he attended Glendale High and his father was a business manager for such celebrities as Bette Davis) and elaborating on Ten Speed's philosophy. "We try to (make sure) every book we publish is the best book on its subject at this time for this marketplace, whether it's pure fluff or a serious work," he says.

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