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Bedrick Books leaps into field with creativity, imagination

Peter Bedrick Books celebrated its second anniversary in April, and if the house isn't yet a burly frog in the publishing pond, it has leaped into the business in a highly creative way. Mr. Bedrick himself was publisher and executive vice-president of Schocken Books, when he resigned in 1983 to build a company with his own name on the door. He had confidence. While at Schocken, Bedrick published ``Masquerade'' and ``When Bad Things Happen to Good People,'' a pair of books with legs that climbed the best-seller lists and stayed there for a good long time.

However, to create a brand new imprint in a field not noticeably warm to fledgling companies, Bedrick knew he couldn't just pick up the telephone and put printing presses in motion. To start out like that in the United States takes more capital than most beginning entrepreneurs have access to -- and more than Bedrick could tap.

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Instead, he made astute use of the knowledge and professional contacts he had acquired in earlier years. Bedrick connected with English publishing houses he respected, and he investigated books to which US rights were available. Settling on the ones he wanted, he devised co-publishing arrangements that would enable Peter Bedrick Books to acquire books produced outside the US, and bring them into this country under its own name and logo.

Today Bedrick has publishing arrangements with better than a dozen English firms, and, with his spring list, he has 97 books in print. Importing them in quantities from 7,500 to 20,000 copies, he strives for a balanced production schedule that commits itself only to English titles that seem to have a real chance of reaching American readers.

The largest portion of these are children's titles -- everything from the classic Flower Fairies books to Kipling's Just So Stories, from the ``Oxford Book of Poetry for Children'' to ``Jelly Belly,'' by Dennis Lee, whom Bedrick calls Canada's best-selling poet.

His adult titles cover a variety of subjects, stretching from one of Bedrick's most successful titles, ``Riddles,'' to a series of books assembling and assessing myths from many lands. Eight of these collections have been published, including ``Greek Mythology'' and ``Japanese Mythology,'' with a total of 18 books planned.

Other adult books are ``Biographical Dictionary of Scientists,'' ``Spanish Civil War,'' and two that Bedrick is counting on heavily for the spring: ``The New Guide to Modern World Literature,'' by Martin Seymour-Smith; and ``Dr. Fegg's Encyclopedia of All World Knowledge,'' by two Monty Python zanies, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

``We publish two kinds of books,'' says Bedrick, ``books that appeal to the imagination, which include our children's books and the books on mythology, and books that offer information.''

Jill Danzig, Bedrick's vice-president and director of publicity, points out that the books are chosen carefully for their fit into American interests and that some of them are Americanized to make them slip more easily into the hands of stateside readers.

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Even so, Bedrick admits, the company is not yet in the black.

``I do want to do more adult books,'' he says when asked about plans for the future. Although he says he has sold children's books well, particularly since nearly all titles on his list are making initial appearances in this country, this kind of publishing has significant challenges to surmount.

Children's book buyers are sensitive to price, and children's book sellers are sensitive to competition. ``It's hard,'' Bedrick says, ``because so many of the children's books today are based on trademarked characters.'' He mentions such manufactured figures as Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears, who swarm onto book shelves with an armada of media promotion behind them.

``They come with television shows and T-shirts and lunch boxes,'' he says. ``It gets so that a retailer will say to a publisher like us, `All you've got to offer is a book.' ''

So Bedrick is going to focus on children's book classics and on worthy projects for adults, such as ``The New Guide to Modern World Literature.'' This book, incidentally, should help Bedrick's profit margin if it sells in the numbers he expects. It costs $39.95 until June 30 and $60 thereafter.

And, in fact, it might sell well. Anyone relishing opinionated and entertaining remarks about modern literature available in English -- literature from the United States, China, Hungary, Turkey, Japan, France, Great Britain, and many other countries -- will be tickled by the cheeky criticisms of English critic Seymour-Smith.

Where else could you read an analysis of Joan Didion that likens her to ``a middle-brow concerned person's portable Ayn Rand?'' Or read that ``a world that grants [James Gould] Cozzens a place in literature is on a long-steep slide to indifference.''

Seymour-Smith's irreverence is certain to start conversations, and Bedrick hopes that it will give his company a forceful push toward the moment when it will turn a profit.

A regular column in the monthly Book Review.

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