Deep Run couple takes publishing of humor books seriously


When Deep Run area resident J. M. "Jack" Johnston couldn't interest a publisher in his manuscript after shopping it around for a year or two, he decided to publish it himself.

That is why the 57-year-old author and his wife, Emily G. Johnston, 56, have been in business since 1991 as Acme Press, publishing an average of one book a year. He is the editor. She is the self-described "chief curmudgeon and managing editor."

Their business is one of at least 155 across the United States, the number of small book publishers listed in the business directory Literary Market Place.

The Johnstons' company publishes only humor. Mr. Johnston said it isn't easy to find the kind of books they seek.

"Either they're not funny despite the fact that they purport to be humor novels or they're poorly written," he said.

Mr. Johnston's book, "Biting the Wall," does not appear to have caused much of a stir at Western Maryland College, despite being what college public information director Joyce Muller called "a thinly disguised satire of WMC."

The author taught one or two English courses at the college from 1977 to 1983, and his wife was director of the college computer center.

Calls to four longtime members of the WMC English department turned up no one who could recall any campus comment when the book was published in 1992. Howard B. Orenstein, an associate professor of psychology who checked several chapters for accuracy, said he couldn't remember any particular comment.

"Not many of the people I talked to read it," Dr. Orenstein said. He said the satire in the book "was the fun for me in reading it."

Mr. Johnston's book has been Acme Press' most successful publication, Mrs. Johnston said. She said the publishing company has not made a profit.

Libraries have been the biggest market for the books.

"If a book gets an even passably good review from a library journal, libraries all over tend to pick it up," Mrs. Johnston said.

"Biting the Wall" won a 1993 Publishers Marketing Association Benjamin Franklin Award for editorial and graphic excellence in publishing. Jan Nathan, executive director of the association, said the award goes to "anywhere from 10 to 20" books annually in the humor category.

The Johnstons marketed the first two books through distributors. The third, a collection of newspaper columns, is being marketed locally.

Production costs make up only a small part of a novel's bookstore price. Mrs. Johnston said a 300-page hardcover book costs $3 a copy to produce 5,000 copies, about $2 a copy for 10,000 copies. Much of the difference between costs and bookstore prices "gets eaten up by middlemen," she said.

The Johnstons grow wine grapes on 5 of the 91 acres they own. They sell the grapes to two vineyards, Wood Hall and Basignani, in Sparks.

L The couple were in the computer business for about 20 years.

"But we became obsolete with age," she said.

Her salary and her husband's were on a level with their experience, while recent college graduates would work for one-fourth as much, she said. In 1988, the couple planted vines and began to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes. Mrs. Johnston said she doesn't miss commuting to Baltimore.

"All things considered, I like farming better," she said.

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