By Ray Schultz
Another headache for Max Sackheim was that younger people were coming into the business who din’t need his help. John Stevenson, a tall Englishman with a mustache and an impish griin, started his career on Fleet Street in 1933 writing mail order copy for the Daily Herald. A year later, he moved to Australia and wrote book promotions for the Melbourne Herald, a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s father Sir Keith Murdoch.
The young rogue’s next stop was the United States. Stevenson worked for the New York Post and Doubleday. And in 1948, with a modest capital outlay, he bought a company called Greystone Press in a bankruptcy auction.
Eventually, that firm sent 50 million pieces of junk mail a year, selling everything from children’s books to handyman and medical book series. Did Stevenson have the books in the warehouse when he tested book club ideas? No. “We would send a survey letter, maybe offer them the first book, he said in 1997. “We’d say, ‘We’re thinking of offering this.’ It had to be worded very
The direct mail was a dumb as it could be. “We did rebus puzzles,” Stevenson said. “Now it would require no skill — a rebus is picture arithmetic, like ‘Cat plus rat minus hat equals…’ Other publishers thought it was an undignified way of selling books.”
Then there was use of the word “free,” as in, “Free! Send for Volume 1, no obligation.” This drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission.
“They wanted an immediate explanation with the headline that there was a commitment — if there was a commitment. Of course, you could cancel, but they don’t like the inertia factor at all. So we tightened the offers.”
One night, Stevenson was driving home with the copywriter Paul Michael. “I asked, ‘How is it that no matter how good it is, you can only get 2% of the people to respond?’“ Stevenson said. “It was like a man standing on a corner giving away $20 bills, and nobody would accept them because there was something wrong. Paul came in with a publisher’s letter, which later became known as the lift letter. It was folded over, and said: ‘If you have decided already not to accept this offer, please read this letter from the publisher or editor. I can’t understand…’ That kind of note.”
That was a breakthrough, but it was still a primitive business. “We only had their purchase and payment history,” Sttevenson said. “You couldn’t cross-sell. We kept every club separate.”
At its peak, Greystone pulled in $25 million a year, with minimal profit. “We were scrabbling around 10%,” Stevenson said. Then he moved from continuities into book clubs, because the average contiuity carried “the seeds of its own destruction. If you have a 20-volume set, it’s over after you ship the 20th volume. The partial answer is to publish annual yearbooks, but that’s not the same as a club where you can continue and continue and continue.”
Another newcomer was Andi Emerson, a tall, beautiful woman with red hair and freckles, who could have passed for Katherine Hepburn. Having been trained to write copy during a hellish weekend in a hotel room (“You’re not a good copywriter, but you can write mail order copy,” her teacher told her), she went to work for Eugene Schwartz, the author of direct mail headlines such as, “She Fled the Table When the Doctor Said, ‘Cut Her Open.’ Schwartz ran a mail order business, selling everything from weight reduction pills to “A wire nail THAT CUTS THROUGH ARMOR PLATE!” Schwartz and his stunning wife Barbara were socialites, known for buyng art and donating it to museums. One night, a fellow socialite asked him, “Do you work for a lliving?”
Schwartz closed that business to write copy full-time, and Emerson founded an agency, but included her husband Ken Weeks’ name on the door because “you couldn’t have women and you couldn’t have Jews,” she said. It was called Emerson-Weeks. One day, she was visited by Father Bernard Dazzi, a Franciscan in need of a direct mail writer.
“Father, I’m not Catholic,” Emerson protested. “I’m Protestant if anything, but I’m really an agnostic. My assistant is Mormon, and my art director is Jewish.”
“Great,” the Franciscan said. “I’m sick and tired of being ripped off by Catholics.”
Emerson took the job, and quickly condluded that they needed a saint. They found one they called “the Nervous Breakdown Saint.”
People suffering from jagged nerves and emotional disturbances may not be award that a loveable girl saint has been granted unique power to help them in their affliction. She is Irish-born St. Dympha, the ‘Lile of Eire’ whose feast occurs on May 11. This is her story.
Finally, Emerson met John Caples, the copywriter who wrote a famous mail order ad in the 1920s: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started To Play…” And she formed the John Caples Creative Awards, which drew crowds of drunken copywriters from the UK and Europe. A typical awards ceremony would find some of them laying under tables.
Of course, The most threatening rival to Sackheim was much closer to home. Sackheim had hired Lester Wunderman, a whiz kid who had sold a book titled “I was Hitler’s Doctor.” But Wunderman irritated him: He would return from visiting clients without any copy. Sackheim, who carried transparent pads and wrote ads in front of his customers, would ask, “Did you tell the clients jokes?”
No he didn’t. Wunderman was more more interesed in vision and strategy—he “verbally put his arm around the prospect,” Emerson said. “You ha to hire him.” Wunderman helped launched the Columbia Record Club and the American Express credit card while working for Sackheim. Then he decided to leave and take whatever clients he could. He and Sackheim ended up court.