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Island profile: Publisher has it all in Dering Harbor
Sunfish sailor, skier, fan of Glen Cove’s and Dering Harbor’s architectural history, John Colby Jr. of Dering Harbor is a one-man-band who serves as editor, publisher, buyer, IT guy and book-stacker of Brick Tower Press, a David that is suing a Goliath called Apple for its use of the “iBook” brand.
Mr. Colby, 54, has been using the brand for some of his books since 2007, when he bought several pieces of the late publisher Byron Preiss’s bankrupt businesses as one of its creditors. Preiss had first used the name in 1999, back in e-book pre-history, when he developed interactive titles that relied mostly on CDs.
As Mr. Colby explained it recently, the name originally derived from a 1938 comic book series called “I, Robot,” which Preiss invoked for a compilation he published of Isaac Asimov short stories about feeling, thinking robots. The celebrated sci-fi stories were the bases for the 2002 film of the same named starring Will Smith.
Now “iBooks” refers to hundreds of titles Mr. Colby acquired through his Preiss purchase. He’s not looking for a billion-dollar settlement. All he wants from Apple is a letter of apology and the chance to sell his titles through Apple’s iBook electronic bookstore.
He lost the first round of the suit. It’s now on appeal with arguments to be heard in January. “I don’t understand her reasoning,” he said of the summary judgment against him handed down by Judge Denise L. Cote, the same judge who found Apple guilty of conspiring to fix e-book prices with other publishers. “It just makes no sense to me,” said Mr. Colby.
It’s good for him that his dispute with Apple isn’t likely to come up at a Dering Harbor Village Board meeting in the village, where Mr. Colby serves on the Zoning Board of Appeals, of which he is chairman, and the Planning Board, of which he is a former chairman.
He and his wife Betsy and kids Marnie and John III (known as Cole) moved full-time to the village from Park Avenue three years ago after having been weekenders for about 20 years. Marnie and John both attend the Ross School now.
“When I get angry or upset, I volunteer for something,” he explained with a laugh during a talk on the porch of the shingle-style, high-peaked house with pool he designed himself more than 10 years ago.
The goal was to put up something bigger than the three-bedroom house he and his future wife had bought in 1988 in Hay Beach; after they married and their son was born, it suddenly seemed very small. He wanted something that looked as if it had been built at least 100 years before, like the so-called cottages and carriage houses that once dominated Dering Harbor.
He presented the plan himself to the Architectural Review Board. “They were more interested in the photovoltaic panels on the roof than the architecture and its influences,” Mr. Cole remembered.
The board approved his design but with a request: Wouldn’t he like to serve on the board? He said yes and he’s still serving on the ARB.
So it goes in village with something like 24 households.
Mr. Colby grew up in Glen Cove. His late father was a major name in the textile business, creating and selling the jean brands Sasoon and Guess. John went to local schools and had a paper route; the architectural relics around town of grand old country estates, where he delivered the Long Island Press, fascinated him. One of them was a brick tower where the granddaughter of one of the tycoons lived. That tower and the granddaughter would prove important to John, in both his business and family life.
John got to know Shelter Island — as well as the field of publishing — through his mother‘s sister, May Morse, who with her husband Ed owned a home on Bay Shore Drive for many years. The Colbys, who had built a house in Montauk but eventually sold it, were frequent visitors. May and John’s mother Jomarie now live at Peconic Landing; Ed and John’s father have passed away.
May came to the Island because so many others in publishing had places here; she had worked for Doubleday since the 1940s. When John Jr. decided as a student at Syracuse University that he wanted a summer job interning for the company, she helped him land a place in the royalty department in Garden City, where sales and returns were marked on cards by women who had been with the company since the 1930s.
A finance major, he continued with Doubleday full-time after graduation, working in various departments in Garden City and later on Fifth Avenue overseeing the company’s transition from manual to computerized record keeping. Sent to a graduate program at CCNY by the company, he became a master of algorhythms used to predict book club sales, which were crucial to profitability.
As chief financial officer and secretary of the bookshops division, he developed the digital “architecture,” as he calls it, that connected Doubleday’s 50 or so retail stores with headquarters so sales could be tracked in real time. Only Doubleday could do it back then — the only reason why the company knew to buy more copies of an obscure title called “The Hunt for Red October” by an unheard-of fellow named Tom Clancy. Doubleday’s buyer had bet the book would be a hit and had bought 1,000 copies from its publisher, the Naval Institute Press. That was half its meager print run.
The buyer was right. Mr. Colby’s data proved it so the company knew long before it ran out of inventory it needed to buy more copies.
Doubleday was sold to the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann in the late 1980s, and in 1990, the day before he and Betsy Brabb (a fellow skier he’d met on a trip to Killington) were married, Bertelsmann sold Doubleday to Barnes & Noble. They already had a CFO so Mr. Colby got a job with the British Company Dorling Kindersley, helping to create its American imprint.
“In 1991, we did 21 titles and the next year we did 60,” he said. “I thought, doing all this work, that I wasn’t having as much fun as I’d had at Doubleday. And that I could do it all myself. All I needed was an author and a couple of books. So in 1993, my wife wrote the first title, a cookbook” called “American Chef’s Companion.”
He knew cookbooks never get stale — they keep selling forever.
Brick Tower Press was born, named after that old brick tower in Glen Cove that was an architectural relic of the old J. R. Maxwell estate. Living in the tower was one of his Long Island Press subscribers, Maxwell’s granddaughter Marnie, for whom John had mowed the lawn and done other chores over the years.
His daughter is named for her and there’s an urn by his driveway that was one of a group of cement urns that adorned the estate’s main gate.
A sense of the past is important to Mr. Colby. “Being a publisher,” he said, “you have sense of what came before, how you got to where you are. That’s especially important in Dering Harbor,” where he designed a house intended to fit in with they way it used to be.