Friday, April 21, 2000

DALLAS Ask a bookstore clerk for the most popular title from local publisher Spence Publishing and you’ll probably get a dirty look.

In this redoubt of the Bible Belt, Spence’s often provocative titles can sometimes elicit raised eyebrows, perhaps a snicker, even a sneer. Conservative or not, this town has no patience for anyone releasing a book titled “Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes.”

In fact, major booksellers in many cities have filed the book by best-selling author David Horowitz on back shelves, freeing the front tables for titles dealing with more politically correct subjects.

But the conservative tome has given polemical publisher Tom Spence a higher profile, which, he concedes, may not be enviable on those terms.

“We thought about the consequences of publishing the book,” says Mr. Spence, 39, a one-time Boston lawyer. “In the mostly liberal world of publishing, there are a lot of people looking for reasons to dismiss you intellectually.”

Mr. Spence’s release of the book has given him both notoriety and bolstered coffers. Released in September, “Hating Whitey” has sold more than 50,000 copies. For smaller publishers like Mr. Spence, profit begins at 5,000 sold.

“Something like that,” says Publishers Weekly Editorial Director John Baker, “could cause enough of a stir to get a larger publisher to take you on.”

Spence Publishing is the latest success story among small presses targeting the conservative reader, a flourishing industry that most agree began with Henry Regnery and his Regnery Publishing, founded in Chicago in 1947 and now headquartered in Washington as a division of Phillips Publishing.

Mr. Spence admits to a fondness for being the maverick. His mission is to tweak prevailing wisdom on either side of the cultural wars.

“The one aspect of our courage is not to publish books to annoy the liberal establishment,” Mr. Spence says, “but to publish books that will annoy conservatives as well.”

Copping such an attitude leaves Mr. Horowitz in awe.

“It’s really an American story, the little guy standing up,” the author say. “This is really a heroic publisher.”

“Hating Whitey” was the 21st book released by Mr. Spence and his editor in chief, Mitchell Muncy, a pair of native, drawl-less Texans who look more like accountants than renegades.

They are ironclad proof that you really can’t judge a book, or its publishers, by its cover. Mr. Spence exudes his Ivy League education (Dartmouth), from his gold-framed spectacles, past his black polka-dotted bow tie down to his slightly scuffed wing tips.

The 31-year-old, similarly bespectacled Mr. Muncy also wears his East Coast pedigree (Princeton) on the sleeve of his dark-blue suit.

Mr. Spence was pursuing a doctorate in medieval history at Harvard when he decided in 1994 to return to Waco, Texas, to run his father’s WRS Publishing, a company that specialized in inspirational books.

When his patience with Waco ran out, he moved his wife, Amy, and their six children to Dallas to start his own company. He was soon joined by his old friend, Mr. Muncy, who was by then married with a couple of children and working as an editor at a small Dallas magazine.

It is not a city known for its intellectual climate, Mr. Muncy notes. Being here requires more effort to stay in the loop as far as the community of authors is concerned, he says.

“The East Coast is where our customer base is. But, hey, we’re East Coast-educated, at least.”

One more Texas-sized advantage: In New York, the two could never afford their 9,000-square-foot office and warehouse space. Their quarters in Dallas are located in a newly revamped industrial area in the shadows of the city’s skyline, a brownstone front that opens into spacious accommodations for the six persons that make up Spence Publishing.

Even from their base in the middle of the Bible Belt, both Mr. Spence and Mr. Muncy are positive they can help change the country’s intellectual landscape without announcing partisanship, even in an election year.

“I think what really motivates us is that the most important issues of today are cultural, rather than political,” Mr. Spence declared. “I don’t sit around thinking about Republicans controlling Congress. I think about what will be the cultural atmosphere for families and for religion.”

But selling books with such resolve is nothing new, nor does it require a partisan stance.

“Books that are considered conservative by the mainstream are not such a stretch, nor is the idea of making them big sellers,” says John Kremer, who has published several books on publishing and operates Open Horizons, an Iowa-based book-marketing company.

“You could say a conservative book is one that blasts [President] Clinton or takes a side on a cultural debate,” he says. “But there have been true conservative best sellers since the 1970s. So you can say a conservative book publisher is as devoted to a cause as someone who publishes pet books.”

Adds Mr. Baker of Publishers Weekly: “Most of the conservative titles are subsidized in some way or another.”

Unsubsidized, the venture is more of a mission. Spence Publishing’s catalogue features books with eye-catching titles such as “The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity,” “Homosexuality and American Public Life” and “The American Myth of Religious Freedom.”

The publishers’ first blush of national success came last year when radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger read the Wall Street Journal’s upbeat review of their 1998 release, “Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism” by F. Carolyn Graglia.

For days after the broadcast, the phones rang constantly with book orders.

Today, Spence’s profile has ascended by virtue of C-SPAN’s “Book TV,” which broadcast last year’s opening of Spence’s new offices, and Time magazine, which reviewed “Hating Whitey” in November. Glowing endorsements have come from conservative icons William F. Buckley Jr. and Thomas Sowell.

The two Texans with lofty academic credentials eschewed a world with tenure and security for … well, it remains to be seen. “It really is an American story,” Mr. Spence says, echoing Mr. Horowitz’s sentiment. “We felt that important words were not finding a voice. We really do hope that our authors, in the future, will be the voice of American conservatism.”

The vehemence of the declaration prompted a smirk from Mr. Muncy. “That’s another good thing about being in Dallas,” he says. “We’re insulated from any hostility we might stir up in New York.”

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