Phil Wood: Rest In Peace

Phil Wood, the founder of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, died  of cancer on December 11. He was 72.

Phil got into publishing after spending most of the sixties selling Penguin Books out of his car. In 1971 he founded Ten Speed Press, named after his first title: Anybody’s Bike Book. The following year, he published a  job hunting book, What Color is Your Parachute. Ten Speed Press just published the 40th edition of this book. It has sold over 10,000,000 copies, one of the bestselling books of all time.

Phil was one of the last great individualists in publishing.. He was also incredibly savvy about finding books that were very weird, sometimes even tasteless,  and turning them into improbably best sellers. Books like: How to Shit in the Woods, White Trash Cooking, Why Cats Paint,  Kill as Few Patients as Possible,  and Flattened Fauna.

Phil’s great love was gourmet food and  he became the publisher and developed the reputations of some important culinary figures. His first cookbook was The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.  In cookbooks, as in all other areas, he brought his own idiosyncratic style to publishing. When he visited restaurants that excited him, he would develop a cookbook with the owner. The vast majority of copies would then be promoted and sold to customers in the restaurants.

Now here is a dirty little secret. I once asked Phil what his greatest mistake was in publisher. He said: “Don’t ever tell anyone this, but I rejected The Chez Panisse Cookbook by Alice Waters.” Oops. I let the cat out of the bag.

Phil relished being  an eccentric  with flair at a time when book publishing was increasingly dominated by corporations and corporate types. His office was stuffed, almost like a warehouse, with his beloved Asian antiques, another of his great passions. The offices of Ten Speed in Berkeley always had rather odd wooden lambs placed around the front entrance. They were almost like a logo, but nobody ever seemed to know what they meant, if anything.  Phil could always be seen at the Ten Speed booth of the book conventions dressed in a panama hat, brightly colored Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops. The booth was always guarded at either end by the wooden sheep.

When Cody’s was struggling to stay afloat in 2007, we were running out of cash and I was having a very difficult time paying publishers. I felt pretty bad that so many of the companies I dealt with over the years were going to lose money from Cody’s. I was having lunch with Phil one day and told him about this and how it was so troubling to me. Cody’s owed some money to Ten Speed, and I was feeling a little uncomfortable talking about this with Phil. Phil said that every publisher in America had made a lot of money from Cody’s over the years. He advised me  to  stop worrying about them and start worrying about taking care my family. That’s the kind of guy he was.

In 2009, Phil sold Ten Speed to Random House and became publisher emeritus.

 I loved that guy.  I think about Phil a lot and will miss him dearly.

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