Dec. 15 2010 12:00 AM

Michigan printer rides Twain juggernaut

Fred Mineweaser saw it coming, but nobody asked his opinion.

Smudged and smiling, Mineweaser tinkered with a gigantic gluer-dryer machine Friday afternoon at Thomson Shore print- ing plant in Dexter.

Stacks of book covers, 4,000 to a pallet, testified to his gluing expertise. All were stamped in gold: “The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1.”

Until now, this mid-sized company has turned out high-quality, university-press obscurities like “Historical Atlas of West Virginia,” “Flowering Plants: Smart Weeds to Hazelnuts,” and a door-stopper called “Comprehensive Literature of the Reptilia, Vol. 22.”

The man in the white suit changed all that. Since late October, Mineweaser and 200-plus colleagues have hustled around the clock to crank out Twain’s surprise hit, a New York Times bestseller, at the rate of three truckloads, or 30,000 copies, a week.

“It was a sleeping giant,” Thomson Shore president Kevin Spall said. The employee-owned printing company has worked with Twain’s publisher, the University of California Press, many times, but this one blew up on them both like a riverboat boiler.

Since late October, a planned print run of less than 5,000 has mushroomed to 300,000 and counting. Spall expects to hit the 500,000 mark by January.

The publisher had reason to be cautious. The autobiography is a big book — almost as big as “Reptilia” — with lots of notes and scholarly apparatus. And it’s only the first of three volumes.

They should have gone down to the floor and consulted Mineweaser, who appreciates the magnitude of the book he is gluing together.

“Mark Twain’s one of our
great writers, plus having it published 100 years after the fact makes
it even better,” Mineweaser said.

Across the work floor on Friday after
noon, binder Steve Mullins was busy sewing pages together and
stacking them above his head. “We’re having a ball,” Mullins said. “I’ve
never seen anything like this in my life.”

In 2009, Thomson Shore went
through two rounds of layoffs, cutting about 50 jobs as the economy
tanked. The Twain book, along with a full slate of about half a dozen
other titles, has helped to restore about 15 jobs. The rest of the
staff, some 215 strong, is working seven days a week, in three shifts, around
the clock.

The Twain autobiography is a hot “dad” gift this season, but
its appeal goes deeper than the author’s famous brand. Twain wanted the
book printed a century after he
died, “for a good reason: I can speak freely,” he wrote in the
introduction. With the economy flat and faith in government ebbing, readers are sucking
up Twain’s posthumous, unminced words on everything from greedy tycoons
and sanctimonious preachers to overseas wars and corrupt politicians.

There’s a bull market in America for truth.

“Not really nice thoughts, but a lot of it is relevant today,” Mineweaser said.

Much of the book, especially Volume 1, has already been printed in some form, but heavily edited. Most of the second and third volumes, scheduled to appear in 2012 and 2014, has never been
seen at all.

On Thanksgiving Day — the
only the man day many of these workers have had off since October —
Mineweaser opened his copy to page 267, where he found Twain’s cynical
take on the holiday: “People recognized that they really had something to be
thankful for … if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors,
the Indians, during the previous 12 months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians.”

Thanksgiving became a
tradition, Twain wrote, “when it
was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all
on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side.”

In a
freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness style, Twain criticizes public
figures like Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and
settles scores with per sonal enemies like James Paige, who swindled
Twain out of a $150,000 investment in a printing press that was too

“If I had his nuts in a
steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he
died,” Twain wrote. Twain would no doubt approve of the speed of the
Thomson Shores press.

The demand-driven,
“pull” production method is gospel here. Standing inventory is a mortal
sin and nothing stays in one place for long.

Books are printed, cut,
sewn and assembled in as little as one day, sucked across the plant
floor like rafts on the Mississippi at full crest.

Friday afternoon, pressman Britt Darrow monitored ink pressure and consistency at the plant’s giant offset printing machine.

Darrow has the Twain book at home, waiting on his night table for quieter times.

“I’m on page 12,” he said, sheepishly. “I’ve been here working the last two months.”

One chapter of Twain’s book foreshadows the current frenzy in Dexter.

As an entrepreneur,
Twain often flopped, but he scored a great when his little publishing
company got hold of the long- awaited memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. With
respect and affection, Twain describes how his friend, the Civil War
hero and former president, wrote the book on his deathbed to save his
family from debt.

According to Twain,
Grant was almost snared into a miserly contract drawn up by small-minded
rival publishers. “These innocent geese expected the book to sell only
12,000 or 15,000 copies,” Twain wrote.

By the time Grant
finished the book, 250,000 subscribers had signed up to buy it.

Over a
century after Twain got General Grant out of debt, he helped burly
Thomson Shore pressman Mike Thomason pay off his credit card, thanks to
38 days of overtime.

“I’m out of the hole, in the black,” Thomason
said, with a grin. “It feels good.”