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Entrepreneur writing next chapter

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Merle Good, above, and his wife, Phyllis, have started a new publishing company in Lancaster, drawing on their decades of experience in the business.
Merle Good, above, and his wife, Phyllis, have started a new publishing company in Lancaster, drawing on their decades of experience in the business. - (Photo / )

Throughout four decades as an author and publisher, Merle Good has experienced his fair share of victories and defeats – enough to know that one can be just as frightening as the other.

Good, 72, a Lancaster County native, is the author of the recently published memoir “Surviving Failure (and a Few Successes),” in which he details his career in the literary business and the lows and highs along the way.

“Experiences of major failure and major success are very similar in many ways – they sort of push your limits,” he said. “Certainly, just in business terms, they push your cash … If you’re not doing too well, your cash is tight. If you’re doing really well, your cash is tight because you’re expanding.”

Farm to fable

Growing up on a Mennonite farm in Lancaster, Good knew he wanted to be a writer from a young age. He often would jot down notes and formulate ideas for stories after completing his chores. Despite his family’s initial skepticism and a lack of support from friends, he continued to pursue his goals.

He published his first work at age 11, a poem that appeared in a children’s magazine. From there, he continued to submit to various small periodicals, getting several pieces published but also receiving dozens of rejection slips.

Good married Phyllis Pellman in August 1969; the two met while studying at Lancaster Mennonite School. Their first business venture was a summer theater at the former Guernsey Barn in Lancaster, which they operated for a decade, annually staging 40 productions – mostly original plays penned by Merle.

By his mid-20s, Good had had his first op-ed, “Exploitation and Storytelling,” published in The New York Times.

His first novel, “Happy as the Grass was Green” – about a New York University student who visits a Mennonite friend in Lancaster after a fellow Mennonite is killed during a Vietnam War protest – had been adapted into the 1973 film “Hazel’s People,” co-starring Pat Hingle and Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner Geraldine Page.

The Goods launched a publishing company, Good Books, in 1979. Many of their earliest titles focused on the Mennonite culture. One, “20 Most Asked Questions About the Amish and Mennonites,” has sold over 600,000 copies. Also on the roster were numerous cookbooks with both Mennonite and general recipes.

Over the succeeding years, Good Books grew to distribute 30 to 40 new titles a year to libraries and bookstores nationwide.

Despite the couple’s efforts to boost sales and cut expenses, the Goods found themselves forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996, in the hopes of eventually reorganizing their company in another form.

Recipes for success

A surprising turn of events arrived in 2000 when the newly reorganized Good Books released “The Fix It and Forget It Cookbook,” a collection of slow-cooker recipes. The book eventually became the bestselling trade paperback in the United States throughout 2002, resulting in a staggering 1,000 percent growth for the company over the course of a year.

As Good recalls, he and Phyllis were completely unprepared for success of such magnitude. Their company went bankrupt a second time in 2013. This time around, the Goods opted for Chapter 7 – the company was liquidated and sold to a larger publisher in New York.

Last year, the Goods decided to give publishing a third try by launching a new publishing company, Lancaster-based Walnut Street Books. Good points out that the two were quick to apply what they had learned from experience into this new business venture. They decided they would publish about four to six new books a year and to focus primarily on publishing rather than diversifying into additional retail and arts interests.

“The [publishing] industry has gone through many changes. But, surprisingly, the book business is still fairly healthy,” Good said. “Starting over, we’re going to keep it simple and small. Focused, fun, and full of energy.”

Among the publisher’s major recent titles released this year are “What It’s Like to Be Amish,” a collection of anecdotes about Amish life from Gordonville-based farmer and historian Sam S. Stoltzfus, and “The Farm Home Cookbook” by Ohio native Elsie Kline.

According to Good, Walnut Street has a total of about 20 projects currently under development – including two of his own original works and a food book from Phyllis, as well as numerous planned titles that will deal with topics ranging from desserts and gardening to restorative justice.

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