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SWEET SUCCESS

Jackie O, at Doubleday, missed it completely. So did the editors at Scribner's and a score of other big publishing companies.

When an Orlando reporter, despairing over the quality of modern literature, typed up the first part of a 1938 classic by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and submitted it to publishers under a fake name, the only person who caught on to the hoax was June Cussen at tiny Pineapple Press.

She saw it in the first few pages and pointed it out to her husband.

"It was very late, about 11 o'clock," she said. "I was reading along until I said, "David, wait a minute, this is very familiar: Jody and a fawn. This is The Yearling!'

"

The publishers who fell for the gag blamed the tremendous number of manuscripts they have to review every day. But that's why at Pineapple Press the owners read every manuscript themselves.

"I wouldn't trust anybody else," said Mrs. Cussen, 47. "The chance of rejecting a good one is just too high."

Besides, that cuts out a lot of bureaucracy, said David Cussen, 51. "We can decide in an hour or 10 minutes to do a book, and that's it," he said. "We don't have to bring it to anybody else."

There are other reasons why the Cussens' company stands out compared to Scribner's and the rest. Big publishing companies employ thousands of people and tend to be based in big steel-and-glass boxes in New York. Pineapple Press boasts just four full-time employees, and two of them are the Cussens.

Their corporate offices are in a converted garage next door to the Cussens' house in Sarasota. There's no sign out front, just a couple of huge Cuban laurels and a pair of spindly citrus trees. Nothing gives away the secret that on this quiet residential street a short walk from Sarasota Bay sits a publishing house that has produced works praised in the pages of the New York Times.

The Pineapple Press number is listed in the local phone book, though. The Cussens once got a phone call from someone asking if they could squeeze the juice out of some pineapples.

Despite its small size, Pineapple Press has squeezed out a reputation for producing books suited

to a state full of people with a lot of leisure time. As a result, the Cussens have outlasted most of the other small presses they used to compete with.

"They are probably the premier press of Florida," said Ray Hinst, manager of Haslam's Bookstore in St. Petersburg. "We're very happy every time they come out with something we can sell."

Usually that's something with "Florida" in the title, such as Florida's Birds, the first comprehensive guide to all the species in the Sunshine State. The Cussens have put out books on Florida law, history, architecture, rivers and retirees, even a book called The Complete Guide to Living in Florida.

When the grande dame of Florida environmentalists, 101-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas, decided to write her autobiography with the help of John Rothchild, she picked Pineapple Press to publish it.

Her book, Voice of the River, garnered good reviews and steady sales. Hollywood producers have expressed an interest in buying the film rights _ although they seem to think the story of Douglas' life lacks an essential element of drama, Mrs. Cussen said.

"They're very upset that there's no love interest after 1915," she said.

But that's normal for a Pineapple Press book. The Cussens don't publish sex-drenched thrillers, Gothic romances or any of the genres that usually fill the best-seller lists.

Instead, the latest catalog includes an anthology of Florida science fiction (Subtropical Speculations), a historical novel about a Floridian caught up in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln (A Court for Owls) and a directory to Florida's metaphysical side for New Age enthusiasts (Metaphysical Florida).

"It amazes me that they can have such a productive publishing house, and they're basically it," said David Maehr, who co-wrote Florida's Birds.

What may be more amazing is that the Cussens have built a successful business publishing books about their adopted home state.

"Florida books are very difficult to make money on," said Mac Perry, a St. Petersburg resident who has written a number of books. The one Pineapple Press published, Landscaping in Florida, has done far better than the rest.

Florida is too spread out, and has grown too fast, for most publishers to figure out how to market books here, Hinst said. But the Cussens know how, he said.

And with their books, the Cussens have "created a regional identity that we wouldn't have if we had to rely on books published by people in California and New York," explained author Rothchild.

But it wasn't too long ago that the Cussens thought of Florida as nothing more than one big beach. Certainly, they thought, "no serious literature would emerge from there," Mrs. Cussen said.

From England to Englewood

A dozen years ago the Cussens were living in London, where he managed a group of academic publishers owned by a Canadian magnate. Cussen had been in publishing for more than a decade, and traveled around Africa, Europe and the Middle East promoting books.

They lived on Bloomsbury Street because it was a six-minute walk to the hospital. Their son Thomas was born with an intestinal problem that required a total of 12 operations before he turned 2.

Meanwhile Mrs. Cussen was pregnant with their daughter, Sarah. Those two circumstances pushed the Cussens to consider moving somewhere else.

"London's great, unless you have to push baby carriages and go shopping and there's no elevator," Cussen said.

Perhaps, they decided, a warmer climate would help their son. They found what sounded like a wonderful deal in Florida: a big house in a quiet beach town called Englewood, just a short distance from the waters of Lemon Bay.

They bought the house sight unseen. Their arrival in Englewood opened their eyes. Like a lot of people who buy Florida real estate long-distance, the Cussens discovered that, far from buying a piece of paradise, they had jumped headfirst into the house from hell.

"The house was a wreck, so I spent a lot of time fixing it up," Cussen said.

Englewood, too, was not what they had expected. An old Gulf coast fishing village, Englewood straddles the Sarasota-Charlotte county line. Most of its residents were retired blue-collar workers. It had no government, no theaters, no nightlife beyond a couple of bars. Its lone bookstore sold nothing but used paperbacks.

Still, there was the beach, where the Cussens went fishing and swimming. And because Englewood was so far off the beaten path, developers hadn't yet tried to wipe out the area's flourishing wildlife.

Mrs. Cussen, a former English teacher from Indiana, was amazed by Florida's tropical beauty _ so much greenery, compared to the drab gray of London. Someone, she thought, should write a book about it. So she began one.

She never finished it, though. Instead she and her husband decided to use their accumulated expertise to launch their own publishing company, financed with their savings and a mortgage on their house. Because the house was on Pineapple Street, they called the company Pineapple Press.

The first two books they published were reprints of turn-of-the-century travelogs. Florida Days and Florida Trails weren't meant to be blockbuster best-sellers, just a way for the fledgling company to introduce itself.

But the two books sold steadily, enabling the Cussens to publish their first original book, a guide to Florida's poisonous plants and animals. Then came their first novel, Seminole Seed. Pineapple Press was on its way to becoming a success, but it was still very much a shoestring operation.

"I remember with Seminole Seed I had all the books packed up in boxes and the boxes lined up in my driveway waiting for UPS and I was afraid it would rain," Cussen said.

The Cussens put in long hours reading and editing manuscripts, arranging for printing and promoting their books. Their grueling schedule made little Englewood the perfect place for Pineapple Press to thrive.

"There was nothing else to do down there," Cussen said. "We worked and we went to the beach."

Then their big break arrived, in the form of a rambling 30-page treatise on the Florida panther.

Stalking the big-time

The way James McMullen remembers it, he was giving a lecture in Boca Grande and mentioned he planned to write a book about the endangered Florida panther. The Cussens heard about it and sent him a letter expressing interest in his work, McMullen said.

The Cussens say McMullen mailed them a manuscript that was little more than a collection of facts about the panther _ its size, how many teeth it has, that kind of thing.

"We sent it out to expert readers and they found it was not accurate," Cussen said. Still, they liked the idea of doing a book on panthers, so they met with the author, an amateur naturalist.

In the book that resulted, Cry of the Panther, McMullen's tale of stalking a panther through the Everglades parallels his experiences stalking enemy troops through the jungles of Vietnam. State biologists disagree with McMullen's conclusions about the panther, but that didn't matter to the critics.

Poet James Dickey, the author of Deliverance, raved about it in the New York Times Book Review. Soon the book that McMullen intended primarily for a Florida audience was selling well nationally and overseas.

Getting the book ready for publication required Mrs. Cussen to spend a year and a half editing McMullen's manuscript _ but that was nothing compared to the ordeal involved in publishing Florida's Birds.

"That was a killer!" she said.

Originally the bird book's author was going to be Cussen himself. He piled up pages and pages before "it suddenly dawned on me what an enormous task I had set for myself," he said.

So the Cussens lined up some experts to do the book instead. First came Karl Karalus, a world renowned wildlife artist, who just happened to live in Englewood too. Then Cussen went to see Herbert W. Kale II, head ornithologist for the Florida Audubon Society.

At first Kale said he had never heard of Pineapple Press and he doubted he could tackle such a gigantic project. But then Kale recruited David Maehr, a state biologist, to help him. When the authors and illustrator couldn't get along, Cussen acted as go-between for the entire project.

"It was a real labor," Maehr said. The Cussens "were very patient. We took five years. I know they wanted it a lot quicker than that."

But after dealing with Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Cussens figured they could handle anything.

Douglas, who alerted the public to the importance of the Everglades with her 1947 book River of Grass, has long been an independent woman, one not shy about lecturing governors and anyone else about saving the environment.

The biggest problem with her proposed autobiography was its title. Co-author Rothchild and Mrs. Cussen came up with Voice of the River, tying it in with her book on the Everglades, which Pineapple Press was reprinting. But Douglas insisted it should be called A South Florida Woman _ a title Mrs. Cussen was convinced "would've sent it straight into the trash can of any reviewer."

At one point during the title fight, Rothchild and Mrs. Cussen were supposed to go to dinner with Douglas, and met her at her cottage in Coconut Grove. She served her guests champagne and was quite gracious, Mrs. Cussen said, until talk turned to the title.

"In 10 minutes she got so upset with us that she would not have dinner with us," Mrs. Cussen said. Douglas ordered them out of her house.

But a week and $100 worth of long-distance telephone calls later, "she reconsidered, and relented, and Voice of the River was fine," Mrs. Cussen said.

By the time Voice of the River came out, Pineapple Press was no longer on Pineapple Street.

Because of the growing size of their operation, the Cussens found themselves relying more and more on free-lancers _ typesetters, photographers, graphics people _ most of whom lived in Sarasota.

So the Cussens sold their house in Englewood and moved to Sarasota themselves. It is everything Englewood is not, full of art galleries, theaters, concert venues. There's even an opera house.

But the Cussens never have time for any of that. They're too busy reading the manuscripts that fill their mailbox every day.

Their routine is much the same as it was in Englewood: read, work, go to the beach. But there are a few changes in their lives.

For one, frail little Thomas is now 13 and "tough as a palmetto," says his mother. Sarah is 11. Both are devoted to reading.

"I can't keep Sarah in books," Mrs. Cussen said. "That's one of my problems, going to the library every other day."

For another, after years of struggling, Pineapple Press has begun to do better than break even. It has made a name for itself in publishing circles and among readers. Sometimes, at book fairs, people have asked Cussen to autograph books, although he hasn't written a line.

"I've been embarrassed a few times," Cussen said. "I'm just the publisher. I don't think it's my place to sign a book someone else wrote."

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