A lifelong friendship that began in second grade would eventually lead Todd Lawton and Jeff LeBlanc to a business partnership based on a mutual love of books. In 2009, they founded Out of Print, a company that creates products like totes and T-shirts out of iconic book cover art and original designs. Now, the two partners and friends are sharing their passion for books with the world.
BookTrib chatted with both Todd and Jeff about Out of Print, their philanthropic work, and the value of the book cover in a digital world.
Booktrib: Where did the idea for Out of Print originally come from?
Todd Lawton: We’ve loved reading all our lives, and we felt that there were ways to get people to talk about books that weren’t really happening. We looked at other industries, like music or movies, and there’s a lot of merchandise around those pastimes. Why can’t we do that with books? The iconic cover art out there is awesome and wasn’t being seen enough. We felt there was a statement to be made by putting these covers or designs on shirts and totes and other things you use every day.
Jeff LeBlanc: What we set out to do originally was to try and channel the passion that readers have for their favorite books, their favorite stories and characters—and then create something that someone could wear as an expression of that passion.
BT: You two have been friends for a long time. How did you meet and when did you decide to go into business together?
TL: We met in second grade, in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. In seventh grade, Jeff moved to Michigan, but we kept a long-distance friendship. Fast forward to 2003, we both found ourselves in New York City. To be able to be in business and take our friendship to a new level is just like a dream come true.
BT: Do you have to license the classic artwork you use in your products?
JL: The incredibly difficult part of launching our business was the rights around book covers. Oftentimes the covers that we work with are so old that the contracts that contain the rights are in a vault somewhere. We’ll call a publisher and they’ll have to dig into a vault for contracts from the ‘20s or ‘30s. Our initial challenge was convincing publishers it was worth their time to even find this contract and figure out whether they have the rights.
BT: How important do you think book covers are in a world where digital books are becoming more and more popular?
TL: Book covers are something that stay with you from the moment you pick the book up until years after you put it down. So to see it become less important and less of a part of the digital reading experience is sad. Part of why we wanted to do Out of Print was to keep great book cover art alive and give it a prominent place again.
BT: For every product you sell, you donate a book to a community in need through Books for Africa. Can you tell us more about the charity and your mission to support it?
JL: When we set out, part of our mission was to spread the joy of reading to those who might not have access to books. We were lucky to stumble upon Books for Africa. It’s an organization that’s very well run; they’ve donated over 25 million books to the African continent.
We also work with organizations in the US, acknowledging that there are communities here that need access to books. We’ve been fortunate to work with charities like 826, Dave Eggers’ creative writing foundation, and we’ve worked with First Book and with some local libraries.
TL: This week we’re working with a group called Kids Need to Read. Through them we found an elementary school in Mississippi that hasn’t had a budget for new books in the last couple of years. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to raise enough money to make an impact at their school.