Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

Some years ago, while working free-lance for Berkley Books, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to write about books I had yet to read.  The editor, who had presumably read the book, had an intermediary hand me a dot-matrix printed paragraph on a perforated piece of computer paper. My job was B2B.

I recall one of the science fiction outlines, which took place on a distant planet, was more or less a plot summary from the Cliff Notes on “Hamlet.”  What was I supposed to do with that?  Apparently, what I was paid to do — turn it into an alluring pitch so that Barnes and Noble would order more than one copy of the book before it was printed.  Often, just to get through the exercise, I’d have to write a “mock” draft — one where I’d ridicule the author and the book as derivative drivel set on an obscure planet so as to try and hide the trail back to Shakespeare.

Yes, I grew up in the publishing industry. Fresh out of college, I started in the mail room of Zebra Books — a romance company that published such politically correct titles as “Savage Love,” “Savage Ecstasy” and “Savage Romance,” all titles regarding the inter-racial love affairs of American Indians and abducted females who grew to love their captors.  The formula was basically — male rapes female, female hates male, male goes away, both realize they can’t live without the other. (I hope I haven’t given away any industry secrets).  I remember writing the back cover copy for my own version of a romance: “A starving hobo reaches toward the remains of a tossed cigarette, when the sooty fingers and grimed nails of a bag lady slide under hi s fingers.  Their hands touch in …. Gutter Love.

The Art Director of that place was a middle-aged, mustachio’d Italian madman named Vince with whom I had instant rapport.  Vince showed me the contract for one of the books — the publishers paid a thousand dollars for all rights.  Then he showed me the bill for the cover artwork: five thousand dollars.  “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he’d say.  In the mailroom with me was a young African American named Chris.  Chris was well over six feet tall and carried a lot of weight.  He was a Jehovah’s Witness, but spent half his day cussing people out for not following the rules. “Don’t you be bringing no mail here at 4:30 when I gots to get to the post office at 4:45.  Yes, I’m talking to you.”  Vince used to wait until Chris went to the bathroom.  Then he’d signal me to follow him.  We’d enter the small tiled space where there were three cubicles.  Vince:  “Contestant number one, welcome to today’s edition of mystery guest.  Take a look at those shoes and see if you can guess who might be our secret stall visitor today!”  Chris: “Doggone it Vince, if you don’t get out of here in two seconds, I’m gonna wrap your knuckle nose into the sink.”  Vince: “Sorry contestant one, our secret stall visitor spoke, thus disqualifying you from this round.  However, our secret stall visitor gets a free role of unbranded toilet paper.”  With that, Vince would toss a roll of t.p. from the counter over the top of the stall.
I later went to work for the AAP, the publisher’s lobby, in their educational offices in NYC.  Since my direct supervisor administered programs for the paperback publishing group (among others), I was tasked with a monthly press release on America’s Top Ten Bestselling Paperbacks.  Each month we’d run a different category, such as the Top Ten Bestselling Horror Paperbacks.  Most of the books were ten years or more removed from their first printing — they were just books people liked to buy.  I’d have to dream up an idea as to why this might be relevant for anyone (Halloween is coming and now it’s time to revisit some of your favorite horror classics).  Maybe they were required reading for school.  I recall one recipient sent the press release back to our office with a note across the face: “who cares?”

After a short stint as an administrative assistant at the National Book Awards, I went back to graduate school (what else does one do when the career path looks bleak and other options are vague?).  Via a fluke, I ended up teaching writing. I walked out of a general meeting without filling out an application and was called by the head of the department.  “Why didn’t you stay and do the application process?” “I did the math; adjunct work pays a little less than McDonald’s and there’s more homework.”  “Would you consider a full-time temporary position?” I had to have that explained more than once.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I also worked as a journalist.  I started out writing Theatre Criticism for The Ocean County Reporter, one of those free papers that ended up in everyone’s litter box.  The editor would chop up my sentences until they no longer said what I’d originally intended.  After a time, they offered to take me on full time.  I was to ride along with one of their best staffers and learn the ropes.  That lasted about six months — I needed to get out of Jersey.  One of my great regrets from my year in journalism is that I didn’t escape with a single published piece that I could use in a portfolio.  Either there are typesetting errors or enough editorial hacking that my work was no longer true.

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