Monday, March 14, 2011

Rule #1

OK, I'm not going to tell you these stories about Bernie just because I hated his guts. He's gone off to either a just or merciful god at this point, I'm sure, and god can take care of Bernie. But I want you to understand rule #1 of writing and publishing: Editors are no smarter than you are. In fact, some of them are a lot dumber. So while it may be a good idea to consider what an editor says about your book, by no means should you take editorial comments as the word of God.
Back to Bernie. One day he called me into his office and said that we had to write a textbook for sex education. It was clear that Bernie would rather not do that. His generation learned about sex from the gutter, the natural place for sex ed. But since the New York City public school system had decided to teach sex ed in classrooms, and since Bernie had some higher-up in the system willing to put his or her name on the book as author, we had to produce a text. That was to be my job. I think it was because I was the youngest editor on the staff, and Bernie figured I was "with it," or "hip," or some other quality that would enable me to write such a book. But Bernie wanted me to keep one thing in mind. He said--I'll never forget it--that I had to tell them about sex without actually explaining "how to do it." If you want to know how I accomplished the feat, you'll have to dig up a copy of the 1970s-era New York public school sex ed text. Maybe on eBay.
But the really funniest story I recall about Bernie, who was not just an editor, remember, but the editor-in-chief of a real, functioning book company, came when we were turning out a science text. He decided to hire some free-lancers to write features and sidebars for the text. One of these features was on Father Gregor Mendel, the Catholic monk who discovered the principles of genetics by cross-fertilizing green and yellow peas. I was actually the person who chose the topic, and I found a free-lancer not too far away. She was in fact my girlfriend, soon to be my wife, but we didn't tell Bernie of our relationship because he would accuse me of favoritism. So the three of us were in Bernie's office, discussing some of the sidebars she had written. And we came to Gregor Mendel and the peas. (Bernie kept referring to the Catholic monk as "Mendel Gregor," thinking apparently that he was a famous Jewish monk.) Anyway, Bernie smiled at both my girlfriend and me and said he wanted to tell us something about writing for students. Naturally, she and I assumed that with his years of experience, he would tell us something very wise and valuable. (I'm using sarcasm here, but we paid attention as if we thought anything he said could be worthwhile. He was paying both of us, after all.) Bernie then told us, "Kids aren't turned on by peas." My girlfriend and I looked at each other, wondering which of us would explain that peas were the essential part of Mendel's (or Gregor's) experiment. But then Bernie said, "Why don't we say that Gregor experimented with something like collie dogs?" It was a sign of extreme self-control that my future wife and I didn't laugh in his face. We were, as I say, getting paid. Not much, not as much as the people whose names were on the books we wrote, but something.
Please remember Bernie, and Rule #1, when an editor suggests something equally idiotic about your book or manuscript. And one will, no doubt about it. Be prepared to defend your book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

what you should know

I'm sitting here in my apartment in Manhattan and it's pouring down rain outside. I like to write at night, and it's 12:47 am at this moment. I decided to start a blog to tell people what it was like to publish 100 books. I plan to finish the 100th book tomorrow--at least the first draft--and it's kind of a celebration for me. Not just because it's my 100th, but because I wrote it without any intention of trying to get some ink-and-paper publisher to accept it.
Mind you, I did get something like 99 books published in that format, and all of them had publishers that paid me for the privilege. Knopf, Putnam, Little Brown, Philomel, Macmillan, Silver Burdett, and a whole bunch of other publishers that are not so well known. But I no longer have to depend on ink-and-paper publishers to get my work out to readers. And neither do you.
Starting with this post, I'm going to tell you what the ink-and-paper publishing industry is really like, and why you shouldn't bother with it--at least if you're a writer who wants to get his/her book published. I'm not going to charge you for reading any of this, and I have nothing to sell--except, naturally, that 100th book, which you can't even read or buy just yet.
I came to New York as a young man. I wanted to write for a living, but since I hadn't actually written anything yet (at least not a novel), I decided to support myself by finding a job as an editor. I was an English major, editor of my college paper, had in fact earned money by proofreading at my father's printing business. So I felt I was qualified to be an editor.
I found a job at an educational publisher called Globe Book Company. An educational publisher publishes books that are primarily intended for schools. Textbooks, of course, and supplementary books for classrooms and school libraries. The company was owned and operated by two men, brothers, whose father had started the company decades earlier. The father had based the business on one simple principle: If he published books that were written by administrators in the New York City public school system, those same administrators would adopt those books for the New York City school system, which would mean that every student would need them. And presto! the Globe Book Company would make money.
One problem was that the administrators of the New York City public school system didn't really have the time to write books--and maybe they weren't capable of writing books, even if they had the time. So that meant the Globe Book Company would have to hire "editors" like me, whose job was to write the books that would be published under the administrators' names. The administrators would be paid royalties, the company would make money, and we editors were paid, as I recall, something like $11,000 a year. In those days you could live on that--barely. Of course it was very little compared to what the owners of the company and the New York City school administrators were getting paid for the work we did. That is the real secret of publishing, and one you should never forget: the writer, the one who does the work, is the one who gets paid least--at least, in ink-and-paper publishing.
Next time I write, I'll tell you about Bernie, the editor-in-chief of the Globe Book Company. He was one of the two brothers who now owned the company. And, quite honestly, he was the dumbest person I had ever met up to that time. (Of course, since I was in publishing, I would meet many others like him.)
Don't worry. This blog won't all be about educational publishers. We'll get to trade publishers, the "real" publishers, soon enough. Stay with me!