11 October 2009

My Life and Times in Independent Publishing

Synergy, South India, & Slow Decline

THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES – State College, PA

I lied about my age to get my first job. I guess I figured 12 years old wasn’t a strict cutoff for work as a paperboy, just an indicator, and other, stronger indicators told me I was ready. I doubt the delivery driver I met on a Sunday before dawn to show me the route cared much for such details either. I was committed, competent, lived nearby, hit puberty early, and had a father who would do my route when I was sick—what more could he ask for from an 11-year-old paperboy?

Over the next few years I held three different routes. I rode a well-worn bike, bagged and tossed papers with a frenetic grace, and fantasized about seeing barely clothed women in the windows. For $0.14 a paper I circumvented well-manicured lawns and gardens and followed strict customer directions involving entryways, doors, and mail slots. Eventually I started rollerblading, cutting certain corners and missing the more demanding tosses (and probably some Christmas tips too).


THE DAILY NEXUS – Santa Barbara, CA

The next publication I worked for was my college newspaper. I found the job listed in the classifieds section of the newspaper, and that’s where I stayed. Rarely during the three years I spent in the advertising office jotting down classifieds and writing display ads did I envy those across the hall in editorial. The newspaper wasn’t very good, and if I once aspired to write for it, the impulse evaporated when an absent-minded blonde reporter misidentified me in an article as a political science major (I was a philosophy major, we take offense to many things). I was living by the beach in Santa Barbara, studying art and philosophy. I didn’t want to work harder and get paid less. I wanted to get paid without having to think about work. So that’s what I did.


MUSED MAGAZINE – Santa Barbara, CA

A lot of things happen in a guy’s life because of girls, and my involvement with Mused was one of those things. I knew a girl who was starting a literary magazine. She seemed smart and ambitious, and I thought I might like her, so I devoted myself wholeheartedly—this being college after all, a time during which my heart never felt quite whole without someone to devote itself to. At first I had to jockey my way into staff meetings. Soon I was spearheading advertising campaigns, designing page spreads, contributing articles, and generally becoming a go-to-guy.

Regardless of what happened with the girl—things got good, then real good, then bad, then real bad—my time with Mused was well worth it. By the fourth and final issue, at which point we graduated and the magazine went defunct, it had a print run of five thousand, a spiffy website, and distribution throughout California (I personally distributed to much of Santa Barbara). It also provided me with even more reason to spurn the editorial department of the school newspaper, since we knew we had a product of infinitely higher quality and integrity. We printed in color.


BLESSINGWAY AUTHORSSERVICES – Santa Fe, NM

College ended abruptly, leaving my heart and mind high and dry—or dry and high, respectively. I made my way back to my parents’ house in Santa Fe, where we’d moved while I was in high school. I settled down into a slightly rearranged room, revisited a few old habits and friends, and set about seeking part-time work.

I emerged from my interview with Blessingway Authors’ Services newly employed and vaguely aware of what it meant to work in “author’s services.” Aspiring and marginally established authors would hire Blessingway to perform of one or more aspects of the standard publishing process. Usually these writers remained stranded in the increasingly crowded realm of the self-published, but occasionally a book would get picked up by a larger publisher and everyone stood to profit. In the first few weeks I wrote a book proposal, edited a manuscript, input revisions, designed a layout, drafted a marketing plan, obtained trademark and copyright rights, and contacted distributors—each for a different book. I worked out of my boss’s home; she had a hard time sleeping at night and would emerge from her bedroom around 4 p.m., as I was leaving for the day.


SYNERGETIC PRESS – Cerrillos, NM

Synergetic Press is located about half an hour outside of Santa Fe on Synergia Ranch. It was built by revolutionary hippies in the early 1970s, and many of them still live there, rent free. Besides their radical views, the residents of Synergia Ranch happen to be a rather educated and cultured bunch, and I would often marvel at photos of them standing around the courtyard with William Burroughs or Buckminster Fuller. A geodesic dome was even constructed on the property in honor of the latter. The residents of Synergia invented, built, and operated the Biosphere 2, a massive, materially enclosed ecological system in southern Arizona inside which “Biospherians” lived for two years without exit in the early ’90s—and which served as the setting for the 1996 Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin movie Biodome.

My boss Tango (all ranch residents had nicknames) had me building websites and writing copy—interesting work—but, as far as I could see, nothing that generated any revenue. I began to feel guilty, a feeling augmented by the fact that Tango made me lunch every day, and often confided to me about her troubled financial state.


RDR BOOKS – Muskegon, MI

Roger Rapoport is the publisher of RDR Books.  I haven’t met or talked to him, but I know he has a funny, slightly childish-looking signature from the checks he mails me. Roger and I established contact through a mutual colleague (my networking tree had finally borne fruit), and ever since I’ve been their official occasional freelance copyeditor and proofreader. I even indexed a book once, which proved less fun than it sounds.


TARA BOOKS – Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

The morning I heard back from Tara Books regarding their yearlong publishing fellowship I had the flu. I stared long and hard at the email, my eyes watery, my nose stuffy, and my head foggy. It was the first time I’d been selected for something I’d concerted all possible effort towards attaining, and it felt good.

Six months later I found myself in South India, where every sensory signal—incessant honking, curry and chutney aromas, thick humid air, fresh chai, the click of cricket bats—reminded me just how far I’d come to work for this internationally renowned visual arts book publisher. Familiarities for an American Jew in South India are scarce, and I quickly set about feeling incompetent and unbecomingly dependent upon others. Surrounded by English-speaking friends (and the habitual comforts of the Internet) at the office, I felt calmer. In the beginning, I looked forward to workdays more than weekends. We had mid-morning tea meetings in the courtyard full of witty banter and exotic accents; work was challenging and fulfilling; there were girls to flirt with. I was learning the ins-and-outs of the global publishing industry and esoteric handmade book-making simultaneously. Even in the 100º heat life felt refreshing.

By the time of my departure I felt the reverse: stultified at work and invigorated outside. One morning, I arrived at work to find that the “bosses”—there were three—had somehow uncovered the publicity manager’s secret blog. In it, she disparaged everyone on Tara’s twelve-member staff—everyone but me, whom she referred to as her “mermaid” and described with endearment. We were close friends. The only other staff member who had previously known about the blog was another American intern, who was a favorite subject of the blog’s disparagement, and who possessed a distinctively American determination to be the office’s alpha female. She, presumably, had leaked the blog to our bosses.

This unfortunate turn of events led to the publicity manager’s firing and my own ostracization—I had known about the blog all along but hadn’t informed the powers that be. It also led to the female American intern hooking up with the suave, sexy Indian boss, which eventually led to us all receiving modest raises. It was all very strange. Suffice to say that at Tara I turned out to be the outsider, which was fine as long as I was outside the office.

Throughout all the commotion, my colleague Mr. A and I managed to keep up our postprandial badminton game. Mr. A was Tara’s tireless production manager. He was also a tireless espouser of the fitness benefits of 15 casual minutes of “street” badminton (no net, no scorekeeping, and very little legwork), a mentor, and a friend. His MacGyver-like ability to overcome obstacles both inspired and shamed me. He was an Adobe Creative Suite master with limited English capability and two-fingered typing skills; no matter how fast I read or typed, InDesign and Photoshop baffled me.

I appreciated Mr. A’s kindnesses more than I could express directly. Before leaving I gave him a Swiss Army knife, because all handy men need a Swiss Army knife and he was one of the handiest I’d known.


NEW HORIZONS MEDIA – Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

A wine glass broken at the neck, a pool of wine seeping outwards from the spill; a fall from grace: a well-to-do Indian couple now faced with transgressions such as adultery and blackmail. These describe the cover and contents of Ashes and Wisdom, a book published by the Indian Writing imprint of New Horizons Media, and the only cover I’ve designed for a book currently in print.

I visted the New Horizons Media office once—a memorable trip that took two rickshaw rides and the reconsideration of several wrong directions. (In India if you don’t know where something is you give directions anyways, especially to foreigners.) After ascending a flight of external stairs I entered the reception area and signed one of the large, wide-ruled visitors’ books found in all Indian entryways. I entered the publisher’s office to find him nestled inside a makeshift Plexiglas-and-wood structure in the far corner of the office. He invited me to join him there. I casually walked across the humid room and opened the flimsy door, trying to imbue the situation with a bit of normality. It was much cooler than the outer area in this mini-office, like a little icebox just for him. I knew then that I would enjoy my time with New Horizons Media, that it would not be business as usual, and that it would lead to further extraordinary Indian experiences like being interviewed by a local magazine as a “Music Lover from the U.S.A.” about a music festival I knew nothing about.


INKWATER PRESS – Tigard, OR

Dear Authors,

Your literary journey begins when you submit your manuscript for review.

So also begins the submissions page of the Inkwater Press website. If you’ve got a manuscript and a spare grand (cost is not discussed on the submissions page), you can have a book published by Inkwater Press in about four months. The book will be print-on-demand, available for purchase on Amazon.com, and revenue will be split about 80/20 between you and Inkwater Press. High-end self-publishing with a little help—as Inkwater puts it, “If we accept your work for publication, we create a comprehensive, tailor-made publishing plan for your book“—this business model lobs the ball deep into the author’s court. Of course, the alternative is often no ball at all.

Inkwater has all the traditional staff—acquisitions, editorial, production, marketing, and sales—and produces high-quality books that are hard to differentiate from those of traditional publishers. It’s just that they don’t pay authors for the rights to their books, authors pay them. “Custom” books like these—a fast-growing industry within the slowly shrinking industry of book publishing—are frequently used for self-promotion or other entrepreneurial outlets, and recovering investment dollar-for-dollar is often not the authors’ main concern. 

As an intern at Inkwater I finally found myself working for a company with a convincing business plan and promising future. Unfortunately it wasn’t a company I saw myself working for for very long.


GRAPHIC ARTS CENTER PUBLISHING COMPANY – Portland, OR

Right now I’m sitting at my desk in my office at work. It’s the end of the day at the end of the week, which ends on Thursday here and has for the last nine months since money became really tight. As the marketing manager, my office is piled high with books, although most of these are promotional copies left un-promoted; their only means of escape now is via personal request as a desk or review copy.

This company is 30 years old; 5 years older than I am. I guess someday these will become the good old days, and I’ll recall the good old things about them—my first salaried job; first personal office; the commute by bicycle. But for now the good old days ended almost a year ago, when we stopped having acquisitions meetings, when forthcoming books became perpetually postponed books, and when almost half the staff was laid off. I can only imagine how my remaining colleagues feel, the ones who were here in the boom years of the ’80s. Occasionally I’ll pull a random book off a nearby shelf and leaf through it, I think mostly for the tactile sensation, for a break from the all the keys and screens and backlighting.

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