Contrary to popular belief, I have in fact worked in book publishing, albeit many years ago as a freelance copy editor and proofreader. It was an exciting time—John Lennon had been shot and killed by a crazed fan, which should have told us that celebrity culture wasn’t as innocuous as it seemed. Ronald Reagan and the Pope were each victims of assassination attempts but survived. It was 1981—New York was a cold and uninviting place.
The publishing company I worked for was the once venerable firm of Grosset and Dunlap, then located in the New York Life Building. Grosset was on its last legs, living off its back list, which included the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for younger readers, Berlitz language titles, astrology books, cook books, and yes, celebrity biographies. The management had given up on the idea of publishing adult fiction, presumably because they were incapable of selecting titles that would sell. Not even their celebrity biographies sold—few made back their advance. No personal computers yet, but clunky IBM electric typewriters and a moderate amount of cigarette smoke framed the office.
If anyone reading this currently works in publishing, perhaps the remainder of scene I am about to describe will be more familiar:
Every project turned into a disaster. I mean every project. It was a rare book that came out when it was scheduled to do so. I wound up working, with several other copy editors, on a cardiovascular health book for consumers. This had been written by a renowned cardiologist. The manuscript wasn’t terrible, but nor was it well written or well organized. And so, it required a considerable amount of editing. The problem was that when each round of edits went out to the author, the manuscript came back with major rewrites, deletions, and new material. Some of this was unavoidable, as the field of cardiology was advancing, far more rapidly than we were, it seemed. The book was stuck in the editing process for three years, a sort of permanent turnaround. No, it was never published.
A minor revelation occurred when I was proofing the next year’s edition of an astrology paperback. In doing so, I discovered that the text of the horoscope for Aries on July 25 was identical to that for Scorpio on March 12. This made me laugh out loud. I then found numerous other examples. The author, a famous astrologer, had clearly taken a series of texts and randomly matched them with multiple dates, in a way reminiscent of John Cage.
But the most memorable book of all was Mafia Kingpin. This 500 page manuscript was written by a man who claimed to have been a major player in the mob, a "made man." At least it was supposed to be his life story, as told to his loyal girlfriend, a former exotic dancer. The problem was that although he no doubt had dealings with members of the Mafia, he had never actually been one himself. Rather, he was a con artist, a thoroughly entertaining one. Much of the book was cribbed from The Valachi Papers and other similar works, but the main narrative technique was the author’s time honored approach of attributing every story he had ever heard to himself, thus becoming a sort of Forrest Gump of crime. The writing style came off as unintentionally funny.
What the executive editor who signed the book should have realized was that had the author indeed “spilled the true story of the Cosa Nostra” he wouldn’t have been walking around alive. Nor did those of us who worked on the manuscript think it likely that the author had slept with Jacqueline Onassis or that the sex was as good as he claimed for either of them. We did know one thing—the two coauthors thoroughly enjoyed the five hundred thousand dollar advance they received.
And so, I was there the day Grosset and Dunlap folded, purchased by Putnam for its back list. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as many of the people who were let go had worked at Grosset for many years. Putnam was subsequently sold to Penguin, which is in turn owned by the Pearson Group, publishers of The Financial Times. I still look back on the year and a half I worked for Grosset with a sort of amazement.
It took them a very long time to cut my last paycheck.
If any readers would like to share their horror stories of working in publishing, I would encourage them to add them below as comments. Tales of incompetent editors, illiterate or
ill-mannered authors, doomed projects, low pay, and general hellishness are welcome.