Monday, July 7, 2014

Don't Step on It--It Might Be a Writer

When you were coming up in the worlds of book and journal publishing, most of the technical advances were being made in areas related to typography.  Some of the books you were responsible for acquiring were composed in "hot metal," type set on a Linotype machine on which one could actually see an ingot of the parent medium, a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony, held aloft in a pot of molten material.

There were several approaches to replacing the hot metal with photo typesetting, a non-metallic approach to printing that in turn required a different form of printing press to reproduce the text.  To this day, years after the fact, you find yourself running your hand over the pages of books, hopeful of discovering proof of its hot metal origins.

Different approaches to printing, in simplistic terms, from letterpress to photo offset, require different presses and thus different trim sizes for books.  Most of the books you dealt with were 5 1/2 inches by 8 1/4.

Today, for the first time in years, you held in your hands a 5 1/2 by 8 1/4 book you'd acquired as editor in chief of Sherbourne Press, a general trade publisher in Los Angeles.  Although you were given a free enough hand in acquisitions to take on anything you wished, you still had to go through the formality of introducing or presenting the work at the weekly editorial meeting.

"So how is this book going to earn its keep?"  the publisher asked, mindful that with one awful exception in which you'd completely messed up the production costs and cover price for the book, all your choices in one way or another earned out, justified the reason for publishing them in the first place.

"Because,"  you said, "this author is well known as 'The King of the Paperbacks,' his authors are well known and writers would kill to have him as their agent."

"So you're saying writers will buy this book?"

"Even more so,"  you said, "than the last two writers' books, all of which have earned their keep."

"Would you kill to have him as your agent?"

You didn't have to; he was your agent.  With him, you were going to work your way back to being  nothing but a writer, just as one of your friends, who was also the agent's client, was.  The agent's client, a former actor born to the world as Gunnar Hjerstedt, was better known as Day Keene.  

For some years, while he was alive, and now, via memory, he had and still has an effect on you.  Only this Saturday, in your workshop, you stopped a writer, who was telling, and showed her how to make the desired information come from action and dialogue.  Your demonstration was pure Day Keene as a motivating force.

The title of the book in question, Don't Step on It, It Might Be a Writer, begged for an all-type jacket, and so, when the art director came forth with a sketch for the drawing, you were only too willing, with support from the sales manager, to go along with it.  The one tiny graphic on the dust jacket , off to the left, crawling its way up toward the top line of type, is a beetle.

If you look closely at the beetle, you can see it has a picture embedded in its body.  If you look closely at the picture, you will have an image of what you looked like in 1972, half a lifetime ago. You have a great mop of dark brown hair, long enough to curl, imparting even more density.  Your sideburns, also long enough to curl, dropped at least an inch below your current length.  You were in a dark blue shirt, seated at your Sherbourne Press office desk, before an IBM Selectric typewriter, your shoulders at a slight hunch because the photographer had wanted you more as a writer, however small the photo might be.

The photo is too small for you, even with a viewing glass, to capture much in the way of what your office looked like, but seeing the picture of yourself helps you focus in particular on the long table that extended the length of the west-facing wall, filled with a stack of what were then called BOM pages, after the format for sending pre-publication projects to the Book-of-the-Month Club in hopes of placing a forthcoming title as a selection or alternate.

There was enough room on the table for a manuscript in preparation to be spread out, chapter by chapter, also a Coleman stove to prepare boiling water for a Chemex coffee maker, plus Mason jars of ground coffee.  This was the neatest aspect of the office.

The author/agent was Donald MacCampbell, who simply assumed all writers drank because Day Keene drank.  At the time, you drank a good deal, not because Day Keene drank, although there were many carouses with him, when you found yourself turned out onto the foggy streets of San Pedro, having just closed down one of two favored drinking spots, Shanghai Red's or Slim Harrison's Bank Cafe, both in Beacon Street.

Often, there was nothing for it except to go to the Chinese Restaurant on Gaffey Street, which seemed to stay open at that hour in order to sell quantities of its seaweed soup, which in turn the entire waitstaff seemed to think you wanted, or why else would you be there at two in the morning?

Forty years and counting after the publication of Don't Step on It--It Might Be a Writer, you find it a well told book, yet another memoir you'd acquired from someone who had a place in a world you cared about and continue to care for.  A browse through the index brings faces and incidents to your mind of individuals and your then state of mind about publishing and history and the need to define a segment of the universe for that editorial person you'd not thought ever to become but in so many ways had become.

There was another individual pacing, tapping his fingers on the table, wanting the same attention you gave to being an editor.  This individual was justified in his impatience, because you scarcely knew his presence, had no thought whatsoever of how he could help you.

There were two book contracts MacCampbell had secured for you.  They--and the awareness that Day Keene wrote a novel a month, which MacCampbell promptly found a home for--were your motivations for leaving the office side of publishing, the long table with the piled galley proofs and sprawled manuscripts, the sales reps at sales meetings, asking you how you could expect them to sell such things to book stores,

"When you come to a turn in the road, take it."  Lawrence "Yogi" Berra.  You came to a turn in the road, then someone said you were the very person who should run their Los Angeles office,because who had a better feel for California and California writers than you?

A little over a year later, you were being fired because your acquisitions were all about California and movies, but you were not fired before a rival asked you to take his classes at USC while he was off at a sales meeting.

You'd been on that campus a number of times before, at varying stages of your life, including one time when, while wearing a Greek toga and a wig, you were tied to the iconic USC stature of Tommy Trojan.  But at the time you drove on campus that day, to take over Charlie Block's class, the other individual, pacing and tapping his fingers within you, said "Hey."  He said, "You're listening to me.  It's about time."

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