Friday, January 4, 2013

Bloopers from my early days in publishing

From late 1994 until mid-1997, I worked in marketing at Abbeville Press in New York City. (Never mind that I never took a marketing class in college and if I’d been asked to define “marketing” during the job interview, my bluff would have been painfully obvious.)


My naïveté was not limited to the nuances of promotion. I recall three other instances when I felt foolish at work—but in one of those instances, also unfairly maligned.

blooper #1

In my early weeks on the job, one of the senior (and intimidating) editors asked me to look up something in Books in Print. (This was pre-mainstream-Internet.) I confessed to not knowing what that was.

She looked at me with disbelief. “My daughter used it all the time in college.” The takeaway, case you missed that, is that her daughter was way smarter than I was. No self-respecting young publishing grunt can be unfamiliar with Books in Print! (For the record, the number of times I needed to refer to BIP after that: zero.)

blooper #2

At first, I had two bosses at Abbeville, and one was Dan Tucker, with whom I’m still friends today. (I’m still friends with the other boss, too, but she doesn’t play into this story.) Today, Dan runs Sideshow Media, a stylish book developer that he founded in 2000.

At a point during my first year on the job when I had been there long enough to know better, Dan was frustrated because a company called Ingram was expecting special terms for something-or-other. In trying to be empathetic, I said something to the effect of “What makes some company I never heard of think they’re so important?”

Dan said they are a leading book distributor and one of the biggest names in publishing.

For those keeping score, the checklist so far of things I hadn’t heard of but should have:

  • Ingram
  • Books in Print
  • marketing

blooper #3

In a meeting, marketing and editorial were discussing a book we would be publishing called Seven Trails West. It was rip-roaring, coffee-table nonfiction about the various ways different pioneer groups, from the Pony Express to the Transcontinental Railroad,
ventured deeper into America.

Here is the cover that the designers presented to us:

I liked it but had one comment, which was not even criticism. Calling upon my film theory background, I said that in cinema, moving from east to west is conventionally represented by showing the item in motion (typically a plane) starting on the right side of the frame (east) and moving toward the left (west). This, of course, aligns with the way we read maps; if you were to trace a trail from east to west with your finger, you would be moving it from the right side of the map to the left.

You’ll notice that the unwashed gentleman on the cover is gazing to the right—which, in the paradigm, means to the east. I suggested it might be more visually
(even if subconsciously) sound to flip the image so he’s looking to the spine of the book—AKA west.

One of the senior editors, but not the
Books in Print one, half-turned to me and said “That is without doubt one of the most ridiculous comments I’ve heard.” I’m paraphrasing, but whatever her exact language, I felt eviscerated in front of the whole room.

Frankly, I don’t remember what happened immediately after that, but later Dan gave me a little pep talk, saying he understood my point. I think others did, too. But the cover was not changed.

I still never refer to Books in Print, still am not able to succinctly articulate what Ingram does, and still think of my cover
suggestion every time I see the book on my shelf. 

Gaze west, young man.


Brian said...

Just for grins, I clicked on the Seven Trails West cover, saved the image, and flipped it to see what it would look like the other way. Only in the enlarged version did I notice the man is actually walking forward while looking back. So on this cover he IS headed west, and on the flipped one he would be walking east and looking back toward the west where he came from. I think they made the right call.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Interesting (and enterprising), Brian! Thanks for sharing. Knowing that, I would then have advocated a different image altogether, one where any people are walking AND looking "west."

Anonymous said...

That's funny, I pulled it down and flipped it too. I thought the composition actually looked much better flipped but it made the man look wrong - he'd be holding his rifle left-handed.