I was laid off from my job as a v-p at the Palace Publishing Group in August 2008, after nearly 40 years in the industry in the San Francisco Bay area. There was little in the book trade that I wasn’t familiar with: I knew everybody in the business, I had been an editor, a publisher, a sales person. That said, I soon realized, as the Jefferson Airplane song expressed so perfectly, “It doesn’t mean shit to a tree.” This was the Great Recession. One thousand resumes for every job opening. I was 61 years old, and the publishing industry was in turmoil.
I stared at the abyss and felt the loss of all the power, prestige, and backing symbolized by my business card. So I picked myself up and went to school, spending four months learning computer skills courtesy of the state of California. Computers were now my friends.
With no “real” jobs in sight, I began to freelance as a publishing consultant and a literary agent. Fortunately, my friends and former colleagues rallied. I partnered on a project with Andy Ross, the former owner of the legendary Cody’s Books, now also an agent. We paired his author Jeffrey Mousieff Mason with my photographer Art Wolfe. Together, we sold Dogs Make Us Human to Bloomsbury in 2010 for six figures.
Kevin Kelly, whom I met through the Sierra Club, looked me up, and we spent two years, beginning in 2011, negotiating with a Saudi prince for the sale of the copyright to Kelly’s 1988 international bestseller, Home Planet, which the prince owned at the time. I began to heal.
Ralph “Jake” Warner, the original publisher of Author Law & Strategies, a writer’s guide that I cowrote with attorney Brad Bunnin in the early 1980s, became one of my first consulting clients in 2008, when he asked me to create a report on how to improve sales at Nolo. Heyday publisher Malcolm Margolin wanted me to do an analysis of the company’s library marketing in 2009. I was having fun.
Lena Tabori and I had worked together doing books for California AAA. She republished one of these, California the Beautiful, in a successful, expanded Welcome Books edition. I began receiving royalties. Robert Gould remembered me from Insight Editions, and asked me to help him place Brian Froud, one of the world’s foremost fantasy artists, at Abrams. Michael Jacobs, now Abrams’s publisher and president, whom I had known in Berkeley 30 years earlier, helped greenlight a project there. My circle of friends was coming home.
One of my most inspirational encounters was with Charlie Winton, publisher of Counterpoint and one of the founders of PGW. He is charismatic. When he believes in you, you believe in you. When the time came, it was my pleasure to offer Charlie a first look at a book about J.F.K.’s rise to power—a subject near to Charlie’s heart—by Helen O’Donnell, the daughter of Kennedy’s political advisor, Kenny O’Donnell. It is a key book on Counterpoint’s upcoming list.
I was discovering that as a consultant and an agent, my gray-haired wisdom and deep experience were assets. As a job seeker, they were liabilities. I was also able to use my knowledge to do some good in the world.
Michael Larsen and Elisabeth Pomada, agents in the Bay Area, founded the San Francisco Writers Conference and the Writing for Change Conference. They welcomed me as a member of both conferences, where I now appear on a regular basis, and helped me market myself and get my name out there, as well as providing a teaching opportunity.
In 2011, I created a network of specialists, editors, publicists, and designers. We established a principle of cross-referrals: each member of the network provided a 10% referral fee for any freelance client sent by another member of the network.
My friends opened many doors for me. I came back from the abyss. As dawn broke on 2014, I realized that I was my own man for the first time in 38 years, and I closed the door on taking a corporate job. I further realized that I was more relaxed in my career then ever before and was grateful for my good fortune.
The root of the word “publish” means “to make known.” I have been helping people make things known for almost four decades, and I feel lucky that I’ve been able to reinvent myself in a role that allows me to continue working with my craft without a “job.” If this is a “retirement career” (a baby boomer concept), I’m having a ball.