We asked a number of children's publishers to reminisce about their early days in the business.
One of my first jobs in publishing had the illustrious title of "assistant to the institutional marketing director." As such, I was in charge of several large filing cabinets. I was very impressed by the number of files I had to manage, including a set of state files with everything from AL (Alabama) to WY (Wyoming). Each time I typed a letter, I would put a copy on my supervisor's desk for her review and would receive it back with a handwritten note saying "file TX." Hmmm, I thought, I don't know what this letter to Booklist (or the University of Michigan or Tomie dePaola or whatever) has to do with Texas, but what do I know? There is so much I have to learn about publishing. So I would carefully file it in my burgeoning Texas file.
Several months into my job, my supervisor asked me for a letter she had sent to the New York Times Book Review. "Oh, yes," I replied efficiently. "That's in the Texas file." And I quickly pulled what amounted to a chronological file of everything I'd typed to date. "The Texas file?" Inga asked. "Oh, yes," I replied smugly. "I filed everything marked 'file TX' right here." "The Texas file!" Inga repeated. "That's supposed to be 'file—thanks.' "
I did have so much to learn—and also to file.
The first book I edited was by a crusty old Irishman who had the reputation of being tough on junior editors. My office was the Xerox closet, so for our first editorial meeting I took him down the street to a local bar, thinking a drink might soften his edges. After all, I figured, he was an Irishman. Trouble was, although I'm Scottish—not slouches in the drinking department—I was a complete teetotaler. We bellied up to the bar to discuss the manuscript. He ordered a beer—for both of us. What was I supposed to do? Declining seemed the wrong move. So we clinked glasses, took a slug and got on with it. Several hours and many beers later, we finished going over the manuscript. He got up to leave. I fell off the stool, literally. He pretty much had to carry me back to my office. I've always maintained that publishing drove me to drink.
My first day on the job at Coward, McCann, I startled my boss Ferd Monjo by revealing that I didn't know who Russell Hoban was. He launched into a dramatization of one of the Frances books, twisting and turning in his chair as he acted out the different parts of Mother, Father and Frances delicately holding a stringbean. If this was work, I was glad I'd signed on.
As "assistants to the editor," Denny Sussman and I had charge of the unsolicited manuscripts. We not only read them, we reported on them in detail. If there was some spark of life in an unpublishable manuscript, we'd write encouragingly to the author. Initially thrilled by this task, we were getting discouraged after hundreds of manuscripts and months of effort. One afternoon, I was reading away when Denny suddenly jumped up and started running around her desk yelling, "I found it! I found it!" She was right. It was Marjorie Weinman Sharmat's Nate the Great.
In 1961, when I was finally out of the army, I enrolled in NYU's Graduate Institute of Book Publishing, a one-year Master's program which apprenticed students to various participating trade houses. I landed at Doubleday and, on the advice of a program teacher, applied for work to Margaret Lesser, the editor of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. After months spent in sub rights and manufacturing, I heard from her that a job had opened up. Strictly clerical. But indeed something, considering that her first merry greeting to me months earlier had been, "What could I do with you? You're a man!"
As an editorial assistant at Little, Brown in Boston, I was responsible, with another editorial assistant, for reading unsolicited manuscripts. We were both new to publishing and decided that the standard reject letter we were to use was cold-hearted because it was pre-signed "The Editors." We decided to change the rejection to a kinder tone, selected the name Felicia Barnett and had her sign the decline letters. The department head had no problem with this, since our slush work was so efficient. Six months later, we changed the name and forgot about Felicia Barnett.
Our offices were located behind the Little, Brown reception area on street level, so when people walked in to deliver a manuscript the receptionist would ask someone to come get it. We'd take turns. One day the receptionist called and told us that someone was here to see Felicia Barnett. We laughed because she'd been "gone" for months. I was on the phone, so my colleague went out to pick up the script, only to hurry back and tell me I had to get off the phone and go out there. The person dropping off the script said he wouldn't be fooled by her—Felicia Barnett had dark hair and she didn't! He'd met Felicia once before when he'd dropped off a different text. I went out and he greeted me warmly: "Felicia, I'd hoped you were still here. Maybe you'll accept this one!" I smiled a Felicia Barnett smile and took the envelope.
I had not long been at my editorial assistant job at Pantheon Books when I received my first summons from André Schiffrin. I had had a powerful admiration for Schiffrin. To me he embodied the virtues I associated with New York publishing: his was an awe-inspiring but graceful intelligence and he carried about him—literally and metaphorically—the rumpled elegance of Old World European charm.
Admiration can be so intense, however, that it is indistinguishable from fear.
I feared André Schiffrin.
It was a ferociously hot summer day when Schiffrin's secretary called and said he wanted to see me. He was sitting behind his long desk, with his back to an open window. I was ushered into his office and he gestured me into a chair directly opposite. I had my pad and pen at the ready. What I had not known about Schiffrin was that he was a notoriously low talker. Following his conversation was an effort akin to catching the tail of a dancing kite with tweezers. As inconspicuously as I could manage I inched forward in my chair. I found myself smiling bleakly in his direction as feeble encouragement to please talk LOUDER. What made this particularly precarious was the fan that sat on the windowsill. It was of the rotating variety, and loud, so that every few seconds the roaring would swell to distracting levels.
"A very important project and I want you to... rrrRRRrrr... Pulitzer Prize winner who can be really temperamental especially if you... rrrRRRrrr... so make sure you don't... rrrRRRrrr... I want to know immediately when you...." And so on.
Back in my office, I slumped in my chair and pored over my notes in the desperate hope I might be able to construct meaning from the scribbled hieroglyphics. It was no use. My big break had come, and I had blown it big time.
Happily, his secretary bailed me out.
I suppose I could have learned something valuable from this, like confronting one's fears. But this was publishing, so I decided the wisest course for the future would be to just avoid André whenever possible.
In my first job, at Putnam, I was an assistant to four editors. The memory is just one big blur of filing. And a lot of carbon paper.
I also sent telexes. Not faxes, mind you, telexes. And on an ancient machine. The way the machine worked was that you typed in the message and the machine punched holes into a sort of ticker tape. When the message was finished, you cut the tape, re-spooled it and then hit a send button. If you were lucky. Frequently during the process of either typing, re-spooling or sending, the tape would break, and you'd have to start over.
The editor who was the primary contact with foreign publishers was a wonderful, gregarious person. She was truly our ambassador-at-large: she knew every author's (hers and the other editors') birthdays, their kids' birthdays, where their kids went to school; basically she knew everything about them. She sent cards for all the special occasions—flowers, too.
The problem was that this same gregariousness spilled over into her telexes. The messages she gave me to send were pages and pages long, which simply wasn't time or technologically feasible. So I would shorten those wonderful letters to their essence—i.e., a long, friendly letter inquiring about the weather, the sub rights person's son's kindergarten class, and everyone's health would become: "Books were supposed to be here last week. Where are they?" I am certain that when I started my job, British sub rights people must have thought that this editor had undergone a severe personality change.
I have two vivid memories from my early days in library promotion at Atheneum and Scribner. Both have to do with people in various stages of undress, and both feature Margaret McElderry.
A couple of months after joining the firm, I was invited out to Fire Island for the weekend. I brought an extra suit into the office on Friday and left directly from work that afternoon. I took a very early train back the following Monday morning, went directly to work and was changing into my suit when the door to my office was suddenly flung open. There stood Margaret and Jean Karl, anxious to know where we stood with the catalogue. There stood I, resplendent in my underpants. Jean fled in horror; Margaret politely excused herself for the interruption and asked when we would be seeing blues.
A year later, we were attending ALA in San Francisco. Our Newbery/Caldecott banquet guests were invited to join us in the General MacArthur Suite of the St. Francis Hotel, occupied by Jean and Margaret. Charles Scribner Jr., who was an extremely shy fellow, arrived an hour early and, after repeated knocking, was greeted at the door by Margaret in her bathrobe. Deeply embarrassed, he fled down the hall and retreated to his room, from which he refused to emerge. An hour and a half later, as the banquet was about to commence, Pat Knopf, chairman of Atheneum, and I were on the phone with Charlie, pleading with him to come out, as he was to be one of the honored guests at the festivities that evening. Which he eventually did.
Mother never told me that working in publishing would be like touring in a bad production of Noises Off.