Carbon copies, pre-separated art, the “circulating file.” Modern-day technology may have rendered these terms obsolete, but they speak to an era in publishing that had its own virtues and charms. We asked some industry veterans to share a memory of what life was like “back in the day.”
In 1955 I was two years out of college and newly arrived in New York. After the exciting uncertainties of living and teaching English at a tiny language school in Rome, I was ready to settle down with a “real” job. I wanted to work in publishing, especially children's books, and had decided to explore opportunities with Harper & Row, Viking, Harcourt Brace and Scribner's.
But where to start? Common sense told me that making an appointment would be a sensible first step, but when I was browsing in Scribner's Bookstore and learned that the publishing house occupied the eight floors above it, I decided to forget formalities; I would start right then and there. So I told the elevator operator—yes, elevators all had operators in those days—that I wanted to see Alice Dalgliesh (the founding editor of Scribner's Children's Books). I was taken to the sixth floor of 597 Fifth Avenue, personally ushered across the hall, and announced as “a young lady to see Miss Dalgliesh.” Out came Miss Dalgliesh, who, upon hearing why I was there, smiled and said, “An angel must have sent you.” I liked the image of being delivered on wings but was confused until she explained that only that morning her assistant had announced she was pregnant and planned to leave. When could I start? Miss Dalgliesh asked. “Right away,” I answered. And the job was mine.
A résumé? I didn't even have one. And if anyone screened me, it must have been the elevator operator. I did have to take a typing test, required of all female (but no male) applicants, and was told my starting salary would be $65 a week, or a whopping $3,370 a year.
Scribner's backlist was a gold mine, and while I was there, we published new editions of the lavish Scribner Illustrated Classics with their original Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth illustrations; Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and Otto of the Silver Hand, and newly illustrated editions of Mary Mapes Dodge's Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and Frank R. Stockton's Ting-A-Ling Tales. While searching old files for anything that might be included in new introductions, we found a letter from Frank R. Stockton (written, I think, in the late 1890s) in which he mused about the growing bicycle craze, wondering how much damage it could do to reading and the publishing business.
On my first day at Golden Books in Rockefeller Center, I arrived for duty in a three-piece Brooks Brothers tweed suit, armed to conquer the glamorous world of New York publishing. I had never met my boss, one Joan Campbell, a whiskey- and cigarette-drenched veteran and an equally immaculately dressed veteran of the publishing racket. Our office was on the 28th floor overlooking the skating rink. That very day she took me to lunch at the Rainbow Room. In an unequalled setting she offered me a martini, then a second, then a third. No drinker, I gagged the first one down, never wanting to let on that this was not a typical day. Everyone drank like fish in those days, part ritual, part “perk,” but most of all a social lubricant. Following lunch, I sat busily typing, I suspect, incoherently, multiply carboned letters, as was my duty as an assistant (not a secretary). The end of the day at last arrived. Somewhat unsteadily, though euphorically, I stood to leave. Joan put on her gloves and her hat and walked me to the door and announced that the real work would begin tomorrow.
And, indeed, as the months went on, she proved a dazzling mentor. I was involved in every nitty-gritty aspect of publishing—permissions, indexing, layout, design and actual editing, which consisted mostly of making the words fit in the specific spaces allowed. The mentoring process was tough-minded and pragmatic. In those days one could only truly learn by doing the menial tasks over and over again, committing each of those steps in the process to your memory. The most valuable single learning tool was perhaps the circulating correspondence file. You learned not only how your immediate supervisor solved problems, but how your senior colleagues did as well—with tone, nuance, outright bullying sometimes, but mostly humor.
Once upon a time... there were publicity directors and advertising directors and, if you did everything, promotion directors. Marketing just didn’t exist. I was doing children’s publicity at Harper & Brothers (Bill Morris was still in the sales department), and Elizabeth Riley offered me the chance to do everything. I jumped at the chance. On a Sunday evening, the day before I was to start, she called me at my apartment to tell me that she had forgotten to mention that I was to do the advertising. “Oh, yes,” I replied. I could do it. I knew about working with ad agencies and where I thought ads would be most effective. “No. You have to do the advertising. We don’t use an agency.” “Bu, bu, bu, but...” was my answer. “Well, my dear”—and I’m quoting her exactly—“you had better learn!”
It was a heady time. While I was there Joseph Krumgold won the Newbery for Onion John (I had nothing to do with it since Miss Riley did most of the library PR). It was the last time that Frederic Melcher announced the winners in his office and I met Anne Carroll Moore. The Russians had launched Sputnik and we began the first federal programs to promote reading and science in schools. And young people in the children’s departments were actually assigned jobs to work with and to promote to librarians, thanks to the federal funding. They called it library promotion. Yes, there had been a few firms that had worked with libraries before, but this was the first time it became an industrywide specialty.
At ALA Midwinter in 1972, for some reason I no longer remember, Susan Hirschman, who was editor-in-chief at Macmillan, did not attend. I, as marketing director, did. In those days the Children’s Service Division (now called ALSC) managed to get a bit of kabuki theater out of the annual Caldecott and Newbery awards, meaning you were informed at some unmentionable hour like 2 a.m. and then sworn to secrecy for not just a few hours but for two days. First thing in the morning I was informed that Macmillan had won the Caldecott with Nonny Hogrogian’s One Fine Day, plus two Caldecott Honor Books (Hildilid’s Night and If All the Seas Were One Sea) and a Newbery Honor Book (The Planet of Junior Brown). The exhibit floor was buzzing with gossip. All the publishers seemed to know that Atheneum had won the Newbery for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. But they couldn’t figure out who had won the Caldecott. I just gave them blank stares.
But by that afternoon I got tired pretending I knew nothing. So I retreated to my room at the Palmer House... and didn’t leave it for about 18 hours. Fortunately the Palmer House’s room service was very good. Never having been involved in winning one of these awards before, I didn’t know that practically no one kept it a secret. I was a little sheepish when I figured out that I had participated in CSD’s arcane ritual. It wasn’t long after that that CSD’s ritual changed to something close to what we have now.
The first time I went to an ABA convention (now known as BookExpo) was in 1980, because children’s trade books were beginning to get noticed in the trade. Even then children’s books were only featured on the opening day.
I flew to Chicago and the next morning I met Tomie dePaola, who was speaking at the children’s breakfast that year, and off we went to the Putnam booth with great anticipation. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t one small, low, round table with a pile of children’s books, stuck in a corner at one end of the booth. However, that didn’t dampen our spirits, as a stream of booksellers stopped by to talk. Even a comment by a sales director as we left the booth at the end of a busy day made me smile: “Well, I guess you’ll be going to the ALA next. At least there you’ll have someone to talk to.” He must have been at the other end of the booth all day.
Until then our market had been public and school libraries. It was strong and solid, but breaking out into the trade was a major step as the market grew, and savvy independent booksellers paved the way. A few years later, the American Booksellers for Children began and even they had to put up with having their booth in a corridor just outside the exhibit area. But not for long. Look where books for children and young people are today.
Michael di Capua
In 1966 I joined Farrar, Straus & Giroux as an assistant editor. My salary was $9,000, but over the years I found that the job came with the kind of “psychic benefits” money can’t buy. Everything about FSG was tiny back then, and that includes the offices. Since Tom Wolfe or Susan Sontag or Isaac Bashevis Singer would often come by to visit Bob Giroux or Roger Straus, rubbing shoulders with literary icons became an everyday event.
Even better, Roger and Bob made it a habit to include our small group of editors on special occasions. A group of 10 would celebrate Joseph Brodsky’s birthday at his favorite restaurant in Chinatown. Or several of us would mark the publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems with an elegant lunch at Lutèce (which probably cost four times my weekly paycheck). Yes, those were the days. You didn’t get rich, but you collected lovely memories.