Besides sharing years of experience in traditional publishing, the trio of Pat Mulcahy, Philip Turner, and Joan Hilty have other things in common. After being laid off from longtime publishing positions, they have all managed to re-create themselves for a new era in the publishing industry. Each has launched successful freelance businesses that exploit their publishing experience, skills, and contacts.
Call it a life in publishing—after leaving publishing. Removed from long-term positions, veteran publishing professionals can have problems getting new jobs and, frankly, are often far too qualified for lower positions. Yet many still want to work in the industry. While the digital disruption of publishing may have played a part in their departure from the business, these same individuals are also discovering that the rise of self-publishing, the growth of transmedia (reimagining franchise properties in new media formats), and the ability to easily collaborate via the Internet have also empowered them.
The process of reinvention can transform newly unemployed publishing veterans into highly desirable free agents, skilled freelancers available to work as book doctors, editorial consultants, content developers, and literary agents.
Philip Turner, a former v-p, editorial director at Union Square Press and former editor-in-chief at Carroll & Graf, also previously worked at Kodansha, Times Books, and Crown Books, in addition to a long career as a bookseller before becoming a publisher. He launched Philip Turner Book Productions, his editorial venture, after Union Square Press was shuttered in 2009, during what he called the “great unwinding” of the publishing business during the recession. “I began applying for in-house jobs but nothing happened. After a while, you move on—you’ve got to make a living,” he said. “When you’re older, in-house opportunities just aren’t appropriate for your experience.” He launched a blog, the Great Gray Bridge, on his website, philipsturner.com, and got his first job, “by word of mouth.” He credits the blog and his writing with bringing in work. “People come to my blog and find out that I’m offering editorial services,” he said.
These days Turner makes his living editing manuscripts and occasionally agenting, though, he said, “agenting is speculative, but I can always make a manuscript better.” He’s worked on freelance editing projects for Vanguard Press (Divinity of Doubt, by Vincent Bugliosi) and a succession of self-published projects for, among others, a pharmaceutical company, a Peace Corps worker, and an aviation executive. As a freelance writer he’s contributed to works published by Black Dog & Leventhal, worked for a variety of packagers, and taught a course in nonfiction book writing for CUNY. And as an agent he licensed Pot Thief, a formerly self-published mystery series about a ceramic potter by J. Michael Orenduff, to Open Road Integrated Media, and he has sold books to Pegasus Books, Riverdale Avenue Books, and others.
“I can’t be as selective as a freelancer as I was in traditional book publishing,” Turner said about the projects he takes on. As for his new publishing life overall, he says, “It’s gotten better every year... As my old career fades into the mirror, the potential for new work has increased.”
Mulcahy began her publishing career as a temp at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1979, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of Doubleday before she was asked to leave the house during a corporate shakeup in 1998. Before joining Doubleday she was executive editor of Penguin Books, associate publisher of Vintage Books, and executive editor at Hyperion, among other senior positions. “After I left Doubleday, they gave me my first freelance job,” she said—editing the biography of the great jazz arranger and composer Quincy Jones.
Mulcahy said that when she left, she was “shocked, depressed, and disillusioned” and thought about being an agent. “But I didn’t want to deal with the old power structure.” So she set up shop in her apartment and launched Brooklyn Books, which provides editing and writing services to publishers and self-publishers, eventually moving the business (and her home) to Queens.
“I wanted a creative challenge and to grow my skills,” Mulcahy said. “I thought, let’s see if I can follow my gut. I’ve always had to hustle.” She combines book doctoring and manuscript review with collaborative writing projects. “I read and review fiction manuscripts and help to make them salable. I’m versatile and I have a lot of experience, which has helped me get jobs.”
In 2009, Mulcahy “joined forces” with Judy Sternlight, a similarly downsized veteran editor who had became an independent editor when she left traditional publishing. Sternlight began organizing other now-independent veteran editors around 2009, leading to the founding of 5E, a collaboration among a number of former big-time publishing veterans, around 2011. 5E members include longtime DC/Vertigo editor Joan Hilty (more on her to come), former Houghton Mifflin executive editor Jane Rosenman, and former Henry Holt editor-in-chief Marjorie Braman. Mulcahy calls 5E a “united front,” and the group publishes a newsletter and meets once a month to network and support one another.
Among the books she's worked on are Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness, by Sasha Martin, and Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece and Mystery! At PBS, by Rebecca Eaton and Mulcahy. Like other members of 5E, Mulcahy also works through the Center for Fiction, a nonprofit writers’ support center based in midtown Manhattan, to mentor aspiring writers and offer workshops.
Joan Hilty said she was “downsized” in 2010, after 15 years of editing all manner of comics at DC Comics—from superhero titles and trading cards to more unconventional works, such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo graphic novel at DC’s Vertigo imprint. A cartoonist as well as an editor, Hilty wrote and drew Bitter Girl, a weekly comic on lesbian-dating high jinks, distributed to the gay press through Q Syndicate from 2001 to 2012. “When I got downsized I decided I didn’t want to go to another comics publisher, I wanted to take my skills to the larger world of book publishing,” she said.
Hilty, who is also a member of 5E, teamed with Pete Friedrich, a cartoonist and designer, in 2011 to launch Pageturner, a packaging house that develops “comics projects outside of the comics industry.” Pageturner develops projects with and for a variety of institutions, among them the ACLU, which created a comics series about the Bill of Rights. “Now we’re getting lots of interest from nonprofits and arts organizations,” she said. Pageturner has worked on projects with Chronicle Books and TBS/Turner Networks. As a freelance contractor, Hilty has worked with comics publishers like Boom! and Dark Horse Comics, and with Forbes magazine, which published the Zen of Steve Jobs in 2011, a webcomic and print graphic biography of Jobs that examines his 30-year pupil-teacher relationship with a Zen Buddhist monk.
All three are doing well. Not having to edit 25 books a year, Turner said of his years in traditional publishing, gave him the “psychic elbow room” to write—which he said brings him new freelance opportunities. Hilty said, “Working in comics prepared me for the slippery world of transmedia projects,” noting that “comics train you to think cinematically,” and that being both an editor and a visual artist gives her an advantage. She’s evolved from being a freelance “hired hand,” called in to guide comics or graphic novel projects already started, to “getting involved earlier in the process and helping to structure projects,” even doing “a little agenting” when necessary. Best of all, she said, her new post-corporate publishing world “is full of young editors and young agents who want to do comics.”
Mulcahy said longtime publishing friends tell her, “You’re lucky you left traditional publishing when you did,” reasoning that she’s had time to establish her business before the ranks of unemployed veteran editors really began to grow. “It’s not a lot of money, but there’s great satisfaction,” she said. “My phone keeps ringing, so I’m fortunate.” But she also acknowledged that freelancing can be “scary” and conceded that “if I had kids in college, you’d find me back at the literary ranch.”
“Big projects get cancelled, and I’ve got lots of new projects that haven’t been signed yet,” Mulcahy said. “You need to keep a lot of balls in the air, and you need to be flexible.”