In my last year of graduate school, I met Clarkson N. Potter. This was at Brown University in 1982. I was completing a master’s in creative writing and Clarkson was teaching a course on book publishing, having founded, in 1959, and later sold, in 1977, his eponymous imprint to Crown. We shared an office as adjuncts and became friends. Of course, I took his class.
The books that Clarkson had published were elegantly designed and expensively produced. Today they would be categorized as “lifestyle” books with subjects that included interior design, haute cuisine, and, as one thing leads to another, dieting. (“Diet books,” he told our class, “perennially sell well because none of them works and readers keep hoping the next one will.”) He also told those of us interested in working in book publishing to find a job at a small house in order to have exposure to as many different facets of the industry as possible.
Upon graduation, I moved to New York City and did just that. In short order I realized that the publishing world Clarkson fondly remembered—a clubby, genteel business—was on its way out. Media conglomerates were busy buying up what had been historic, family-run houses. Desktop computers with typesetting and design capabilities were changing the economics of book production. And Barnes and Noble was gearing up to collapse publishers’ mid-lists, where books of merit if not profit had long been given a home. (With 35,000 square feet per superstore to fill, B&N required blockbusters.)
Despite the seismic changes in publishing during the 1980s and 1990s, I enjoyed a wide array of work experience. I honed my editing chops at two small book publishers, jumped into magazine fact-checking and reporting at Fortune magazine, and then brought both skill sets to work as editor of Poets & Writers magazine. Over the years, as I continued to figure out where my own creative writing fit into my work-a-day life, I explored copywriting for the (then) two big book clubs, pre-publication book reviewing for Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, manuscript evaluation for a literary agency and an artist colony, and I taught creative writing. Each new opportunity deepened my understanding of the multi-faceted industry. The other collateral benefit: I deepened my already intimate relationship with language—the power of it, how to wield it effectively, and how to help others do the same.
Clarkson Potter, who left this world in 2001, would not recognize the twenty-first century version of the industry he so revered. Many of the dominant book publishers in his day have undergone a daisy-chain of mergers, acquisitions, and subsequent spin-offs. Barnes and Noble, once known to lovers of independent bookstores as “Megadeath” for how many indies it put out of business, is a ghost of its former self. Book-of-the-Month Club now has serious competition, not just from Oprah, but also from the few hundred thousand book groups meeting in living rooms and coffee shops across the country.
What hasn’t changed is the passion of writers and their drive to write. Graduate programs in creative writing have proliferated. Small, independent book publishers and literary journals have sprouted across the country and planted their flags on the Internet. I share that passion and ultimately it helped me understand what captivated me most was not so much the business-end of writing, but rather the process of it, the crafting of its elemental tool, language.
In 2007, I began teaching creative writing to students through Phil Schultz’s Writers Studio in New York City and online. In 2016, I founded the Hudson Valley branch of the Writers Studio in Hudson, N.Y., with my co-director, Anamyn Turowski. More than 200 writers from the region filled our classroom over the five years we ran the program. In conjunction with The Spotty Dog, a local bookstore just down the street from where our classes met, we established a quarterly reading series, presenting recently published authors reading alongside our advanced students. We also sponsored a series of talks for our students by publishing professionals—agents, publishers, authors—to broaden their exposure to the business side of creative writing. The most rewarding aspect of establishing the school was the engaged writing community that formed in and around our workshops. That, I am happy to report, remains strong, despite COVID’s curtailment of in-person classes.
Along with helping me discover my inner stand-up comedian, teaching gave me the greatest gift—watching a student pick up something I’ve communicated and run with it all the way across the finish line and into print.
Currently, I am working privately with writers who have manuscripts-in-progress, as well as working on my own manuscript-in-progress, a novella about how far a family will go to hide the truth.