For a long time I had had the idea of giving a course in book publishing, a course which would be practical, not theoretical. The students would learn the publishing business by forming a publishing company, investing some money, and going through all the steps a publisher goes through: first, finding a manuscript to publish, then making a contract with the author, editing the manuscript, designing the book, negotiating with typesetters and printers, advertising the book and the author, distributing it to bookstores, accounting for sales and expenses, and paying royalties.
I had tried this twice at DePauw during Winter Term, but the month-long Winter Term was impossibly restrictive for such a course. I had broached the idea of a semester course to the head of English at DePauw, but he didn't see it as fitting into an English curriculum. Moreover at DePauw it was extremely complicated to modify the curriculum. The whole faculty had to vote on any new course that was proposed. An elaborate proposal, and the justification for it, and endless faculty discussions preceded the adoption, or rejection, of a course.
At Notre Dame the procedure was uncomplicated. "What do you want to teach next semester?" Ron Weber asked in November of my first year. "Book Publishing," I answered. "Okay. Let me have a course description." Nothing to it. The description appeared on our list, and immediately captured students' interest. So many wanted to take it that we had a lottery for the twenty places. What made it attractive, besides the fact that it was a novelty, was that I described it as a "do-it" course. In the mid-seventies students were turning away from strikes and protests and rebellion and concentrating on post-graduation employment. Any course that sounded as though it was related to the job world was sure to be popular. The reason I had to limit it to twenty was that it was not to be a lecture course, but an active publishing company where each member had an actual job to do. Even twenty, I found, was a little too large.
I had never heard of a course quite like mine. A number of colleges had publishing courses; some even had a cluster of courses. But in these courses, as far as I could tell, students learned about publishing but they did not actually become publishers. I was enthusiastic about having something new to offer, which nobody had tried, for which no syllabus existed. I thought it was important that the students invest their own money. I didn't try to get a grant for the course, or a subsidy from the department. I wanted the students to understand that publishing is a business, not a foundation or a philanthropy, and that they would be taking their own risk just as commercial publishers do. The investment was only thirty-five dollars. Students spend a good deal more than that, usually, on books for a single course. None of them made any objection.
Their investments added up to a very small amount of capital: we had about $800. (I had let two or three additional students into the course, and I of course contributed my thirty-five dollars.) Time was even more of a restricting element. To acquire a manuscript, edit it, design a book, get it printed and bound and placed in stores, and sell it, all in a 14-week semester, was a challenging task. The students were exhilarated by the challenge.
The first matter of business, after collecting the investments, was to form the company by electing officers. The students who thought they were qualified for president, editor, production manager, marketing manager, business manager, and various other managers and assistants, ran for the jobs, presenting their qualifications to their colleagues. Not everyone got his first choice, of course, but they were all charmingly cooperative about taking second or third choices. Finally everybody was placed in a job, and by the second week of the course the search for a manuscript to publish was heating up.
We had to make a manuscript decision within three weeks. I had done a little canvassing among faculty members, and the students called on their writing friends and on professors they thought might have something to offer us. We had to have something shorter than a hundred pages because of the high cost of producing it. The manuscript had to be ready. Anything that was unfinished or that required much rewriting was out of the question. And most important of all, the manuscript had to fit our market, which was largely the Notre Dame community, and secondarily the city of South Bend. We couldn't possibly distribute our book beyond these limits.
In debating the merits of the manuscripts we acquired for consideration, the students learned their first lesson: that publishers have to balance literary quality against salability -- a commonplace on Madison Avenue but news in Academia. Some things offered to us were so literary or so scholarly that we could not imagine students buying them. But we had the great good luck that first year to get a little novella of about sixty pages from Professor Ralph McInerny, who had published six or seven novels with Harper and Vanguard, as well as learned tomes. He had written Quick as a Dodo just for the fun of it, an amusing fantasy about a dodo-bird, the last of its kind left on earth. It was full of puns, word-play, and funny situations that made sly comments on real life. It promised to appeal to faculty as well as to students. (Ralph McInerny gave us a selling slogan: "For children from seven to eleven and adults from eleven to midnight.") The company decided that it ought to be illustrated, and they invited a number of campus cartoonists to submit sketches. Pam Butterworth's sketches captured the spirit of the story delightfully, and we offered her, as payment, a share in the company.
Juniper Press, as the company had been named, paid Ralph Mclnerny an advance of $50 when he signed the contract, a laughable sum to a professional author, but Ralph was totally caught up in the spirit of the enterprise. Since he was a teacher himself, he enjoyed seeing my new course working out. The publicity manager of Juniper Press got the campus newspaper to send a photographer to the scene when the author and the president of the company signed the contract. I had worked out a simplified version of a standard publisher's contract, explaining to the students what each clause meant. Our contract limited our use of the book rights to one year. I thought that Juniper Press should not hang onto the rights indefinitely, because we'd have no use for them after our single printing. So the rights automatically reverted to the author. (Ralph McInerny sold his rights in Quick as a Dodo later to Vanguard, who published a hard-cover edition. )
It was the production of the book that caused me the most worry. I knew almost nothing about production myself, and neither did the production manager or her assistants. But they went into action, calling on printers around town for estimates. They quickly found out how cramping our budget was. We couldn't afford anything! Still we managed to find some solutions. The business manager got a loan from the American Studies Department. The company hired a typesetter at the campus newspaper, The Observer, to set the copy, then they laid the pages out themselves. Maureen Flynn, one of Juniper's editors, had done layout for The Observer, and she acted as foreman, directing the inexperienced members of the company in this task. Then the camera-ready pages were rushed to Qwik-Copy to be reproduced and collated and stapled into a cover decorated with one of Pam Butterworth's drawings. It was a book!
Our print run was a thousand copies, and we planned to sell it at $2.00. The students were chagrined to learn that we had to give discounts to the bookstores which would sell it. They were used to high school and college fund-raising projects for good causes, from Girl Scouts to starving third-world nations, in which kindly businessmen helped students by doing them favors. "But we're not a good cause!" I told them a dozen times, "we're a business which hopes to make a profit. We can't ask people to do us favors." The Notre Dame bookstore was, of course, our best customer, and the buyer there was indulgent enough to order our book at only a 20% discount instead of the usual 40% or 45%. Other bookstores in the community took a few copies at a 30% discount. Thus the young publishers learned one of the realities of publishing -- that the cost of marketing a book is a big chunk of publishing expense.
The marketing department had many schemes for bringing Quick as a Dodo to the attention of the buying public. The publicity manager arranged for the author to be interviewed on a local television station. (We found out one of our mistakes: the cover of the book was too pale and the illustration could hardly be seen when held up before the television cameras.) Some of the advertising gimmicks were exuberantly amateurish -- for instance, a "Dodo Hour" at a local bar, with a special Dodo cocktail. (Customers in bars don't buy books, we found.) But when Kevin Delehanty, in a yellow bird costume, went around the campus, even to classes, advertising Quick as a Dodo, he sold a few copies. Some professors even bought. The autograph party on publication day succeeded beyond our hopes in pulling in buyers.
We did a mail campaign to Notre Dame faculty, a cheap device for us because the flyers were distributed through campus mail and required no postage. We got a 3% or 4% return of our purchase coupon, which as any direct mail specialist knows is a successful result. Students, however, expecting floods of orders, were disappointed, even though our mail campaign made a profit over its cost.
Quick as a Dodo returned its members' investments and earned an excess of about $200. Divided among the shareholders, this would have given each one about $8, not a bad gain on an investment of $35. But Jay Leyden suggested that they leave the $200 as a nest-egg for the next year's company, and this motion carried unanimously. I was tremendously gratified at this demonstration that the students felt their publishing course had been valuable and wanted it to continue.
I've now given the course ten times, learning something new each time myself, both about book publishing and about human nature. In the second year of the course, the students put out a short, rowdy football novella called Cleats, a collaboration by three students, one of whom was Ken MacAfee, Notre Dame's All-American tight end, who was about to be drafted by the pros. His name had big selling power among students and among football-conscious visitors to the campus bookstore. The production manager, Rex Delcamp, was determined that Cleats would be a perfect-bound rather than a stapled book. (A month earlier he had never even heard the term perfect-bound.) Rex proposed to his colleagues that they save about $200 on production costs by collating the book themselves. Then they'd be able to pay for perfect binding. I was horrified at the notion of a bunch of amateurs trying to put 1200 copies of an 80-page book together correctly. Moreover, Rex seemed anything but the kind of foreman to oversee such a task. A slow-talking southerner with a laid-back style, who sometimes wore his long hair in a pony-tail, he looked like a hippie. You'd expect to see him sprawled under a tree rather than hunched in a library carrel. Yet I had taught him in a writing course and found him exceptionally competent. He even knew how to use a semicolon correctly. As production manager, he was persuasive. So one night, under Rex's direction, twenty college seniors who had just learned what a "signature" is, walked around tables in a seminar room picking up signatures and assembling 1200 copies of Cleats. Rock music blared from a tape-recorder that Rex had brought in to ease the tension. Checkers at a quality-control table checked the gatherings of pages. The collation session lasted from seven in the evening to midnight, and confirmed twenty seniors in the conviction that they did not want to earn their livings in any kind of assembly-line operation. What I learned is never to underestimate what youthful enthusiasm can accomplish. Cleats was a perfect-bound book, with all its pages in order.
But the Cleats company had a foul-up in its publicity department. The publicity manager had arranged a half-hour interview with the local NBC station for authors Ken MacAfee and George Berry, who would be introduced by Chris Datzman, the president of Juniper Press. On the day of the taping neither author showed up. Chris and the interviewer had to talk to each other for the assigned half-hour. The interviewer was naturally furious. The publicity manager, at our next meeting, blamed it all on the authors. Should Publicity be expected to take the authors by the hand and lead them to their appointments? The young publishers were surprised to learn that, yes, a publishing executive might have to wet-nurse an author, send a car for him, get him out of bed, or throw him into a cold shower to sober him up for a public appearance.
Mishaps like this having teaching value. In a later Juniper Press company another bad mishap occurred: the editor-in-chief delivered the setting copy of the manuscript to production, and went off to Chicago for the weekend. The typesetter discovered that two pages of copy were missing. The editor could not be reached. His room was locked so his housemate could not search his desk. Work on production of Virgins and Martyrs was set back a valuable day by this blunder. Other members of the company took shares of the blame. They learned, several of them, that everyone involved in a process must check and re-check.
Once Juniper Press had a best-seller -- in our selling territory, that is. We published a collection of cartoons by a very popular campus cartoonist. Michael Molinelli had been drawing a daily strip in The Observer for several years, and it was the page everyone turned to first. He had a neat and original way of mocking the foibles of students, professors, and administrators, and capturing the absurdities of campus life without getting nasty. A selection of his strips in book form was just what students wanted as a memento of their Notre Dame years. Our first printing of 1000 copies sold out in the bookstore in a week. We rushed back to print, too cautiously, for 700 more. This sold out fast. Back again for another 600. If we had been bolder the first time, or even the second, we'd have profited even more handsomely than we did. As it was, every shareholder got back 300% on his original investment of $35.
I never considered profit-making a norm for the success of the course, however. As I have pointed out, students learned a good deal from their mistakes and their difficulties. One year the company chose to publish a play written by a graduate student, over another manuscript which would have had more popular appeal. They wanted to put out something with more "literary quality" and were confident that they could promote and sell the play. Financially this was a disaster. We sold fewer than 200 copies, gravely depleting our bank account, which had fattened nicely on the Molinelli cartoons. But I was pleased that this company had not tried to do something safe, and I felt that they learned something about publishing -- and indeed about business in general.
Once in a while I had misgivings about my publishing course, wondering whether such a course really should be part of a liberal arts curriculum. I'm a person who truly supports liberal arts education. I'm appalled that a student can graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree without having taken a course in Shakespeare. I cringe when I encounter American Studies major who have never read The Scarlet Letter. I don't hold with the idea that the College of Liberal Arts should be training students chiefly to get jobs. I think we should leave that to the Business College, and concentrate on cultivating our students' intellectual and moral powers. Was it paradoxical, then, that I should be offering a practical course in Book Publishing?
Usually, but not always, I have been able to justify myself to myself. Publishing is a particularly appropriate career for graduates of a liberal arts college. It is a career that encourages rather than stifles further learning. A person who goes into publishing won't be tempted to stop reading, as a person who goes into banking may be. Moreover, it's not boring. Making books is a hundred times more interesting than making refrigerators or balancing ledgers, even for people in the remoter reaches of the enterprise, say, in the distribution department. Packing and mailing a shipment of various new books to a bookstore is a more exciting first job than packing and mailing cartons of a new hand-lotion. So I tell myself, why shouldn't I steer students towards this enjoyable work for which their education particularly suits them?
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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