This is the sixth in a series describing my Publishing Timeline; the events, experiences and occupations that have somehow shaped my business life up until today.In the late 1980s Jill and I met someone who would change my course in the publishing industry: Felix Morrow. Felix had had a long career as a writer and publisher, and had been an influential publisher of books that in a later time came to be called “new age” through his Mystic Arts Book Society.
While Felix and I talked about the Gurdjieff work, which he had come to study, we also started to explore publishing possibilities. I began, with Felix’s encouragement and his introductions, a plan to start a new book club based around our fledgling publishing business. We dubbed it the Conscious Arts Book Society.
Soon business plans were floating around our apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan and, the next thing I knew, I was traveling and trying to raise the money that would be necessary to launch a pretty ambitious undertaking.
We met with accountants, lawyers, writers, and potential investors. I flew to California to travel the state and talk to other members of the spiritual group we were in to try to raise money for our new business plan. In the meantime, Felix was teaching me a great deal about publishing. Even though he was in his eighties, Felix continued to publish. It was remarkable to me how easily he could get a book into print, and into the hands of exactly the right people to blurb, promote, or sell the book.
Plans are for Changing
Eventually I had to face the reality that the money would not be coming. Although abandoning the plan we difficult, I had to admit that I probably wouldn’t have invested either. Although I had plenty of experience, and knew the field well, I had never run a business of that size, and had no demonstrated experience at that level of entrepreneurship.
But there were people interested. All the planning and talk about publishing had whet my appetite for the field. I was working at the time for a large financial services company with offices on Water Street, right next to the South Street Seaport. We were at the dawn of the PC revolution and everyone knew it.
We were one of the first big companies to install LANs for networking, and I already had an account on Compuserve. It was obvious this was a field that would continue to experience explosive growth. But what I wanted was to be a publisher.
I made up one more business plan. This one was to expand Globe Press Books, take in books from other authors and start a proper publishing company focused on works of serious spirituality. One of the investors I had contacted for the book club decided to put up the seed money we would need to get us going, and Felix gave me two books to publish.
The first of these, The Body of Light by John Mann and Lar Short, became our second-best seller after Body Types. Putting this book into print, signing contracts with the authors, running bookstore events, advertising, running the book review program and all the other necessities of publishing utilized everything we had learned with Body Types.
Next we published Felix’s other gift, The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk by the well-known Zen author, D.T. Suzuki. And here Felix gave me more than a book, but a life-long gift.
As it turned out this book, for various reasons, could not be copyrighted in the United States. However, this was not well known in the publishing business, since all printed copies had carried a copyright notice as usual.
Would a Publisher Tell you a Lie? Really?
I began to delve more deeply into the copyright laws. I selected a number of books that dealt with our subject area, and about which I thought there might be questions regarding the validity of their copyright.
At one point I made a trip to the Library of Congress to try to find actual deposits or deposit records, and spent a considerable time deep in their vaults, hunting through fascinating historical records dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. And I found what I had been looking for, evidence that some of these books were not copyrighted. Even though they had a copyright notice right there, in black and white. I thought some more.
Obviously the publisher must have known these books could not be copyrighted. After all, they knew a lot more than I did on the subject. I realized they had printed the copyright notice in full knowledge of this fact, and for one reason only: to convince people that it was copyrighted. A bald-faced lie, or misinformation. This opened up new possibilities for publishing I had never considered before.
The New York Times Comes Calling
We published the Suzuki book and started to expand our line. We soon acquired real book distribution through the ill-fated Atrium Publishers Group in Santa Rosa, California. I became better at generating catalog copy, press releases, jacket copy, and all the myriad chores that have to be done in publishing, even in a small publisher like ours.
I learned to write contracts, to negotiate with authors, and started selling foreign rights, eventually getting some of our books published in Russia, Italy, France and a number of other countries. We booked a table and exhibited at the BEA (then called the ABA) at the Javits Center in New York. We were real publishers, and there was nothing else I wanted to do.
We had gotten to about a dozen books in print, each one lovingly edited, designed and produced. At the same time our friend David Kherdian had completed a memoir that told the story of his trip, along with his wife Nonny Hogrogian, through the Gurdjieff work. David, who had been nominated for a National Book Award for The Road From Home, and Nonny, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator, offered us the book, because they knew we would put more into it than any other publisher, and would work closely with them in editing and designing the book.
In August, 1991 we published On a Spaceship With Beelzebub, the product of our collaboration. The phone rang one day, and a man who insisted he was with the New York Times told us the book would be in the Sunday Book Review. When the paper came out, we were shocked to find the book on the cover, along with another spiritual memoir.
This event had two significant effects, although they may not be what you think. First, it validated everything we had been attempting to build at Globe, giving us amazing credibility with our distributor and everyone else within the chain of operations that is the book business. Second, it cost me a lot of money. We were on press, and immediately increased the print run, pumped up our advertising, and did several other things to capitalize on our good fortune.
Death of a Dream
The other side of the story is simple. The book didn’t sell. In fact, very few of our books sold in any numbers. We had a thriving newsletter—In The Work—that sold Gurdjieff-related books and tapes, and it was profitable. But I had made two crucial mistakes.
I had quit my day job to concentrate on publishing, which drained our reserves far faster than they ought to have been. And I had published what my heart told me were books that needed to be published—not what the market told me it wanted. Rather than increase our profitability, each book put us farther in the hole. Without a real sense of what the market wanted, or how to reach the people who would buy our books, our company was pretty much doomed from the start.
In late 1992 our son Max was born, right around the time the money ran out. Our investor, who had been generous, pulled the plug. Jill’s job in the mortgage industry was cut back. Even though the long-awaited second edition of Body Types was on press, it was obvious we would have to close up shop.
I made the difficult decision to close our doors, remainder the books in inventory, sell off to other publishers the books that were worthwhile, or the projects that were in progress, and to return all rights to the books we’d published to their authors. Globe Press Books was done.
I switched the name on my book on press, and we gathered our new little family together. Following many of our friends, and ready for a change even though we didn’t know what that change would bring, we decided to quit New York entirely, and set out for California.
That’s where I’ll pick this story up next time.