Publishing Timeline: 7. California and Marin Bookworks, Past and Future

by Joel Friedlander on January 5, 2010 · 15 comments

This is the seventh and final article in a series describing my Publishing Timeline; the events, experiences and occupations that have somehow shaped my business life up until today.

We settled in San Rafael, a diverse small city about 20 minutes north of San Francisco. As Jill got to know people in the mortgage business, I once again took stock.

I had some books that had been under contract and whose authors were still interested in getting into print. I knew a few people at larger publishing houses, so I spent some time packaging books, picking up public domain material and repackaging it, selling it to other publishers. I wasn’t sure what my future would be in publishing, but I did what I had to and learned things in the process.

The Personal Becomes the Network

One of the other reasons we came back to California was to separate from the group we had been in for many years. It was a difficult period, but one of the best things to come out of it was meeting Janja Lalich, a sociologist and, through her, many people who had been in groups similar to ours.

Through Janja I met Elizabeth Swenson, who was the director of production at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco, a company that specialized in books on new leadership in business. Elizabeth, one of the most competent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, gave me a project, and my new business was started.

Berrett-Koehler gave its book producers a lot of autonomy. We would meet with the author and the editors and take complete charge of the project from there on, hiring our own copyeditors, proofreaders, indexers, illustrators, whatever was needed to get the book into print. The freedom of working this way suited me well, and I quickly started to do a lot of their books.

Another New Company Emerges: Marin Bookworks

I decided I needed a new company structure, and started Marin Bookworks. Over the next few years I designed and produced dozens of books for Berrett-Koehler and other publishers, including Burfurd Books, Oak Knoll Press, and a variety of smaller publishers. At Lyons Press I met Catherine Lau Hunt, with whom I did many books.

I really enjoyed the role of the book producer. At author meetings with the publisher’s staff, I felt that my experience as a publisher made it easier to find productive ways to bring the author’s message into print. I already knew the ins and outs of the production process intimately. I felt that with my background as both a designer and an author, I brought a unique set of skills to producing books. Many of these books went on to sell very well for their publishers.

Gradually I put a team of professionals together as my contacts expanded. By sheer luck, I came across Sharon Goldinger at PeopleSpeak, one of the best copyeditors—and the best proofreader—I’ve ever worked with. I worked with many talented editors around the San Francisco Bay Area, and found indexers, illustrators and layout artists as I produced more and more books.

Self-Publishers Even Back Then

Most of the books that came my way were non-fiction of some kind. Business books, psychology books, sports books on golf, cycling, canoeing, nature books, illustrated books, whatever the publishers offered up. But there were also the self-publishers, almost all of whom were non-fiction authors.

They ran the gamut of interests. There was rarely a month that went by at Marin Bookworks where there wasn’t at least one self-published book in the mix. The authors were diverse, as diverse as their subject matter. Books on taking vacations in your RV, books about how animals can get along together, books of exercises, political philosophy, wealth management, fictionalized anthropology, inspirational books, harrowing tales of personal survival.

Novelists were rare, although a few showed up over the years. Some were publishing for their own enjoyment, others really thought they would hit it big. To my knowledge, none of these self-published novels returned anywhere near their investment.

And the investment was real. Because you had to print offset, and 2,000 books was pretty much a minimum, you were going to be in for at least a few thousand dollars. This made the self-publishers more conservative and more careful about the product they were putting into the marketplace. They knew they had to compete.

Change—And Reality—Intervenes

I relished working at home, with a network of colleagues, clients and subcontractors available through online technology. The world of publishing was changing fast, as the digitization of the book production process was nearly complete.

Although there was a lot of joy in my life, I was also on a long journey of healing. I was crossing a dark sea and, although I knew I would arrive at the other shore, I didn’t know how long it would take.

People I knew moved to other positions, new clients had to be found. This is pretty much a constant for the small or solo entrepreneur. There just seemed to be a limit to the income I could derive from doing other people’s books. At the same time, my resources had retreated within me.

I had stopped writing years ago, yet I was getting less satisfaction from the books I was designing. I knew I wanted to find a way to work with my own content, instead of always being a midwife for other people’s content. In my own mind the business I had built was really a temporary measure, something to do until I could reclaim what I had lost, or misplaced for a while.

Jill, in the meantime, had made the leap from being a mortgage processor to originating loans. A savvy businesswoman and an intuitive salesperson, Jill was soon a very sucesful loan agent. Soon she was so busy I began helping her, installing her computer systems, setting up databases, doing mailings.

Eventually I bowed to the inevitable. It was time to stop making books for a while. For the last 20 years I had been in graphic design, print production, and book publishing. Instead I would assist Jill in realizing her goals, and I closed Marin Bookworks for the interim.

What Goes Around . . .

Last year we got rid of the final storage unit we had in San Rafael, transferring the contents into a storage system in our garage. We needed space, and every item in storage had to justify itself since we couldn’t keep everything.

I opened a box that had been sealed for years. Inside were the archived copies of the many books I had done at Marin Bookworks. CDs, old Zip Disks, my god, there were even some floppies in there! A complete install of Quark 3.31, 1000 Adobe fonts on multiple backups, the whole nine yards.

The next box down had the sample books, flat cover overprints, neatly folded dust jackets. Publishers, authors I hadn’t thought of in years. Outside, the truck with the contents of the storage unit would be pulling up in the morning. Well, I thought, here’s a bunch of stuff I’m never going to need again!

It had been five years since I’d closed Marin Bookworks, five years of highs and lows, and I knew I was just coming to the end of my healing journey. But the problem now was space, so I picked up the remnants of what I thought was an old life, and headed for the dumpster out front. After holding onto this past for years, it was time to go.

As usual in my life, it would only be a matter of months before I began to realize how wrong I had been that day. The mortgage market had imploded, and I knew it was time to go back to the publishing business. I was ready. The years had changed me, and I looked forward to finding out the great changes that had happened while I had been away.

A New Beginning

I resurrected Marin Bookworks, hunted down old colleagues, and was excited to see the changes in the publishing landscape. Although the book business was in the throes of a technological and financial revolution, the rise of self-publishing to the level of a mainstream phenomenon, was really exciting.

I was writing again and looking forward to working on new projects. In San Rafael I found the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, whose educational meetings and networking opportunities soon got me up to speed on the new face of publishing.

Digital printing, print-on-demand distribution, the consolidation of booksellers, the rise of Amazon, and the advent of ereaders like the Kindle and the Sony Reader were the new wave. Publishing continues to go through a somewhat chaotic revolution of technology and distribution. New technologies are emerging on a weekly basis that have the potential to radically change a business that hasn’t changed that much in 500 years.

What was a conservative industry is being tossed in completely new directions. At the same time, on the internet you can launch an ebook for $100, sell 1000 copies in the first couple of weeks and, without any investment in paper or ink, gross a huge amount of money without knowing anything at all about publishing. It is, indeed, a strange new world.

Thanks for reading to the end of this long journey. I look forward to working with the authors and publishers who will create the books that will define this new era.

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    { 7 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jeff Bach October 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Great stuff reading through your origin story.

    I think it is time for another installment! I’m gathering part 7 ended in 2010? That’s three years ago now! Inquiring minds (like me) want you to extend your origin story!

    good read!
    Jeff Bach


    Joel Friedlander October 14, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks, Jeff, much appreciated. Actually, I never thought of extending this series, but now you’ve planted the idea I’ll have to give it some thought. Quite a bit has transpired since I wrote these.


    Joel February 7, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Thank you, Rose. It really gives me a lot of pleasure to be able to help others on this exciting process, and I learn something from every client I work with, that’s what keeps it interesting!


    Rose February 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you for sharing this journey, Joel. It is good to know that you know what the rest of us don’t know about the self-publishing process. I have a feeling that my partner and I will be needing your services later this year.

    Here’s to having found your bliss. May it continue to bring you joy and sustenance.

    Rose, from Nathan’s joint


    Chris January 5, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Great series of articles, Joel. I for one am thrilled you’re “back in the game”!


    admin January 5, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Betty, I really appreciate your reading through this timeline. Some parts of it were actually a little difficult to write (like this one) and I was also a bit sad at the end, because it was a very enjoyable exercise. Deciding what to put in and what to leave out was the main challenge, but I guess that’s true for a lot of writing. And yes, I’m having a ball. There’s tremendous excitement to go with the anxiety in book publishing because it will look very different a few years from now, but nobody knows exactly how.


    betty ming liu January 5, 2010 at 6:52 am

    What an exciting journey of self-discovery. I totally relate to the concept of leaving a vocation/career choice — and then returning to it as an evolved person who has a fresh eye. (I find that happening for myself with my journalism as I return to the field, re-inventing myself as a blogger who is un-emcumbered by long-standing routines and commitments.) Sounds like you’re having fun in the Wild Wild Wests of publishing from your base in California!


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