1000 Words

by | Oct 9, 2010

The year would was 1992. We’re standing at the ABA (Now Book Expo America) in Anaheim, California. The Convention Center is directly across the street from the main entrance to Disneyland. All the streets are super wide to accommodate the endless rivers of busses that patrol the streets.

The intense-looking man next to me is the author and translator Robert Powell. We had worked on a book together about the teachings of an Indian holy man, Nisargadatta. I gave Powell a contract and we published the book in 1992. Nisargatta, a cigarette maker and apparently an enlightened sage, had a simple but penetrating teaching.

People familiar with the ABA or BEA will recognize this as a co-op display, under the banner of the distributor, Atrium Publishers Group. I was really excited to get distribution with Atrium, and had flown to San Francisco to present our books at their sales meeting.

Dawson Church, the founder of Atrium, later confided to me that he was convinced 90% of his publishers were “non profit.” There were a lot of religious groups, people with agendas, different approaches to book publishing, many of them not very commercial. They mostly wanted to get the word out. This was before Atrium went under, of course.

Behind me you can see some blow-ups of the books we were featuring at the show: Look Inside by Cathy London and Dialogues on the Path of Initiation, about the work of Karlfried Graf von Durkheim.

Cathy London had come in unsolicited but we liked her book of inner reflection and hoped to make it a little “fancy” book with french flaps, deckled-edge paper, and a cover design by Julie Metz.

I’m sure you’re thinking “What kind of publishing is this, that only publishes authors no one has ever heard of?” I only wish that had occurred to me at the time, trust me.

Jill and I published about 10 or 12 books over those years. We even had a book land on the front of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. That week, I thought everything had changed, there was no looking back.

With credibility we’d be able to get even better authors (at least the one who got into the Times was a well-known writer in his own right). With better authors we’d sell more books, it would all work.

We published that spiritual memoir, and we published a really good cross-cultural examination of the chakras and the energy body which had some success.

I assumed we just needed to publish even more books. Wasn’t that the way publishing was supposed to work? Throw enough stuff against the wall and something, somewhere, has to stick, doesn’t it?

We published a sequal to one of our reliable sellers. I had identified some public domain material that would complement our publication by D.T. Suzuki, the famous Japanese author on Zen. It was a form of book packaging.

Sometimes we arranged book signings for authors, through a form of begging and cajoling and emphasizing our marketing plans and budgets. It was thrilling when we booked a signing, even if 10 people showed up and 3 bought books. It was all publicity, right?

We published a biography of Maurice Nicoll, an obscure teacher of an odd psycho-spiritual teaching, who practiced in England.

I cleverly discovered that some of the books by the masters of that odd psycho-spiritual teaching were in the public domain. I practiced my sleight of hand again, packaging a new collection of essays called New Horizons.

It wasn’t hard to sign authors, either. Prospective authors don’t get a look at your balance sheet. You’ve got books, a booth at the ABA, a catalog, that’s good enough.

But I got to look at our financials every day. Over the course of the few years we ran Globe, I realized I had the publishing business backwards.

I was passionately interested in my subject area, and I knew I could find great books in that niche and publish them. Some were surprisingly easy to acquire. Later I would understand why that was, but I wasn’t ready for wisdom quite yet.

Being passionate about something is pretty darn similar to being in love. Passion, love, they are the same. And one of the constants about love is how it blinds us to our beloved’s shortcomings, oddities and occasional failings.

Also, you imagine that everyone else shares your enthusiasm. That assumption is the beginning of the downfall.

The problem is, I was passionate about something that not very many people cared about. No, let me be more specific. Something that 99.99% of people had never even heard of, and never would.

That kind of limits your marketing rather dramatically. But if you’re in love, you don’t realize that. With stars in your eyes you imagine how readers will thank you for bringing light into their life. How people will tell their friends, relatives and co-workers about the insights they gained from your most recent book. Everyone will want one, surely.

This is all backwards, as anyone who has taken Marketing 101 could tell you. Identify the market you can speak to first. Then find the products that they want to buy from you in that field.

In this scenario the products themselves are just that—products. It’s a little hard to get passionate about the products themselves. After all, if they stop selling, we’ll dump them and try something else. You have to be passionate about the process, instead.

That’s the wisdom I wasn’t ready for when this picture was taken. No, I can still see the stars in my eyes, how romantic it was to be hosting authors at the book show, imagining the gathering hordes of people wanting a copy of The Wisdom of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

It’s a long journey we take, and a strange one sometimes. But how wonderful to be able to look back at moments captured in time. I may have known very little then, but now I feel revealed. Thanks for sharing this story. Is a picture worth 1000 words?

Photo: P. Troccolo

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  1. Dawn Hudson

    Jeff, I am new to your blog. Well done! Crisp. Clean. Inviting to read. Continued success.

  2. Christy Pinheiro

    Joel, a picture IS worth a 1000 words. I also loved this post– it’s nice to hear a little about your background and how things have changed over the years in the publishing world. Self-publishing has changed so much just in the last 10 years, it’s incredible so see how far this industry has come. I still haven’t gone to a convention (not a publishing convention, anyway) and I would love to go. Maybe when my son gets a little older I’ll book a ticket to New York and go!

    • Mike Lipsey

      Joel, I really liked learning more of your personal story. I can see that your business career has made you extremely well-qualified to be doing what you do — helping to produce and sell books. I have to admit that I also brought some very costly idealism to my contracting career, such as assuming that employees given a lot of autonomy in bidding jobs would work for both our interests, and discovering that they ended up bidding jobs to maximize their personal commissions. In my writing career, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that while there is definitely an eager audience for what I do, it is a very small audience and therefore a tiny market.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Mike, your writings are like pearls and, even if the market is small, you contribute something truly unique. I would think your market would only grow with time.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Christy, you would love the BEA, I definitely recommend it. It’s one way to really broaden your understanding of publishing just wandering the aisles and meeting publishers, authors, booksellers, distributors, agents, pr people, the whole crew. Thanks for reading.

  3. Betsy Gordon

    Joel — Is that “really good cross-cultural examination of the chakras and the energy body” still available? And what’s the title? This is something I would love to read!

    I loved this post, precisely because you did reveal something special of yourself. I think you do this in many of your posts, whether you’re talking about different fonts you like and the reasons for your admiration, or about all the facets of designing an outstanding book. That’s why I keep coming back and reading, and enjoying, and absorbing your work. You’ve clearly been able to become “passionate about the process” instead of just about the products. I’m trying to learn this myself.

    Is one allowed to remain passionate about the subjects and products, though, even while building up a passion for the process? Did you? I hope so!

    Thank you once again for a thought-provoking post — a great way to start my Saturday morning!


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Betsy,

      The book is called The Body of Light by John Mann and Lar Short. When I closed my publishing company I sold the book to Tuttle, who still has it in print, in our original design. This is an Amazon link if you want to check it out.

      And thank you for your kind comments. I think I’m more passionate now than I ever was, but hopefully not quite as blind!

  4. Jeff Emmerson

    I totally “get it”….A wonderful article about the journey.

    – Jeff Emmerson


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