It is a safe contention that few people whose primary career motivation is “to get rich” go into book publishing. What attracts folks to our business are other life objectives. Over the six decades I’ve been interacting with publishing professionals, I have come to see that reality as a feature, not a bug. It is a gift to have spent my life among people who value storytelling, topic expertise, the English language, beautiful design, and enabling the communication of ideas (among other things) more highly than supersized personal financial achievement. And, though I have no way to prove this, I believe they are more civic-minded than the participants in your “average” profession.
The day after the election in 2016, while most of us in the world of books were still reeling from the shock of Trump’s election, there was a memorial service held for Martin Levin, who had been a publishing pro pretty much to the day he died at age 97. His memorial was more celebratory than mournful. And it was inspiring. So it was not surprising that one of my Next Acts in publishing began there.
Lena Tabori is, like me, a publishing lifer. I spent most of my career on digital change; she spent hers making beautiful illustrated books. What we shared was a concern about climate change and the time to do something about it. We joined forces.
What Lena and I learned very quickly was how much we didn’t know about climate change, despite being lifelong daily Times readers, activists, and concerned environmentalists. That gave clarity to our mission, creating a website that would serve as “Climate Change for Dummies”: curating the web world of climate change conversation in a way that would serve as an on-ramp for the newly-engaged.
It took us a lot longer to figure out exactly what was called for than we thought it would, but that site is now being built. It will live at ClimateChangeResources.org (which will be linked here when it is live) and will be delivering a lot of content and connections within a month or two.
Meanwhile, my longtime friend and sometimes collaborator Brian O’Leary has taken over as Executive Director of The Book Industry Study Group. BISG is, essentially, the thought leadership division of the book publishing business. Most of its attention is focused on industry-wide concerns around metadata and the supply chain. We were flattered when Brian responded to what Lena and I were doing as volunteers with an invitation to present more broadly to the interested among the BISG audience in a webinar.
So at 1 pm on Tuesday, February 20 (and archived for later viewers thereafter), Lena and I will present a webinar called “What Book Publishing People Need to Know about Climate Change”. This could be titled “What Smart Concerned Citizens Who Are De Facto Thought Leaders Need to Know about Climate Change”. Because that’s how we view the world of our cohorts.
Of course, we need lots of help for our volunteer and so-far self-funded effort that we think the publishing community can and will provide. Our basic proposition is to find useful content and to add introductory contextual copy and tagging to facilitate discovery and comprehension, as well as to monitor and enumerate events and volunteering opportunities that arise all the time. For a while at least, this is primarily a people thing, not primarily an automation thing. We know the people in publishing will want to help and are the ones who can.
We also will need help finding funding. For now, Lena and I are building the site out of our own pockets and funding some limited paid support for our efforts. But to really fulfill our vision, we’ll need to add staff. That will take money that it is beyond our expertise to raise. But there are members of the publishing community who know that world, and even new techniques such as how to raise money through online capabilities like Kickstarter or GoFundMe.
Spreading the word through the BISG seminar and then launching ClimateChangeResources.org will set some things in motion. Lena and I believe we’ll get energy to add to our own to sustain us from the community of thinkers and doers with whom we’ve spent our working lives.
It has been a tough season for losses in our publishing community. Two of them touched me very personally, one which has been little noted because of the passage of professional time.
The organization Brian O’Leary heads, BISG, was launched many decades ago by one Sandy Paul, who was an early leader in establishing publishing standards — including the ISBN. Sandy retired from BISG two decades ago, married an Englishman named John Money, and established a new professional life for herself split between Miami (her home of choice; she was a sun-worshiper) and London, where her husband lived.
I met her when I was a child. Sandy was a consultant working for my mother at J.K. Lasser & Company in the late 1950s while she finished up her education at Hunter College. She went on to work at Random House and then got into the publishing standards business and organized BISG. She was a small woman with a big energy, kind heart, and great leadership skills. It is too bad that the industry lost touch with her for the final two decades of her life, but her work product endures. When Lena and I present the BISG webinar on February 20 it will be in my mind that my lifelong friend Sandy made this possible.
But Sandy was around 80 years old. She wasn’t cheated by time. My friend and co-author, Robert Riger, who died a couple of weeks ago from the effects of the flu, left us at 57. Much too young.
I met Robert Riger in 1990 when he joined with Lorraine Shanley and Constance Sayre to create Market Partners International, offering consulting services to book publishers. Although we were supposed to be competitors, we became collaborators pretty quickly. We joined forces in 1993 and 1994 (and worked with a third company: Dan McNamee’s Publishing and Media Group) to do the first conferences aimed at book publishers about digital change.
We did some joint consulting assignments, including a trip to Spain in 1996 where Robert, Connie, and I educated the Spanish publishers. (I’m reprising that gig in May; going to the Madrid Book Fair as a guest of the Spanish Publishers Association.)
When I met Robert he was about 30, and he had already run both Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild. (He had started there, fresh out of Brown, as Lorraine Shanley’s assistant when she ran Quality Paperback Book Club). He was an established prodigy! But aside from being whip-smart, Robert was also talented, insightful, kind, and very funny. His insatiable curiosity could take him down rabbit holes that had you wondering “what are we doing here”, but most of the time it was worth the journey. And his insights were always penetrating; his ability to see connections added value to any research or problem-solving in which he participated.
Robert left Market Partners for Penguin the late 1990s, and then worked at a couple of start-ups before landing another long-term gig working for Dan Weiss at SparkNotes, which was owned by Barnes & Noble. One thing Robert discovered there that most publishers never learned was the value of getting beyond the home office and calling directly on the B&N stores. Even a B&N-owned line of books, which had all the support it could want in New York, benefited from the focused attention in the field that could best be mustered by the personal interest and attention from in-store, on-site personnel. Robert made this happen and it was a lesson that was never lost on him.
After he left B&N, for several years Robert ran the Pimsleur language teaching program for Simon & Schuster, a gig that lasted for him until about three years ago.
When Oxford University Press contacted me about writing the Book Publishing entry for their “What Everyone Needs to Know” series, I knew it would be great fun but that I needed help. I love to write, but I’m hopeless at organization and project management. I was delighted when Robert accepted the suggestion that he become my co-author and OUP embraced the idea of having him join me on the project.
So for almost two years we’ve been meeting frequently and working on this book. The partnership was a joy. Robert kept track of the outline, told me what bits I had to write, and provided both brilliant commentary and his own great network of friends and resources to help inform us and move things along. In December, we turned in the “final” manuscript. (The quotes reflect the fact that OUP has all its books “reviewed” and we’d have to address the feedback when we got it.)
In late January, my wife and I were traveling when I got a call from Robert’s former partner, Lorraine. She let me know that Robert had died the previous night, apparently as a result of the flu. Since my good friend was overweight, diabetic, and had a succession of pulmonary problems all the time, this was more of a shock than a surprise.
It is now several weeks since I got the news and I’ll admit to having trouble processing it. Robert was SOOO alive for me over the past 18 months of our work together that it is hard to accept the idea that he, actually, isn’t anymore. Our book, which will be published sometime in 2019, will be his last word. I’m really sad about the fact that I won’t get to promote the book with him, which would have been even more fun than writing it with him was.
There’s going to be a celebration of Robert Riger’s life at the Rizzoli Bookstore on Friday, March 2. I must admit I’ll be thinking what a shame it is that he didn’t get the allocation of time that was given to Martin Levin and Sandy Paul.