By Shawn Coyne | Published: September 16, 2011
Fifteen years ago, I worked at St. Martin’s Press. It was (and still is) one of the big six publishing players. If ever there is a sitcom about book publishing, it should be set in the 1990s at St. Martin’s Press. What a cast of characters…
Anyway, the head of the company was a man named Thomas McCormack, a real autocrat with more than a few eccentricities. Every day, Tom would order a tuna fish sandwich and a small cup of Vanilla ice cream from the ancient delicatessen across the street (http://www.eisenbergsnyc.com/). He wasn’t a publishing lunch schmoozy kind of guy… Invariably, he’d not have time to finish the sandwich or even get near the ice cream, so when you went to his office for one thing or another, Tom would open up his mini-fridge and offer you one of the tens of little freezer burned ice creams stuffed inside.
Tom was the boss of bosses at St. Martin’s (actually started the whole thing years before) yet he also served as SMP’s Editor in Chief. He ran the editorial meeting every Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m. sharp in the flatiron building’s seventeenth floor conference room. Imagine CBS’s Leslie Moonves meeting once a week for six hours with every in house producer and show runner to approve or reject his or her story ideas. Crazy for a CEO to get his hands that dirty, right? He should be riding his own elevator (like another famous publishing CEO at the time) and looking for strategic long term growth alliances…
Every Wednesday, all of SMPs editors would circle a very large conference table with Tom at the head, closest to the door. There was no way you could sneak out without him seeing you. We all tried at one point or another, but he’d always catch us. He’d squint his eyes like Clint Eastwood until we slinked back to our designated seat. There was another larger circle of chairs surrounding the table itself. Seniority gave you a spot at the big table, but every single editor and editorial assistant was required to attend. And Tom gave every single one in the room a chance to pitch. At many of the other houses I worked when I was on that side of the business, editorial assistants weren’t allowed to get near an editorial meeting. They had to “earn” it. But Tom actually had a second editorial meeting each week…just for editorial assistants…
The meeting began with Tom literally reading index cards. On each card was the name of a novel or proposal that had been submitted to the house the previous week.
“Coyne has in a proposal from Writers House purporting to be the lost diaries of Howard Hughes…Ehhh, an unlikely proposition.” And so on.
At around 11:00 a.m. the editors would begin whispering to one another…
“Is it Chinese today? Pizza?”
“Nah, (big sigh) it’s the big Sandwich…”
As the meeting was interminable, Tom ordered lunch for everyone in the room. He’d still get his tuna fish and ice cream. The rest of us would jockey for positions at a long card table that often held a nine foot long grinder/hoagie/submarine loaded with MSG and gritty oregano, hoping to avoid the soggiest sections.
After the reading of the cards, the moment arrived when the gastric juices of the room really got flowing. Tom would begin the interrogations. He’d start with the highest ranking editor and simply say…
“What do you got?”
The editor would either simply shake her head “no” to indicate she didn’t have anything to pitch or she’d launch into a spiel she’d spent the previous two days sketching out in her mind and rehearsing in front of her bathroom mirror. Woe be the person who failed to project her voice enough so that all in the room could hear…
“I have in a brilliant first novel about a marauding band of gypsies who have broken the space time continuum (silence). The leader of the band is a transvestite soothsayer whose backstory reminded me that of Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations…”
Tom cut her off.
“Sounds like a dog’s breakfast to me!”
A newbie assistant would nudge a more grizzled twenty-something close by and whisper…What’s a dog’s breakfast?
Tom would then spin around on his thirty year old pair of black Florsheims. He’d stare down the whisperer as if the young man had just scratched his vintage Studebaker.
“A DOG’S BREAKFAST IS TURKEY, MEATLOAF, PASTA, SALAD (he’d tick off a finger on his left hand to emphasize each foodstuff) WHATEVER’S LEFT IN THE ICEBOX! THIS GODDAMN NOVEL SOUNDS JUST LIKE THAT…SCIENCE FICTION AND FAMILY DRAMA WITH THE PROMISE OF THROUGHLINE CRIME SLOSHING AROUND WITH A REDEMPTIVE MATURATION PLOT! CHOOSE ONE GENRE AND DO IT WELL. DON’T PUBLISH WRTERS WHO DON’T CHOOSE!”
Wednesday whisperers would either be in tears at the end of the explanation, or their instinctive recoiling away from the screaming madman would alter their equilibrium in such a way that their chairs would rock back from a four legged purchase to two. Depending on the length of the tirade, their center of gravity could reach critical mass. The chairs would then tip backwards and deposit them with a thud onto the decades-old, wall to wall, shag carpeting. Pretty embarrassing.
Tom would then turn back to the veteran editor with his eyebrows raised and sweetly say “Anything else?”
Multiply this process by twenty five full editors, with 30 odd editorial assistants and you’re deep into the afternoon. Remember this was the era of no blackberries or IPhones, or even e-mail. The only “instant” communication device we used to conduct business was the telephone. Every editor at the company would blow a full day watching Tom excoriate his colleagues, if not himself too.
The best (worst) was when Tom was actually intrigued enough by a book idea that he asked the editor to run down the P&L for him. If the editor made the financial case, Tom would give her clearance to make an offer for the book. A profit/loss report is a crucial tool for any business. And for book publishing it’s essential to understand the risks involved in publishing any one particular book.
There are many variables to consider and Tom considered it mandatory that his editors converse in P/L-ese as well as his accounting department. To Tom, it was irresponsible to publish a book without knowing all the shit that could go wrong. He wouldn’t put up with the standard “I’m just no good with numbers” excuses that editors liked to hide behind. You had to field as well as you hit. Better in fact. Or you wouldn’t be allowed to get to the plate.
It was physically painful to watch a young editor choke on Tom’s P/L questioning. It was a machine gun gauntlet…What’s your price? What’s your trim? What’s your PPB? What’s your royalty? What’s your ship? What’s your net? What’s your ROI? I choked once. Every one of the other 25 editors had at one time too. With Tom, you didn’t get a chance to choke twice.
Like scores of other publishing professionals, I learned far more from Tom McCormack than I ever gave back to SMP. And as was Tom’s way, the day I left St. Martin’s to start a new job at a competing house with a superior title and double my SMP salary (he ran p/ls on his editors too and I’m sure he knew when an editor’s compensation would most likely exceed his contribution), he called me up to his 18th floor office at the triangle of the flatiron building to say goodbye.
And as I unwrapped a cheap wooden stick-spoon and began to chip away at a vanilla cup, Tom looked me straight in the eye and said, “After you learn all of their secrets, you come back here!”