What It Takes

What It Takes

Glove Before Stick

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!”

Posted in What It Takes

16 Responses to “Glove Before Stick”

  1. September 16, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Great story Shawn! I think this qualifies for War Stories and Writing Wednesdays as well. Thanks for running that gauntlet and sharing with us, particularly this gem: “Don’t publish writers who don’t choose!”

  2. September 16, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Love this story, love the school he ran. Lisa used to work there too!

  3. September 16, 2011 at 5:41 am

    This is a fabulous story, and it’s one that has been played out in thousands of conference rooms in front of millions of willing and unwilling students.

    If we’re open to the instruction, our toughest leaders may teach us the most important lessons.

    Thank you for the reminder, Shawn.

    • September 16, 2011 at 5:44 am

      Whoops! Make that DutyCalls dot org. Sorry about that, people.

  4. September 16, 2011 at 6:22 am

    This is too cool. I work in education and honestly wish some deans and vice presidents would get their hands that dirty.

  5. September 16, 2011 at 6:37 am

    Wonderful story, well told! Made me want to be there, even if I had to eat the soggiest part of the Big Sandwich.

  6. September 16, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Shawn,

    How have meetings like this changed in the last twenty years or so? Something tells me Tom wouldn’t like people texting and tweeting during his meeting.

    Steve

  7. Shawn Coyne
    September 16, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Hi Steve,
    Tom stepped down from his perch at St. Martin’s about six months after I left the company. I like to think that he’d realized his dream of creating the perfect editorial beast. And once the beast left the building, he couldn’t bear working there anymore. Needless to say, there is no way Tom would have put up with tweeting or texting. He’d give you a look if you had a stray thought.

    But the truth is that Tom, like most editors, loved to write as much as he loved to publish and teach. He left to do so and he’s no doubt pouring over prose as I type this.

    If you check out the resumes of the top hotshots in the business, you’ll find an inordinate number of McCormack graduates. They all have a McCormack story too.

    Tom left the ship in incredible shape with a cast of brilliant and hilarious editors, salespeople and even management (imagine that)! I always look back at my time there akin to that great movie MY FAVORITE YEAR. Lots of stress, gallons of vodka and tonic, and memories that make me laugh out loud. A quick one… The publisher is a knock out beauty with a mouth like a sailor. One day I was freaked out about something so I walked straight in to her office (she didn’t care, she always left the door open). She was in the middle of pulling up her stockings when she looked up and saw me red faced and ashamed to have invaded her privacy. She started laughing. “What’s a matter with you? You never seen pantyhose? What’s the problem?” It was that kind of place. Still is I bet.
    Shawn

    • September 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

      Shawn,

      Was Mr. McCormack pretty dialed-in with his pitch radar? Was there a book you knew would be successful that didn’t make it out of the Wednesday meeting, maybe went on to sell a ton somewhere else?

      I’m asking partly because I’m fascinated with this, and partly because I’m horrified about how many authors may have missed a chance with St. Martin’s because somebody choked in a meeting.

      • Shawn Coyne
        September 16, 2011 at 12:09 pm

        Hi Jeremy,

        Tom would be the first to tell you that he wasn’t infallible. Actually, he’d probably be the last.

        The thing is I think you need a cranky man or woman heading your publishing house. Tom signed every contract and he was undeniably the final word on any offer. If a publishing company doesn’t have that sort of, for lack of a better description “Mr. Burns” (from the Simpsons) overseeing the operation, the supporting cast has a hard time. It’s like have six coaches in baseball without a head coach. From whom do you take your orders? Which boss do you serve?

        The publishing philosophy at SMP when I was there came directly from him…publish a lot of worthy books for reasonable advances and play the odds that one of them will explode while the others dribble out a couple of bucks to the bottom line. I consistently commissioned books for less than a $5,000 guaranteed advance and your jaw would drop if I told you how many books I acquired and published in my short two year tenure there. I learned fundamentals by doing… I hazard to guess that 75-80% of the advances from SMP at that time did not exceed $25,000.

        (I don’t believe that to be the case today and please don’t assume that I know what I’m talking about in terms of how the company is run today. I’m generalizing here.)

        Tom’s strategy was extraordinarily profitable because he zigged while every other publishing company zagged. The other big houses frowned on the “let’s roll the dice with this little gem and see what happens” philosophy. They believed in the BIG BOOK. The more BIG BOOKS they had on their list the more revenue, and the more revenue, the better! Plus publishing a smaller list of “select” books would not overtax the sales, marketing, publicity etc. departments. A tight focus could take a book to the bestseller list and that’s the main goal isn’t it?

        I think both philosophies have validity. It obviously depends on which books the publisher chooses to publish and how much capital they invested to acquire them to determine whether or not they are successful.

        A lot of gems fall through the BIG BOOK house cracks. A LOT. Because SMP was the only big house publishing broad and deep, SMP’s editors snatched them up, gave writers their first break, and spread ideas that otherwise would not have had a chance to be considered.

        Also remember that a book publishing company is a diverse ecosystem made up of extremely ambitious people. Tom’s editorial meetings weeded out the wallflowers pretty quickly. The editors at SMP learned how to pitch and talk and talk and talk… And of course, there are always other ways to skin a cat if you doubted Tom would support you in public. Catching him alone and in a good mood or rallying support from the colleagues he trusted implicitly usually did the trick.

        I’ve just read a very good book which is getting a ton of attention. It’s published by Little Brown (a house with the “select” philosophy) and they’ve done an incredible job. It’s called THE ART OF FIELDING. I bring it up because the author Chad Harbach has a pitch perfect description of the ideal coach/boss…

        “All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final victory.”

        Tom didn’t want to be your friend. But he didn’t want to humiliate you, either. He wanted you to do your job…find books that you would fight him tooth and nail to publish. Because if you didn’t care, why should he?

        Hope this answers your question.
        Shawn

        • September 16, 2011 at 6:39 pm

          Shawn,

          Answers my questions and many I hadn’t thought to ask–thanks so much for taking the time to respond so generously.

          Mr. McCormack sounds like a man I’d be proud to work for, to be ALLOWED to work for. The run-through-walls kind of boss/coach. And thanks for the blurb from THE ART OF FIELDING, that bumps it to the top of my reading list.

  8. Ronald Sieber
    September 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Fascinating look-in on an editorial meeting!

  9. September 16, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Great, great story. :)

  10. September 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Shawn. It’s so helpful to have these insights, even if they are a tad out dated, it still helps to see into the editor/publisher’s day. I suspect some things haven’t changed as much as we might think.

  11. September 21, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Riveting! Unbelievably fascinating stuff, Shawn. Thanks for giving us a window into a world most of us would likely never have known about. Great lessons, too.

    The thing about being in an environment like that, is that you’re never the same when you leave. You walk out of that world, and everyone else seems ass-backwards compared to how you now know business ought to be done. Anyone who gets that kind of education can count themselves lucky indeed.

  12. November 28, 2011 at 6:14 pm

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