So I suppose it was inevitable. My wife is a teacher. My mother was a professor. I’ve always loved to speak in front of people (my friends reading this are rolling their eyes). When I was in baseball in my previous life, I spent a huge amount of time talking to kids (mostly about Derek Jeter, it turns out). It was only a matter of time before I got a gig teaching something somewhere.
This morning I submitted my final syllabus for NYU’s Master of Science in Publishing PUBB1-GC 3015 002 course, The Role of the Literary Agent, which I’ll be teaching for seven Monday evenings this winter. It’s a second semester course, and gives the agent’s perspective on how authors get represented, submitted, and published. It’s going to be 17 ½ hours of query letters, contract analysis, ethics, and the basics of Publishers Marketplace and royalty statements. My students will be second semester masters students, and they will presumably understand all the basics of the publishing industry in this changing era of digital rights and contracting houses.
When I was thinking about this evolution, one of the things that came to mind was the summer I spent in 1990 at the Radcliffe (now Columbia) Publishing Course. It was right after I graduated from college, and I knew I wanted to be an editor. I went to Boston to live in a (very warm) dorm at Radcliffe, where for three weeks I was going to get a crash course in book publishing and for three others, a primer on the magazine world.
I’d interned for a summer with an agency, and a semester with Philadelphia Magazine, but the information crammed into my head between cocktail parties and trips to Walden Pond was fascinating. At the end of each unit, we spent a week working as a group planning a season’s “list” of books or one month’s issue of a magazine. My publishing house was going to be called God and Mammon Press, but we were told we could include the Deity in our name (copyright?), so after a highly adolescent snit of a memo to our advisor (written at 2 AM after, if I recall, some extremely delicious burritos and perhaps a little tequila), we called ourselves Demiurge Press. We were clearly doomed. But very clever. And if you’d asked us we would have told you just HOW clever we were.
I was thinking about this because so many of our strategies and assumptions are no longer relevant in the marketplace today. Print advertising? Not unless your name is Danielle Steele and you continue to insist on the NYT Book Review Centerfold twice a year. Author tour? How’d that work for you, Jeff Cohen, from the perspective of moving the dial, sales-wise? (Not to say that author tours are useless—just different.) And, well, it was long enough ago that the internet didn’t yet exist outside academia. Mark Zuckerberg was six years old.
And yet, many of the aspects of selling books that we discussed in 1990 are evergreen, and my students will be discussing them in February. How do authors earn out their advances? How are books discovered in the market? (OK, so now we are sometimes looking at virtual bookshelves instead of physical ones. But then, Barnes & Noble was the Juggernaut, taking over the industry and putting smaller retailers out of business through economies of scale and lower price points. Sound familiar?) Is the Midlist going to disappear? (Been talking about it for at least 50 years, and still there are small domestic novels and cozy mysteries selling for $5,000 advances.)
My hope is that my students will get one thing that I got from my teachers that summer, and which my wife’s student’s get from her and my mother’s got from her: The thrill of learning something that the instructor loves. I hope that my enthusiasm for this industry shows up, and that I can hear in 23 years that one of my kids is still (back?) in the business, trying to keep publishing going for another generation.