Berrett-Koehler Publishers: A Farewell Post
“We always call the authors we turn down,” my boss Jeevan told me, “Because form letters are so soul-crushing.” He gave a self-deprecatory chuckle. “Only, I’m too cowardly to turn them down myself. So I’m making you do it.”
“Thanks a lot,” I responded, with good-natured sarcasm. And so I began my apprenticeship in the fine art of rejection. Every day I would fill my arms with countless letters and envelopes, bundles of dreams ripe and ready for the crushing.
As a nonfiction publisher, we like to publish books by celebrities and successes, because we know they will sell. People envy and imitate the superstars of this world. But it’s the people who didn’t quite make it who will linger in my heart and memory long after the superstars have been forgotten.
I could spend this blog writing about the wisdom of our famous authors. How privileged I’ve been to meet people like John Schuster, Karen Hough, Daniel Seddiqui, Margaret Wheatley, Peter Block, Bob Johansen, and Deborah Friezen. Or I could write about the far greater privilege of reading the books I turned down. I am humbled, blessed, sometimes (yes) amused, and always saddened, by the audacity of souls that shine without ever entering the public eye.
One book was written by two women who had both lost their children, one of them due to violent crime. The mother of the crime victim reacted to the tragedy by going to grad school and getting a masters degree in psychology. She sent me a very stiff chapter focusing on the psychology of grief, and a table of contents which covered such details as “Making Funeral Arrangements,” etc.
She didn’t want other parents to be blindsided by the ordeal the way she was. But except in the case of lingering illness, nobody expects their child to die. And by the time they think of buying books about it, the undertaker is long gone. I called her up and told her, “You need to sound less like a psychology text book and more like a human being.” She responded, “We wanted to be taken seriously! We didn’t want to just be grieving parents. We wanted to be authorities, experts.” Everyone wants to be an expert.
“Finding meaning in personal misfortune,” was a whole genre in the rejection category. There was another book about how to recover from the grief of having your house foreclosed upon. I did raise an eyebrow at that one, since her problem seemed to be living beyond her means, rather than actual poverty. She mostly wrote about how ashamed and embarrassed she was in front of her friends when it happened. She must have had some strange friends.
Yet another person wrote a book about how their money manager (a friend of twenty years) scammed them out of their life savings of 67,000 dollars. But I felt more for Sunny Fong, who contemplated suicide when he was an international student in the United States and felt so out of place. He worked past his suicidal impulses by Achieving Enlightenment through martial arts, and is now a Tae Kwon Do instructor.
On the more comic side, apparently the American empire is crumbling, but we can halt its inevitable decline by following the recommendations of certain earnest-minded citizens. The left needs to stop spending the money of future generations. The right needs to stop letting Glenn Beck being so bloody annoying. I got a couple of American histories that focused on explaining how the Tea Party had their American history all wrong. There was one former economic advisor of Governor Schwarzenegger who wanted me to know that California was bravely marching into the fiscal depths of Hell, dragging the rest of the nation behind it. If we would all just sit down, shut up, and read some goddamn Thomas Paine, maybe we could get our heads screwed on straight, seemed to be the consensus among a surprising number of authors.
Nature metaphors were popular. Leaders should be flexible and strong like bamboo! (The author explained he got the idea while reading the advertising tag on a bamboo sushi-rolling mat.) It was always the men who wrote about Leadership. Women, on the other hand, wrote on topics like “avoiding toxic gossip in the workplace,” and getting along with one another. For example, you should follow the three leaves of the “Clover Practice,” a.k.a Be Nice, Listen to One Another, and…. I forget the third leaf. Sorry, my dear.
“Kiss Your Latte Goodbye,” was written by a couple of former ambassadors (now university professors) trying to prepare other Americans for the experience of living overseas. There were exotic moments, like having a chicken sacrificed to bless your arrival. However, the big insight for them was that people are the same everywhere. “They laugh, they cry, they hope and worry and dream about their children’s futures. They aren’t any different from us, really.” A nation composed of immigrants shouldn’t always be so surprised to find foreigners are people.
Another author interviewed several women who changed their lives by earning an online degree. They escaped abusive relationships, helped their children, and achieved self-confidence by means of the credential. Many women are too hampered by family responsibilities to go to university in the regular way.
The weirdest book I got was from an assistant medical professor who claimed to have discovered the secret of the universe through his DNA research. The theory was a little obscure, but it basically boiled down to, “I am God.” I wondered if I should call the university he was working for and tell them they had God on their staff, but decided not to touch that one.
And finally, the book that broke my heart, a little thing called, “Africa’s Moment,” written by a Kenyan educated in the USA who swam against the current of the brain drain to go back to help his country. I was blown away by the writing, but apparently a Kenyan really can’t sell books in the USA unless he is a famous big shot of some kind. “Come on,” Jeevan remarked to me bitterly, “Most Americans can’t even name five African countries.”
Were people angry at me when I turned them down? They were disappointed, naturally. But WITHOUT EXCEPTION they were tremendously grateful to learn that a real person had read their work, thought about it, and cared about it. In this society, we are always afraid to make the personal connection. It’s a mistake to hide behind our rules and regulations, our formalities and forms. To quote my friend Amy Levenhagen’s favorite poem, “let us not fill our mouths
with so many faltering names,
with so many sad formalities,
with so many pompous letters,
with so much of yours and mine,
with so much of signing of papers.”
That’s why I’m so glad that Berrett-Koehler stands behind the policy of calling each and every author who makes the effort to create a proper book proposal. An old fashioned courtesy as quaint as wearing a top hat or riding your horse to work. Characteristic of a company dedicated to creating “a world that works for all;” a world where people matter.
People write their names on old walls so people will know they have passed. People seem to write books for the reason— to write their names on the surface of eternity. Unfortunately, many of the people who try to write books are writing something that has been said before, or that nobody cares to hear about. The books boil down to, “I am me. I was here. I mattered.”
Once an author put the wrong phone number on his book proposal, so that when I dialed the number I called up an entirely different gentlemen. I was halfway through the spiel when he told me, “Whoa. Slow down. You’re from a publishing company? My friends always say I should write a book. But I don’t want to. It’s too much work.” I told Jeevan about the call, and he burst out laughing and said, “He’s the one you should have signed!”
Be warned, aspiring authors. Writing a book is a lot of work. You have all the pains of childbirth, but the object that comes out is not even warm and cuddly. It is cold, hard, and mercilessly rectangular. Unless you really have something to say, don’t write a word. Spend the time with the people you love instead, because THEY will remember that you mattered.
Stay tuned for more confessions from the Deranged Idealist. Tell your friends. I’m always here. My new job with Rochester Americorps will be starting soon, so there should be plenty of action.
I love you all.