Thursday, July 7, 2011

How Publishing Has Changed Since 1928

Elizabeth Zelvin

No, that date is not a typo. A newbie on one of my mystery e-lists mentioned a major publisher she used to work for. I hadn’t heard the name (which I’ll omit) for quite some time, since they don’t publish fiction, but it rang a very loud bell for me. My mother, who was a lawyer, worked for them as a legal editor from 1928 till about 1940 and as a freelance writer and editor from 1954 for another 25 years or so. One of her books, an encyclopedia of real estate appraisal, went into four editions and brought royalties for decades. I said as much on the e-list. This aroused my interest in an aspect of my mother’s life that I hadn’t thought about for ages. First, I did what comes naturally nowadays: I googled my mother and looked up the book on Amazon. Then I made the old-fashioned move: went to my bookshelves and blew the dust off the the books I still have: the 1960 first edition (1,458 pages) and the 1978 third edition (1,283 pages). Could the impulse to blog be far behind?

My mother graduated from law school in 1924, determined to have a career and having turned down a proposal from my dad. (The most honest lawyer ever born, he made the mistake of telling her he’d never be rich.) By 1928, she’d ascertained that it was close to impossible for a woman to get a job as a lawyer. She found an alternative niche in the legal department of the aforementioned publisher, where she and a law school friend pioneered not only as the first women, but also as the first Jewish editors ever hired in that department. They were responsible for several fat volumes fetchingly entitled Corporate Minutes, Meetings, and Resolutions. These sat on our bookshelves throughout my childhood, and I was never once tempted to open one.

Back in 1928, employees were not allowed to leave their desks, even to go to the bathroom, much less take a coffee break whenever they wanted or indulge in idle chatter when they were supposed to be working. On the other hand, benefits included profit sharing, and my mother sold her nest egg of the company’s stocks decades later at an impressive profit.

In 1935, my mother finally said yes to my dad, who’d remained a faithful swain, and a few years later quit her job to have children. But being a homemaker alone was not enough for her. In the mid-Fifties, when I was ten, she went back to the same publisher, working from home as a freelance writer and editor. This is how I learned my editing skills at my mother’s knee. For the Real Estate Encyclopedia, published in 1960, my mother solicited contributions from experts on various kinds of real estate, a topic she knew nothing about.

So far, not so different from what the editor of a contributed work of professional nonfiction would do. (I did it myself with a 1997 book on gender and addictions—a field in which I was myself a professional—communicating with my co-editor in Israel by fax, a heady new technology at the time.) But here are some aspects of publishing that I remember, now gone with the wind.

One, my mother rigorously outlined every chapter, asking the contributing authors to give precisely the information she wanted in the book.

Two, after receiving the chapters and tearing her hair over real estate appraisers’ lack of writing skills and ability to ignore her outline, she rewrote every single chapter herself. (I just opened my copy of the Encyclopedia of Real Estate Appraising, Third Edition, probably for the first time ever, and the prose is smooth as silk.)

Three, the publisher paid her an additional sum to do her own index. And that index was exhaustive. No omissions were tolerated. It was perfect. At ten, I became my mother’s apprentice, laying, yep, index cards out on the dining room table, alphabetizing them by the topics, subtopics, and sub-subtopics typed on my mother’s old Royal. No typos or errors in alphabetization ever slipped through.

What else would never happen today? The publisher reimbursed her for every penny she spent on postage, although bulky manuscripts and then galleys—the old long kind—and page proofs went back and forth several times from as far away as Hawaii, which did not become a state until 1959. I also remember her cutting and pasting layouts, using scissors and glue on the proofs. They probably paid her extra for that too. It was all in her contract.

My mother died in 1999 at the age of 96, and she was still dickering with her publisher, trying to get them to do another edition. In fact, changes in publishing and technology made her book obsolete, along with the information explosion. She really needed a staff of researchers, which an academic or an expert in a big firm would have had access to. The publisher wanted to do a “looseleaf” reference work, to which rapidly changing information could be added a lot more quickly. And once the Internet took off, it was all over.

On Amazon, I discovered that the 1978 edition of my mother’s book can still be found from third-party sellers: one new for $194.98 and one used for $11.09. It rates five stars, based on one review from a guy who said it was “the book I was looking for” and that he’d be interested in other editions. I’ve tracked down his email address and hope to find out why. Meanwhile, the book ranks 1,487,986 on Amazon—not so bad for a hardcover published more than thirty years ago.


Cathi Stoler said...

Hi Liz,
Great post. I think your dad had great stick-to-it-tiveness in waiting for your mom to say yes -- a trait
also mostly gone these days!

Sandra Parshall said...

Very interesting -- I never realized your mother was in publishing.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Cathi, he waited for her for fourteen years, and much later in life she admitted she should have said yes a lot sooner. Sandy, I come by my eagle eye for a typo honestly. In fact, it was always "my mother the lawyer," and the fact that she never made it past the gender barrier into actual practice was kind of an elephant in the living room in our family. I think I've already mentioned at some time on PDD that she got a doctorate in political science in her late sixties and ended up teaching Constitutional Law along with the editing.