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Half Blind Faith

Words to the Wise

Or mostly wise, I guess.

When I was twenty-eight, I worked for Ballantine Books, a successful paperback division of Random House.

I was green in my career, and as a book nerd working for Random House, I was living a dream come true. To this day, it’s difficult to describe the feeling I had when I received my first check as an Official Random House Employee in 1982.

The check was a good weight. It felt sturdy in the hand – like it meant something. And amazingly, it was emblazoned with the famous Random House logo.

I treasured it. Cradled it. And my wife expressed true, grave concern when I suggested we frame it rather than deposit it.

As I said: I was a true geek when it came to publishing and writing. I followed authors, editors, and publishers the way some people follow their fantasy sports leagues. (I might as well have had trading cards).

I chuckle when I think of how I came off, and of the impressions I must have given (enthusiasm bordering on alarming, maybe?). I remember my first major Sales Conference. It was in Bermuda. It was so glamorous! And I was so, so, so very eager.

I kept adding unnecessary commentary to the editors and sales pros making their presentations of the new lists. At the break, one of the reps (who became a good friend), took me aside and said, “Buddy, chill, it’s a job, not your fucking life.”

A very helpful bit of work/life advice I’ve kept.

I got a lot of advice then. I welcomed it. I wanted to soak up experience, and I wanted to get things right. Do the correct thing. Have the right answer – I’m sure you know the urge.

Once, at the tail end of a long day of bookstore sales calls, I found myself in a car with one of the most powerful players in the book world -- a publisher at the top of the publishing game.

We had bonded during one of the national sales conferences over living in Chicago, favorite books, sports teams, and love of bookstores. He arranged to spend a day with me calling on some of my bookstore accounts. As I dropped him off at the end of that long day, he doled out some memorable nuggets of wisdom:

“You’re a smart guy,” he said kindly. “Trust your instincts.”

Then, with a wry eyebrow, he added: “But remember, the truth is nobody in this business knows a F*@!#$g thing.”

It took me a while, but I think I got what he was saying.

There is no empirical “right” or “correct” in publishing. There are good practices, sure, and you’ll gain wisdom through experience, but you’ve got to learn through doing. You’ve got to trust your smarts, trust your instincts, and trust collaborators whose passion and instincts are evident.

(Sadly, the publishing world just lost four (!!!) wonderful publishing professionals who knew a great deal: Sonny Mehta, Alice Mayhew, Hope Dellon and Susan Kamil).

As a young man, often overwhelmed and insecure, hearing someone give me permission to trust myself and to discount the baloney that was out there gave me courage.

And forty years later, I can look back on a career that I’ve cherished – and a ride I wouldn’t change for anything.

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