All right, boys and girls, here is the question for today: “What is the only constant in this world?” Some with a scientific bent might answer, “Planck’s Constant.” As a cynical, romantic humanist, I would then ask, “What happened to ‘Plinck’ and ‘Plunck,’” which no scientist would find even remotely humorous. The real answer, of course, is “change.”
Nowhere in our world has change been more obvious than in the realm of book publishing, especially in education. Forty years ago when I was active as a university professor, a man or woman, and there were few of the latter, would submit a prospectus and two or three sample chapters to an acquistions editor. The editorial staff would then review the work for content, style, and, except for some university presses, its ability to make a buck.
Today, of course, the large publishing houses have become specialty shops and home to books from the already famous. The omnipresent computer has become the be-all of self-publishing. Like most other human endeavors, self-publishing has its positive and its negative sides. Authors now do not have to depend on the whims and moods of prospective publishers to project their ideas to the public. Unfortunately, it also means that some people who cannot put five words together to make a coherent sentence can write and publish “My Mommy Did Not Like Me” books, while others become pseudo-experts by reading articles in popular magazines with limited content. We can only hope that the cream will rise to the top.
When I first published, I was fortunate enough to have Science Research Associates, the publishing arm of IBM, accept my first book which dealt with the interpretation of literature. I received a nice advance against royalties, but I am fairly sure the company never recovered even the advance. It looked damned good, however, on my resume.
After being assured of not “perishing” in the academic world, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston agreed to publish my public speaking textbook. At the time I was teaching at Purdue University in Hammond, Indiana. Holt also gave a nice, but modest, cash advance along with other goodies: a trip to New York for my wife and me, excellent tickets to “A Chorus Line,” which was then the hottest ticket on Broadway, and lunch at a restaurant of our choice. Because we were not that familiar with New York, we told the editor we would like an Italian restaurant of his choice. He took us to a small restaurant in Little Italy. As we walked the last few steps to the restaurant, he quietly told us that there had been a Mafia murder there just two weeks before. He continued saying, “If anything happens, just keep looking at your food.” Fortunately nothing untoward happened. Just to play it safe, I simply stared at Shirley, the editor, spaghetti marinara, and two meat balls—ONLY!
Happily that book sold quite well. Most of the content of the book had been written by Aristotle some two and half millennia before, although I can take credit for the modern American English style and content. Following the ancient Greek’s advice to analyze one’s audience, I targeted the book, not for Harvard or Stanford where the emphasis was on research, but rather for state and community colleges. I must also admit to enjoying the flattery when colleagues would introduce me to some of their graduate students who invariably asked, “Are you the Cohen of Speaking the Speech? Shyly, all right, not so shyly, I confessed that indeed I was.
After registering some success with the book, I was offered $500.00 for the rights to have it translated into Spanish for use in Central and South America. I have no idea if the Spanish version sold five copies or five million. It did serve to keep my hat size in control, however, as they misspelled my name on the cover. After almost fifty years as “Edwin,” I became “Edwing.”
A second edition of the speech book was published after about five years. (Incidentally, both books are available on Amazon for one penny each–I no longer get royalties.)
One of the most enjoyable aspects of publishing happened to me after I had left academia. After a successful career of ten years through mid-Western interminable winters and unbearable summers, I left the ivy halls to return to California, home. When we moved back, I took some questionable deductions from my income tax, knowing that some might not make the cut, but then I am more gambler than accountant. Sure enough, we got a letter from the IRS saying that we owed a fair size amount for the transitional year. I called the telephone number as directed and the person who answered sounded exactly as unfriendly and nasty as an IRS agent should. He soon asked, “What do you want to do about the money you owe?”
I suggested, knowing full well it would not fly, that we split it, which would have pleased me. He chuckled and said, “No way.” He then started listing some of the alleged unacceptable deductions. One of the first was a deduction for a room in my home used as an office because I was an author. The agent immediately kiboshed that plan.
I respectfully replied, “If you will look at form XXX, you will see that I have also declared income.” His reply: “Just a minute,” which was followed by a long pause, the silence broken by the sound of papers being shuffled in the background. After the long pause he came back on the line. “Mr. Cohen, I have been with the IRS fifteen years, and you are the first author I have seen that claimed income. I’ll split it with you.”
I had met the IRS head on and WON. What could be more fun?