Becoming a Publisher

by Richard Grossinger on March 2, 2010

Prefatory Note

The purposes of this book-length ramble are: 1. To give the North Atlantic staff and authors, present and future, a feeling of the history and raison of the press; 2. To share insights, ideas, and strategies around the book industry; 3. To probe the mysteries and synchronicities behind an essentially occult and latent enterprise; 4. To tell some stories that have no other venue; and 5. To give North Atlantic Books an online identity beyond the individual titles.

By the way it is more an overgrown blog than a book, and I’m afraid, yes, that it rambles.  It is at times like distracted chatting at a party where one topic leads by association to another.  But it does always come back to the current theme.

About fifteen percent of the material in this “book” is rewritten from a North Atlantic booklet entitled Guidelines for Authors, composed in the mid-nineties, while a smaller chunk comes from the 2000 Prospectus for our nonprofit organization, Society for the Study of Native Arts and Sciences. I have also interpolated about 75 pages of descriptions of North Atlantic books and authors from a piece written in 2007 for the marketing people at Random House Distribution Services when we joined their service as a cleint.  As these various documents overlap and flow into one another, the text takes on different tones and perspectives.  That’s another reason why it’s not a formal book.

Time frame: Apart from its components spliced in from prior writing, this document was substantially composed and completed in a period from 2007 to 2008.  In my present (2011) proof-reading, editing, and rewriting of the entire text (hopefully to be finished by March), I will also intersperse some updates and corrections as well as the occasionally revisionary observation about the publishing industry.  In February 2011 book-publishing is a business in swift and radical, sometimes cataclysmic transformation.  There is not even certainty that in its present form it will survive.  In an era of digital files, ebooks, and the hegemony of Amazon.com, the role of “publisher” is under assault.  Amazon has already pretty much taken out the neighborhood bookstore industry, and it would not mind taking out publishing next, replacing publishers by taking over their services much as it has already replaced bookstores.  Meanwhile the book itself hovers between being still a valuable piece of hardware and devolving into an obsolete format about to go the way of the Beta video system, reel-to-reel tape-recorder, and vinyl recording disk.  People love books enough that they will probably remain but, when information can be transferred digitally and weightlessly at pretty much the speed of light, and with a relatively small carbon footprint and no forests decimated (and pretty much for free), you have to wonder how long the book format will last.

The opinions in this blog are not meant to be a definitive or even defensible. In themselves they are usually ambivalent and yield contradictory conclusions. This is a colloquy of ideas, bleats, piques, hyperboles, paradoxes, and memories. Among other discordances, a purist’s ideologized voice clashes with a practical business voice.  While there is a shrill moralistic tone in some places, there is a clement, neutral tone elsewhere. Sometimes it is a rant, but it is not, thank goodness, ever a tract.

Chapter One
Becoming a Publisher

I never set out to be a publisher. That is, I never set out to earn a living by inventing a company to publish other people’s books. Circumstances conspired to produce that result.

If I think back to my vague childhood and adolescent career plans, they seem in retrospect utterly whimsical, though not unusually so. As with other youth over the ages, they were shaped more by images than considered realities. But I never seriously considered any of them in the pragmatic way that, for instance, a kid raised on a farm considers whether to be a farmer or head instead for town, or a musical child becomes a musician.

For most people throughout the history of this planet, the most “popular” career has been that of hunter/gatherer—how to eat and get shelter. Survival beyond the natal family was the crucial issue and primary challenge of their lives from the beginning, and some of them began as early as five or six years old.   All careers in fact are extensions, elaborations, and sublimations of the original act of separation and individuation.

It took quite a while, though, for me to get it.  For a moderately well-to-do American growing up in the early Baby Boom generation, a job and the necessity of caring for oneself, and perhaps a family, were a remote abstraction, far less critical than the existential quest for identity and meaning.

The jobs I considered as an adolescent and young adult turned out to be either unlikely or bad matches for my skills or temperament (or both):

1. College Professor. This is in fact the one other “real” job I held for any length of time. With a B.A. in English from Amherst College and a Ph.D. in anthropology underway at the University of Michigan, I got hired as an anthropologist at the University of Maine, Portland-Gorham (nicknamed PoGo—now the University of Southern Maine) for two years in 1970 and then as an interdisciplinary resident-program faculty member at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, for another five from 1972 till 1977 during which time I wrote my thesis on fishermen in Maine and completed my Ph.D.  My professorial stint stretched overall from 1970-1977, or from the ages of 26 to 35. I was also a one-term lecturer for a month at Kent State University in Ohio in 1971. I taught, more briefly and informally, at the Pacific School of Naturopathic Medicine in San Rafael, sometime around 1979.  So this was a legitimate “job” and an “almost” career.

Before and between my two main teaching gigs and then after my years at Goddard I was interviewed honestly along with other candidates in competition for big-time academic jobs at Hampshire College, the University of Colorado, San Francisco State University, Swarthmore College, SUNY at New Paltz, the New School for Social Research, and the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. [1] I came close to the jackpot; yet it amounted to only near misses and disappointments. I wasn’t ultimately offered a position at any of these schools. If I had been, it is unlikely that I would have become a publisher.

My search for that “perfect” academic situation took place more or less between 1969 and 1979 during which I applied for probably fifty different jobs and had a dozen or so interviews. I was certain throughout that entire decade that college teaching would be my career; in fact, I had no other employment idea or even a likely fantasy.  My sole backup was writing. By 1980 the mood and ambition had passed entirely. I never looked back.

Many of my good friends and ex-classmates, either better at the academic game or luckier at the time than I, got their “plum job” or something close enough to it to stick it out, as they moved from junior faculty to senior faculty to, in many cases, department chairman—and now they are about to retire or go emeritus (“emmereetus,” as angry Goddard radicals called it during the seventies when attacking the college’s elders).

At PoGo and Goddard, I liked the actual teaching and was, at times, an inspired lunatic (I hope) in the classroom. But, despite my traditional upscale education, I didn’t have the patience to work methodically through normal course curricula from beginning to end; I tended to spill the beans in one class and then find myself with nowhere to go. I was also intermittently uneasy about my own authority and role with my students.

In one class at Portland I liked to adapt the diagrams that the previous, business professor left on the blackboard. I would erase his words but leave his chart in place and then somehow work my lecture and categories into it. That gave me a chance not only to amuse my students but, as an anthropologist, to demonstrate the underlying syntactic grid of society and meaning.

When I discovered that Gorham State Teachers’ College had a virtually unlimited audiovisual budget, I rented ethnographic films, sight unseen from catalogues, and then showed them to my classes at Portland as well. The university supplied a projectionist, and the old codger liked to razz, while the class and I watched the action in the dark. For Emu Ritual at Ruguri, an Australian Aboriginal film, he called out, “Don’t they have anything better to do than sit around all day bare-ass singing?”

The kids all laughed, but afterwards I pointed out how profoundly moved and transformed the dancers were by their ritual. I asked them what moved and transformed them in an equivalent way. When they provided things like rock concerts, Celtic games, and Saturday parties, I asked how these were different from the Emu Ritual.  In a way, even then, I was questioning not only my job but the very nature of a career, and doing it under the cross-cultural cover of “anthropology professor.”

At Goddard, where there was no course catalogue and students and faculty collaborated on topics each term, I read aloud from alchemical and homeopathic texts and Charles Olson’s poetry, interpreted student dreams, taught them how to make “chi” balls in their hands, brought healers and astrologers to class, and held ethnoastronomy expeditions under the stars in the frigid Vermont night.

These were not the appropriate behavior or prerequisites for tenurable academic career.  Though the institutions that turned me down subsequent to PoGo and Goddard ostensibly knew nothing of my prior classroom behavior, I feel that its energy transferred subliminally, and they did somehow grok that I was not in their game.

My positions on the PoGo and Goddard faculties always felt to me more like sinecures or honoraria at the behest of my superiors, not real jobs for which I should be paid. I put lots of spirit into them, but I never felt that what I was doing merited someone else’s hard-earned cash, either from taxes or parents’ earnings.

At the same time, I avoided participating in the general academic bureaucracy to the point of truancy. I skipped meetings or read the sports pages and daydreamed during those at which my attendance was required.

My teaching career ended abruptly as Goddard teetered on the brink of going out of business in 1977. My wife, Lindy Hough, and I, with our two young kids, Robin and Miranda, didn’t tarry in Plainfield, Vermont. We decided that if we could get a reasonable offer for our house, even at a loss, we would sell and bail, hopefully before the real-estate deluge.

We got rid of our cherished home on Creamery Street (surprisingly quickly, at a loss, to a doctor moving to town who quickly re-sold it to the career poet Louise Gluck who held forth there for many more years than we had through her marriage, child, and divorce).  Then we filled a U-Haul and a truck and hired a lumberback Quebecois driver, packing what we were able to salvage of our northern New England life—but abandoning the big maple table from my father’s hotel and the forty-pound submarine lamp from a yard sale, the only two losses I still regret—and moved across America, from Vermont to Oakland and then Richmond and Berkeley, California, from where I earnestly tried to get another teaching job for about two or three years before giving up. (The Quebecois parked the truck in the driveway of a friend of ours, as instructed, and five minutes later, to the horror of his Vermont cohorts, met a pretty girl on the street, shaved his beard, and joined the Moonies.)

I may have felt that I was uniquely qualified for many of the academic listings to which I responded with curriculum vitae and cover note, but I was innately interdisciplinary in orientation and, unknown to me, the profession was moving toward more formal departmental boundaries. Far from being attractive to liberal-arts schools, as I presumed myopically, I was a sixties countercultural radical, a potential problem that no one would willingly invite.

And I didn’t really want to teach either. I just needed a job and I couldn’t think of what else to do.

2. Novelist/Literary Writer. A distinction has to be made right from the start here. Writing as a job is different from writing as an art or a practice. I have always been committed to my practice, but it has never earned me enough money in my life to qualify, IRS-style, as more than a hobby with a few crooked numbers.

My artistic literary writing had a minor commercial run with Black Sparrow Press’s publication of my first book in 1970, a thematically extricated chunk of my voluminous pages of experimental prose entitled Solar Journal: Oecological Sections. It sold well for a fancy-jacketed small-press volume of experimental prose by an unknown author, and it got reviewed positively and made me a few thousand dollars. It also led to four subsequent books from Black Sparrow and offers from other publishers, the most attractive of which came to fruition as Harper & Row’s publication of my Book of the Cranberry Islands, the experimental literary counterpart to my Ph.D. thesis on fishermen in Maine, in 1975. After that my career as an experimental prose writer fizzled out, at least in terms of commerciality and royalties.

Earlier, while still a college undergraduate, I did have a tantalizing fling with mainstream literary fortune. Through a connection set in place by my Amherst College English teacher, Leo Marx, I ended up working informally for more than a year on a “first novel” with Catherine Carver, a distinguished editor at Viking Press whose so-called stable included Saul Bellow. But I didn’t really fit her mold any better than I fit the mold of a career-oriented college professor. I disappointed and frustrated (and ultimately spurned) Ms. Carver, as I rejected her editorial guidance, exasperating both her and Dr. Marx. I ultimately went in the direction of more edgy, unconventional style and themes, leading eventually to the publication of Solar Journal six years later.[2]

The apprenticeship with Ms. Carver was during 1963-4 when I was still a teenager. I tried “noveling” again in the early 1980s once it seemed increasingly unlikely I would garner a college appointment and we were drifting in California with two young kids and short of income. I wrote an outline and some chapters for a proposed semi-literary commercial book on Grossinger’s, my father’s famous resort, and tried to sell the concept through a couple of agents without success. The chapters, though, did the basis for Out of Babylon, a more authentic, though noncommercial version.  I will discuss John Brockman, the agent who gave me the idea to commercialize the Grossinger’s story in the first place, below.

The one literary career of mine that did succeed, to a modest degree, was writing expository books that melded science, metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, cosmology, etc. Between 1978 and 1985 I researched and wropte three of them, all on advances for my proposals. Then additionally I sold revisions of two of the three to other mainstream publishers later.  The revenue from these projects made a significant contribution to my income during that time though, by itself, it was not nearly enough to live on (even if I had not had a family to help support).

Doubleday gave me $3000 in 1977 to write the book that became Planet Medicine: From Stone-Age Shamanism to Post-Industrial Healing. I arrived in Berkeley with that advance in hand plus a certainty of at least six months of unemployment checks (I guess unemployment counts as another brief “career” that has sadly become more “popular” in recent years). The book’s holistic-health topic was a major factor in our choosing the Bay Area as a place to relocate from Vermont and hang out until I got another college teaching job, as it was the perfect locale at which to research a history and ethnography of alternative medicine.  Berkeley in the late seventies was the fattest combined pod of homeopathy, nutrition, macrobiotics, bioenergetics, bodywork, Ayurveda, and traditional Chinese medicine and Taoist practices in the nation.  By now of course it has burst and its seeds have blown in every direction and taken root throughout the Western world.

By using long-standing connections between Goddard programs and faculty and New York editors, I sold Planet Medicine completely on my own. Eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin and theatrical director Jean Phillips gave me the leads that led to a contract.

A few months after I signed with Doubleday for the medicine book I accepted an invitation from the legendary John Brockman to become my agent (I had met John with Norman O. Brown at a Wesleyan College conference—John offered to become my agent, and Nobby later interviewed me for that afore-mentioned position in his History of Consciousness program at UC/Santa Cruz).  Careers and big-time posts dangled at that heady moment when I thought that everything would break through at once, but I was totally miscast.  For instance, when I taught Nobby’s seminar for a week at UC/Santa Cruz as a trial run for a position that I thought I had locked up, I was innocent and foolhardy enough to challenge him rather than meld with his themes.  But he was teaching Maoist agricultural politics, and I was into telekinesis at that precise moment (having just interviewed the prominent parapsychologist Jule Eisenbud in Denver, en route from Portland, Maine, to Santa Cruz).  Robert Duncan’s signature poem “Santa Cruz Propositions,” with its surfer trapped between historical imperatives, is the perfect emblem for that moment in culture time (1972).

Two years after my throwing in with him, Mr. Brockman did sell a proposal to Sierra Club Books in 1979 for $5000 advance and it became The Night Sky: The Science and Anthropology of the Stars and Planets. Subsequently, after he failed to do anything with the Grossinger’s book that he encouraged me to try to write to earn six-figure bucks, I went on my own again agent-wise. In search of a fresh topic for a sequel to Planet Medicine and The Night Sky, I chose a book on embryology to complete an informal cycle of healing/matter/life. There was no popular book on the formation of embryos then—still isn’t. New physics, yes; genetics and Darwinism, of course; God and the Universe—but not embryos,

I will discuss the relationships among healing, cosmology, and embryology further in Chapters Nine and Ten.

In 1982 I submitted a proposal for a New Science book on embryology to a number of mainstream publishers and ended up with a $30,000 advance from Avon, the late Bill Alexander signing on enthusiastically as my editor. With good money for the project, I hired an embryologist at UC/Berkeley to help me compile the factual material. After three years of research and writing, I finished Embryogenesis: From Cosmos to Creature. But by then everyone associated with the project at Avon had either left or been fired. A new staff killed the project.

The book had already been copy-edited, typeset, indexed, and put on film, and it had 15,000 advance sales for a mass-market format. Yet Avon canceled the project and forfeited the advance money. When I asked the head of production why they didn’t just release it and at least earn their money back, she told me, cynically and probably accurately, that the new people were trying to put as much red ink as possible on the previous regime.

I bought the film from her for $1000 and issued the book myself.

Just before starting Embryogenesis, I wrote and sold a revised edition of Planet Medicine to Shambhala Publications, and after Embryogenesis was published, I sold a rewritten, revised edition of The Night Sky to J. P. Tarcher, Inc. The three books all did passably, selling from 5000 (Embryogenesis) to 20,000 (Planet Medicine) in various editions, and Doubleday sold German rights to Planet Medicine, and I sold German rights to The Night Sky on own. But it wasn’t, as I said, a real career in the sense of a livable income.  Plus, there wasn’t any interest in new books in the series, and I didn’t want to compose on spec any longer—I wanted to write what I wanted to write. By then publishing was my job, so I gave up the romantic adventure of agents and advances.  Writing became an art and a spiritual practice, not an economic career.

I have written many esoteric literary books since, all self-published through North Atlantic and without any economic impact on the world or me.

3. Anthropologist. I got my Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1975 and, as well as teaching college (before and after the actual diploma, as noted above), I tried at times to be a professional anthropologist. In fact I earned a living as an ethnographer for one entire year of my life. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded my research in Maine from the autumn of 1969 through mid-1970, fieldwork that formed the basis of my thesis. My paid job that year was literally collecting enthnographic data in Maine coastal communities.

I applied originally to study folk medicine and homeopathy in the Bridgton area near the New Hampshire border but, after I got my funding, that particular project turned out to be politically unfeasible in my department so, once I got to Maine, I had to change to a study of fishermen and fishing culture, a project based on Mount Desert Island.[3]

The original NIMH ethnomedicine proposal also laid the basis for Planet Medicine, as I submitted a popularized version of it (verbatim otherwise) to Cynthia Merman, Murray Bookchin’s editor at Harper in 1976.  After I worked on it with her and then it got rejected surprisingly (to both of us) by her publishing board, I submitted our revised version to Doubleday Anchor via Jean Phillips later that year. An editor there, Angela Cox, liked the sample chapters on homeopathy and offered to back the book and push for an advance if I would expand it to a broader history of medicine with an emphasis on alternative and non-Western systems.  So my aborted homeopathy fieldwork turned into a successful book almost ten years after I wrote the initial “folk medicine in Maine” proposal.

My actual 1969-1970 fieldwork involved visiting lobster wharves, fish factories, worming and clamming flats, etc., along the Maine and New Brunswick coasts, and taking copious notes.  At the same time, I researched fishing historically in those same areas. My thesis was entitled: The Strategy and Ideology of Lobsterfishing on the Back Side of Mount Desert Island, Hancock County, Maine, and it is still available from University Microfilms.[1]

After my thesis I dropped professional anthropology while teaching at Goddard.  Then for a number of years in the late seventies and early eighties, I tried to secure foundation funding for a panoply of fieldwork projects that I thought might serve as bona fide jobs on the template of the lobsterfishing studied. They all revolved around an axis of Tlingit fishermen and Hopi farmers with a goal of discovering new paradigms of what is now called “sustainable development.” In the lingo of the time, I wanted to “seek and analyze the nondiscursive, ritually-controlled modes of livelihood and unconscious ecological management practiced by indigenous peoples within the modern world.”

This was also a continuation of a brief patch of fieldwork I undertook a few years earlier while still a graduate student at Michigan. Lindy and I spent part of the summer of 1967 on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona under a National Science Foundation grant.  During the grant period I was also separately employed, with marginal success, filling out forms in Prescott and Snowflake for the University of Wisconsin’s Dictionary of American Regional English.

Neither project worked out worth a damn, and I pretty much returned to Ann Arbor in the fall with my tail between my legs.  Once in Old Oraibi, the key Hopi town, I was dismayed by the hordes of other anthropology students all over the reservation, bidding with government money for informants—a violation of privacy and intrusion that the locals resented. However, I did establish a viable contact with David Menenge, an indigenous millenarian philosopher, in the breakaway village of Hotevilla.  My interview with him helped me at least write a paper comparing Hopi and Mormon “cargo cults” and their influences on each other.

So in 1978 I had a viable, friendly contact in each place (Hotevilla, Arizona, and Sitka, Alaska):  Menenge and Andy Hope, a Tlingit poet who was a fan of my writing.

Although my various proposals to the Wenner-Gren, Ford, Guggenheim, Millennium Foundations, and others were all rejected, the concepts behind them led to our incorporating our nascent publishing company as an anthropological nonprofit, Society for the Study of Native Arts and Sciences, in 1980.  Then we did  procure a bunch of early grants for the Society’s multicultural book distribution.  While having nothing to do with anthropology, these arose indirectly from my failed ethnographic gambits and partially supported me during the years before the publishing took off (roughly 1981-1984).

The General Philosophical Goals of our founding statement in our submission to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for nonprofit status not only unfolded from the terms of my proposed fieldwork but lay the basis, through a glass darkly, for North Atlantic’s philosophy and ethics of publishing.  Here they are, right from the horse’s mouth of 1979:

To develop an ecological and crosscultural perspective linking various scientific, social, and artistic fields from the understanding that the meaning and goals of scientific and artistic activity are dependent upon the planetary environment and a multicultural humanity.

To discover and develop the values already implicit in technological society for the creation of creative, ecologically cohesive communities with a commitment to the hidden inner properties of materials and systems.

To bring together the ancient lost and the yet unborn, to recover the forgotten skills of Stone-Age and tribal culture, to help spawn new skills and wisdom from a combination of the sciences, the arts, and the general inquiry into mind, nature, and body.

To increase awareness of nonmaterialist, noncommercial activities in the areas of gardening, sacred texts, recreation, self-healing, meditation, and experimental art forms so that individuals are oriented toward increasing the depth and richness of themselves and their community.

These could have been Hopi and Tlingit cultural institutions and academic papers on same or they could have been college courses—but they turned out to be books.

Likewise, where the IRS asked for an example of a project that the Society might fund in the future, the first one I listed was:

An Interdisciplinary Conference on Alternative Medicines, Native Agriculture, and the Ecology of Energy Use, with papers from the fields of ecological anthropology, herbal medicine, applied botany, the physics of energy, and analytical psychology.

We never got funding for this, but this concept had a prophetic intellectual influence over the future direction of the publishing company, right from the beginning when it was only a small literary press with no concepts or plans for trade publishing.  I had unwittingly written up some soon-to-be publishing seasons.

Another was: Formation of an Audience Development Collective for Multicultural Small-Press Publishing in the Areas of the Arts, Holistic Health, American Indian and Third World Literature, Anthropology, Geography, and Ecology. This entry set the stage for the multicultural marketing project called Barbary Coast Distribution Company, which shook out some grant money and a small stipend for me for three years from 1981 to 1984.

So I was never a paid ethnographer again after my two stints: the brief Summer of Love in Hopi-land when the real countercultural radicals passed us en route to Haight-Ashbury, and post-Woodstock when the Mets won their first World Series and the reverberation of the Charlie Manson Family slayings still hung in the remote downeast Maine air.

4. Hotel Business/Inheritance. Hotel management of Grossinger’s Resort and Country Club was the first job I ever considered and made myself available for, since it was proposed to me around the age of nine when I learned that Paul Grossinger, not Robert Towers, was my real father.  A few years later (1956) my name got changed from Towers to Grossinger, and I began visiting my father’s hotel in the Catskills. People behind desks, in basement offices, throughout the giant kitchens, and the lobbies would introduce me then to one another as the “boss,” meaning “someday.”[5]

Despite this faith and encouragement, startling to a child, I never could quite picture myself carrying on the authoritative executive job that my Tony Soprano-like father[6] did. However, until I started to write at age sixteen, I didn’t have any other job ideas. I figured that, by default, I would run Grossinger’s. I had no idea that the hotel would be fought over by multiple family factions and then sold for a pittance on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid 1980s. When I was a child, it was a mythically wealthy and luxurious resort, casting a “Richy Rich” aura over my name.

I did work for my father for the summer after my freshman year of college (1963) when he fought Viking Press’s Catherine Carver for my time and loyalty. As punishment for my unabashed desire to write instead of learn the hotel business, he assigned me the most tedious job he could think of—the dead-letter section of the mailroom. I would sneak away from my post, tossing hundreds of items (that I was supposed to log) into the trashcan, then heading to the outdoor pool to take my station alongside Paddy Chayefsky in the next cabana, writing my novel for the elegant Ms.Carver.[7]

The following July (between sophomore and junior years of college) I defied my father and took a job as a journalist at The Sullivan County Democrat, my one other real job application and hire aside from college professor—that is, unless you count the mailroom or my employment during the following summer when I fled the Catskills altogether and, while living with my wife-to-be, Lindy, in a cabin in the woods, was a busboy and janitor at Sunnie’s Rendez Vous in Aspen, Colorado.[8]

Since I had no affinity for the hotel business, my true secret ambition (and assumption) was to inherit money. How much was never really clear, but all through my adolescence it seemed vaguely as though it would be enough that I didn’t have to think about earning a living. When it became clear that the hotel had no riches to bestow and I did begin to think about it, college professor popped up as the first and most convenient alternative—e.g., I could stay in school long enough to get my Ph.D and then apply for teaching jobs.

Some of my delay and confusion around actually starting a viable career came from the confusion about phantom riches mixed with my insincere and inadequate commitment to academics and my preference for writing as art and practice over a possibility of commercial success.  Not that I tried to write unsuccessful books—I just didn’t have the ambition or skill necessary to follow a different course.  Meanwhile, Grossinger’s and Goddard blinded me to the actual exigencies pressing on my life and the withheld choice of a career.  I was actually well into my forties when North Atlantic Books became successful enough to be considered a paying job.

As it turned out, I made a high art out of getting disinherited. My mother left me out of her will as retribution against my father and the Grossinger family. My father may have kept me in his will, but, after the demise of Grossinger’s, he died a pauper, leaving even less of an estate than Lindy’s legendarily impoverished father. I was left out of other wills by my grandparents and my stepfather because, in truth, I belonged nowhere, as the child not only of my mother’s first marriage but, as it turned out, the affair she had then with a rumored mafia-associated dandy and pornographer.

One of the banes of my professional existence as publisher has been other people’s assumption that I must have inherited a lot of money, thus started and ran North Atlantic Books out of an unearned and patrician family largesse. In the early days of our journal Io, well before the advent of North Atlantic books, I remember vividly how a few people refused to pay bills after receiving their copies on the premise I was so wealthy that I didn’t need the money. Yet we were barely able to pay the bills to get from issue to issue.

As recently as 2005 Michael Lerner, the illustrious publisher of Tikkun, used as his excuse for not paying me the usual kill-fee for an article he commissioned me to write but didn’t use: “I started Tikkun on my own money; I didn’t create a publishing company out of an inheritance from Grossinger’s in the Catskills.”

He simply assumed it. In a certain New York or Jewish subculture Grossinger’s bottomless wealth was an indisputable if mythological fact, and people never questioned whether it had any real basis.

“Did I say that?” he asked me recently when we had lunch together. “Luckily,” he added, “I have a terrible memory because I put my foot in my mouth a lot. The irony is that I probably had more of an inheritance for Tikkun than you did for North Atlantic.”

No offense taken. And yes, Michael, you probably did, since North Atlantic was generated entirely from revenue from Io subscribers, from its own sales, and from grants, the only exception being a $600 gift from my Grandma Jennie in 1967 to help get the Alchemy Issue printed.  I am pissy on this point, as you can hear, because I have taken so much guff over the years on it.  Grossinger’s was a famous resort and iconic American institution, but it never had real money.  Its Rockefeller status was the creation of p.r. flaks.

In short, before North Atlantic hit its stride and took me along with it, I floundered for years, avoiding the obvious while seeking anthropology grants, advances, and professorships.  But book-publishing was the only occupation, at least in the America of my time, for which I was suited. I was too esoteric and radical a writer for a mainstream audience, and I was enough not in fashion for a literary one.[9] The hotel vanished before my eyes. I didn’t have the adventuring gumption to be an anthropologist. And I was a half-hearted and renegade professor.

Chapter 2: North Atlantic Books History 1: 1964-1991 | Table of Contents

Footnotes

[1]
The two most dramatic ones (Hampshire and Santa Cruz) are described in my memoirs New Moon (pp. 556-571) and Out of Babylon (pp. 143-150).  See New Moon (pp. 575-577) and Out of Babylon (143-145) for the PoGo years.  See Out of Babylon, pp. 223-240 and 307-309 for the Goddard years.  See Out of Babylon, pp. 311-319 for the move from Vermont to California.
[2]
I have told this story in detail in New Moon (pp. 307-312, 330-332, and 356-358)
[3]
This weird academic debacle and its resolution are recounted in part in New Moon (pp. 519-521, 532-534, 541-545, and 549-559) and in Out of Babylon (pp. 229-231, 246-248, and 274).
[4]
The non-thesis version of this study is covered in Book of the Cranberry Islands, The Provinces, The Long Body of the Dream, The Book of Being Born Again into the World, The Slag of Creation, and New Moon—mostly Book of the Cranberry Islands and The Provinces
[5]
This era is covered in New Moon (roughly pp. 92-124 et seq.).
[6]
He was a mild version of Tony about half a century earlier—the same porky linebacker look plus an amorality around women and money beneath a veneer of home-brewed philosophizing.
[7]
New Moon, pp. 307-317.
[8]
New Moon, pp. 390-472.
[9]
By the Jungian law that one’s children live out not some simulacrum of their lives but their shadows, Lindy’s and my daughter, self-renamed Miranda July, is an example of a successful literary figure who stepped right out of childhood, it seems, into the fashion and flow of her times.

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