Staffing

by Richard Grossinger on March 14, 2010

Chapter Twelve
Staffing

The Early Employment History of North Atlantic

Our daughter Miranda told us years later that, as a child, she used to think that North Atlantic Books was in a big office building somewhere in New York City and that I worked for a boss she never saw.  She assumed that our designer Paula Morrison worked independently for the same company and that’s why she visited us so often.  “’North Atlantic Books’ sounded so big and important,” she said, “not like something that was just us.”  She might not have felt so secure had she known that Lindy and I were the sole captains and that what she saw was the whole enchilada—the ship and the crew.

In fact, her own first “job,” curating film “chainletters” by young women and making compilation videos which she then sold under the name Big Miss Moviola, was a chip off her parents’ block, the one she didn’t consciously recognize but always saw.

When you start off doing everything yourself, hiring real staff on a payroll is a sea change, and the new shape takes time to jell and find its own level, in our case a good ten years.  A business is one-dimensional before it is staffed.  Back in the early eighties I could have called it a hobby or a cottage industry.  Nowadays it might be akin to a blog or personal website.   It wasn’t a company.   Until you begin recruiting eligible humans and filling rooms with actual bodies and minds with passions, talents, needs, and neuroses, you don’t have a sense of the kinds of criteria you need in employees, let alone what job protocols you are generating and at what scale and level.  And you can’t foresee what will go wrong and in what way.

Employees are far more risky than authors and books because you live with them (and they live with one another) eight hours a day, five days a week.  Forty or so hours a week is a lot of time for mischief, disaffection, wounded feelings, and righteous indignation (for instance, about being taken advantage of, either way).  With authors you get to put up a firewall; you share only the making and selling of their books, part-time, temporarily, and discontinuously.  With employees you share your life, from professional matters of press identity and financial survival to office decorum and simple house-keeping (as in, “Yowee, there are trails of ants from someone’s leftover food!”  Or “Who left the bathroom a holy mess?”).

Long before we began staffing North Atlantic in earnest, we hired individual people on a freelance basis.  Paula Morrison began designing our books as long ago as 1979 and worked for us in that capacity on a per-job basis for about twenty years before becoming an official hiree on payroll.  Other designers, typesetters, and editors contributed in major ways to North Atlantic for significant periods of time through the eighties into the nineties, likewise on a freelance basis, Catherine Campaigne and Kathy Glass the main ones.  There was no way to publish books without these folks helping us to make them.  It may have been me alone in the house for years and years, going back and forth at will between my own writing and North Atlantic over the course of a day and waiting for our kids to come home from school, but outside people created our actual products, the fabrications of tastefully organized fields of graphemes on glued sheets of papyrus between boards.  During those years Lindy took arts-management and academic jobs while editing some of our books and helping me in all aspects of the press with some of her spare time.

In the mid 1980s North Atlantic Books signed up for an intern program out of Amherst College, which led to sprightly, energized, and somewhat-random young men and women arriving every summer over about five years—a crew ranging from one to three students at a time.  Out of the implicit demands of their very presence I began to learn the art of delegating jobs, jobs that I had previously only done solo (or not done).  For the first time, I experimented with applying individuals’ skills to discrete tasks, trying to figure out how much responsibility and initiative could be transferred to another person with full trust.

Some duties were more straightforward than others—basic proof-reading, taking orders, packing books, hauling cartons to the post office—but even these entailed limitless potential mistakes itching to happen.  One early intern corrected right words into wrong ones, getting “effect” and “affect” and “ingenuous” and “disingenuous” so confused that I even lost my bearings.  Sending out the wrong book was a constant, frustrating hazard that I never seemed able to completely extirpate for our intern crew.  I can’t remember any of the most common mis-mailings of the eighties, though it was usually one t’ai-chi or homeopathy book for another with maybe a confusingly similar title, at least to their mind.  Oh yes, and there were also those deadly pairs: Growing up Bronx and Growing up Sane, Waiting Game and Way of the Warrior, Burden of Dreams and Dreams Are Wiser Than Men—and, more compellingly later on, Architects of the Underworld and Archetypes of the Unconscious.   Working the Soul and Working the Sea became a late classic example of similar titles on which the recipient of the wrong book was usually not amused.  Given the jealously enforced separation of healing modalities, a homeopathic book on musculoskeletal disorders as opposed to one with an osteopathic orientation was received with the popularity of an unexpected dead skunk.

Anyway, in the early days I tried interns on simple editing and correcting, writing and administering grants (notably the Capoeira Masters program), reading unsolicited manuscripts of possible interest (but usually just for writing polite rejection notes), and calculating royalties from sales (pre-computer).

The good part about student temps was that they were enthusiastic and they cost nothing.  The flip side was that they were not necessarily skilled at anything we did or thrilled by the specific work they were assigned or committed; their naïve and bizarre mistakes could not have been foreseen; and they took time to train and then left soon afterward, on schedule, to go back to school.

One pratfall that comes to mind is the intern who was assigned writing postcards to remind overdue accounts of their balances.  Every time she made a typo of even one letter she threw the prepaid rectangle into the trash and started again.  By the time I discovered what she was doing, she had used up all our postcards, about $5 worth, and had only written two good ones.  It was not so much the cost as the idea of someone literally throwing money into the garbage when I myself would compulsively white out three whole sentences not to waste a stamp.

Another intern took generous splashes of money from our Capoeira grant with the intent of lassoing matching funds.  As she seemed unusually mature and competent, I gave her free reign.  For most of a month during which she was playing fund-raiser, Lindy and I were traveling on the East Coast.  We returned to find that she had used up a dismaying portion of the grant while amusing herself with blind gambits that had zero chance of generating matching funds.  She was writing long gee-whiz letters to corporations all over the world that sounded as though they came from a flower child.  She treated the job as the equivalent of a pedagogical exercise; it wasn’t real to her, though it was survival to the capoeiristas in whose service she was toiling.  The requisite of actual results apparently never really occurred to her.  She behaved about practicalities pretty much the way I did during my own Amherst years—they were carried out to the degree and in the way that they amused me.  This problem in the arena of misplaced concreteness would recur again and again, even after we began hiring real staff.

The intern program did lead to our first real employee in 1985. When that year’s Amherst crew left to return to their campus, I hired the part-time friend of one of them as our first regular staff-member: aspiring science-fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, an auspicious inaugural employee who would become a prominent novelist a decade or so later.  After dropping out of Bennington, Jonathan was working odd jobs at used-bookstores like Pegasus and Moe’s in Berkeley while developing his craft.  He did the same range of work as the interns: packed books, proof-read, answered letters, calculated discounts and royalties.

After Jonathan left for full-time work at Moe’s, I oversaw a skein of part-time helpers on Blake Street, none of whom lasted longer than a few months.  The exception was Matthew Rothenberg, the young son of long-time poet friends Jerome and Diane.  Jerry’s journal Poems for the Floating World was one of the immediate forerunners and models for Io. Matthew did a bit of pretty much everything for a year, developing proficiency in all our basic tasks, until one day he didn’t show, never called in, and almost twenty-five years later, we still haven’t heard from him.

That was in 1988, just as we were moving from Blake to Woolsey Street and converting Mario’s swimming pool and party room into offices (see Chapter Two).  After Matthew vanished, we ran ads in East Bay Express to replace him and ended up with a series of three or four low-level workers.  Then out of the blue Kathy Glass knocked on our front door late one afternoon in late 1989, looking for work.  She meant freelance editing, but I convinced her to try office stuff, at least for a while.  She soon became not only our order-taker, book-packer, invoicer, and accountant supreme, but also our first accomplished editor.

Although Kathy was an in-house staff-person for less than a year, she remains to this day, more than twenty years later, our main freelance editor and the spirit and intelligence behind many of our most successful books and/or book-reclamation projects.  If she weren’t a hippie free spirit and back-to-the-land homesteader, she would probably be senior editor somewhere in Manhattan or running a corporation in Silicon Valley.  You’d see her on the cover of a 1990 Time Magazine issue about female power-brokers.  Instead she works for Ancient Forest International, Trees Foundation, and Friends of the Eel River, devoting herself first and foremost to her political and environmental causes.

During the year or so that Kathy worked on-site at the North Atlantic office and for two-plus years after she left, until we moved the business out of our house at the end of 1992, we had two and then three unofficial workers for which we employed a shifting band of newly graduated students, itinerants, and feckless artists.

To one degree or another, all these employees, except for the talented Ms. Glass, were little more than compliant helpers who worked under me, doing jobs more or less well and inventing nothing in the way of activities.  For instance, I imagine that Katey Miller, who came by way of Zyzzyva magazine, is still hurt and a little angry at me twenty years later for firing her after a skein of “space case” wrong shipments, though I apologized a few months afterward.

One of the many passing-through workers then was Amanda Weltman, daughter of the general manager of the New Jersey Nets.  Here is the back story:

In 1984 on Blake Street, my son Robin and I had started a Baseball Satellite TV Club in our garage with a community-purchased dish and receiver (before the days of DIrectTV and fixed satellite programming).  During the off-season, our constituency of about a dozen members pretty much vamoosed.  I had never followed basketball before but, with the dish at our disposal to play with, Robin and I soon took to following the Nets on raw feeds.  We became devoted fans.  One day I sent a letter of advice to the team, the sort of thing that you do to amuse yourself and let off steam—but you don’t expect a response beyond maybe a form letter.  Four days later I got a phone call from Harry Weltman, the GM.  He discussed my comments at length and in depth, saying how surprised he was to find a fan in Berkeley.  He promised not to trade Buck Williams anytime soon and also admitted that he didn’t know that there was a way for Net fans to watch the games out where we were.  Technically it was illegal.  Harry then proceeded to befriend Robin and me, taking us as his guests to Net games in Sacramento and Oakland over the next three years.

A couple of years after that, he phoned and asked if we might have work for his daughter who had just graduated from Oberlin and was considering publishing as a career.

We still had the club TV and dish at Woolsey Street then, just no remaining active members.   I vividly recall the day when Harry went bonkers and chose to come down from the stands onto the court to argue with the referees, something I had never seen before and have never since—usually general managers stay put.  Just then Amanda returned from an errand (it was working hours in our time zone).  I pointed out what was transpiring; she looked, shook her head, and sighed, “When will he ever learn?  But it’s not like I’m surprised.”

The trademark on-site employee from those years, the main one who stuck, was Jason Kaneko, a friend of our son Robin’s and the slugging star of the UC/Santa Cruz baseball team, which they help create together.  After Jason dropped out of UCSC, he came back to the Bay Area looking for a job, so Robin recommended us to each other.  Although at first glance, he didn’t seem like a North Atlantic sort of guy, having none of our interests or any literary skills salient to the work (he would have been great at a large merchandise company with a competitive softball team), he proved himself by his sincerity and determination, so he stayed on, not only through 1992 and the subsequent move to an office and warehouse but for two years afterward as our tacit warehouse manager and book-keeper before suddenly getting invited to join the Electricians’ Union, his career goal in the first place.

My main memory of Jason at Woolsey is, oddly—lunch break, him outside with Lisa Conrad and another, very tall female employee whose name eludes me but who had been a center on her Maryland college basketball team, playing two-on-one or horse, using the bare hoop attached to the building, them driving and passing around this Babe Ruth-shaped half-Japanese thumper with one blue eye and him shouting, “Why can’t I ever beat those girls?”

I also remember him seeming slightly oversized in the swimming-pool space as he hand-trucked cartons to the door for UPS (see also Chapter Twenty-Two for other Jason follies).

Jason’s father was the career counselor at Berkeley High, so he directed a number of subsequent employees to us, starting with the lively crew of young people who moved the furniture and books out of the house to our first office and warehouse on Eighth Street.

The Move out of the House

Once Lindy and I committed to coming above ground and going legal, we needed employees—a staff had to carry out the real activities of a publishing company on their own recognizance if North Atlantic was to succeed in a professional environment.  In addition to Jason, we started out with the “basketball girls’’” replacements: twin-sister friends of Robin’s from UC Santa Cruz, Morgan and Daphne, one of them full-time, the other part.

But we needed someone to organize and manage employees in an office and warehouse.  For that reason Lindy and I interviewed a few people and hired a friend from Ten Speed Press, a smart young editor whom I will call Dave.  Dave thought himself capable of far more than was on his plate at Ten Speed but was blocked on all paths of career advancement.

Our lunch meeting with “Dave” was high-energy and upbeat, so we made him the manager and de facto associate publisher.  Soon thereafter, at his request, we hired Jane, a former colleague of his, as his assistant and editorial manager.  Jason and my martial-arts teacher Ron Sieh became the warehouse staff, while our typesetter of the time, Catherine Campaigne, whose husband Richard Russo was the editor of our anthology Dreams Are Wiser Than Men, became the on-site production manager.  Paula Morrison, our historic designer, continued to work freelance from home as CC’s supervisor.  Add a warehouse assistant, and there were seven people in the space on Eighth Street where the entire small staff (editorial as well) was crowded into a set of glass cubicles not meant for more than a warehouse foreman and his assistants.

Our own kids helped too.  Robin priced and then purchased insurance for the new facility, while Miranda painted the overhang of the building—or most of it.  The last third of it was covered with only primer and the words: “I have run out of paint.”  For two years people from throughout the Bay Area drove by to view this spontaneous art, so we left the paint job unfinished.  As she is now a prominent installation artist as well as a writer and movie director, and had successful 2008-2009 exhibits in Tokyo and at the Venice biennale, I believe that, if the owners had had a rare combination of prescience, taste, and a sense of humor, they would have kept that piece of conceptual sculpture intact.  If it were still there, they could have cut it out of the building tomorrow and sold it to an art dealer as Miranda July’s first public installation.  They would have gotten ten to a hundred times what we paid them as years of rent.

The Eighth Street office was a huge gamble, a stab in the dark, but it was made necessary by Lindy’s and my life changes.  Given the financial risk, we wouldn’t have moved North Atlantic out if we hadn’t absolutely had to.  But the press had long ago engulfed its circumstances and quarters, and we likewise had outgrown having a business in our house; we just didn’t know it for a time.  The need for change hit suddenly rather than as a planned or considered business decision.  Instead, it was a life watershed.

Looking back, I see that Io was our child, born before our flesh-and-blood children, part of our life as a couple even before our marriage.  We were used to it and hardly even noticed a bump as it cloned North Atlantic Books and took flight as a major operation in our midst.  The publishing became a fixture, a given, and for years it was a godsend when someone had to be a parent at home for kids.  In our minds it still looked like a big, morphing Io.

But with our kids grown up and departing, the publishing now stood out as an anomaly, like a stunted child who didn’t know when or how to leave.  It was making our personal lives and our relationship untenable.  In fact we hardly had a home in 1992.  We lived in and among a company, its part-time employees and local authors wound into our daily lives at a juncture when we needed to find ways to begin again as a couple without kids.

In fact, we were years too late in waking up to the sorts of urgent issues of passage that all families face, and it was all we could do then to get the business on its own and put our personal lives back together.

The “empty nest” transition also encompassed my three-year training in somatics and Lindy’s return to graduate school in Cultural Studies in the Education Department at UCBerkeley.  I guess we were reestablishing individual identities after the years of child-rearing.  That was part of it.  During the years prior to and immediately after the move Lindy and I went through almost a year’s separation as she rented an apartment a few blocks away.

Lindy sometimes tells the story as: “It was either me or North Atlantic, so I got my own place until Rich was willing to kick the press out.”  There were more factors in play than just that, but there is an accuracy to that simple equation.

The risks involved in moving the business out of the house combined with the amazing financial benefit of its staying put had caused me to dawdle and defer.  I was into endlessly rationalizing the status quo without taking any action.  Lindy’s process was way ahead of mine, and she needed to get my attention.  She did.

With North Atlantic on Eighth Street I continued to oversee the business, especially its acquisitions, author and copub relations, and large accounts like PGW.  Lindy, who had always had her own jobs while she participated in the press, continued to do editorial managing and oversee projects.  But we expected the staff under Dave to take over most of the other daily functions like filling orders and producing books.

Jason and Ron packed books, and Catherine typeset away, but the rest tended to picture themselves as something in between anointed executives and aspiring editors—so other things didn’t get done or got done cursorily and shoddily.  It was not unlike a situation with interns.  People played and play-acted at publishing, but no one took responsibility for the larger business.  And there was a payroll of these folks.

I remember, late in the tenure of this first staff of seven, coming in one morning to find three women editing, two like sunning cats on plump cushions.  Orders were piled up unfilled; answering-machines messages had accumulated in the in-box, scrawled onto the sort of official note-pad paper that I had never purchased.  It was a publishing stageset in which no real publishing was happening.

One thing that was happening under Dave was  that an assembly line of expensive galleys of every title were being manufactured at Kinko’s and dispatched throughout the media universe including to Time and the New York Times—every single title, regardless of the one-in-a-fifty-billion chance of review.  He had done that at Ten Speed and, in his own words, “If you’re not sending out galleys, you’re not publishing.”  Years later, looking back, I realized that it was a game to him too, a theatrical role; it wasn’t ever real.

After Lindy and I got back together in the house, we decided to take a celebratory trip, our first ever out of North America.  We spent June of 1993 in Europe—tourists who were also developing publishing relationships in Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, and France.  When we returned to Berkeley, the office was unpopulated and the resignations of everyone but Jason and Ron were in my box.  A day later Lindy discovered that they had given themselves generous severance payments, signed by our old buddy Dave.

The first staff experiment had lasted only ten months and ended in debacle.  As Jason put it, “They had a meeting, decided they didn’t like you guys, picked up, and left.  They paid themselves too.  They were laughing about it.”

Do not hire your friends or your kids’ friends, or your employees’ friends and relatives.  You will blow up your business and wreck friendships.

Hiring friends is the kind of bumble that you presume that you will learn from, but you will keep repeating it because it is easy to rationalize hiring people you know and like, and you will always think you will do it better the next time.  Of course the pitfalls that occur are never the same ones or ones that even seemed possible or that you could handicap at the outset.

Good will and prior friendship do not transcend differences of values and self-interest.

1993 was the first year that North Atlantic lost money, in part because of operational disarray approaching chaos but mainly because the press had forfeited the economic protection of a home office and warehouse.  North Atlantic had to support a salaried staff as well as serious overhead, and the extra cash from that bought less than nothing.  The move looked like a mistake at the time but, in retrospect, it was the first step in turning Lindy’s and my small press into a real business with the capacity to develop and grow.

Rebuilding the Staff

Following the debacle of ’93 we had to figure out, mostly by trial and error, the kinds of criteria to use in hiring functional staff people.  After the mass desertion we reinvented North Atlantic while enlarging the staff many times over before the situation finally stabilized.  I am guessing that it took something like four full turns over six years to achieve the beginnings of a reliable and stable crew, and about the equivalent of three more one-half to two-thirds turns (plus two moves of location to increasingly larger offices) to create a viable publishing company, a business that looked and behaved like a business rather than sunning cats on a publishing set.

Our next big mistake was to tend to hire people based on just their educational background or the prominence of their colleges.  In truth, very little of the publishing process is creative or even amusing in a liberal-arts sense, and the average literarily or editorially minded English or comp-lit major will want no part of the profession once they get a whiff of what it actually is.  It takes a book-lover per se, a unique category of person, to enjoy publishing.

An unfortunate fact of life for those literary romantics seeking a career in the book-world is that publishing is to a large degree merely another business, manacled to invoicing, filing, customer service, paying royalties, etc.  All of this labor has to be done with a minimum of hassle and a modicum of grace and courtesy.  Many prospective publishing initiates think that they want to do these chores in a publishing context, but few people actually hanker such grunt work for low pay—the tedious contract-writing, sales-and-marketing assemblages, proof-reading, blueline-checking, etc.

A publishing company needs committed employees with solid work ethics, not academic achievers from Ivy League schools with lots of education like L and me.

As the outcome of failed intuition and misreading of character, we invited many flakey employees on board between 1993 and 2000, for we hired artists, literary mavens, and intellectuals.  Most eventually left of their own accord; some had to be fired.

Thinking back over our hundred or so employees during the first ten-plus years, I recall assorted fiction-writers, Buddhist practitioners, musicians, devoted academicians, and so on who bombed out, some of them very quickly.  I look at old employee lists, and my memory is jogged by names long forgotten.  Faces come back to mind with Proustian clarity, the past romanticized by time.  All were crammed into less than a decade and a half.  Some were arrogant, stubborn, rebellious, or combative, arguing about whether each next job really needed to get done or whether common rules needed to be followed.  Others daydreamed, invented work that didn’t exist, were interested only in acquiring books to their liking, and made irrelevant phone calls in search of nonexistent partners, invariably at the expense of their real tasks.

So, after the ten-month debackle, we started again in July 1993 with Paula, Jason, and Ron.  In order to re-staff, Lindy and I ran an ad in East Bay Express and interviewed a dozen or so candidates.

We hired a woman from Brown solely because she went to Brown, but she was a terrible match for our company—more of a playgirl than a dig-in worker.  I remember her mainly for the competing gifts of flowers on her desk, morning after morning, sent by rival suitors, and her much bruited friendship with Howie Long of the Oakland Raiders.  In the same spree we hired another woman from a good East Coast college who had a bad temper and chronically lost her patience, hanging up on phone customers.  This small, chubby, bespectacled girl would appear every now and then at my desk, looking abashed but defiant, and mumble, “Someone wants to speak to my supervisor.”

I think I voted for her also because she was so nervous during the interview that Ron lapsed into his Vipassana samurai role and told her to “breathe and relax.  Nothing’s going to happen to you.  Let go of the drama.”  It was a classic moment.

One aspiring writer, the son of a renowned local author, quit on his first day at Eighth Street in September, 1993.  Being short-handed that morning, we asked him to help in the warehouse—even Lindy and I were packing books that day.  He balked, quarreled, then stomped off in a huff, saying, “This boy don’t pack books, for no one.”  And then he filed for unemployment.  Naively I challenged his claim and was forced to waste a morning in a waiting room and then sitting through a pro forma hearing.  I stated my case; he stated his.  The mediator awarded him his unemployment.  Next.

A departure here about the California labor bureaucracy:  Everyone gets unemployment, regardless of circumstances.  If you left a fingerprint on the door, you qualify.  It is a rigged system—might as well sign and mail in the paperwork and move on.  At our second locale, on Fourth and Jones, our next-door neighbor was in the wholesale dress outlet, and the owner told me how he caught an employee stealing clothes, warned her, caught her again, warned her, caught her again and finally turned her in to the constabulary.  With the case in court, he challenged her unemployment claim, and lost.

Our “two hour” employee who wouldn’t pack books walked out of the labor hearing smiling and whistling.  As we both hit the street, he asked if I would give him a ride back to Berkeley.  “Of course.”

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “Cody’s’ll pay most of the bill.”  He had worked for the independent bookstore for years, thus they would be apportioned the lion’s share of his unemployment costs.  I now recall that one reason that I even went to a hearing was that Andy Ross, the owner of Cody’s, asked me to do so in order to defend their interests.

With the second staff quickly came a new office and warehouse.  We moved the office from the raunchy southwest quadrant of Berkeley with its abandoned buildings, street litter, and incipient gangs to the much spiffier northwest quadrant at the corner of Fourth Street and Jones, three blocks outside the edge of one of the Bay Area’s highest-end shopping malls, where gentrification of a former warehouse district by investors and fashionable architects was in full swing.  Our own quarters now occupied a real office, not just a party room or an afterthought in glass and wallboard.  Our warehouse separated to elsewhere, as described below.

An old warehouse refurbished by the landlord with a loft upstairs and a giant room downstairs, the building was actually meant for his daughter whose art studio was next door on the other side of a thin wall.  Her loud music while painting or entertaining friends was a bad match for a publishing company and led to spats and confrontations.  And the amateur landlord, a retired corporate executive, liked the game of dinging us recreationally for charges—but otherwise he was responsive and, overall, it was a workable situation.

With large movable dividers we cordoned off the space into eleven offices, five of them in the loft area including a glass-enclosed one, the only formal room in the building.  It became my office, but its main use was for private meetings.

We stayed there for five years, until we well outgrew it and our patience with the landlord had worn thin, and then Lindy discovered an empty office and warehouse, formerly the Haws Water Fountain Factory, just a block down Fourth at Camellia, and across the street.  There we were able to combine our warehouse and office again after a period of separation.

Developing an Employment Philosophy

In the course of the years Lindy and I have learned some lessons the hard way:

1. Do not hover.  When the first staff departed en masse, they made some salient points about Lindy’s and my managing style.  We tended to assume that we had the right to peruse anything they were doing, to look over their shoulders at whatever they were working on and spout an opinion about it.  This hawklike atttitude was a carryover from a couple working in their own home, but it didn’t wash in the larger professional world.

Let people do their work and don’t try to preempt their mistakes.  Even if you know that costly errors are being made, there is a process for handling them, and it is always “afterward.”  You just have to grit your teeth and find out what results people are capable of by giving them the freedom to do their jobs and put their signatures on their tasks.

This criticism of me rang so true that I changed on a dime.  After taking the “Mr. Overbearing Award of 1993” I tried to become a less invasive boss, probably to a fault the other way.  Lindy was slower to accept the value of this tenet, as she saw it partly as fake and an employee trick.  She considered it concession of our responsibility.  It became a source of tension between her and me in the workplace in ensuing years, as she saw me undermining her by playing sweet cop to her grumpy one.

There was no straightforward way to resolve this difference.  Sometimes she was right, as I was too lax or permissive, with unhappy consequences.  Sometimes I was right, as she was unnecessarily snappy with people.  Over the years we served as each others’ foils, holding a combined median position.

2. Do not whip the crew into shape—there is no such thing.  I remember sometime circa 1990 a Parallax Press manager telling me that, while watching his employees dilly-dallying in the office—chit-chatting, making coffee, etc.—in his mind he was adding up the collective salaries being drained and came out to around $200 per hour.

You can’t be literal in that way about hours.  People are entitled to breaks and, if you enforce martial law, office morale deteriorates.  No one is happy, people quit, and far less gets done than if you are gracious and relaxed in the first place and let things work themselves out.  They usually do, as people own their jobs and, if someone is really goldbricking, in time it will establish itself as an indisputable fact and can be acted on.  Laying back may be counter-intuitive on one level, but it is part of the artistry of effective management, something that Parallax’s slave-driver never grokked.

People who do their work without being measured as to whether they are earning their salaries minute by minute will pack more into the average minute than those under wage-earning enforcement.  And the latter will also drive you and them both stark raving mad.  So it’s not even an option.  Just forget it.

Over the years I developed this three-part philosophy for our company:

Publish books we believe in; pay the staff a decent wage; and keep the stress level down.

No matter how often I dismissed this as an oversimplification of our real situation, I came back to it as the bare Truth.  I never found any other equally compelling goals for North Atlantic.

Making a profit isn’t a goal—we are formally and aesthetically nonprofit.  Meeting deadlines is a goal but not something that should turn the three axioms upside-down.

3. They are not your friends, though you can be friends with them.  This is a delicate matter because I consider many of our staff over the years very definitely my friends, and close ones at that.  Yet I always have to retain some aspect of my role as manager and boss, a role that doesn’t come naturally to me.  I fight its investiture in all sorts of ways, from goofy impulsive actions to unexpected candor to informal, even hobo, dress.  Despite those affects and artifacts, at the end of the day—just about every day in fact—I have to be in charge and be willing to push back and set boundaries in a way that I don’t come close to doing in ordinary friendships.  Them’s the rules, and they’re there because generations before us have figured out that it’s the only way to make business work.

With some people I have been very skillful at my role and we stayed friends even after I imposed on them unwanted instructions.  Other times I have had to suspend congeniality in order to be able to manage.  These are life lessons I never really grasped as a college teacher, choosing always to be a buddy and peer of my students rather than doing what my job called for—internalizing and projecting authority.

Lindy tended not to make the “friendship” mistake nearly as often or as disastrously as me, but she did occasionally choose as intimate companions one or another of the engaging young women who found their way to our employment, and later regretted the blurring of roles.

You know, I never set out to manage people.  I wanted to write and publish books and discuss intellectual and psychospiritual matters with students and peers.  I wanted to be an artist and a teacher.

But there it is.  I didn’t make the choice.  The choice made me.  That’s simply where the publishing took me when I wasn’t looking.  Lindy too.

4. Don’t intrude or ask personal questions.  The law is the law, and they can keep secrets if they want: household situation, sexual orientation, recreational drug habits (except in the office), politics, philosophical beliefs, even dishonesty in their personal lives.  Don’t presume that being the “boss” allows you to boss, browbeat, improve, or interrogate—the latter even (and especially) during the interview process.

5. Make the job fulfilling, fun, creative.  Compliment and affirm their work all the time—all the time, not my strong suit.  I don’t like jargon, even nice jargon, and am an introvert by temperament.  So I have to struggle to practice generous, effusive recognition.

Managers have a general tendency to space out that their staff are people with their own dreams, desires, fantasies, and personal goals vis a vis the workplace, and they long for the expression and individuation of them.  It may seem obvious but, in the heat of battle, there is a tendency for even the most liberal or enlightened boss to treat his or her reports like servants.  Ask SDS vets of the sixties or anyone who ever worked for a progressive political campaign or (even worse) a spiritual guru.

Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad’s The Guru Papers was a successful book for a reason, though even its authors are curiously (or not so curiously) far from immune to its diagnosis.  Abuse is built in and very subtle in its expressions; it arises not from conscious intention or carelessness but because of inherent social, cultural, educational, age-based, class-based, race-based, and gender-ingrained assumptions and related hierarchical attitudes that slip out even when they are supposedly being suppressed or vocally renounced.  There is a deep-seated, ancient part of everyone that is a combination of snob, asshole, bully, and tyrant; it will emerge whenever the entryway is left unguarded.  Achieving an effective and stable office persona is not automatic; it is something that needs to be practiced and trained and earned everyday, just like any other talent.

That is certainly something I didn’t know going in, yet  have struggled to cultivate over the years.

I mentioned in the last chapter that Lindy was active in hiring new employees; in fact, she came to spearhead office hiring—it turned into her forte.  In 1993 she quit her graduate program to work full-time with me on rebuilding the company.  We had not planned on working together in business or becoming professional partners long-term but, in effect, that is what we set in motion by our choice.  It turned out to be a fairly weighty decision for both of us, even if it was one that we barely thought through at the time.  The publishing company was so familiar by then that, even in its new formal guise, we took it for granted and assumed it would also be “easy in, easy out” for either of us, especially her, as it had always been.  We didn’t understand that we were creating something institutional that would require our total involvement.  There wouldn’t be an easy “out,” not at our age or stage of career.  Late starters at real occupations (as opposed to early starters as writers, editors, and parents), we unwittingly were casting ourselves in roles that would become near-indelible professional identities.

Managing and developing a business entail their own particular skills and knowledge base.  Many prospective entrepreneurs, executives, and financial managers attend business schools where they master a wide range of techniques, models, tools of analysis, and protocols—especially what not to do.  Lindy and I didn’t come equipped with Harvard MBAs.  As our publishing graduated little by little from a literary magazine to a one-person line of books to a business with staff, we ourselves had to transition from the literary and educational world to the business world, with its hoops of finance, labor, and legality.

As our small press morphed into a company, we didn’t always morph at the same pace into businesspeople.  We knew none of the rules and, even worse, did not know that we did not know.  It wasn’t so much that we didn’t realize we were ignorant; we certainly recognized that.  It was that we didn’t think our ignorance necessarily was a problem or that there was much of crucial importance and deep nuance to know.  I guess we thought that we could wing it, improvise, and learn from our mistakes—that a lot of business and management were just basic good sense and trial and error—and yes, a portion of that turned out to be true.  But we also made kindergarten errors and misjudgments, reinventing some of the most obvious wheels and falling into famous traps, most of which were probably taught in Business 1, complete with examples of fools like us.  This could have been avoided with a minimum of education or prior experience at other companies.

Learning on the job was all we had.  We were repeatedly thrust into phases of institutionalization that we were not ready for and that we got to understand only by being in the fire: like (as you have just seen) the rules of unemployment or who to give check-writing powers to (e.g. the severance-pay orgy).  For all our sophistication about some things, on others we were full-fledged naifs.

More disconcertingly, as foreshadowed above, the two of us discovered that we had quite different philosophies of entrepreneurial activity and the workplace, a cognitive split of a sort that we had not encountered in our prior almost-thirty years together to that point.  None of the other issues of marriage and partnership had brought out such differences in us thus far, nothing in our domestic or family life, in child rearing, homemaking, or social and professional relationships.  Yet we knew our tendencies: Lindy was from Episcopalian Denver society and liked structure, order, and rules, whereas I was from Jewish New York society and operated best in an open-ended, freewheeling situation.

These differences existed latently in our personal and artistic lives, but we experienced them there only as a mild dissonance that we laughed at more than suffered…until we ended up overseeing a staff and cashflow together.  Then suddenly we saw ourselves trending in opposite directions.  Lindy sought more in the way of boundaries and protocols than I could tolerate, and I sought a lot more freedom and improvisational experimentation than she was comfortable with.  No matter how often we rationalized, compromised, fought, and started over, we could not purge ourselves of these countering tendencies.

During the years of working together, we had to experience our rivalry daily and convert it into a creative dialectic so that our company could thrive from both of our styles.  We did this better at times and worse at times, but we never let go, either of the dichotomy or the intention to work it out, even if it meant arguing in front of staff.   We were a classic married-couple-trying-to run-a business sideshow a lot of the time, especially early on.  Most staff were sympathetic: “I couldn’t work with my partner either.”  Others liked to roll their eyes during one of our public disagreements or workplace spats.

Despite our differences, we shared a slightly other aspects of a schizophrenic management personality.  Being sixties kids, we preferred process over roles, creative exploration over categories, but we were also products of elite, upper-class colleges with culturally and academically structured backgrounds.  The former aspect led us to be daring in hiring unusual and rough-edged people during the nineties, and the latter aspect often (but not always) came to regret it.

Employee Mistakes and Breakdowns

From 1993 till 2003 Lindy and I ran everything pretty much together, though we tried at times to transfer authority in small pieces.  Mostly we made okay decisions, but the poor ones haunted us for years.  Bad decisions can have a huge secondary influence beyond their initial impact, especially in the personnel area.  Our single biggest problem was, once we knew we had hired the wrong person, finding a palatable way to get him or her out of the building.  It was a monumental task on which we could procrastinate for months or even years.  It was alsoi a challenge keeping valuable people in the fold, as the publishing business didn’t pay that well.

Lindy and I often hemmed and hawed about what to do with particular failed employees—even after it became clear they were making serious mistakes on a regular basis or cheating us.  Some padded their time sheets or caused so much office friction that their presence was draining more productivity than it was facilitating.  Because we did not know how to act decisively at the early stages of dysfunction or discord (or even detect those stages), we ended up with an intermittent unintended sitcom punctuated by public tantrums and blow-ups.  We kept trying to patch matters with heart-to-heart talks and air-clearing sessions—touchy-feely—but even when these seemed emotive and resonant at the moment of crisis and catharsis, the aberrant behavior tended to return.

We were permissive when we shouldn’t have been (not enforcing attendance or consistent performance) and hardass when we shouldn’t have been (reacting angrily to what seemed unreasonable requests, reprimanding people undiplomatically for mistakes).  Again, we were quasi-hippies trying to do MBA-style stuff—and not taking the challenge seriously enough on its own terms.

Our job was somewhat eased by that fact that the staff who stayed were pretty much the ones who enjoyed publishing or North Atlantic’s ambiance and books and were willing to do the detail-oriented work of books.  They were not always the people who had the most affinity for our topics or even read the kinds of topics we published, which brought about another challenge: keeping alive the spiritual and intellectual heritage of the press within a staff while hiring committed workers.  Io could be always Io because there were no outsiders or employees, and the same was true of the early incarnations of North Atlantic Books.  But North Atlantic Books as a business was unavoidably defined to a degree by our staff and their predilections, interests, and styles.  As it gradually began to take on a corporate identity quite separate over its traditional image, I’m sure many of our readers thought that we had sold out or gone Madison Avenue.  Relatively speaking, we had, but the original level of purity was not financially survivable forever.  We evolved in order for the larger mission to survive.

Gradually over fifteen years and through a changing roster of employees, the pieces came together: enough good workers, enough loyalists on our topics.  But it was never perfect, and the job was always different from the content of the books.

Here is a mostly-nineties roster of failed hires culminating in office melodrama to one degree or another.[1] Partial disguise of the people’s identities makes it impossible to present these vignettes in a such a way as to make complete sense:

•The “wild child” accountant who was the “perfect storm” of Valley Girl and mafia moll: one thrown computer, one more workplace tantrum, one angry boyfriend showing up with a gun, one week or two (or three) when she didn’t come to work at all, one stolen truck, one more bizarre paranoid fantasy about the feds spying on us—but she was entertaining.

•The primping model from Switzerland who had lots of clerical history and skills but was finally just too much showgirl and vanity, and it was all about her always.

•The bright aspiring actress who made the jump from customer to employee.  She bought many books from our office storefront and then inquired about a job.  Smart and personable, she copped the next opening.  Then she turned her crush on her co-worker Jess into a distracting sideshow, as she was ten-plus years older than him, and married.  Her office haircut of him was the last straw, for him too, though he seemed a willing victim.  She also had so much sympathy for one author that, when the woman expressed dismay that her book’s photographs didn’t come back in the printer’s blueline in color (as they shouldn’t have), she became a clandestine accomplice, converting them at proof stage to four-color, resulting in a bill of something like $27,000 instead of $10,000 and, of course, an unexpected color book.

•The surly but talented editor whose time sheets for work done at home didn’t jibe.  When we told her she’d have to log all her billed work in the office henceforth—instead of two days at home/three days with us—right on the spot she packed her belongings and walked out the door in a huff.  She never came back or contacted us again.  Three months earlier we had granted her request for an unprecedented huge raise, and more recently we had approved an unpaid leave of absence for her to travel for two months.  She took off on the afternoon of her bon voyage party, leaving about a dozen of our staff and her friends sitting in the kitchen with cake and beverages and no guest of honor.  She eventually filed for and got unemployment, and fifteen years later was still posting hate emails about North Atlantic on the Web.

•An experienced editor who insisted on ignoring our rules regarding just about everything, self-righteously doing procedures her way, citing protocols at other jobs.  She also came and went as she saw fit, often not showing up for work at all and then calling in later with some meager excuse.  She engaged only in the projects that she liked and constantly used the photocopier and printer to do personal work, backing up the real NAB jobs while she merrily sailed through the waiting crowd at the machine to collect her treasures.  No matter how often Lindy or I told her that this behavior wasn’t going to fly, she never changed, not one iota, yet was stunned and outraged when fired.

•An editor who had run a smaller publishing program elsewhere but seemed in a dreamworld at our place, putting hundreds of hours into two minor and simple books while blowing off the rest of her projects and deadlines.  On those two she even managed to jumble one book title, get the wrong binding and price on another, and organize contents in a bizarre way that doomed one of them to failure (e.g. she even didn’t publish the full book).

•The poet with a public crush on our daughter who set three small fires with a forbidden hot plate.  Two and the crush should have been enough.

Accounting

Like any business we of course have to pay and collect bills (accounts payable and accounts receivable) and fork out royalties, and we also have to file tax forms, albeit nonprofit one.  These are the mere basics if we are to function.

During the prehistoric years (1974-1988), I did royalties, billing, and taxes manually.  From 1974 till around 1979 our royalties were negligible.  But by 1987 they had become an unmanageable task, especially to calculate and prepare manually.  So, in the early days of computers (relatively speaking), I paid someone—I don’t remember how I met him—$500 to write a program for us.  He called it IIS (Inventory and Invoicing System), and he charged us that little because he hoped to sell it to other publishers (he never did).

The program integrated invoicing with author earnings, using the contracts’ percentages and tiered system.  It allowed royalties to be generated without my having to keep count of sales book by bookany longer, but it turned out to have major bugs and flaws.  It did not keep any historic records, and it bungled some invoices inexplicably and seemingly randomly, so the data was lost for good.  I soon realized it was cheating either us or the authors or both of us at different times.  Some authors were getting more than they merited, others less.  IIS was like a gnome to which the business was yoked, and it was too small a motor to get us anywhere.

I no longer remember why we purchased MAS-90.  It must have been recommended by the first in our long line of accountants that commenced in 1994.   We were told at the time that it was used by Ford Motor Company.  That should not have been a recommendation or even reassuring, but somehow it was.  MAS-90 was very expensive and a bear to operate.  It didn’t cause our problems, but it made them increasingly complicated and inextricable until we dumped the program in 2000.

Right now I can think of nine distinct book-keepers between 1994 and 1999, hardly a mark of institutional stability.  I remember only some of their names, their faces and shapes, because none stayed long.  Two of them were—I know it’s not politically correct to mention it—exceptionally corpulent.  Here is the best I can do from memory, obviously not naming names.

1. She came via a San Francisco Chronicle ad in concert with MAS90 and got into it way over her head almost at once.  We were thereafter stuck with her baseline entries.  As a complete accounting program, MAS90 was our only record and database, so for years hence we had to work from her initial input of items.   She was unable to run end-of-the-year reports for either taxes or royalties, so we had to do them by hand and fake it, ignoring the database.  Then she couldn’t think of the next step and was quite relieved to depart by mutual agreement.  A lesson, not always observed subsequently: if someone is answering low-salary accountant ads in the local newspaper, they are probably not a good book-keeper.  Proficient book-keepers, even ones that can barely keep you afloat, are in short supply.  They never have to answer bargain ads.

2. The flashy wife of a friend of one of my Vermont t’ai-chi teachers, she was highly recommended by her spouse, and at the time we felt very lucky to get her.  She didn’t even try to tackle the accounting program; she made up her own database.  Don’t ask me how she thought she could succeed without the historical data in MAS-90.  Her main interest was in seeing if there were enough employee grievances to set up, if not a union, then an affinity action group.  No one went along with her sense of automatic victimhood, so she left after a month.   That was a relief for another reason: because she had no car, I had to pick her up every day to drive her to work.

3. We answered her East Bay Express ad for clients.  She was about to retire to New Mexico but took this on full-time as her last hurrah.  Really smart, she whipped MAS90 into shape, actually got out decent end-of-the-year statements and royalties on it and, though she didn’t fix the damaged core, she papered over it so that we could at least operate.  Then she headed for pasture.

4. The result of an ad run by us, she was so huge that she could barely get herself up the stairs.  She had operated her own business and insisted this would be a breeze.  It wasn’t; she didn’t understand MAS-90 or the issues, and she showed up less and less often until she was gone.

My uncle Paul negotiated her severance.  He warned us that anyone who left themselves get that fat did not have the discipline to be a good accountant.  He may have been right, though I’ll never admit it in polite circles.  We had been bending over backward to be fair and politically correct, and we still operate from the same philosophy.

5. The afore-mentioned “wild child” asserted during her interview that she loved MAS90, that MAS 90 was cool, her idea of “fun in the sun,” no biggie at all, so we hired her on the spot despite the fact that she was goofy—a majestic if damaged personality.  She lasted longer than any of her predecessors and did keep the program running, though she was incessantly late and had a very troubled love life.  After the thrown computer and boyfriend with a gun, she had to be gone.  She also had delusions of grandeur, friends in both the Governor’s office and the CIA.

6. She was really wanting to switch careers from accounting to bodywork but decided to fund her education by working for us for a spell.  In fact, she originally came to us as a bodyworker in search of editing, not an accountant.  Her heart wasn’t in it, and she is mainly memorable for selling New Age gadgets to the staff—energy magnets, air ionizers, and water filters; she had her own Tupperware-style business.

7. She went on paid maternity leave almost immediately after she arrived.

8.  Recommended as the only one who could rescue us from the abyss into which we had fallen by then, she was a top-notch accountant at another publisher and, during a life transition, took this on as part-time emergency work.  Then she got hooked and it became full-time.  She pored over it for more than a year, cleaning out vast hidden corners of the program, correcting lingering problems from the initial data entry, working true wonders.  Yet she was in the midst of some combination, undeterminable (don’t ask, don’t tell), of romance, divorce, career change, religious conversion.  She suddenly announced that, as soon as we could hire a replacement, she was out of there, and the fierce look on her face said she meant it.  She promised she would stay till then.  I thought it would take forever; however….

9. Almost immediately an accountant from PGW answered our ad, ostensibly a perfect match because of his familiarity with our business.  Let’s call him Hester.  Only problem, it turned out, was that he was mainly a musician who thought NAB/Frog would be much less work than PGW.  It was more, exponentially more.  He made a thousand excuses for what he never got done, e.g. the bulk of his tasks.

One present employee who was on our staff then did a little routine of Hester’s day, “He’d arrive at 9:30 for a nine-o’clock start with a cup of coffee in his hand.  Then at 10:15 he would go down to Starbucks for another cup, and that was fifteen minutes each way.  And by then it was almost time for lunch, a long lunch.”

A PGW employee said that he was amazed that Hester came to North Atlantic, “I never thought of him as going somewhere where he’d actually have to do work and get something real done.”

He didn’t.  Hester set us halfway back to where we were before the genius lady.  We later learned that he had a nickname at PGW, referring to his naps, kind of like if his name was really Hester, he was called Hester Siesta for his regular snoozes and vapor locks.  He spun a few wheels, but no finished reports or royalties ever came out of them.  Then he quit in a drama of accusations to play acoustic guitar full-time—but luckily he had an assistant by then.  I think he quit before we figured out that he had slept through the entire job and had nothing to show for his six high-salaried months among us.

That assistant was Ed Angellilo, known henceforth as Ed Angel, and still with us.  A street-smart, affable Chicagoan who had previously worked for other Bay Area businesses and ran his own video service, he got together with us because we shared a CPA.  The accountant knew that Ed was looking for outside work and suggested we hire him to help “Hester Siesta,” who was clearly floundering.  Our shared accountant’s notion was that Ed was a sharp businessman who needed more action to sink his teeth into and we were an interesting business that desperately needed managerial and book-keeping help.

Ed started by coming in two days a week, as Jess O’Brien took on the royalties (see below).  When “Hester” left, Ed became our default accountant, though his role grew way beyond that.  He is now the AP accountant but also, along the way, he picked up “office manager” and de facto “plant manager,” etc.  For years he supervised our warehouses with their streams of messy data and vagabond staff and subtenants before the last one closed.  He still runs the office and manages benefits, payroll, and IT.

Very soon after Ed stepped into his role, we hired Allison Pettit to assist him.  A recent college graduate, she had been employed at a local florist when she answered an Express ad.  An exception to the above rule about ads—Allison was very young and didn’t think of herself as a pure accountant.  She came on in a somewhat-undefined role as business assistant and grew up in our company.

She was with us for twelve years and after having been the AR accountant and royalties manager for most of the period when a single person could handle both jobs, she moved into running the ever-growing and complexifying royalties and became our stand-in for a formal CFO.

Kind of a country girl from the Central Valley, she has had to develop sophistication and context for the types of transactions we do, the sorts of unusual colleagues we have, and our scope and scale.  It was entertaining and fulfilling watching her do this while forging an identity for herself and a life in the professional world.  She came as a kind of girl next door but showed herself to be every bit as quirky as most of our other employees.  In fact, when she left for a women’s active-wear company, she expressed concern that she had become too eccentric to work anywhere else.  She had to get out before she became a total lifer.

As we grew in the late aughts, we had to beef up the accounting department and so we hired Al Lazard from Youth Radio as AR accountant and understudy to Ed.  Then we made a big jump and hired Alla Specter, late of Ten Speed Press.  She lost her job when Tenspeed was bought by Random House in 2009.  From Ukraine originally, she had worked on a corporate level there but decided to get reeducated in the U.S., first in New York, then in San Francisco.  If she were still in Ukraine, she’d probably be running a company.  We are lucky that she ended up in the Bay Area and in independent publishing, and she now functions as our de facto CFO, something that we badly need at our size, and also because the State of California requires audits of all nonprofits earning more than two million dollars a year.  Organization, simplicity, and transparency have become essential.

While Allison and Ed remained our core accounting department for over a decade, there was one other major turnover: the 1999 replacement of MAS90 by the more conventional publishing program Acumen.  We picked Acumen because it was PGW-friendly and well understood by the accountants there, having been developed in coordination with them and with their distribution model in mind, but also because it was the program used by our new warehouse partner Conari (see below), thus allowing the shared warehouse to run both companies through the same program.

For many years after the switch, a third, part-time accountant, an Acumen specialist, came in every other week to close the books until his visits became more of a disruption than an aid (see Chapter Fourteen). Allison eventually became our in-house Acumen specialist.

Ed confided a few years ago that he was ready to bail from North Atlantic on the heels of “Hester.”  He said that Hester told him the business was going under and Lindy and I were incompetent jackasses.  Friends of Ed’s listened to his account of our chaos, and they concluded also that the omens were all bad: employees quitting, bills overdue, collections of revenue (except for PGW) unattended to, taxes and royalties always late, the accounting program riddled with glitches.  “The only thing you had going for you,” he said, “was good cashflow and good books.  I didn’t think they were enough.  In fact, I was sure this place was on its way out.  Happily I was wrong.”

The “Dysfunctional Employee” Fantasy

Some employees go through the motions but don’t understand they are going through the motions.  Their comeuppance manifests as irate authors, lawsuit rattling, and/or threats of withdrawals of projects.  It is interesting to me that virtually none of our employees who caused any of these glitches, disasters, or potential disasters thought they were doing a bad job.

When an editor left a copublisher’s name and identification off a book, he rejected it and demanded his money and the rights back through his lawyer.  The editor was unfazed, remarking, “Well, that unimportant little book sure blew up.”  She had made a raft of such “little” mistakes over the years, but she always had a rationalization and we had always forgiven her and granted her another chance.  This one, though, was the last straw.  The very fact that she had no sense of how serious the mistake became her indictment.  “For a small error,” she repeated upon leaving, “it sure caused a conniption.”

But that was the problem.  They are all small errors.  Publishing is a series of opportunities for minor mistakes, any one of them capable of tipping into a major crisis.  When one editor missed a typo that put the phrase Shadow Stragegies on the cover of a book, it had to be reprinted at a cost of $2000.  If it had been bound onto the book, the whole press run would have been forfeited at a cost of $9000, for it was too gross a blunder to allow in polite company.

Any author or copublisher who is the victim of an error may be a tyrant or an asshole looking for an excuse to play “gotcha” and get some brownie points or cash compensation, but only by our understanding that that is the game we are in can we play it cannily and effectively.

Staff who work in a vacuum, who try mainly to amuse themselves with their work, who treat it like a school exercise and don’t think of the products or relationships as real things with blowback will eventually create a string of molehills  becoming mountains.  If they make only one such mountain, consider yourself lucky.  When critiqued, they will miss the point, so they will never improve.

I know that it sounds unlikely, but this kind of casual indifference dogged us for years.  We had several accountants and maybe four editors who never made any meaningful headway on their real jobs or filled our needs, though all of them worked assiduously at something, day after day, with seeming perseverance and integrity, thus were shocked to be let go.  I have come to realize that the same myopia that leads people to work at the wrong level leads them to think, at the same time, that they are doing a good job.

Perhaps the single-most counterproductive and frustrating trait in employees is a combination of lack of perspective, wrong priorities, and an absence of pragmatism.  Some people continually zero in on peripheral or small jobs and use up enormous amounts of time on them, fancying their work narcissistically such that they expect to be lauded for their devotion and commitment.  They never get to the larger context and often never even realize that there is a forest producing those great little trees.  It is as though they believe, in some undiagnosable and impenetrably benighted way, that everything will always get done, at least to the degree that it has to; that the money will always be there; that we have a higher-order umbrella organization over us even though it is invisible and they couldn’t say what it is; and that what is required of them is to privilege the activity or project that entertains them the most.

I remember saying more than once in exasperation a version of:  “Look around.  Do you see any larger organization?  Where is our benefactor?  Where do you think the money comes from?  It comes from us doing our jobs, producing and selling books.  You have to contribute to making that happen.  There is no other source for your salary.  You can’t just do whatever you want.”

I sounded like my parents telling me why there was a roof over my head and three solid meals a day on our plates, and that I shouldn’t take these matters for granted.  I didn’t appreciate their lectures any more than our wayward staff members appreciated mine.  I never imagined that one day I would the one giving that particular speech.

Former Stalwart Employees

A number of our best employees, people whom we really liked, came and went during these same fifteen or so years.  As they were all in their early twenties when they arrived, we shouldn’t have been surprised when they sought other opportunities, but we still were always stunned.  These included: Antonio Cuevas, the brilliant chicano artist from LA who went on to Variety; Harry Um the playful, wise Korean intellectual from New York; Jeremy Bigalke, the introverted computer whiz who went on to run Mercury House; Tom the existential novelist; Anastasia the Buddhist practitioner of office mindfulness; Yvonne the Cuban cultural historian; Jess the philosopher and martial artist; Brooke the ambitious and earnest changeling.

The fact is, no matter how good the job is, young people do not seek the gold watch.  They want other adventures and experiences and environments will depart at the most unlikely or inconvenient times, whenever the wanderlust or inspiration strikes them.  Lindy and I had to teach ourselves not to be disappointed and to accept gracefully and be kind, swallowing feelings of hurt and betrayal in wishing departing employees well, even while feeling jilted or betrayed.  I am not good at this.  I sometimes (in the past) didn’t even come close.

Overall we continued to replace departing people with new arrivals and, though the best of them seemed utterly irreplaceable at the time, overall our staff level went up.

Jess O’Brien, our first formal martial-arts editor, appeared unannounced one day in the late nineties at our second office on Fourth and Jones, a young martial artist from Humboldt County up north in the redwoods.  As described earlier, he had been a reader of our books from time he was eleven, particularly our Taoist martial arts.  On arrival he volunteered to do any task that needed attention just to get to hang around—wash the floors, file contracts, pack cartons of books.  Having graduated recently from Humboldt State, he wanted to be in the Bay Area to continue his martial-arts study and he figured, “Where else should I work but for these guys?”  He had been planning this mission, he said, from before he was old enough to carry it out.

We hired him initially in the warehouse, but he showed himself to be too astute at publishing to waste there, so at the first opening we switched him to the office, and he worked for a while in customer service, also serving as the “bouncer” when street people wandered in—a gentle bouncer, gracefully overseeing their use of the facilities if necessary and then guiding them back to Fourth Street.

Out of the blue at one staff meeting after Hester left, he volunteered to do the royalties.  Just like that.  He said, “I’ll take them on.  Shouldn’t be much of a problem.”  That was how he talked: no biggie.  It was a job that desperately needed an overseer but had had no prior takers, thus had fallen by default to our one or another of a series of overworked, in-over-their-heads accountants.  Then this guy who pretended to be a bumpkin and turned out to be a literate skydancer proved to be computer whiz too.  He set up an protocol for running author and copublisher accounts efficiently.  His job definition thereafter became delightfully “royalties manager/martial-arts editor.”

During his stint at North Atlantic, Jess developed much of the hardcore historical library of martial arts that graces our list, and he is still our consulting editor-at-large on martial arts.  He also got the Esoteric Masters series off the ground, for it turned out that he had been a Religion major at Humboldt State.

I joked with him once about how his self-representation was way modest, in fact absurdly so for who he was.  “You never told us about your real skills, so we stuck you in the warehouse.  You were even the constabulary for a while.  You had high-level intellectual and computer skills, more so than most people working here, but you pretended to be Sylvester Stallone playing Jess O’Brien and deferred to everyone else as if they were Harvard Ph.D.s and you were the janitor.”

“My martial-arts teachers told me always to be modest and respectful,” he replied in character.  “Don’t boast.  Undersell yourself.  Prove your value by actions rather than words.  That’s the Taoist way.  I was practicing my stuff.”

He wanted to slip into North Atlantic as a koan that was also a parable, all stealth and straight man.

He left abruptly and unexpectedly after six years among us in 2004 to advance his career in publishing elsewhere.   He had grown up in our company and, when he informed us he was leaving—and to go to a press that had neither religion nor martial arts in its repertoire—I was shocked and disappointed.  By then he had become the closest thing, other than Lindy and me, to the face of the company.  Yet he obviously had unexpressed career aspirations and fantasies and wasn’t going to be a lifer.  The very fact that our job was a perfect match for his interests and abilities meant that he had to bail while he still had the gumption and initiative to get out of Dodge and learn other things.  We had become too cozy, a glorified home school.

I had always pictured that he might someday leave North Atlantic to do graduate work or teach kids at any level or get involved in environmental activism or even become a martial artist and open a dojo.  It never occurred to me that he would go to a more bandbox commercial house.  Despite his generating credible royalty statements, transactional precision and detail orientation were never Jess’s strong points at North Atlantic; his spirit and genius transcended computation.  Yet he was going right into the teeth of Bureaucracyville, to a place where accuracy of budgetary and editorial details would carry more weight than chi. Yet he was willing to test himself and grow in domains that weren’t his strengths.  More power to him—he actually learned in time to become a credible conventional publishing executive.  I had told him at the time that I was worried he was not really a publishing-business sort of guy but a martial-arts, philosophy, eco-rebel; he proved me wrong.  Or he proved that he could do both.  At least he had to try.  That was his path.  When he returns on rare occasions to visit North Atlantic, he is still innocent, wide-eyed, funny, playful, and practicing beginner’s mind and kindness.

One footnote on this matter: the press that hired Jess was run by long-time associates and friends, people with whom Lindy and I actually ran an East Bay publishing forum in the mid eighties.  We had fallen out of close touch with them in recent years, as they had also left PGW to go on their own.  Still, I believed that a courtesy call was in order.  It never came, nor did it come a few years later when they made an offer to an author who had published solely with us previously—all five of his books.  This didn’t feel right to me.

If they had called me and expressed their respect, there would have been no problem in either instance.  It may be just a courtesy, but courtesies have their meaning and use.  They create community and provide a basis for collaborative good will in ambivalent and potentially adversarial situations.  There is a reason why respect is critical in tribal societies and primitive organizations like warrior guilds, gangs, and mafias.  They are one of the fundamental touchstones of peaceful, fluid engagement.

People maintain courtesies so that they do not have to fight or kill one another or, up the civilizational ladder, compete in business unethically and more cut-throatedly than they should for even their own good.  Yes, everyone competes unethically, more or less because that is the way that the grand business tournament is played, but they also practice diplomacy and at least an illusion of empathy, trying to keep the door open for future cooperation, mutual aid, and solidarity if necessary.  They make the phone call, awkward as it is, because it maintains allegiance to the community, however slight, and keeps good will alive.  Light joking and teasing between competitors play a similar role.  They show respect too.

Once, years earlier, we hired a warehouse guy from a mailing-list firm that we used for bulk-shipping our catalogues.  Soon thereafter the owner called me to say that they would not be handling any of our lists in the future.  He didn’t begrudge his former employee the professional opportunity—in fact he would have advocated it and pushed him for the job, and the young man was hardly a cog in their wheel. But the owner believed in courtesy and decency, especially among local businesses, and he thought that we should learn a lesson.

I had never really considered the issue before and I felt that he was being over-sensitive at the time, but I have come to accept that he was right.  Time and again (Brooke Warner by Seal Press—see below; Mark Ouimet by Ingram—see Chapter Twenty; publicist Debby Matsumoto by Ten Speed), local publishers and publishing organizations have hired away our staff.  Not once have I gotten a courtesy call from colleagues, even from our friends in the business—and that would have made all the difference.[2]

“Honor among thieves” is the phrase that comes to mind.

Brooke Warner showed up at North Atlantic at roughly the same time as Jess and was probably second to him as the face of the press, though she was more involved in psychological, social, and pop self-help books, not our main fare, and “her and us” was always a bit of a forced match after she was aimed our way by Jeremy Bigalke at Mercury House.  Previous to North Atlantic, she had worked in a political capacity in D.C. after going to college there.  The daughter of two psychotherapists, she was trying a fresh career path in publishing.

Despite not having total affinity with the press’s content, she threw herself into our mechanisms of book development and publishing, and she surged ahead of all of our other editors in learning production technology and systems.  Taking control of much of the editorial process, she studied design with Paula Morrison and became her assistant on preparing all revised reprints.

Brooke left a mere three months after Jess did, answering a job at Seal, a company that had just been purchased by Avalon and moved from the Pacific Northwest to the Bay Area.  In intention if not always results, Seal was a much more commercial undertaking than ours.

Brooke too had grown up in our place.  However in her case she was going to a job that better suited her talents and interests than anything we could offer—she was to become Seal’s acquisitions editor with an emphasis on women-oriented titles.

When Jess left, Lindy and I were in Maine.  I bit my tongue, wished him well, and we even sent him a wedding present.  (Perhaps part of his reason for leaving was that he had met his future bride at North Atlantic, and we had parted ways with her a few years earlier in less than mutual fashion.  She might not have wanted him working for her former detractors.)

When Brooke sought her fortune so soon afterward, even before we had replaced Jess, Lindy and I were in Berkeley, and I wasn’t nearly so charmed.  I did think that it was the right career move for her in a way that I didn’t think it was for Jess.  But she seemed completely oblivious to the situation in which she was leaving us and was behaving, to my taste anyway, in an unduly self-congratulatory manner, too irrepressibly triumphant and condescending in advance during her lame-duck stretch.  So I stopped being affable and I talked to her only when necessary.  As I said, I am not good at this.

She picked up the attitude quickly and was upset.  She discussed it with Lindy, who encouraged her to talk to me directly.   After all, I had been much more her mentor than Lindy had.

In our difficult discussion Brooke and I haggled the whole thing out very candidly, each telling our side.  That meant that she left in peace, with good will on both sides.  Our feelings were aired, and we were compelled by the sheer agenda of honest dialogue to care for each other and commit to making each others’ situation better.

It was necessary in Brooke’s case to have some dissonance in order to create enough texture for a real evolution to the next phase.  Otherwise, she would have just been gone one day following a cheerful farewell party, her desk clear in the morning, and that would have been that—wounded feelings both ways.  Now, years later, she shows up at North Atlantic regularly and remains friends with many of our employees.  She even has occasional dinners with Lindy, and they have become quite close friends, though Brooke is younger than either of our children and quarreled with Lindy frequently during her tenure at North Atlantic.  This is when it is more than just publishing.  This is when it is real.

Brooke even considered returning at two junctures when we had relevant editorial openings.  We tried to craft each prospective job to her talents, even adding some acquisitions to the equation, but in the end she elected to stay where she was.  She is really more a corporate publishing lady than an alternative-press girl.  She is about six feet tall now and quite striking looking but was barely out of adolescence, a tall, baby-faced child, when she started with us.  Now she has grown up and filled in, socially as well as intellectually, and cuts quite a figure in the local and national publishing community.   (“I’m not a petite,” she once commented at a staff gathering with a wry laugh—and I remember too that she once biked all the way from Seattle to Portland for charity.)  She had far more energy and loftier dreams than North Atlantic could contain.

The Warehouse City

Between 1992 and 2007 our warehouse went from just North Atlantic’s facility to a joint operation with Conari Press, back to just North Atlantic—in the process moving three times, from Eighth Street and Grayson in southwest Berkeley, to the former Ten Speed warehouse at Ninth and Gilman on the other side of town (and around the corner from the punk club where our daughter launched her performance career), to its closing site at Fourth and Page, where 12,000 square feet of warehouse adjoined 7,000 of office in the Haws Building.

At the time that Jason’s father summoned a cadre of Berkeley High students to help cart books from the swimming-pool room at our Woolsey Street house to Eighth Street, we had a mere 1000 square feet of home-warehouse storage space.  The rest of the books were kept at PGW, with about fifty cartons on the dirt floor in the crawl-space basement of Randy Cherner’s building in Corte Madera (see Chapter Three).   Even after we moved into our Eighth Street facility, PGW continued to provide free warehousing for a goodly portion of our stock in their Emeryville space, initially because it was simpler to have them accessible there but soon enough because we had no space for them ourselves.

As you publish more titles, you occupy more space because you never sell them all, and anyway you reprint those that you do. It is an inexorable equation.

Unlike the Eighth Street combo office-warehouse, the first Fourth Street facility was just an office; we had a separate warehouse.  How did that happen?

Our double move out of Eighth Street to an office on Fourth and a warehouse on Ninth involved a series of simultaneous and related decisions—for while the office itself on Eighth wasn’t large enough or suitable for publishing, the warehouse was really the horse that pulled the cart.

Publishers Group West was planning to close its super-convenient Emeryville warehouse and move its facility down the East Bay to Hayward.[3] In addition, they were encouraging a more professional arrangement and were no longer were willing to warehouse extra stock for free.  There happened to be one other local publisher in our exact situation—using PGW as a backup warehouse and visiting a few times a week to shepherd cartons around and convey them back and forth to their office.  That was Conari Press, a very successful New Age, self-help publishing company, far more commercial in orientation than us.

One afternoon PGW president Charlie Winton convened Will Glennon, Conari’s principle, and Lindy and me in his office and proposed, with Solomonic aplomb, that we rent space together and merge our fulfillment staff and stock.  It was a forced marriage but, as Jess liked to say then, a plan.  In encouragement of the process, Charlie offered in advance to cancel any overstock fees that were soon to be instituted for all member presses—as long as either press, we or Conari, always transferred new overstock out of Hayward within a month after being notified it was surplus.  We were scrupulous on this matter, well nigh compulsive.  Conari blew it off and was hit with an exit fee of almost $100,000 years later.

So the jig was up on our stock-fudging game, though at the time we might have fancied playing it in Hayward with only a little extra driving.  Soon enough, though, the Teamsters would unionize the PGW warehouse, and then the company would be bought by a conglomerate.  A pastoral era of East Bay publishing, inaugurated in ancient times by the Whole Earth Catalogue and Bookpeople, was over.

Will and his partner Mary Jane and Lindy and I did not particularly know each other at the time and, even as so called New Age publishers within the PGW community, North Atlantic and Conari were not particularly similar in style or personally close, so we started out more suspicious than admiring of each others’ policies and philosophies.  Will was running a money machine then, or what was meant to be a money machine, and we were still in nonprofitville, legally and aesthetically.  Yet we both considered ourselves consciousness-oriented, cutting-edge spiritual presses.

The moment that the three of us (Will, Lindy, and I) began having lunches together and brainstorming our prospective warehouse we discovered great mutual chemistry and rapport with one another—and that remains today, years after Will sold Conari to Red Wheel/Weiser, unhappily negotiated his overstock bills with a post-Charlie PGW, and left the publishing world for good for international education.  He was basically a lawyer guy, originally Will Gonzalez, an upwardly mobile Californian with Hispanic roots and a gift for the inspirational and the surreal.  He had abandoned the law years earlier in order to assist his then-girlfriend with her psychology and love-life self-help publishing venture and became her business partner, a relationship that remained even after the romance ended.  He also hated the law.  “A judge once told me I was in contempt of the court,” he explained while giving us his history at lunch, “and I realized he was right.  So I quit.”

As the three of us back then set out warehouse hunting, we were directed by two different realtors to the old Ten Speed site.  It was a large, somewhat dilapidated building that the company’s publisher, erstwhile real-estate mogul Phil Wood, had leased years ago from its slumlord owner but which was presently all but out-of-use and empty, as Ten Speed had created its own state-of-the-art facility two blocks away on the other, north side of Ninth Street across the Gilman thoroughfare.  Though neglected, the old place was well equipped and crying out for a medium-sized book operation.

Phil was long famous as a local wealthy eccentric, Berkeley’s Scrooge McDuck.  He began as a publisher’s sales rep, figured he could pick better books than his superiors back in New York, and was right.  He more than just right; he converted his stupendous choices into both a big-time publishing operation and Wood Properties with an all-star portfolio of Berkeley commercial buildings.

Phil wore loud Hawaiian shirts and commandeered parties with his antics and public vamping.  He once tried (unsuccessfully) to get the annual cruise-boat sponsored by Malloy Lithographing docked in order to remove some employees of another company who were annoying him.  The cruise consisted of a floating band and dinner on a luxury boat around the Bay and was intended for Malloy employees flown out from Ann Arbor and the local publishers with whom they were to hobnob.

Phil and I had a long and checkered history.  Early on he expressed admiration for my writing and a wish to publish it.  This was in the days of Planet Medicine and The Night Sky, but despite a number of submitted manuscripts through the late seventies into early eighties he never did.  A decade later, though “Dave” bought the rights to Kevin Kerrane’s and my old anthology, long dead at Doubleday, from us when he still worked there and revised and reinvented it as Into the Temple of Baseball—to Phil’s disdain because he hated sports and also didn’t think that the category sold.  In fact, that was how I became friends with Dave and thought of him first as a manager and associate publisher when we moved the publishing out of the house.  It was a lesson in context.  Someone superlative and delightful in one setting becomes a disaster and intolerable in another.  A definition of marriage and divorce.

The Ten Speed building presently for lease was the precise venue in which, years earlier, North Atlantic had stored some excess books after Phil provided unexpected (and unasked) generosity one evening at a Bay Area publishing party.  He said that we were a great press and he wanted to support us with three pallet spaces.  The problem was, the books got pulped by accident six months later, and they happened to be ones that were mostly copublished with other presses (Flower Films and Freestone).  The Big Man could never quite find it in his heart to make amends for this mishap.  “Be honest,” he declared at the time, “you were never going to sell those books anyway.  They had no value.”

Well, we didn’t concede that fact, and we also didn’t entirely own the stock.

But Phil hated losing at anything, even marbles, so he haggled and snarled for months until I convinced Nick Setka, manager of Cody’s Bookstore and a trusted figure in the Bay Area publishing community, to mediate the dispute.  Then Phil was stuck with having to play along or look like an ogre.  He still growled and held a tough hand.

We ultimately settled for two free cartons of a high-end Ten Speed Thai cookbook to peddle with our own less upscale one—plus five cartons of the dead Into The Temple of Baseball.

Though the baseball anthology was just as unsuccessful at Ten Speed as it had been at Doubleday, like many Ten Speed products it was elegant and flashy, so I accepted the books as part of the deal.  Phil just wanted to get them out of his sight anyway.

My favorite memory of Phil is being behind him on an escalator at a publishing trade show.  He was wearing a trademark straw hat and an outrageous Hawaiian shirt, and I said in a voice just loud enough for him to hear, “That looks like Phil Wood.”

Without turning, he replied, “I should certainly hope so.”

Now Phil chose to offer Conari and North Atlantic what seemed like a very fair rent, about twenty percent under market value.  What we did not know at the time was that it was something like four times what he was paying the owner of the space on the underlying lease.  As a needy fellow publisher, we took his remonstrations of generosity at face value, but soon enough the bloom left the rose.  Neither Phil nor the building’s owner would repair anything, certainly not the leaking roof for starters—the owner because he was getting way below market value for his space and was losing money anyway and Ten Speed because it wasn’t their building.

We lived through six years of unmitigated deterioration, rampant rodents, and symphonies of water, but nonetheless, it worked for us and we didn’t think of leaving because we were already there with all of both presses’ books, an investment in a vast pallet-rack assembly, and five subtenants.  We stayed and even renewed the three-year lease once.

The Berkeley-High students who moved us out of the swimming-pool room were led by the inimitable Zoe Marshall, daughter of a legendary Oakland jazz musician.  She continued working part-time for us as a fifteen-year-old and ended up becoming the joint North Atlantic-Conari warehouse manager at nineteen when her mentor Jason left.  It was a job at which she proved to be tough, entertaining, and inspiring, as well as a favorite of truckers who didn’t initially take her seriously.[4] She additionally proved the point by quitting after two and a half years to become a longshoreman at the Port of Oakland.  Will and I hated to lose her (he thought of her as some sort a super-being from another universe and told her regularly, “Woman, you are my teacher”).  But we had no career advancement suitable for such a dynamo.

The NAB-Conari warehouse developed its own constituency and subculture, which triggered a division between two types of hirings and staff that lasted for twelve years.  It was unavoidable: we were blue-collar warehouse and executive office—a far cry from Jason, Kathy, and me doing all of the boxing and shipping in among book-keeping and editing.

Zoe did most of the initial warehouse hiring—that is, she came up with the live bodies, mostly from her Berkeley High acquaintances and their connections.  Will, Lindy, and I provided loose oversight and rubber-stamping, but Zoe was the captain and GM.

For many years she managed the ship and found new staff one way or another.

During the years that Zoe and her soft-spoken assistant Raquel oversaw the forklift, the balkily stacked pallets, skyscraping pallet racks, and crew of burly males at Ninth Street, I thought of her as a full-grown woman, so I was surprised when she returned about five years later to say hello and was two inches taller and about a foot heftier in presence.  No, it wasn’t high heels.

Zoe was followed by her buddy Marcus, a young Filipino guy who took over the role of warehouse manager.  He was poorly miscast.  A great young leader in the right situation, gentle and compassionate, he just didn’t come by Zoe’s force or charisma naturally, and the situation quickly eroded under him.  It was flat-out impossible for Marcus to manage his peers and friends, and his laxities were punctuated by regular flare-ups when he got worried about mistakes or malingering and tried to seize back the reins.  There was a lot of turnover too.  Yet Marcus made it run, and the situation was viable enough that at least the basic books got packed and cartons shipped—so there was never any urgency to attack the issues at their root or make a sea change.  We just lurched from crisis to crisis, whether the leaky roof, the book-eating rats, the crazy tenants, or grumpy, impertinent staff.

There was another factor in the lack of urgency.  Conari Press invested in massive marketing promotions and bulk mailings.  Will had a very different way of doing publishing: try to create mega-sellers and then market them like gangbusters.  They were successful at it: Random Acts of Kindness, Finding True Love, Women of the Beat Generation, etc.  They made their business model work, at least for most of the years of the shared facility.  Conari was so front-list and promotion-driven, especially by comparison to us, that they thus played a much greater role in determining the warehouse character.  Using the warehouse staff roughly seventy percent to our thirty, they also paid much more of the salaries and benefits.  So if Conari was happy, we were happy.  We could keep a light touch and let the inmates run the asylum.  No one wanted to be boss, overseer, slave-driver, or warehouse honcho.  It wasn’t in our temperament.  We had forgotten that books were only half the equation in a warehouse operation; beings were the other half.

Neither Will nor I could really supervise the warehouse anyway because we weren’t there.  Our scrutiny was limited to what we gleaned on widely-spaced visits plus, of course, the balance of overall performance.  At times, I suspected drug deals going down, not with our managers but some of the transient adjunct staff.  At times, shadowy and suspicious characters slipped away immediately upon my arrival.

The guys—no girls after Zoe and Raquel left—also set up a makeshift basketball court and vied in intense games.  UPS drivers liked to scrimmage with them.  All too often when I dropped by, there was intense basketball rather than book packing, but it was hard for me to object because I didn’t know the real situation (for instance, how often they played), and I also admired the good spirit and the community camaraderie.  That the UPS truck lingered at our locale was a badge of neighborhood honor.

Eventually Marcus got an assistant in the form of Zoe’s brother Joshi,[5] a jazz musician who then worked on and off in the warehouse for another fifteen years before we finally got out of the business for good upon our transition to Random House in 2007.  In the process we had gone from a Plexiglas-enclosed space in back of our house manned by Jason and me to 18,000 square feet formerly occupied by Ten Speed, plus five bumptious employees, pallet racks, and our own fork lift: in short, an industrial facility requiring a mode, scale, and legality of management that was finally and truly over our heads.

During the Ninth Street phase we rented out some of the 18,000 square feet to a variety of smaller presses, many of which brought unique problems and issues: conflicts with our staff, nonpayment of rent, sprawling expansion beyond their space, and also odd uses (like furniture and clothing storage or staff living on-site with pets).  Unintentionally we created a little city with Marcus as its mayor.  The warehouse became a complex street community with its own rules, only loosely under our control.

The need to manage very diverse subleasees meant that the simple matter of shipping our own orders became almost secondary to urban government.  Merely sorting all the separate freight bills on the UPS computer was an epic in itself.  And then we had to allocate staff time and wages, not only between NAB and Conari but among the various renting presses.  That job fell to Ed, who was the Warehouse City’s treasurer, tax commissioner, and police backup.  There was always a vague sense of impending anarchy in the place, and that mood was amplified by the fact that Conari was almost always under frantic promotional-mailing deadline.

Some of the half-dozen or so renters were benign, used space unobtrusively, and paid their bills.  Berkeley Hills Books, Stonebridge, and Great West Books were cooperative, engaging tenants.  Others were demanding, obstreperous, or deadbeat, as we went from battle to battle.  A few simply skipped out without paying.  Mondo 2000 used considerably more space than they paid for, filled it with enough junk to make a flea market, stopped paying as well, and had a guy living in the space with a dog—though this boarder, Robert Phoenix, a tarot reader, radical musician, cosmic telegraph operator, and sports fanatic, became a good friend of mine.  A decade later, he was a potential author of our press as well as a liaison, through his Web telegraph activity, to other major new authors and breaking news in the conspiracy-theory universe (see “Friends” on this website).  He brought us the psychic, Patricia Cori.

Mondo’s publisher was in denial.  She had been through a Timothy Leary/Conspiracy overdose and blamed her problems mostly on CIA interference and malefic occult influences, as she herself changed from a spaced-out hippie who occasionally went around topless with glitter to an angry and bitter crone who demanded that we accommodate her; threatened curses, legal action, and sabotage; and then finally totally withdrew her presence, leaving us to deal with the very concrete vestiges of her excess—dozens of pallets of old magazines.

That was the thing: it wasn’t just ideas or printed matter or even community.  It was people, psyches, and the same ups and downs that populate a sitcom or soap opera.

These kinds of things cut deeply for me.  I dwell on them to this day.  I believe in the effects of negative psychic energy, and I’m paranoid too, so I wasn’t comfortable with any of these situations or their karma.

It took years, literally, to evict Mondo in the courts.  By then the rest of their staff were gone, but their old furniture, clothes, and pallets of back issues lay quiescent and molding, until we finally let Robert auction everything off on eBay—a brilliant solution that I never came close to thinking up.  He suggested it one day offhandedly, and I said yes, yes.  It was done almost overnight, and he distributed the loot, at my suggestion, among Mondo’s unpaid employees.  What debris couldn’t be sold ultimately went into the dumpster, and that alone took weeks of trash loads.

Early in the warehouse phase we hired Jan, a Czech UPS driver.  After becoming friendly with Lindy and me, he confessed that he wanted to stop driving the damn brown vehicle in a military uniform and was willing to work for less than half his present pay.  We had recently been to Prague and admired all things Czech then, so he came aboard and dressed down to the occasion.  He seemed to relish his freedom more than regret his salary loss.

At the same time, though, we had “Eddie,” the afore-mentioned mailing-list-company refugee, a kind of scrawny post-punk rocker.  Unfortunately he and the Czech came from opposite ends of the personality and political spectrum (macho, happy to be in America, do things right versus nerd, fuck America, messy is cool).  Each employee, beyond the mask, did his job, but they still ended up in regular shouting matches that graduated one afternoon into a fistfight, each of them writing up the episode and bringing his pages to our office—the rocker insisting that his nemesis was Eastern European mafia and out to off him.

I had never experienced employees writing up incidents before, and Ed and I had to put our minds together to figure out what to do, both legally and ethically.  The opposing stories didn’t match, but then they never do.  We thought it best that one of them find another job, since they were still shouting at each other everyday.  Eddie also did our mailing lists then, so he had a certain bonus value.

We finally told them either to work it out or quit.  Jan decided to resign.  That was more than fifteen years ago, but he still occasionally runs into our son Robin on the street and calls out, “Hey, thank your parents for that job.”

After eventually leaving us, Eddie struck it very big in the music world and, last I heard, he had bulked up to twice his weight, was married, had a kid, and was taking karate lessons, the kid as well.  But that’s just street talk too.

A drug-oriented press run by an extremely aggressive lady who fancied herself a psychotherapist and went by the inseparable title of Doctor (from her Ph.D.) ended up bailing from the scene with her inventory after Marcus’s staff, a mixture then of Filipino, Japanese, and African American males, stopped moving her pallets for her because she allegedly used racist epithets in instructing them.

“What me?” she screamed when I confronted her with the information.  “I’m a fucking doctor of psychology.  I mediate conflicts.  How could you accuse me of doing such a thing?”

Yet Marcus swore by it: “She called us lazy Mexicans, and none of is even a Mexican.”

Faced with Marcus’s testimony and unwilling to join a powwow with him, she vanished with her pallets overnight.  When I couldn’t collect the back rent by email or voicemail, I dropped the existence of our lawyer on her voicemail.  She left a message back, “Fucking sue me.  I’d love that.  I live for the day.  Sue me and you’ll regret that you were ever born.”

We didn’t, and it was just a line of my party anyway, but this was the kind of karma we incubated when we created our warehouse scenario in the old Ten Speed digs.  That and a leaky roof and sushi-fed rats—more on them in Chapter Twenty-Two.  Tenants were a great idea in principle, a horror in reality.

Ultimately Conari got sold to Red Wheel/Weiser, without much warning.  Will simply decided that he wanted to do something else with his life.  Without shared costs we had to close the fulfillment part of the warehouse on a dime and turn over our shipping to an outside company that sent in staff in to do the job.  When that didn’t work—the company’s Bookpeople refugees got way behind and charged a premium price for their services—we hired a few people ourselves to do our packing (no Conari now to cover seventy percent of the bill).  The new staff included Aaron, a mellow young student returning to the mainland from managing a restaurant in Hawaii, and Joshi again, between his gigs of Mingus Among Us and The Joshi Marshall Quartet and his reggae backup tours with Don Carlos.

Ultimately we had to get rid of both the office and the warehouse and find a new situation, combining facilities, which we accomplished in the Haws Building (see Chapters Fifteen and Twenty).  A few of our best tenants joined us there for a while.

On the day after the announcement of Conari’s sale, Will and I trooped over to Ninth Street tell the staff the circumstances and sad news and offer them severance pay.  We were met with anger, sullen stare-downs, and epithets bordering on racist themselves.  I had kidded myself that these guys liked me and I was their friend, a fan of their basketball games.  I liked to hang around and joke with them, and Marcus and I would occasionally drive together in his truck to the overstock facility in Richmond to bring or take back stock, and jive like two old buddies across the class and educational barrier.  Those on my side always kid themselves best.

Now he turned hard eyes on me and wouldn’t speak and actually wanted me to think he was threatening.

When the shit hit the fan, with these warehouse dudes, all I could really be was this highly educated middle-aged guy from New York who had a salary and owned a house.  I wasn’t an artist and writer or teacher to them, but a clueless businessman and their boss who was closing down the joint (clueless as to who they were, clueless enough to pretend I saw them and they me).  How else could I be viewed?

I was pleased when, five years later, Marcus showed up to interview for a job for which he wasn’t actually qualified (print manager and production coordinator), but at least we got to talk again and bury the hatchet, and he did understand the new opening wasn’t for him.  He had a good job by then, managing a foam factory in the South Bay, plus a wife and a kid.  He was cool.  He was even happy.

Middle Management

In retrospect the single-most staffing challenge was creating a middle level of management, initially even to understand what such a level was and the need for or it.  Ironically we bumbled into the dilemma without identifying it when we hired Dave out of Ten Speed and put him in charge of the ship and its crew in 1992.  But Dave wasn’t so much middle management as a gadfly and a stopgap experiment, as there were no protocols for him to enforce or infrastructures to maintain.  When his term ended prematurely, Lindy and I drew the wrong conclusion—that we needed to be more hands-on and not put our business in the control of someone else ever again.

I would say that we progressed more or less effectively from 1993 until 2003 without addressing the middle-management issue, as we improvised our own protocols and chains of responsibility on the run.

Middle management means trusting other people to oversee aspects of editorial, production, operations, and accounting procedures, with the authority to make serious decisions about practices and staffing, and to serve as ongoing supervisors.  Lindy and I thought only as far as having people that we trusted enough to turn over work to them, but we needed to think beyond that to hire people whom we trusted enough to delegate the oversight of other staff carrying out operations.

True managers make decisions, and they observe and evaluate other people making decisions.  They also help set basic parameters of budgets and salaries.  Thus, you get multiple perspectives and views on situations, ways to consider things that do not come from your own agendas and frame of reference.  When you create middle management, you in effect trade some of your authority in order to get free of overseeing all the minutiae and nuts and bolts of a complex operation.  Having to do everything for years meant, for instance, that Lindy and I couldn’t focus on outreach and acquisitions, as befitted real working publishers.

When we hired Ed Angel, in effect we created middle management anew.  He is the sort of person who digs in and creates structure by taking on responsibility, not only for his own area but implicitly for everything going on around him.  Ed internalized the company and then fought for it when necessary, against outside suppliers and freelancers and even occasionally renegade or exploitative staff.

With an ear to the ground, he was able to communicate employee needs to us as well as unvoiced complaints and emerging crises.  As his role expanded, his hours increased.  He began identifying with our business as much as with his own video operation and soon was opening the office before Lindy and me in the morning and still on the job most days when we left—except for Friday, which he saved for his movies, still does.

Ed taught us about management in the simplest and most direct sense: his ideas sounded more compelling to us than our own, and he had conviction and principles to back them up.  Once you start listening to other voices and sharing oversight, you are on your way to middle management.

In his early years Ed helped us supervise everyone more or less.  A woman named Stephanie became manager of customer service and had two other employees under her before leaving for a bank.  Another woman oversaw a few employees in editorial and production, having ascended to that stature from an entry-level position, as we were beginning to get the hang of it.

Our employees were tending to tell us what needed to happen to keep them (salary increases along with expanded responsibility, e.g. what they recognized as the professional norm).  This second woman’s stint ended badly, though, when she had an affair with one of her charges (see Chapter Twenty-Two).  She also fed a bit too much off office drama, as she seemed to take a perverse pleasure in firing up crises despite an otherwise sophisticated mindset.

Our first high-level middle manager was “Sam” about whom I will talk at length in Chapter Eighteen.  But he was a supervisor in name only: an associate publisher and director of sales and marketing who failed at galvanizing the position.  Although he looked great on paper, he had mostly his own agendas.  His claims to status and responsibility were finally window dressing.

A year after we fired Sam, Mark Ouimet came to work for us and really began to pull the company together as a business.[6] Hired as director of sales and marketing and associate publisher, he modeled the CEO role for Lindy and me.  Having come from the top executive rungs at PGW, he brought an understanding of business structure and a talent for dynamic organization.   He was brought on board not as an overall manger but to carry out his sales-and-marketing specialty; yet it would have been against his nature not to try to organize our amorphous sham of a company.  What he first observed was organizational chaos, not sales and marketing urgencies.  He could not get to the second, his job, until he put the first in order.

Mark set consistent pay scales and benchmarks, something that was essential for company morale and a compass after Sam blasted any and all salary rationales to hell.   Mark also defined jobs and functions and how they interrelated, and he formed departments—not only coalescing editorial, production, and operations, but creating his own sales-and-marketing module, hiring professional publicist Debby Matsumoto and pulling interns and young employees (Saudah Mirza, Drew Cavanaugh, and Allegra Harris) into the emerging matrix.  As their roles were expanded, they became critical cogs in the creation of a department.

Saudah was a nineteen-year-old whiz out of Cal who began as an intern and rose to a superwoman position that combined inventory with catalogue creation and our website management and sales in one mega-job.  Then she moved to Jordan to get to practice her faith in a Muslim country.  Saudah wore a chador and did not shake hands with men, something I tried to warn visitors about when I introduced them, but I was usually too late.  Fortunately she had an amiably understated way of communicating her taboo with a pushback hand gesture and a few spare syllables.  It was interesting to see how slow or fast people got it.  Usually the younger the male, the quicker their recognition.  Some older authors seemed permanently befuddled.

After starting in customer service, Drew became a sales and marketing assistant and is now our main liaison with Random House.  Allegra, another one-time intern, grew into Mark’s sales and marketing position a mere two years after his departure, and she became a director before leaving after five years for graduate school in business in 2010.

Mark stayed three years and, when he left in 2007, his successor, Douglas Reil, become associate publisher and operations manager.  Like Mark he functioned as head of sales and marketing too before advancing Allegra into that position a year later.  Doug’s main initial concern was company structure and creating lines of report.  Coming from an operations and academic-social-work background, he prioritized the organizational restructuring of North Atlantic Books, completing in essence what Mark had begun.

Through the move to a new space on Blake and Martin Luther King (see Chapter Fifteen), Doug conducted a thorough set of candid interviews with staff, leading to a hierarchical org chart and recommendations for basic grid realignment and line-of-authority definitions.  He not only created structure; he created the concept itself, the reinterpretation and implementation of internal structure and company organization.  He introduced the formality of regular committees and groups.  He believed in something that I never did: that anything actually happened at a meeting, at least anything that could be carried forward effectively into action.  That was a mode and a lesson that he brought with him from elsewhere and planted as a seed that grew.  In much the same manner he showed that making monthly and annual sales projections and trying to meet them was not just a sterile exercise because it allowed you to budget, something we had never done before.  It was just one amorphous scroll of economic activity, cash in and cash out without any boundaries except those imposed by the taxing authorities.  Furthermore, he showed that, by trial and error, the projections got astonishingly accurate.  It was pure statistics, even if it was the prediction of random future events.  By the methods police predict murders in neighborhoods, and surely those are all independently arising events.

For Doug, operations and organization went hand in hand and were syllogistic in creating a functional business.  We needed to know what our requirements were in the various domains of editorial, production, printing oversight, inventory, sales, and marketing, and then what individuals’ duties were and how they interfaced and hierarchically triggered and supported one another in a network.  Otherwise, we were inefficient, redundant, lurching across systemic gaps, out of sync.  And yes, we were all those things and tried to use sheer energy and inveterate catch-up to overcome them.

Doug got different people in related jobs talking cogently to one another and supporting one another’s activities in the correct contexts, at the right scale, and with the necessary timing, much like taking loosely spinning gears barely driving a vehicle and having them mesh and leverage each other in harmony.

For the first twelve or thirteen years of having a staff, North Atlantic was, as you surely gather by now, quite structureless, with employees moving fluidly from customer service and the warehouse to editorial and foreign rights and accountants getting books to manage as project editors.  There was no hierarchy or efficiency, just improvised intermittent movement.

Even as Mark arrived at the right time to introduce salary scales, departments, and a perspective on sales and marketing, so Doug arrived at the right time too, to look at the company as a whole in terms of its evolution and the requirements of the new level integration into Random House Distribution Services and to push it to that level. Interestingly Doug already had a long history with North Atlantic at both Inland Book Company and PGW as both a buyer and a systems manager, so he had viewed us for a long time from the outside very attentively and sympathetically, as I will discuss in Chapter Twenty.

What Lindy and I established as a journal and small press with only lateral and linear definition was made three-dimensional and quadratic by the time that Doug came on board; then he gave that network a shape and flow chart of interlocking modalities.

Though there are now managers and salary ranges, the structure of the staff remains essentialluy egalitarian and unstratified; we have no drones, secretaries, personal assistants, or other euphemisms.  Once we began to differentiate, however, we formed conventional departments, so I will continue my discussion of staffing in that format.

Chapter 13: Departments 1: Editorial | Table of Contents

Footnotes

[1]
In this part of the chapter I have written more about unsuccessful and/or departed staff. There were also many terrific staff people who stayed, and I will name and discuss them later in this chapter and in the following four chapters.
[2]
Since I wrote this, the guy who runs the company that hired Jess heard through the grapevine that I was aggrieved and called me to talk it out. It turns out that he has a more rough-and-tumble view of business and even enjoys doing battle and pissing off colleagues, and he says he doesn’t get angry when someone does the same stuff to him. I told him that I mainly cared about keeping up our friendship and professional connection, so we are now hanging out again. We are better friends than we ever were before—crises create energy, and energy can be transmuted.
[3]
Later, Hayward became Reno and then Indianapolis, as PGW metamorphosed and went national.
[4]
Her only taint was the hiring of a friend who quickly filed a bogus Workman’s Comp claim (see Chapter Seventeen).
[5]
Joshi got his name from the Tibetan lama and Shambhala author Chogyam Trungpa, as his and Zoe’s father had been Trungpa’s first host and source of housing in California. Charged with giving the baby a sacred name, the lama left him unchristened for weeks, waiting for the right blessing to come to him. Then, holding him aloft, he announced, “This one is called Joshi.” Joshi amazingly remembered the moment: “I saw a bright light coming out of this strange guy in a costume.” He also described later escapades with Trungpa, including one in which the Tibetan master intentionally disturbed serious pool players in a bar in Nebraska and was chased down the highway by them waving guns. According to Joshi, he converted them into disciples on the spot. In a similar conversion myth he broke off car antennas as they walked along a Denver street, then handed them all to a student. “Absolutely true,” Joshi swore, “all of it.”
[6]
See also Chapters Sixteen and Twenty for a discussion of Mark’s hiring and his contributions to North Atlantic.

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