Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman

Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.

Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.

Chris loves books.

Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Conversation With Fran McCullough - Editor

I asked Fran McCullough if it was okay to include a quote from her about publishing going to the dogs, in my March 12 post. She said "sure, and that's not all."
Fran told me how the grand old industry turned not-grand in the early 1970s. "A man at Harper's typified the change. Tad Akaishi. He was briefly head of the trade department but he wasn't a real bookman."
One wonders how someone who wasn't a real bookman became head of Harper's trade books. McCullough explained.
"First he was a Korean minister and then he was the head of the religious department, which is generally not one of the high visibility profit centers in publishing. Under Akaishi, Harper's religious department was extremely profitable. People asked him how.
" 'Easy,' he said. 'Keep the best sellers in print. Drop the others. Don't take chances."
His successful publishing philosophy may have catapulted him to a head position but it was anathema to McCullough. Other editors found it repellant too. Fran tells about a philosophical collision.
"Tad summoned all the editors. He wanted to get everyone on board the Harvard Business School model. The Love of Literature model wasn't necessarily taking them to Profit City. He wanted to know the editors' plans. He asked Joan Kahn first. You know Joan," Fran said to me. "She had her own mystery imprint. Tad asked about her five-year plan.
"Joan spoke clearly. She said, 'My plan is to find the best books I can and to publish them well.' 'No, no,' said Tad. 'I mean what is your publishing plan? What are your projections? What numbers do you see in the future?
"Joan stood her ground. She said it again. 'I intend to find the best books I can and to publish them well.' All the editors agreed with Joan.
"Someone else said, 'Every book we publish is an experiment.' "

Those editors who follow the Love of Literature model look for the best books. They pour their hearts into them and hold hands with the authors and publish the books well. After that they wait and see. That's because they know that each book they publish is an experiment. Quality is part of it. Chance is part.
Fran says, "In the old days, when the Love of Literature model prevailed, literary editors were trusted to sign up books they loved and few other questions were asked. No one can do that anymore, though it's assumed that editors love what they publish - but they also have to be able to argue persuasively that these books will be successful and support their arguments with numbers. So does the Biz School model work? Not at all, but it lets everyone off the hook by pretending to be scientific, and its so pervasive now that it's virtually impossible to try any other system that might be more realistic."
The meeting Tad Akaishi held early in the 1970s was just a skirmish. The editors won that one, but over the decade they lost the war.
"But Tad Akaishi wasn't really a bad guy. He was just ahead of his time and in the wrong place. Eventually I came to like him. He had interesting other talents too. For instance, he knew a technique for walking on bad backs and making them feel better. You'd lie on the floor, right there in the office and he'd walk on your back."

In college Fran McCullough won the competitive Madamoiselle intern contest. It was the same contest that Sylvia Plath had won and made famous in The Bell Jar. Fran was disappointed to be matched with Bennett Cerf for her internship, but she learned a lot about publishing.
"Cerf told me, 'Publishing is a business, like the butcher business.' It was very shocking to me at the time, but of course, it couldn't be truer."

In the early 1970s Fran McCullough was a poetry editor. Later when backlists and insightful, interesting poetry weren't bottom-line material, McCullough became a cookbook editor. This is not the radial transition it may seem. Fran McCullough is a magical cook. She makes poetry out of meals.

Fran McCullough's cookbook website
an interesting paper comparing Sylvia Plath and Iranian poet Forough Farrokhad - bibliography includes poetry edited by McCullough
Bennett Cerf profile
1945 announcement of Madamoiselle contest

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