“I had just graduated from college as an English major. My mother wanted me to teach, that's what women did, so obviously I wanted to go into publishing.”
Marsha Cohen did go into publishing. Viking urged her to take a temporary job in production until something in the editorial department became available.
“If you had told me back then, when I was 21 or 22 years old, that what I learned in a publishing production department would be amongst the most valuable lessons I ever learned, I would have laughed in your face. It was though. It isn’t enough for something to be well written. You really need to know what’s involved in putting a book together. You need to understand about price estimation, paper suppliers, printers, delivery scheduling. You need to know the limits and the possibilities of production.
“My boss was an older guy. Of course at 22 everyone seems older. He was probably only in his late 40s.He didn’t think girls could do the math needed for cost estimates. Anti-feminism was really the norm in the late 1970s and early 80s. We forget how prevalent male chauvinism was, even in modern times. He was so senior in the company that he had 6 weeks annual vacation. He took it all at once, leaving me “alone” and giving me an opportunity I’d never have had if he were at work.
“At that time, Viking was James Joyce’s U.S. publisher. They’d handed Ulysses off to Random House which could better afford the coming litigation costs, but Viking published Joyce’s other books.
“When my boss was off on his long vacation, a new Joyce manuscript came to light. Giacomo Joyce. It was Joyce’s diaries from when he lived in Italy. There were intense secret meetings about this book. Viking wanted to publish it quickly to establish copyright. My boss would have been at those meetings, but since he was away I got to go. I made the first executive decision of my short career.
“Precautions were being made to protect the secrecy of the project. It had already been arranged that the printer would work with special speed to get the book right out. Now executives worried that wasn’t enough. They decided to tell the printers that the job was top secret and ask them to demand that their workers keep mum about what they were printing. Prevent leaks. This didn’t make sense to me. I spoke up. ‘These are just ordinary guys, going into work. They aren’t paying attention to what’s on the pages they’re printing.’ I don’t know how I had the nerve to speak up so forthrightly to all these big shots at the secret meeting. I was surprised I opened my mouth, but I told them not to alert workers to a secret that they would otherwise not notice.
“ ‘Hmm,’ said the men at the meeting. My point carried. I was even more surprised that someone was listening.”
Marsha Cohen stayed in the production department at Viking for 1 ½ years. When she left, she didn’t yet realize how much she had learned and it was later still before she understood how valuable those lessons were.
Marsha took a job a Van Nostrand on 41st Street across from the public library. Van Nostrand was a scientific publisher. It had a small trade department that published books about sports and children’s books, especially children’s books about science. Marsha worked in that trade department.
“I had such an amazing boss at Van Nostrand, Dorothy Briley. She’d worked at Abington Press in Tennessee. She knew so much about publishing and she was very generous with her knowledge. I learned a lot from Dorothy Briley, she was a wonderful female role model, and I liked her tremendously.”
Van Nostrand published some children’s books on space travel. I read some of them myself as a child. Those books promised that I could go to a space port when I grew up and take a rocket trip to the moon or even Mars. I remember that promise well. Marsha remembered it too. Like me, Marsha Cohen was disappointed that the thrilling promise was not kept.
In spite of the fun working at Van Nostrand, Marsha was restless. She wanted something new. “I didn’t go to the moon,” says Marsha. “But I did go to Europe.”
So ended Marsha Cohen’s first adventure in publishing. Others were just ahead.