Recollections from a Former Life

Yesterday, May 3, marked 25 years since I left my former employment as an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers. It was a warm, sunny, humid day, one of those days that finally banishes the last traces of spring. I remember standing in the parking lot for the last time, looking back at the dark green glass cube that had been my home away from home for the previous 8 years, thinking: Now what?

I left with a mixture of trepidation and relief. Trepidation because I had no safety net; no new job awaited. Relief, because the stress of months on end of 90-hour weeks and unrelenting pressure were taking a toll on my health and sanity. Had I not quit, some kind of collapse, heart attack or stroke or absolute burnout, was pretty much gonna happen, real soon.

My boss had been nice enough to line up a freelance project that would provide just enough income to keep the wolves at bay while I figured out the next move.

At one time Holt had been a pretty good nameplate, and a great place to hang your hat, professionally speaking. But by the time I came along in the late 1980s, it was old and worn out, a spent force. Harcourt Brace, flush with fresh cash courtesy of its new partner Jovanovich, had recently purchased Holt’s skeletal remains, and moved in a bunch of hard-chargers from headquarters in Orlando to reanimate the once-proud enterprise. I was not long out of grad school, having given up on a career in education when the gritty realities of that profession became plain.

Holt wasn’t a place for slackers. Nominal hours were 9 to 5, but for those of us in Science and Math Editorial, the real workday began when everyone else went home, and you could work uninterrupted. Nobody told you this; you just figured it out. I remember my first Christmas Eve at Holt. Official closing was announced at noon, and most departments took full advantage. But in our area no one stirred. One o’clock, two o’clock, all hands present and accounted for. Three o’clock passed in similar fashion. Around 4 people start drifting out one or two at a time. Between 5 and 6 the pace picked up a bit. But the last holdouts hung on until long after dark. And so it went.

At that time the publishing profession was in transition. Once upon a time you took five years to put together a book. And you had a whole team to help you do it. There was a lot of slack time, and the pace was gentle. You really only sweated in the last few weeks before publication. Once the book was done, you had six months or a year or two of light schedules and long lunches as you gradually ramped up for the next project.

But our ways were different. The pressure of more and higher profits meant short publication cycles and reduced staffs. So instead of 8 editors taking five years to put together a book, one or two did it in 12 months, if you were lucky. Nine months if you weren’t.

Why would anyone willingly submit to such a pressure-cooker, you might be asking. Fair question. But publishing has, or at least had, a kind of glamour about it. It seduced you, suckered you in, and by the time you figured out the reality, you were in too deep. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. My car was first in the parking lot in the morning, and the last to leave at night.

Well, almost first. There was one person who consistently arrived before me, a happenstance I took rather personally. Who is this person who DARES to arrive before me? It took months to track her down, and her discovery was a complete anticlimax. Cindy turned out to be a very nice long-timer who moved rather slowly because of a head injury suffered in a in a car wreck some years before. She tired easily and could only work effectively if she started very early. She left about 2 every day. If management even knew about her odd schedule, it didn’t care.

The glamour of editorial work assured a steady stream of young, idealistic wannabes, of whom management took full advantage. You came to realize that you were regarded as expendable, because were you to leave, ten people would leap to replace you. As if to underscore its lack of concern with morale, for a time the company neglected even to include the editorial staff in book credits, a conspicuous break with industry practice. This was noticed.

Problem was, it took three or four years to learn enough to be useful. Up to that point you were a net drain for the Company. Management never seemed to figure this out. And as the pressure to produce produce produce steadily mounted, what had been a trickle of resignations turned into a torrent, and with every departure a bit of institutional memory went out the door. By the time I left, Holt was hemorrhaging talent. There followed a few rounds of layoffs, a relocation to cheaper office space, and eventually a complete collapse. The Company, a shell at that point, was bought up once again and folded in with a former competitor.

For a time, though, we did really good work. My specialty was the SciencePlus series, a ground-breaking new program imported from Canada. I had been the lead in its adaptation from the original Canadian series, and developed the prototype pretty much on my own.

Twenty five years, basically a third of a lifetime! I have not since worked for any corporation. I freelanced for maybe three years, and then drifted into computer work. In 2003 I opened my own shop and have been at it ever since. This gig is getting pretty stale, though, and it is probably past time to give it up.

But what to do next?

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