A Publishing Pod for Today’s World
Last week an item appeared on Axios, a much read Washington website (link) and in major publishing industry newsletters (link) reporting the launch of an imprint called Platform Books LLC, with its first book to be An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen by, well, me.
Medium is not the place for “sponsored” content. So, this is not that. Instead, it is an effort to explain how this approach to book publishing fits into the arc of the book world now.
What is the book? It is a reported memoir of my lengthy-enough life from its origins in India during World War II, later covering war and autocracy for The Washington Post and as an editor and publisher working with four presidents and scores of luminaries. It is, if I may be so bold, a colorful set of experiences with, I hope, some life lessons as well.
I started to write, spurred by the instinct that I wanted my descendants to know where, on my side, they came from. Many immigrant families like mine lose track of their histories after a generation or two. And because of the precipitous decline of paper communications, there will be much less to find in the future of what I think of as trunks in the attic.
The process of writing took several years and involved travel, interviews, research, introspection, and rewriting. After more than a half century in journalism and publishing, I was surprised to discover that my preferred way to compose is with a pen and spiral notebooks, and that is how the first draft of the book was done.
Next, I put the draft into a Word document, editing, adjusting, fact-checking, and becoming devoted to search, on-line archives, and spell check. When it was all printed out, I started over with revisions. I read parts to my wife, Susan, for her candid commentary and to improve my recollections.
Whenever I mentioned I was writing a book I would add that I didn’t know how it would be published, to protect my options. I did know that too many authors, especially memoirists, are frustrated or disappointed when their life stories are not that interesting to people whose business is books for the trade or popular markets. The issue for me was whether to consider this a “friends and family” project, some version of what used to be called “vanity publishing” and is now called self-publishing, or could this version of one person’s history have additional appeal?
There are many good ways to do that these days, with access to online sales platforms, placing copies in local bookstores, and giving them away. For my mother-in-law Carroll Sherer’s wonderful book, A Great Adventure, we had it elegantly designed with many photographs. Our family and her many friends cherished every word.
A “friends and family” book suggests no significant broader interest to the public. Memoirs by major celebrities of one kind or another or people who have had particularly traumatic lives can find audiences of considerable size. In today’s market, almost anyone who has had more than fifteen minutes in the limelight, especially in politics or scandals, considers a book a natural payday for their fame.
When I was satisfied that I had a full draft, I decided to show it two masterful editors, former colleagues and friends, Lisa Kaufman and Paul Golob. Both already knew the outlines of the story, my temperament and my voice. I knew that they would tell me, bluntly, how the manuscript read. I told them this was not a favor and they would be paid because this was a professional request.
Lisa read it first. Her detailed discussion was approving, but said the book was rather more anecdotes than narrative. “Unlock,” she said, express more emotions and tell readers why they should bother with this saga. So I wrote an introduction called “Who, What, Where, When, and Why,” the standard five Ws for a piece of journalism. The purpose is to create context, a framework for how and why the stories belong together.
The book’s basic stance is observation, an accounting by a reporter who is also a participant in the events being described. An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen was a logical title.
Then Paul Golob read the book. One of Paul’s many assets for me is that we share a sense of humor forged in centuries of Jewish-tinged irony. We laugh at the same things and each other.
Paul shared Lisa’s largely positive opinion, but said that if this was intended to be a book for the trade, in the usually understood sense, there would need to be more of some things and less of others. After consideration, I decided to make the book the best version of what it could be rather than write a different book. After all, I was doing this because I wanted to, not because I had to.
That is the book Paul and Lisa edited.
Then I subjected the manuscript to a small number of what I considered “sensitivity” or “defensive” reads. It is easy to upend a book with a thoughtless or inadvertently offensive phrase or description. But no personal manuscript can be completely scrubbed and still be worth reading. Rather than detail the results of that process, I’ll find out from readers whether it was successful.
The time had come to decide how it would be published. I considered submitting the book to several publishers where my name would be recognized. Based on comments from a (friendly) agent, I realized that I couldn’t stand the prospect of being put up for auction, let alone outright rejections.
So, in conversation with Susan we devised Platform Books LLC, the imprint we have now established and funded. This is not self-publishing. We are a publisher, and our first book is mine, a way of testing the concept we envisioned.
Matty Goldberg of Two Rivers/Ingram, the company that will handle sales and distribution, and who is another valued colleague of long standing, called the process “getting the band back together.” Whitney Peeling of Broadside PR is already making things happen. Everyone involved has worked with me before, and all of them have other jobs or clients. We are, in effect, a “gig” publisher, a team put together for specific projects, much the way movies are done and plays produced.
It is still six months before copies will be in stores or online, a span of time that is short compared to the years the book portrays. And what then for Platform Books LLC? That, as the saying goes, remains to be seen. There are, however, some ideas.