Finding a Foothold in New York City
This page picks up where Philip Turner–Personal History ended, a web page complimentary to this one:
In September 1984, around the time of my thirtieth birthday, I decided to leave the family business, Undercover Books, and move to New York City. Though eager to embark on this change, I concluded it’d be much better to have a job waiting for me in New York. Over the next several months I job-hunted long distance, and happily did land a post with a Jewish educational organization–the sort of work I had thought I might do seven years earlier, before I became involved in my the family bookstore enterprise. The job was with the National Havurah Committee (NHC), doing membership recruitment and helping coordinate conferences they ran.
Even with that first job, I still had to find somewhere to live. Rooming with a colleague for a couple weeks, I got lucky and quickly found an apartment in Washington Heights, the hilliest section of Manhattan with its bike-able hills and steep stairways, and the dramatic George Washington Bridge in view from many vantages. It’s sort of the San Francisco of New York. Proud and pleased to have an address in the city–and always an eager letter writer–I hired a graphic artist to help me make up some letterhead with which I planted my flag in the city. The artist drew this caricature of me which I printed on stationery and envelopes and used over the five years I lived on Bennett Avenue at 186th Street, a pleasant walk from the Hudson River, the Great Gray Bridge, and the Cloisters, the medieval art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum.
Turning 7 Years of Bookstore Experience in to a Publishing Career
Selecting a Worthy Manuscript Among 700 Contenders, Suite for Calliope, First Editorial Acquisition
After nine months with the NHC I decided I wanted to get back in to books, only this time in publishing, not bookselling. After seven years in the bookstore, I knew many publishing people and relished the networking that brought me toward my goal of working as a book editor. The first place I got hired was Charles Scribner’s Sons, as the firm now called Scribners was known then. Mildred Marmur, first female head of a major house, was the publisher. Though we weren’t acquainted she met with me. She said she had nothing full-time to offer me, but added that the company sponsored a first novel contest named after Maxwell Perkins, their legendary editor who had nurtured the talents of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and James Jones. She asked if I’d want to work as the contest’s first reader. At Undercover Books we had sold A. Scott Berg’s important biography, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, so I was thrilled with the opportunity to tap in to a small share of Perkins’ legacy.
Working three days each week in what ended up a two-month stint in the winter of 1986, I sat in Scribner’s conference room with jiffy bags and manuscripts stacked up around me like drying cord wood. Think John Updike’s classic sketch “Invasion of the Book Envelopes.” My assignment was to unpack the mailers and read between 5-50 pages of each manuscript of what turned out to be more than 700 contest entries. I also filled out a brief questionnaire, signaling a thumbs-down or -up for a second reading by the senior editors. Coincidentally, I recommended 70 entries, or 10%, for second readings. There was one entry I really loved, by an E.M. Hunnicutt, for which I eagerly read way more than 50 pages. My recommendation of it was more enthusiastic than for any other candidate, but before finishing the job I learned it wasn’t going to win. I noted the author’s phone number and address and made a copy of the manuscript, hoping I might contact “Hunnicutt” soon, once I got hired as a full time editor.
My luck held and soon, after a reference from literary agent Ruth Nathan (wife of longtime Publishers Weekly reporter Paul Nathan) I was offered a job as editor at Walker & Company, a somewhat sleepy publisher of young adult non-fiction and genre adult fiction (Westerns, mysteries, Regency romances, etc.), published mostly for libraries. We had great terraced offices twelve stories above Fifth Avenue at 56th Street, where annual St. Patrick’s Day parade parties were, which Walker author Isaac Asimov always attended. I was assigned the genre that founder and publisher Sam Walker called “men’s adventure”–thrillers, swashbucklers, seafaring novels, spy books, a genre I still adore. Walker had in its early years published books by John Le Carre and Flann O’Brien, so I was hopeful that my mandate might even extend to other areas of publishing, even literary fiction. My first week at Walker I called E.M. Hunnicutt and learned that E.M.’s first name was “Ellen.” She told me she’d long used the initials to disguise her gender, since she sold many stories to Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts.
Ellen and I hit it off beautifully and for an advance of $750 I acquired rights to her novel, the first original manuscript I line-edited. Our relationship established a high benchmark in my relationships with authors that I’ve always strived for since. Over the year that followed, Ellen and I engaged in a vigorous dialogue about her work and its theme–the creative purposes to which suffering and mourning may be put. The protagonist of Ellen’s novel was a young teenage girl, a musical prodigy who’d fled a destructive custody battle that engulfed her family in the wake of her mother’s death. She’s sought safe harbor amid a circus troupe that’s wintering over in a quiet Florida camp where she’s found solace in composing a requiem for her late mom on the troupe’s calliope. When her book, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, was published in the spring of 1987, it received a starred review in Kirkus, Dell bought the paperback rights, and Walker sold out its hardcover first printing. The starred Kirkus happened to land on my desk on May 4, a fateful date on my personal calendar. It was the anniversary of the shootings at Kent State in 1970, the date that Undercover Books opened for business in 1978, and Ellen’s birthday, which gave me the opportunity to place one of the happiest birthday calls I’d ever made. Her good fortune wasn’t done yet, Before the novel went to the printer, Ellen was notified she’d won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her short fiction; the senior judge that year was Nadine Gordimer. The winning collection was published by Pittsburgh University Press under the title In the Music Library. Quite a year for Ellen. Working with her was a great privilege and affirmed my ardent interest in modern nomads and the circus life.
In the twenty years after the Scribner’s and Walker jobs I worked at seven other publishing houses: Macmillan; Prentice-Hall Press at Simon & Schuster; Kodansha America; Times Books and Crown Publishing at Random House; Carroll & Graf Publishers, Avalon Publishing Group; and Union Square Press at Sterling Publishing. With those companies I acquired and published many notable titles, some of which I mention below. In one instance, while Senior Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Kodansha America and Kodansha Globe, I published the first paperback edition of Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s family memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1996).
As Executive Editor of Times Books, I was the imprint’s liaison to the New York Times and published books with the editors of the NY Times Book Review, and such Times departments as Real Estate, Dining, Movies, City, and Health. At Times Books I also published DEAD RUN: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America, a nonfiction narrative by Joe Jackson and Bill Burke with an Introduction by William Styron, chronicling an innocent man on Death Row in Virginia. With Crown Publishing, also a division of Random House, I acquired the international bestseller by Edwin Black, IBM & THE HOLOCAUST: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2000). While Executive Editor and Editor-in-Chief with Carroll & Graf from 2000-2006, I edited and published the New York Times and Washington Post bestsellers THE POLITICS OF TRUTH: Inside the Lies that Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity (2004) by Ambassador Joseph Wilson (which later became the basis in part for the film, “Fair Game”); THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T TALK: Why I Refused to Testify Against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail (2001) by Susan MacDougal, with an Introduction by Helen Thomas; and SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire. As Editorial Director of Union Square Press, in 2008 I edited and published COVERT: MY Years Infiltrating the Mob by NBA referee Bob Delaney with Dave Scheiber, a USA TODAY Best Book of the Year and THE UNITED STATES V. I. LEWIS LIBBY, edited and with reporting by Murray Waas, comprising the trial transcript from Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s case against Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff and public records essential to understanding the destructive leak of Valerie Plame’s CIA identity by members of the Bush administration. As an editor and publisher I have always felt impelled to publish books by and about singular witnesses–whistleblowers, truthellers, muckrakers, revisionist historians–people who’ve passed through some crucible of experience that’s left them with elevated author-ity, and by definition the only person who could write the book in question, or about whom it could be written. Whether told in the first person by an author who has passed through some crucible of experience that leaves him or her uniquely qualified to tell the tale or in the third person by a reporter or scholar who has pursued a story or historical episode with single-minded passion, I am devoted to publishing imperative nonfiction, books that really matter in people’s lives.
Eyewitnesses to History
I have also published six books with Ruth Gruber, the remarkable photojournalist, now 100 years old, who in May 2011 received the International Center of Photography’s Cornell Capa Infinity Award [Update: Ruth turned 102 on Sept, 30, 2013]. Five of Gruber’s books, including AHEAD OF TIME: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent (also the title of a 2011 documentary on her), are now available as ebooks from Open Road Integrated Media.
The list of titles I’ve published over the years reflects my deep personal interest in books about the media, from the print, online, and broadcast worlds. These include A DIARY OF THE CENTURY: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist by Edward Robb Ellis (1995); THE WELL: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community by NY Times reporter Katie Hafner, originally a cover article in Wired magazine (2001); AHMAD’S WAR, AHMAD’S PEACE: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq by Michael Goldfarb, longtime NPR correspondent (2004); and REGRET THE ERROR: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech by Craig Silverman, founder of RegretTheError.com (2008); and THE DEEDS OF MY FATHERS: How My Grandfather and Father Built New York and Created the Tabloid World of Today–Generoso Pope, Sr., Power Broker of New York and Gene Pope, Jr., Publisher of the National Enquirer by Paul David Pope.
As a native of the Great Lakes region, I also have a keen affinity for Canadian books and authors. I see the book world of the U.S.’s upper Midwest and Canada’s southern tier (and one might argue, the whole of the Pacific Northwest) as contiguous literary cultures. As an Ohio bookseller, I introduced thousands of U.S. readers to such Canadian authors as Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton, and the CBC broadcaster Patrick Watson. As an editor and publisher, I broadened that effort, publishing U.S. editions of books by Atwood, Richler, Mowat, Berton, and Dallaire, as well as Paul Quarrington, Antonine Maillet, Ken McGoogan, Julian Sher, William Marsden, Elaine Dewar, Bonnie Buxton, Howard Engel, Joan Barfoot, George Eliot Clarke, Steven Galloway, Joel Hynes, Paul Anderson, Sheila Munro, and Jan Lars Jensen, among others.
Indie Editorial and Publishing Services
Working since 2009 as an independent editor, author representative, publishing consultant, and blogger I am still shaped by the years I spent as a buyer and merchandiser for my bookstores. The book market has become ever more competitive and crowded with hundreds of thousands of titles, and I have increasingly become devoted to publishing authors who have passed through a crucible of experience that leaves him or her uniquely qualified to tell the tale. I call these “imperative” books, ones that really matter in people’s lives. Meantime, I’m also exploring new publishing opportunities for narrative journalists in longform reporting, both as ebooks and print editions, inspired by emerging models like theatavist.net, longform.org, longread.com, and BuzzReads at Buzzfeed.com.
I operate Philip Turner Book Productions, an editorial services business in which I edit fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, represent select projects to publishers as agent, and consult with authors on their work. I also write and curate two blogs, The Great Gray Bridge and Honourary Canadian. I live and work in New York City with my wife, artist Kyle Gallup, and our teenage son Ewan Munro, an actor, musician, and writer. I am an active participant in numerous literary and cultural organizations. A partial list of memberships, affiliations, and interests:
• Member, PEN America Center, profile page.
• Member, PublishersMarketplace.com, profile page.
• Contributor, PW Comics World, articles include coverage of a comics symposium at Columbia University and readings by comics creators at the PEN World Voices Festival
• Chair, Membership Committee, Book Table, publishing industry monthly lunch club.
• Attended Book Camp NYC, an unconference, 2010-2013 and Digital Book World, 2011-2013;
• Associate member of National Book Critics Circle;
• Member, Personal Democracy Forum, community that explores the intersection among politics, technology, media, and culture;
• Guest Instructor 2008-2013, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Winter Academy;
• Member, CBC Radio 3′s informal music and blogging community, profile page.