It's all about parties -- and the bottom line

Every year the Radcliffe Publishing Course inducts another group of recent graduates into the glamour and drudgery of publishing.


Jason Zinoman
November 24, 1998 12:29AM (UTC)

Attention liberal arts majors: There is a place, a magical place, where
hopeless college graduates become connected media players, where
bare-bones résumés become dynamite C.V.s, and where the literati reveal
the secrets of their success. This ivy-coated dream factory is the
Radcliffe Publishing Course in Cambridge, Mass.

Talk to Lindy Hess, the director of the Radcliffe Publishing Course,
for more than a few minutes and you're
certain to hear about New York Times editorial writer Frank Rich or talented
Esquire editor in chief David Granger or Knopf rising star
Jordan Pavlin -- all graduates of her pre-professional summer
program. Ask a few more questions and you'll hear references to former
speakers: Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison or Sonny Mehta. And if you're lucky,
after a few drinks, you might find out about a great opportunity at Random
House or a high-profile editor who is looking for somebody just like you.

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A former editor at Doubleday, the middle-aged diva plays an important
role in the world of New York media, providing magazines and publishing
houses with an annual crop of entry-level applicants and offering anxious
English majors a chance to learn the business, make connections and become
a part of a clubby, glamorous network of publishers. Last summer, as a newly
independent college graduate, I desperately coaxed my parents into loaning
me $5,000 to take the six-week course.

Speaking to a class of 100 students, frightfully ill-prepared for
the job market, Hess introduced the course by saying, "Don't worry. You're
all going to get jobs." An audible sigh fluttered through the room, as if we were a rapt infomercial audience listening to a diet guru unveil her latest product. With everybody's unadulterated attention, she added, "and you're going to love it. Publishing is all about parties."

For the last 51 years, the Radcliffe Publishing Course has taught the
business of publishing, turning kids who love books into kids who love to
sell books. In rigorous workshops that simulate real magazines and
publishing houses, the students write profit and loss statements, churn out
ad copy, learn the rudiments of subsidiary rights and discuss the
importance of branding. Every aspect of the business is covered -- aspiring
editors learn about publicity and aspiring publicists learn about editorial
-- and nobody is allowed to ignore the bottom line.

A parade of industry players jet in from New York to deliver the message
that precious aesthetes and literary elitism have no place in the big
business of books. In my summer of study, Nicholas Callaway, publisher
of the wildly popular Miss Spider children's books, angrily bemoaned the
"small press mentality" and provoked the students to "believe in the wisdom
of the marketplace." An executive from Barnes and Noble Online argued that
people who criticize superstores have a "disdain for the average American
middle-class reader." And almost every speaker took time to pay
respects to the savior of the industry: Oprah.

"The Radcliffe Publishing Course does a great job showing you that there are
business concerns that you can't escape," said recent graduate Dan Kois. But
these lessons are carefully leavened with name speakers like Morgan
Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic press -- who turned his father's
generous loan into a highly respected publishing house that has issued such
books as the 1997 National Book Award winner "Cold Mountain." Sporting long
hair, wire-rim glasses and a seersucker suit, the
publishing playboy explained how he graduated from college with no plans and
few ambitions, and through dumb luck and some help from his good friends
Richard Hugo and Ray Carver, just happened to stumble into the "fraternity
of publishing."

The cavalier hipster also waxed nostalgic about the old days of publishing,
when a few smart, idiosyncratic men made the decisions, instead of the
corporate suits who dominate the industry today. "I do things differently
than most," he said. After his speech, he invited the class out drinking
with him at the Bow & Arrow, a bland campus establishment. Leading the way
into the bar, followed by scores of mostly female students, he bought a
round of drinks. Scoping out the room for pretty young talent, Entrekin
bantered and flirted like a solicitous high school English teacher. "I'm not
about money and power," he said. "I'm about art and love."

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This debaucherous excursion is an annual course tradition, advertised by the
director with a wink and a sly chuckle. The drinking, the name-dropping and
the old-world chumminess are an essential part of the curriculum, balancing
out the dour talk of marketing and business plans. "Publishing," preaches Hess, "is one of those rare fields where work and play are
intermingled." And thus, young book lovers must learn about the fine art of
schmoozing, as well as how to calculate a print run.

This uneasy marriage is perhaps best embodied by "sherry hour," a daily soiree where students and publishing bigs drink wine, munch on finger food and
mingle. Sherry is, in fact, not available, but it is the cachet, not the
drink, that is being served. With a deceptively refined demeanor, the future
publishers form concentric circles around their potential employers, firing
pithy anecdotes and sharp witticisms to defeat their able competitors. It is
in this seemingly casual arena that many important connections are made, and
prominent careers are born.

For the $5,000 admission fee, almost every student gets a job soon after the
course ends in August. The workshops and lectures that teach the finer
points of the industry, the extensive network of graduates and the sherry
hour schmoozing do indeed help, but the Radcliffe Course's high placement
ratio might have a more prosaic explanation. "It's not that the students are
better qualified," explained Greg Giangrande, the director of human
resources of Hearst Publishing. "It's just that it's the time of year when
there are openings. It's easier to get résumés, attend career fairs and know
that these students have invested time and money in learning about
publishing."

While most people take the Radcliffe Publishing Course to get a job or to
make connections, the program offers something that might be even more
important -- a vision of success. For young people starting out in the
industry, faced with very low pay, little chance for upward mobility and
unrelentingly long hours, being exposed to all those powerful and
accomplished industry players can be an inspiring, if somewhat deceiving,
experience. It will almost certainly be the last time they talk to these
higher-ups for at least a few decades.

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The voices that are strikingly absent at Radcliffe Publishing are the editorial assistants, the assistant publicists, the production assistants and all the other entry-level employees. Or to put it another way, at no point do the students hear from someone who will be like them. Instead, they learn about the great triumphs, the ubiquitous parties and the art and the love. They learn about all these things right out of college, before they can realize how remarkable and unreachable they truly are.

"They make it seem all rosy with all those success stories," said Meredith Arthur, a recent graduate who is now an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace. "And
you're supposed to glean some general trend, but there is none." But that is
precisely the point. A common trend would limit the pool of applicants and,
in turn, stack the deck toward the talented or rich or ambitious or
whomever. From the first day of the Radcliffe Publishing Course, you learn
that success is eminently reachable and ridiculously random -- the only
common experience being the course itself. "I ask the speakers to tell the
story about how their careers developed," Hess said, "because it gives a
sense of what an accidental industry this is."

A recent New York Times article tried to explain why young people take jobs
as editorial assistants. It was titled simply: "It's the cachet, not the
money." The Radcliffe Publishing Course tries to teach young book lovers the
nuts and bolts of the business, while simultaneously charming them with
cachet. It aims to disillusion and romanticize simultaneously, providing a frank picture of the real world and a fantastical image of the good life. But for some aspiring publishers this is just the sort of tonic they need to brace themselves for the first years of paper pushing. As Brendan Cahill, a student who graduated this past August, put it, "Getting into publishing is so daunting, and at the course you get to interact with people who have made it, with people who are where you want to be. It's good to see the bright side, especially since you're going to go through some tough years ahead."

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Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman is a writer living in New York City.

MORE FROM Jason Zinoman

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Academia Books College The New York Times




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