Old Dogs Don’t Need New Tricks

24 Feb

There are advantages to having twice as many years behind you than you do in front of you.  Not many, but not a few either.

Six months ago, I’m not sure I would have seen it that way.  My career was in its final stages; my body was accumulating indignities (ever dinner party began with the obligatory ‘organ recital’); trivial things had started to plague my thoughts.

Not much I can do about the generalized senescence that we will all get to experience (if you’re lucky) but there’s nothing like taking on a new challenge to invigorate your thoughts.  As I’ve said before, becoming a publisher wasn’t planned – but it seemed destined.

Which is where the advantage of age comes in – or as I like to call it “the rich and varied experience of life.”  Although taking on (or starting up) a small press, when you’ve never worked in the field of publishing, might seem to be an energy-sucking, brain- breaking learning curve, it is more a re-learning curve.  It’s a climb but not nearly as steep as I feared.

The first thing I had to remember was how to be an entrepreneur.  That’s going back a long way – all the way back to my teenage years.  Before I got my first part-time job, I was a businessman.  It all started with shoes.

When I began junior high, I needed a pair of dress shoes.  Up to then, my mother, or sometimes my father, took me shopping for school clothes.  This September, my dad handed me $40 and told me to go to Margolian’s department store and pick out the shoes I liked.  Even at 12, I knew times were tight.  Instead of doing the easy thing, I spent the entire afternoon going to the five stores in town that sold shoes, trying on pair after pair.  Eventually, I settled on shiny black, steel-toed, thick-soled shoes made in Czechoslovakia.  Ugly – yes, but utilitarian and at $19.95 ($21.35 with tax), a bargain.  When I came home with the change, Dad looked at me, looked at the shoes, looked at the money I was holding out to him.  He took the ten and left the rest — $8.65 – saying: You worked hard, you deserve a reward.

$8.65!  Nothing today but in those days, it was equal to two months’ allowance, enough to buy every Marvel comic for a month with money left over for a couple of paperbacks and fistful of chocolate bars.

I could have pocketed my good fortune and carried on but that idea: work hard, get a reward had been burned in my brain (despite the abundant evidence that things didn’t always work like that).  Money meant freedom and it meant social acceptance.

Over the next few years, I sold greeting cards door-to-door; shoveled driveways in winter, mowed lawns in summer, supplementing that with picking and selling wild blueberries.  I went through my books, comics and toys – making the hard decision of which to keep and which to sell to my more affluent friends.  For two to three years, I was a regular tycoon.  At fifteen, I got a job in the local library and began hiring out my labour to bigger berry operations – but I kept my greeting card business until I went to University, when I sold it to my younger brother for a dollar.

Now I’m selling books but the principles are the same.  Buy a good product at a reasonable price, add value through effort and thought, sell the result at a fair mark-up.  Deliver on your promises and don’t cheat your suppliers or your customers; short term gains always lead to long-term losses.  ‘Good will’ is a real thing.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I do think you can do business ethically.  It’s not a charity; businesses that consistently lose money disappear.  But you can be a success without being a prick.  At least I hope so.

Everything I’ve done in life has provided me with the basic skills I need to be a publisher.  As I take on each task, I discover they have a strange familiarity.

Keeping track of money is no different for a small business than for a municipality (I spent two years overseeing hamlet finances on Baffin Island) or a non-profit (five years running an arts education program in Calgary).  The technology has changed, true.  I now use Quick Books rather than doing it by hand but inventory control, accounts payable and receivable and so on are exactly the same.  The new program is fancy and a bit daunting – bu, after an hour or two of struggle, it all fell into place.

Reading slush is a chore – few submissions are close to being in publishable form; many never will be.  Still, it’s like reading plays as a director (twenty directing credits in Yellowknife and Calgary).  It’s not what’s on the page.  It’s what those words can become when you have actors and costumes, sets and lights.  The same thing is true of slush; you have to be able to see what it might become with your creative input.  Years of critiquing other writers’ work helped – some stories you can make better, some you can’t, some nobody can.  Which pretty much describes ‘slush.’  Some I can polish, some has potential but is not for me, some is hopeless dreck.  Those people should stop wasting electrons!

Working with writers – i.e. giving editorial direction – reminds me of my years as a policy analyst for Cabinet, vetting decision papers.  Some people were easy to work with.  They recognized my goal wasn’t to ruin their lives but to help put the best possible paper before Cabinet (or, if you like, the reading public).  They took advice – while sticking to their guns about the request they wanted to make (story they wanted to tell).  Others resisted advice at every step, complained I was trying to force my own narrative on them.  It’s amazing how many of those papers flopped during Committee consideration.

I can’t tell in advance what a writer will be like to work with.  Once I’ve bought their book, it is hard to unbuy it if the process is unpleasant.  But it is easy not to buy a second book.

And so it goes – when I opened InDesign for the first time, I was frightened by what I might find.  But it’s a lot like other publishing software I’ve used before to create brochures, newsletters and so on.  On steroids, it’s true – but the basics remain the same.  Not a new skill to learn but an old one to refine.

Similarly when I started working with my new FTP program to revise the company web-site.  ‘I remember this.’ I thought – from my days building the web-site for CAPES in Calgary.  Just a matter of remembering and not doing anything hasty.  And back-up your work!

And did I mention how much social media is like political campaigning. Crowd-source funding is another name for fund raising.  And management is management is management.

I suppose if I had spent 35 years doing the same thing, I might not find things so familiar.  But, now, my adult long-term attention deficit driven history looks like a benefit instead of a wealth-preventing disorder.  I can do a lot of things because I’ve done a lot of things.

Of course, I’m not dumb enough to think I can do it all.  As a friend of mine – a gourmet and a gourmand – likes to say: Why slave for hours in the kitchen to produce mushroom compote, when you can buy a better one just down the road?  I’ll do as much as I can competently and economically and hire people to do the rest.

At least it’s not home renovations – once we get beyond picture hanging, it’s tradesmen all the way the way down


P.S If you’d like to support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – consider donating to our Indiegogo project.  There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.

And thanks to all those who have already contributed or spread the word on Facebook, Twitter or in their blogs.

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