Serving the Word

By Larry Levitsky, CEO  

Back in 1978, I struck up a conversation with John Irving, standing side by side at the urinal. I had just been given my first office inside a NYC publishing house, E.P. Dutton, with whom Irving had recently published The World According to Garp. Irving was working on his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire; he would come into the city on a regular basis to meet with his editor Henry Robbins, the man who inspired this post, the man who wooed Irving away from Random House.

Henry was the main reason I was excited to work at Dutton; he gave many individuals who worked there a reason to enjoy their work. He was a prince of a man, kind and courteous to all. And the writers that he and his protégé Faith Sale invited to roam the hallways of the office were amazing.  Along with Irving, Henry published Fran Leibowitz, John Gregory Dunne, D.M. Thomas, Alice Hoffman, Wilfrid Sheed and probably others who have now firmly established their writing careers. Joan Didion considered Henry one of her closest friends. A little more than a year later, Henry died of a heart attack while waiting for a subway in NYC. Working for E.P. Dutton became far less enjoyable.

Irving and I continued our conversation in the hall for a few more minutes, and though I don’t remember his particular words, the gist of his message was what a godsend Henry was to writers, the sort of editor who knew which writing fragments could ruin or make a particular chapter. A writer’s developmental editor is their respite from a vortex of solitude.

In 1982, I met Samuel Beckett in the living room of his United States publisher, Barney Rosset. By now I was the director of marketing and sales for Grove Press and, up until that moment, I maintained very little respect for Rosset, whose interpersonal and professional persona, I felt, reflected his public persona all too closely—a drug-addled, crude, amoral, trust-fund man-child. But now I was in the presence of a worthy Nobel Laureate, cherished amanuensis to James Joyce, the sculpted icon of literary existentialism. And I saw the respect he had for Rosset, the depth of their friendship. Grove Press sold Beckett’s books far better than any of his publishers had in the United Kingdom or France. Though I cannot say my personal feelings for Rosset improved, my respect for him grew. I began to admire the depth of his legacy and how critical he was for helping the writers he worked with make a living. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Pinter, and even Malcolm X (people forget that Grove was the original publisher of his Autobiography)—radical voices all—were helped immeasurably by Rosset’s efforts.  Many of them had already gained respect and attention among the finely tuned literati, but few had a reliable royalty stream before they met and decided to work with Rosset. He was a Publisher, the person responsible for building a business. He had a good eye for sales and marketing directors. My predecessor there, Herman Graf, was legendary among the book distributors and stores.

Across the country, in Seattle, there were different sorts of legends to encounter. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer knew very little about book publishing, but they had always known how to find A+ talent and the man they hired in 1983 to build Microsoft Press, Nahum Stiskin Daniels, had the drive and the vision to “keep up” with the pace at Microsoft. At the time, the hottest category by far in publishing comprised computer books, but most of them were boring retreads, not dissimilar in their internal design to technical manuals and only slightly better in writing quality. Nahum wanted to apply the best practices of high-end trade books to this relatively new category and leverage Microsoft’s technological authority. I joined a first-rate editorial and production team lead by Salley Oberlin and Karen de Robinson along with another NYC transplant, acquisitions editor Tracy Smith Daniels. Cary Lu, a journalist for Scientific American, was asked to write The Apple Macintosh Book and Peter Norton, a man of prodigious intelligence and already a powerful presence in the computer industry, was asked to write The Peter Norton Programmer’s Guide to the IBM PC.  We worked with some super hip Seattle designers, including Ted Mader, used only the best paper and cover stock, and set a new standard for computer books. Microsoft Press’ first five books, which included Lu and Norton as well as Van Wolverton’s Running MS-DOS, generated $15 million in sales in the first year of publishing. We knew and were proud that the packaging and the professional focus applied to each individual title added some extra luster—and profit—to the surging Microsoft brand.

The point of this post is to emphasize the importance of nurturing writers and devoting the expertise and resources to maximize their success. Henry took care of his writers, Barney took care to ensure the distribution and market success of mid-century radical voices, and Microsoft took care to invest the resources necessary to make the best possible end product. Nothing happens in publishing without talented writers. But, all successful writers need help with their craft and assistance in the marketplace. Inkshares is an effort to reinvent how authors interact with readers and how the word is brought to market. For me, Inkshares is “your publisher”—a place where we provide the core services, the necessity of which I was lucky enough to grasp during the course of my publishing career. These services include a vibrant technical platform with the tools to create a stunning proposal page to pitch ideas to funder-investors; an expert team of developmental editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers who will ensure a writer’s work is the best it can be; a team of digital and print designers who will work with writers to deliver their work’s unique image to the marketplace; and a team of sales representatives and distributors who will optimize the writer’s efforts in the channel. Without these vital activities, a writer’s work is an unperfected string of words condemned to the purgatory of the ebook retailer du jour, a bare signal in a chaotic sea of noise. All writers bring their own standards to the table. But all standards need some degree of collective support to give them lasting traction and effect. That is the mission of Inkshares. The writer is our lodestar. We exist for the writer.