Friday, November 30, 2007

Ikey Lubin's and Letters from the Past

I finished Russo's Bridge of Sighs and like many of the characters in the book, I am drawn into Sara’s drawings of Ikey Lubin’s, the family grocery store that survives three generations of Lynches and their extended family. At first Bobby enters their lives, then Kayla, but, and this is Russo’s genius, it is you, the reader that is swept into the store as well and into the novel.

For me, it raises my consciousness of my family and the family business, which is no longer. It reminded me that somewhere in my home I had a few letters that my father wrote during WW II to his brother, my Uncle Phil. After finishing Russo’s novel, those letters called out to me, demanding that I locate them, which I did.

Reading them puts some of what I’ve already written in earlier posts in perspective. They actually exaggerate a sadness I feel concerning my immediate family, with my parents living out their lives in discord and unhappiness, sharing their pain with my sister and myself.

Now that I’ve located those letters and have read most, I will occasionally transcribe parts of them. The one that follows was written on August 12, 1945 when my dad was younger than my youngest son is now. It is particularly momentous as it was written only days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days after. Until that time, his letters expressed the foreboding that he will be shipped off to Japan with his unit, the 3264 Signal Service that had recently become attached to the famous “Screaming Eagles” 101st Airborne Division.

The contents are also bittersweet as he laments about possibly being held in Germany as part of the occupational force and his desire to return home to his wife (“Penny”). Little did he know that upon his return my mother would “joke” that she had hoped his transport ship would sink.

In my last blog entry I made the connection between literature and family. For me, Russo offers a glimpse of family, although troubled at times, that holds together in spite of declining mill towns and changing ways of life. Hence, we are taken into Ikey Lubin’s, coming together “in the present to recall the past and share a vision of the future.”

Here are my father’s hopes and thoughts on Aug. 12, 1945, in a letter to his brother, Phil, from Wiesbaden, Germany:

“As you no doubt already know, I informed my sweetheart some very discouraging news – that is being stuck here as [part of the] occupational [force]. On the heals of that letter came the wonderful news that Japan is asking for surrender. As this wasn’t definite as yet, I can’t say that finally war is ended, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of a day or two.

The Atomic bombings, and Russia’s entry into the conflict just overwhelmed the Japanese, especially the Atom smasher, a deadly and destructive thing, which has great future development for the betterment of mankind, but what I fear is some nation to use it for a complete destruction of civilization. I hope that this fear never will materialize.

What I began to say concerning the news [staying here as part of the occupational force], which I hated to tell Penny, is this – the sudden ending of all hostilities can possibly bring me and hundreds of other guys back to homes sooner than is predicted. I’m sure that those who are the law makers at home aren’t going to leave us in these foreign lands against our will – especially as there are millions of other Joes who have never left the good old USA and faced a future of sudden death.

I fought for freedom, freedom for all peoples. Now that we have won victory over the oppressors, haven’t I the right to enjoy that freedom? The Army is composed of civilians. Is it not the democratic way that we all share the fruits of victory, especially those who fought for it and were fortunate enough to be sparred a hideous death?

I don’t want you to feel, Phil, that I’m preaching or insinuating directly at you – only my desire is so strong, the urge so great to be able to come home again – this is now it is with most of the soldiers. I feel if we all write our families, congressmen and such something will be done. How about it, Phil, will you write a note to our congressman expressing your views

Now here’s some big favor you can do for me, Phil – I’m going to miss Penny’s and mine anniversary – we will be married seven years this September 4th. God, how those years flew and how I love my sweetheart. Will you buy a big bouquet of flowers, spend what you think will fill an order of a large one, but beautiful and then in the evening take her to dinner at that Swedish restaurant and musical show afterwards? I know this is a tall request and maybe puts you in a sort of embarrassing position, but I hope not. I want it to be all a surprise for Penny and I’d leave that to you as how to do it.

Have the flowers delivered in the morning of that day with an enclose card which simply says [unfortunately, and ironically, this portion of the letter was destroyed when it was sliced open]. The amount of money this involves I know won’t be cheap – and I can’t at present send anything to cover it, but I will repay you fully Phil, not only in money, but with my sincerest appreciation and many thanks. Do you think you can do this for me and for Penny? The main thing Phil – keep it a surprise somehow. Let me know your answer and details.

So, Phil, this is all for now. I hope everyone is well and of course yourself and that the business is beginning an upward surge. Give my regards to everyone.

Love, Robert”

Friday, November 23, 2007

Literature and Family

I am reading Richard Russo’s new novel, Bridge of Sighs. I generally stretch out reading a book by one of my favorite authors, savoring certain passages, making it a point of putting the book down to enjoy the next day so I do not finish the book in a few ravenous readings. Russo is in one of the group of contemporary writers of which I have read nearly everything they’ve written and eagerly look forward to their next work and their next: Philip Roth, John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Irving, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, Richard Russo. To this list I could add recently deceased contemporaries such as Joseph Heller, John Cheever and Richard Yates (whose first novel, Revolutionary Road, I reprinted in the early 1970’s when it was already out of print. -- it will soon be released as a major motion picture -- it has taken the world that long to recognize him).

What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world. I am from one of those families, with parents who were quasi alcoholics. My mother thought she married into a “family” who would give her the love and the things she thought she was denied as a child. But when my father returned from WW II, with no other aspirations than running a family photography business that was established at the end of the Civil War in NYC, the realization that she will never move from her middle class roots in Richmond Hill, N.Y. became just one of the many rages that consumed her from within. Add to that mix extramarital affairs she hinted at, and my father’s inability to “make” her “happy,” and one has the ingredients of a novel, if I could only write it.

No wonder I am attracted to this literature and theatre such as The Subject Was Roses, which my wife and I recently saw at Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play be Frank Gilroy from the mid 60’s chronicles a few nights and days in the life of the Cleary family, whose son has just returned from WW II, changed, but not changed enough not to fall into the fold of the old conflict between his controlling, driven, alcoholic father and his abused, emotionally depleted and disillusioned mother. The son is forced to take sides with one parent or the other – to “make nice” – entering into the dynamic trying to ameliorate his parents problems. His attempts, as were mine, are fruitless. Here is a review from the Palm Beach Post.
http://www.palmbeachpost.com/arts/content/accent/epaper/2007/10/24/a6e_feathea_roses_1024.html

But I digress, so back to Richard Russo. I think his work has elements of the best of all the writers I most admire, the sardonic humor of some of Philip Roth (Russo’s Straight Man is one of the funniest, laugh-aloud books I’ve ever read), the fragile characters of some of Anne Tyler’s works, the great story-telling ability of John Irving, and the family / husband-wife relationships that resonate in Cheever and Updike.

One of the major issues in Russo is place, upstate NY mill towns that are in long-term decline, the characters caught in the maelstrom of such change, some trying to leave, but emotionally attached forever. Russell Banks touches some of the same bases. Richard Ford makes the New Jersey shore his place while Philip Roth has his Newark environs. Russo brings a gentle humanity to this change, documenting its subtleness and it’s impact on his characters, people who are not larger than life, but are ones we all know and grew up with.

Yes, many of his novels tend to repeat some of the same themes and settings, and one could easily see the similarities between Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, and, now, Bridge of Sighs. But while you know you are reading a Richard Russo novel, the stories and characters are somehow different – like movements of a symphony are different, although they are the same work. So, I continue take pleasure in the Bridge of Sighs, reading fewer pages as I reach the end. Like life, if it could only go on.

In an interview (http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/russo_richard.html) Russo said “I think the place you grow up in is a lot like ‘The Hotel California’: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And so it is with my roots as well as my parents. We are Richard Russo’s people, with “everyman’s” fragile dreams anchored in “anyplace, USA.” People such as my father who returned from WW II with expectations of a family life depicted in the “Father Knows Best” TV series of the 50’s only to be constantly disappointed. He found his “life” in his work as a commercial photographer where he had respect. Not long after he died at the age of 68 of pancreatic cancer in 1984 I wrote an essay about him, which I append below.

Snapshot of an Ordinary Man – Harry R. Hagelstein

Up Park Avenue we would speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with “Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866” imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaited us.

It is some summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. Their discussions no longer center on the business, but they speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics. I think of where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc., probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Leffert’s Boulevard.

Over the years, as a summer employee, my father believed I was being groomed for the business, the fourth generation to carry it on. My Uncle was a bachelor and I was the only one with the name to follow the tradition. There were cousins, but none at the time had any interest in photography, so the obligation fell to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation for my future maturation, that nothing of a formal nature was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples and for the furniture show (the primary commercial product photographed by my father). Then I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, then, finally to an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging shadows to hold overexposures of glass tables. Osmosis was to be my mentor.

At work I see my father, as the camera would reveal contrasts with different filters. These were normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed into submission by a troubled marriage. But I see him strolling down the halls of his business, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way, “How’s Biz?” he would say. His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins would preside over lunch, a burger and coffee from the nearby luncheonette.

In spite of my obligation to learn the profession from the inside, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would study business. By then I think I knew that this would be the first step to take me away from HIS business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

But as silently as I was expected to take over the business, my retreat was equally stealth. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and I continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were clear to me. In the hallways of the studio he was larger than life but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He, his brother, and his cousins had developed an inbred view of the future of photography. Like Willie Loman, they had bet the future of their business on producing prints for salesmen, unconscious to the developing mass media and its impact on door-to-door sales. Entering the business would mean conflict with beliefs that were sacrosanct, a battle I would surely lose. So, I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know. Ultimately, I married, and began a career in publishing, with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still joined him for lunch occasionally, with his greeting me when I arrived, “So, How’s Biz?”

“Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866” went into a steady decline over the next two decades, finally vanishing in 1985, soon after my father’s death. That it lasted as long as it did was a testimony to his life and skill as a photographer

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Publishing and Tech Antiquity

Funny how much of a person’s life is defined about what you do (or did in my case). Reading over my first “blog” reveals how self-conscious I am about that. It is like going to a cocktail party and running into that ubiquitous question, “what do you do?” In retirement, I usually answer that I’m a publishing “consultant” (nice euphemism for retired or unemployed) -- but I still do some work on a part time basis, mostly to keep my skills and to stay up to date on my former industry.

Nonetheless, it is true though that so much of one’s life is defined by one’s vocation – the hour metrics simply dictate this reality. After all, more of my conscious adult life has been spent on my business than any other activity. I was one of those rare birds, having worked for only two companies in my entire life, Academic Press and then Greenwood Publishing Group of which I was President from 1973 through 1999.

So I guess it is not accidental that my first blog entry focuses on an aspect of my professional life that anticipated what I am doing at this moment – the ability to publish one copy for one person. I thought about this and recalled that some twenty-five years ago I gave a speech on technology and its impact on publishing at the Society of Scholarly Publishing. This was written at a time when Apple, Commodore, and TRS-80 were the top selling PCs. IBM had just introduced its own PC. The operating system was DOS. Windows was not even in its infancy and the Internet was merely gestating.

I rummaged through my files and found that speech. It is amusing to read it, but the opportunities I described then, still fascinate me today. I excerpt some of that speech here; consider it as a window into tech antiquity:

SOCIETY FOR SCHOLARLY PUBLISHING 4TH ANNUAL MEETING
June 25, 1982

HOW WILL THE NEW TECHNOLOGY CHANGE THE NATURE OF MARKETING FUNCTIONS?

In preparing this speech I have considered whether it would be better to deal specifically with the question listed in the program -- "How Will the New Technology Change the Nature of Marketing Functions?" -- or whether it would be better to review how the new technology is already affecting the nature of marketing functions. I have chosen to speak primarily to the latter question.

Nevertheless, I do not want to leave the first question totally unanswered. To imagine what marketing methods may be employed in the future, and the kind of technology that will be available to the marketing manager, one must speculate about what end products will be marketed. This involves a certain amount of extrapolation.

If we postulate that a unique characteristic of scholarly publishing, one setting it apart from trade book and magazine publishing, is supplying highly specialized information to a relatively small group of users, we might agree that such information ultimately may be disseminated via a "perpetual" electronic data base publication. Publishers would then act as organizers and verifiers of the information in the database.

Users would have access to the data via terminals connected to telephone lines or cable systems. As the providers of the information, authors would assume some of the publishing functions, especially keyboarding. Although this concept is seemingly very futuristic, it is already being attempted. The Source Telecomputing Company, for instance, offers a database of some 1,200 services and programs to personal computer users. The Source explains that its "User Publisher" service is designed to "open your files, ideas and commentary to the community of your fellow subscribers."

In this case, however, The Source is not acting as a true publisher -- it is only an intermediary. If at some point in the future this method of delivering scholarly information predominates, it will have an enormous impact on marketing methods. Once the necessary terminals are in place, they may also serve as a medium for advertising.

Under these conditions, the best marketers may be the best indexers, those who supply the most effective access points, allowing an audience to key in to learn the most relevant information/research for their needs. Then, as Irving Louis Horowitz and Mary E. Curtis point out in their article, "The Impact of Technology on Scholarly Publishing," in the April 1982 issue of Scholarly Publishing, "The wide acceptance of such technology may also affect traditional ways in which publishers communicate with their customers. When searching of bibliographic data banks becomes routine, publishers may no longer need to invest in extensive direct mail to bring certain categories of scholarly books and periodicals to the attention of a wide spectrum of professionals, particularly if only a handful of the recipients are likely to care about the work."

As I stated earlier, however, to pursue this line of thought is to engage in a highly theoretical discussion. Richard De Gennaro states in his article, "Libraries, Technology, and the Information Marketplace," in the June 1, 1982 issue of Library Journal that we should not take for granted that this "new technology" will indeed create the bookless library. Such an assumption could have disastrous consequences for society.

He reminds us of the Chinese philosopher's statement, "Prediction very difficult, particularly of future." Hence, I have chosen to answer the second question: how is the new technology affecting the marketing of scholarly books today?

What exactly is the "new technology"? I think we would all agree with the conclusions reached by May Katzen in her book, Multi-Media Communications, recently published by Greenwood Press, that this technology evolves around "the new silicon chip technology, incorporating increasingly numerous and sophisticated large scale integrated electronic circuits [that has allowed us to produce] ... ever more powerful, robust and miniaturized mini- and micro-computers whose costs have been falling rapidly." A key element in this definition is "whose costs have been falling rapidly." The new technology is the widespread availability -- through the economies made possible by computer-chip technology and large-scale production of hardware and software that allow us to do our jobs better. Initially this technology was available to a select few. Next it became available to a much larger group of users, but only through the expert who knew how to communicate with the machine, the programmer. Now it is available to everyone; all of us as users can communicate our requirements directly, using third generation software.

There is a wide range of physical products; for example, word processors, mini-computers, personal computers, mainframe computers, video discs, computer-assisted microform systems, high-speed photo-typesetting equipment; they are all the result of silicon-chip technology. How is this technology affecting our job as purveyors and marketers of scholarly information?

One of the first areas affected by this technology is the final stage of the marketing process, fulfillment. How many scholarly presses could have survived during the last ten years without the computerization of fulfillment processes? This technology was, at first, "mainframe" oriented and is now available as "canned" programming for the mini-computer. Some smaller publishers can even have their fulfillment services on micro-based systems.

Another area that is being affected is the stage between the actual fulfillment process and the buying decision, the ordering process. This process has become increasingly dependent on various computer-based bibliographic systems. We have often wondered at Greenwood what the detrimental effect would be if we shut off all direct mail and space advertising on a particular title, especially of one geared primarily to an institutional market. Although we have avoided such a risky experiment, we suspect that by participating in "bibliographic systems selling" we effectively cover a large percentage of certain markets.

[Several paragraphs deleted at this point]

Perhaps one of the more revolutionary aspects of the new technology now available to us is the micro-computer, commonly referred to as the personal computer. Actually, it is the software, not the micro-computer, that is the important new development -- the set of instructions to drive the computer has changed dramatically. The genius of the newer software is that the user can now instruct the computer to do precisely what he or she wants it to do without having to interact with a programmer. Today most of the software, and the relevant publisher's applications can run on almost any micro-computer, be it Apple, Commodore, TRS80, or IBM.

As you have undoubtedly heard, one of the most widely used pieces of micro-computer software today is VisiCalc. This has become the best seller of all software, having sold more than a quarter of a million copies at about $200.00 each. It actually evolved out of an idea a Harvard MBA student, Dan Bricklin, had as a result of doing homework that involved a complicated, lengthy set of calculations. These had to be reworked in their entirety because one number changed. It was his idea that a computer program should be able to eliminate the drudgery of these types of calculations, and, after discussing the idea with a Harvard professor, he was sent to Dan Fylstra, a recent Harvard graduate, who had established a small micro-computer software house, Personal Software. VisiCalc became an immediate best seller and, as one of the original users of this program, more than two years ago, when VisiCalc was available only to the Apple (this is no longer the case), I can attest that our decision to buy Apples for Greenwood Press was entirely VisiCalc oriented. The initial availability of VisiCalc only on the Apple helped to make Apple one of the best selling microcomputers.

Visicalc was the first of the "spread sheeting" software programs, of which there are now more than twenty. The genius of the program is that you, the user, can define the relationships between various elements of a problem, and then insert different values for these elements to test conclusions without knowing any programming languages. An excellent description of the spreadsheet programs was given in the March 15, 1982 issue of InfoWorld, a highly recommended source of information on micro-computer software: “.. a spreadsheet simulator is basically a mammoth sheet of electronic paper configured as a work sheet and divided into a large number of rows and columns. In these blocks or cells you can enter numbers, words, or formulas. Numbers and words are displayed as you enter them. If you enter a formula, the program stores it, but computes and displays its value according to the current values of its elements. The magic is that when you change an entry on which the formula depends, the program automatically recalculates and displays its updated value."

Therefore, you can use the spreadsheet for myriad uses, the most obvious being budgeting. The program can be instructed to do laborious "if - then" calculations to determine most cost-effective print runs, pricing determinations, advertising expenditures and their relationship to sales, market research analyses, and other applications.

[Several sentences deleted]

The April 1982 issue of Personal Computing carried an interview with Jack Halbert, personal computing support team manager at Merrill Lynch. Halbert says, "the use of electronic spread sheet programs is in its infancy, just like personal computers." Personal Computing observed, "considering Halbert's assessment, it takes the imagination to try to conceive what the fourth and fifth generations of these electronic record keepers, preparers, and analyzers will be capable of providing for information hungry businesses."

Among other valuable pieces of micro-computer software available to marketing managers are a host of data base management systems. Greenwood Press utilizes a very "user friendly" system called PFS and the PFS Report. The PFS descriptive manual states, "Basically PFS works like a paper filing system without the paper so you can record, file, retrieve, and, most important, summarize information in a fraction of the time it would take with a conventional filing system.

[Two paragraphs deleted]

As you might imagine, given the flexibility of this kind of data base management system, it can be used for almost anything, to maintain small mailing lists for large volume buyers, book club lists, and publicity contacts. And, if the system is not precisely thought out at the onset, the available free-floating search techniques will compensate. For instance, if we were not satisfied with our Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress subject search, we could also search by titles or fragments of titles of the journals themselves.

Bear in mind that to use these programs you do not have to be a computer expert. To use VisiCalc effectively, you must have an understanding of basic mathematics, but need not know calculus or Boolean logic. The PFS Data Base Management system can be used with effectiveness after a twenty minute learning period You do not have to understand Basic, Pascal, PL/l, or any other of the computer languages to make these programs work for you. I am not arguing, of course, that the computer will ever take the place of the often necessary subjective decision making process, but it certainly eliminates much of the drudgery, freeing marketing personnel to engage in other selling activities.

Word processing software is also available for the microcomputer. These are not as sophisticated as most of those accompanying computers specializing in word processing applications. However, some of the software available for the micro-computer now offer eighty column displays and provide the user with a multiplicity of features common to word processing computers, including search and replace, block operations, justification, chain files, and others. Because scholarly publishing addresses relatively limited audiences, one can see real advantages in using this software to personalize the marketing approach. It is now possible to single out very carefully profiled mailing lists that, in combination with a direct sales letter, communicates the sales message best.

[One paragraph deleted]

The silicon chip will no doubt bring about significant changes in the world of scholarly publishing. However, a basic premise of this speech has been that new technology tools are already available to the marketing manager. By concentrating on the present and not the speculative future, I hope I have been able to alert you to some of these opportunities.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Publishing and Lacuna

As a publisher for nearly forty years, “lacuna” best summarizes the publishing strategy of the imprints I directed, attempting to address knowledge or reference tool gaps throughout the social sciences and the humanities. I am a publishing disciple (and former neighbor) of Curtis Benjamin who during my professional formative years in the 60’s and 70’s was the President and Chairman of McGraw-Hill. Benjamin labeled increasing specialization “the twigging phenomenon” – the tree of knowledge constantly developing new limbs as scholarship and scientific discoveries blaze forward. I wonder how Curtis Benjamin would see the Internet world, the ultimate in customized, personalized, specialized publishing. No doubt he would see it as an opportunity. Hence, an opportunity for me to use the medium to muse about my life, interests and experiences over time.