Reflections on the 10th Anniversary
Volume 10/Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 1990)
The Glamorous World of Publishing
Who We Are & Why We Do What We Do
by Tom Auer
Ten years older and what do you get? Ten years in an individual’s life may not seem like much. People don’t generally change a great deal in a decade. Ten years in the life of a business represents at least the ability to survive—no small feat in an age of bankruptcies, buyouts, and corporate shenanigans. Ten years of publishing a literary magazine—and one that, like many others, is severely undercapitalized, staffed for the most part by volunteers, and competing with some of the largest media companies in the world—seems like a lifetime. But there is a reason why we do what we do.
This issue of The Bloomsbury Review is the first in our tenth year of publication, and in many ways, it resembles our first issue. Volume One/Number One featured an interview with Edward Abbey—an important literary voice for the West and for the preservation of its natural wonders. Volume Ten/Number One includes a review of the last book he completed before he died last year, Hayduke Lives! (Little, Brown, 1990)—a sequel of sorts to the book most people remember him for: The Monkey Wrench Gang (Avon, 1983). Like any other author, Ed Abbey had no corner on the truth. In his long struggle to save the wilderness before it was too late, he made as many enemies as allies. But his voice was a strong and honest one, and it inspired many people, including us, to follow our hearts and speak the truth as best we could.
Our first issue included a rather diverse editorial mix: reviews of books about the West, some topical nonfiction, popular and literary fiction, poetry, feminist humor—an attempt to reflect the diversity of books published and the presses that produced them. Our current issue also features a healthy, eclectic, and not unfamiliar variety of elements: reviews of books about the West, biographies, mysteries, and a look at love in fact and fiction; also, interviews with Barry Lopez—articulate and lyrical author of Arctic Dreams (Scribner’s, 1986) and Of Wolves and Men (Scribner’s, 1978) among many others—and Terry McMillan, the outspoken author of Mama (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) and the recent Disappearing Acts (Viking, 1989).
Volume One/Number One reached a few thousand book readers in the Rocky Mountain West. Our Tenth Anniversary issue will reach tens of thousands of avid book readers in every state and several foreign countries.
In the beginning, we were idealistic, perhaps a touch naive, and horribly undercapitalized. Today, we are more realistic (though not without high ideals), still juggling the pennies to keep the presses rolling, but every bit as driven as we were in the beginning—to promote book reading, to look critically at the ideas presented in books and the people who write and publish them, and to provide an alternative voice for literature in general, and for forgotten or underexposed authors and titles in particular.
To help celebrate ten years of publication, we asked our readers to tell us their favorite books and authors, and the reasons why they enjoyed reading. You’ll find some of the results of these surveys in the following pages. We also decided to turn the tables slightly and tell our readers a bit about ourselves, and how we look at the world of books. Our contributing editors here offer some of their thoughts about books and literature, and you’ll see that their opinions are as varied as the editorial lineup of each issue. One of our regular writers—by day, an editor at a large publishing company in New York City—reports on the sad state of corporate publishing for us. It is not a pretty picture.
Little in the world of books seems to make much sense. Many good writers starve in obscurity, while some marginal writers receive six-figure advances; the worst writers are often the most widely read, and the best of the lot often struggle for much-deserved recognition; the percentage of our population that reads books is shamefully small (and some say shrinking), yet book sales continue to climb (those who read are reading more, one supposes); literacy (and the lack of it) has finally become an issue that graces the front pages of newspapers once in a while.
What a world it would be if people preferred reading books about current issues—Central America or drug addiction or preserving a deteriorating planet—to watching happy-faced media clones offer fabricated sound bites as news pabulum for mass consumption. Wouldn’t it be grand if teachers made as much money as football players, if poets were glorified like rock-and-roll stars and talk-show hosts.
Our society offers much to be cynical about. By and large, the public gets what it wants—easy answers to complex questions—via newspapers that provide little or no background to today’s news, television that reaches as low as the lowest common denominator can bend, and advertising that tricks us into believing one product or another will make us sexier, thinner, smarter, or richer. Politicians lie, big business rules more than any of us want to know, and the media spoon-feeds forgettable tripe when it should be educating the public. But I digress.
We at TBR believe that the good is worth noting, even if it is only good intentions. We believe that writers and poets and philosophers should be media stars like athletes and rock stars and game-show letter-flippers. We believe that people should read and should be aware of their choices of what is available to read. We believe that people should learn to think critically about the world around them, should dream of how things could and can be in a better world, should open their minds and hearts and take advantage of the good things available—things like good books, for instance.
That’s why we do the things we do.
It all started in a pool hall, more or less: The Ten-Minute History
Really, it started long before that. Those of us who are involved in the publishing of TBR found out early on in life that reading is important, that reading can be enlightening and entertaining, as enriching and valuable a pastime as any other. We learned that books could open up worlds of information we never knew existed, could stretch our imaginations, could make us think about and question our problems and aspirations, could make us see the world we live in and the people we live with from a different perspective.
In the late 1970s, as a student at the University of Denver, I discovered a unique bookstore across the street from the campus—an unusual place, but one much to my liking: Bloomsbury Books & Pool. A young couple named John and Margaret Lake had bought a pool hall and converted part of it into a bookstore. Pool tables, pinball machines, pop and candy machines, and a jukebox filled one side of the place, books the other. Best of all, the store was open until midnight. Given my interests at the time, I imagined that heaven must look something like this: walls of bookshelves crammed with great literature, Tony Bennett on the jukebox, a snooker table, and chocolate-covered everything in the candy machine. I took a job there.
At the time I also worked as editor of the campus newspaper, and one thing led to another. It seemed like a nice idea to start a newsletter for the bookstore, to distribute it around the campus and the neighborhood to let the community know that the store existed, tell people about the Bloomsbury Group, how they had influenced writers and artists and philosophers, how they had encouraged critical thinking about their culture and society, and how they had inspired the Lakes to name their bookstore after them.
Over a two-year period, the newsletter grew into a small magazine, promoting the store less, promoting books more. Our meager publishing efforts became more of a “book magazine” with its own personality and goals—letting people know that there were good books available that never made it into the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books.
Those of us who worked on the newsletter spent many hours figuring out how to make a “book magazine” work on a much grander scale. There were the Lakes and a couple of students who also worked at the campus newspaper: Steve Lester, Iowa-born-and-bred, hard-working, and stubborn as the day was long—and a very talented designer; J. Vinay, a multifaceted artist, typesetter, and manager. There was my sister, Marilyn, literature major and graphic designer. We were determined to develop a literary voice for the Rocky Mountain West: a magazine that would tout books of regional interest, small press titles, undiscovered poets, literary underdogs. Surely there would be a market for such a publication. Surveys, talking to local booksellers and publishers, confirmed our thinking.
Some of those planning and scheming sessions were spent in bars and coffee shops, extending into the wee hours of the night. Many were spent at a family outpost in the mountains west of Denver, at a cabin my mother’s family built in 1936. The family named the place “Owaissa”—“land of the bluebirds” from Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”—our grandfather’s favorite poem. There are fewer bluebirds around than there were in 1936, but there are other birds, plenty of squirrels, and today, even a few foxes and raccoons. It has always been a peaceful place, an oasis, a place for rest as well as for planning and scheming. For its inspiration, for its peacefulness, for its solid foundation deep-set in family support and collective accomplishments, we named our company Owaissa.
While Steve Lester worked on the design of the magazine, the rest of us worked on the editorial concept and promotional schemes. We all attempted to raise money to launch our magazine. Most of the publishing “professionals” we talked to (and the books we read about publishing) pointed out that we would need about $50,000 for our first year alone, and more than likely we would need close to $250,000—at least—before we could ever expect to make a profit. After begging and borrowing (and resisting the urge to steal) from family and friends and digging deep into our own shallow pockets, we came up with $5,000.
We were younger then, bursting with idealism, eager to have an impact on publishing in the West, hopeful of providing an alternative literary voice. We thought we had a good idea, we knew we were hardworking (some even said talented). Why not go for it? We could work out of my rented townhouse on the north side of town—it was big enough for living and working space. We could find volunteers to help and aspiring writers and artists to contribute. Family members had always been supportive. The front bedroom upstairs could be the art department; the back bedroom, my office and bedroom; the dining room would be for business purposes; the living room, for the most part, would remain a living room (and reception area). The history of publishing is full of stories of entrepreneurs who started in their basements and went on to become fabulously successful. Why couldn’t we?
Steve Lester moved his drafting table, his bed, his cats, and himself into the art department. Mom and Dad Auer joined the staff. J. Vinay took over management duties. Marilyn worked with writers. I sold ads. We all contacted bookstores about carrying our new magazine. In short order, we came up with a prototype, a marketing plan, and a production schedule. After cranking out a few issues, we reasoned, we’d find the capital we’d need to really get the wheels turning.
The days were long, personal lives suffered, everything we had went into our magazine. Days, of course, turned into weeks, months into years. And here we are, ten years later: older, wiser, and considerably richer in spirit.
We now have a real office (granted, a cozy two-story house converted into office space), a computer, a phone system, a photocopier, even a FAX machine. The days are still long and it takes some doing to have a personal life. Many dreams have been fulfilled, many not. But the wheels are still turning.
What it feels like to be a glamorous literary book review editor
My desk looks like a paper recycling plant—after a hurricane. It should probably be declared a disaster area. Scraps of paper are piled high—mainly bills, also phone messages, notes, lists, lists of lists, books, copies of correspondence, large stacks of unanswered mail, cigarettes, coffee mugs, pencils, red pens, blue pens, two overflowing Rolodexes with piles of business cards yet to be crammed into them, stacks of manuscripts in various forms: original drafts, computer printouts, galleys of type, stacks of unsolicited manuscripts, more books. The desk is surrounded by other piles of things that should have been done yesterday, last week, or last year. I’ve got one wall of bookshelves, one wall of files, and a small window that sheds little light on the things I do.
In one corner there is a small, gray upholstered chair that Steve Lester used to sit in at his art table when he pasted up TBR at the townhouse in north Denver. A pencil portrait of Steve sits on a bookshelf nearby. Seven long and hard years after our humble beginnings, Steve left TBR for a real job, a real wife, and a real life. A year later he died of a brain tumor. He was buried in Iowa, and I stood beside his grave and described how talented and hardworking he had been, what he had meant to our magazine, what his efforts had meant to many young artists and illustrators. His family, friends, and the farmers in his community—mostly folks who had not seen him since his high school days—listened to the stories about Steve and cried for the life so quickly taken from someone so giving and so young.
Next to Steve’s chair in my office is a small table—a wooden box, really—always overflowing with newspapers and magazines waiting to be read, skimmed, glanced at, perused, or spilled to the floor at the sound of the slightest sneeze. The table is constantly packed with periodicals, the chair overflows with memories—Steve’s lingering comments about “the supremacy of the text” and “form following function,” memories of faithful Lydia, Steve’s feline friend who never, ever, left his side. Bronco-talk, TV arguments, Friday afternoons at the neighborhood tavern for free popcorn and cheap beer.
Workdays have always extended from before dawn until after the cows come home. My days usually include selling advertising, spec’ing type, working on promotional materials, writing, editing, proofreading, sometimes pasteup, racing through the mail, bank deposits, bookkeeping, gazing in awe at the books that flow through the doors. Then, after a morning coffeebreak, it’s more of the same, until I’m out of energy, time, or good sense to do more.
A workweek generally goes from Monday to Sunday. A full day off is a rarity. Once a month, maybe, every other month. The weeks whiz by in a flash. Years become memories of fleeting moments. Calendars of previous years hang on the walls, forgotten, like the week before, the month before that.
So, how does one become a glamorous literary book review editor? You read as much as or more than a librarian, work harder than a sod carrier, smoke like ten chimneys, drink enough coffee to kill ten horses, and eat enough sweets to get your dentist’s kids through college. The rest is easy.
In the final analysis, why in the world would anyone embark on a career in literature? To try and find wisdom or happiness in a world that defies most attempts at reason and analysis? To try and make someone see the world from a different point of view? To help someone forget for a moment the trials of their day, to give pleasure or passion or humor or wisdom or distraction to someone who’s yearning for it? Somebody’s got to.
But why would any sound-thinking person embark on a career in literary publishing? The pay is either small or nonexistent, the rewards are tenuous at best. Why produce a publication that only a fraction of the public will ever see, learn from, use? Is it worth it?
Readers enjoy our magazine. They tell us so. Subscribers renew their subscriptions. Publishers appreciate us reviewing their books, some even advertise their new titles. Many bookstores sell TBR, many give it away to their customers. But in the end, we do it because we love it. There’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.
On this, our tenth anniversary, it is appropriate that thanks be offered to those who have allowed us to reach this point in our history—no easy task, believe me, an impossible one if not for literally hundreds of people who have contributed time, energy, money, and lots and lots of copy—far too many deserving names to mention in this space.
First, to my family. Eleven years ago, when nearly everyone we talked to about starting a magazine thought we were dreaming, my parents, Virginia Grout Auer and Mike Auer, were always there with support and love and even a bit of financing when no one else would help. Today, as they have for the past ten years, they both still continue to come in to work at TBR, handling subscriptions, answering the phones, running errands, still offering support and encouragement.
Then there are my brothers and sisters—all of whom have provided encouragement and support, two in particular who have been instrumental in the “longevity” of TBR, and who’ve dedicated years to the cause: Marilyn, sister, vice president of our company, associate publisher, associate everything for that matter, longest-lasting TBR staff person (second longest, actually), and Alice, oldest sister, secretary/treasurer of our company, advertising manager—both older and wiser than I, both tireless and dedicated to TBR, loving sisters, comrades in this literary adventure.
To our staff: to Chuck, the art king; to Ray, the relentless poet; to Brad, the book maven; to John G., the quiet and talented; to John R. our fiction editor; to Geno, the enforcer; to Caryl, the magnificent--for offering love and support, and so much more, even when I don’t deserve it; to the young and the restless Steve B.; to Mary, the thorough; to Glenda, and Lori, and Ruth, and Dana, Jackie and Barb, and Bill and Dave, and so many more helpers, literary laborers—to all of you, what can we offer but heartfelt thanks and appreciation—and all the chocolate donuts you can eat.
To our contributing editors, past and present, to the volunteers, proofreaders, assistants, and interns who’ve helped crank out the issues—it could not have been done without you.
To the writers, illustrators, and editors who have contributed many fine reviews, illustrations, interviews, photographs, essays, poetry, pieces of art, feature articles—for either little or no pay—without you, we would have no magazine.
To our readers, subscribers, our loyal audience of avid book readers—if you were not interested, we’d have no reason to do it. We thank you passionately.
To publishers, who keep our shelves overstocked with books (and my office littered with press releases), and especially to our dear and loyal advertisers—past, present, and future—you have, are, and will keep us alive. We, in turn, hope to continue calling attention to your books. For life, we offer our deepest thanks.
To booksellers and libraries who distribute TBR to their customers and clients—we thank you for your continued support. And especially to Bloomsbury Books (the pool tables left shortly before I did) and to the Tattered Cover Book Store, to Joyce and crew, thanks for being there when we needed you.
To our suppliers—our printer, our typesetter, our cameraman, the neighborhood liquor store—we thank you for your patience, your goodwill, and your willingness to give us time and breathing space.
To our shareholders, many of whom have helped immensely in times of desperate need, we thank you for your support, your assistance, and your faith. We have learned a great deal from all of you.
To our friends: thank you for being there when we needed you.
To our creditors: the check is in the mail.