Category Archives: Books

How and Why We Became Publishers, Part Three, Merchant’s House Meet POD

The Merchant's House Museum 29 East Fourth St., New York City

The Merchant’s House Museum 29 East Fourth St., New York City

After we moved to Manhattan we made it a point to see all the things people come to the city to see. One of them, the Merchant’s House Museum, a historic house built in 1832, was occupied by the same family for almost 100 years and still has original furniture and personal family belongings—even their underwear!

Mary asked if there was a book about the house.Well no, there wasn’t. So she volunteered to be a docent at the Museum and began to learn the answers to the things she had wondered about. What was it really like to live in a world without screens, air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, or furnaces, and what were the family’s assumptions about life—about courtship, diseases, women, and death, for instance.

Nineteenth-century woman in mourning

Nineteenth-century woman in mourning from Ch. 18 An Old Merchant’s House

After a lot of study, including close reading of diaries and letters and publishedworks of the time as well as research about the Tredwell family and their house, she finally knew enough to write the book that she had wanted to buy when we first visited the house: An Old Merchant’s House.

When it came time to submit the manuscript for publication, we realized that our agent had died and our editor had retired. The idea of selling ourselves and our books to new set of very young people was depressing. But while we weren’t looking, everything about the publishing business had changed. It was now possible for an author to publish his books himself. Digital presses can now print one book at a time, without costly set up. It’s called POD (print on demand.) There are a number of firms which you can hire do everything necessary to publish your work and to place it on Amazon and other online sites. We decided to publish our books POD. Since we can edit our books ourselves and have an in-house IT guy (a son-in law, who is also an author), we don’t have to rely on the POD firm for creating the necessary disc (not something most people can easily do themselves) or editorial services.

A girandole.

A girandole.

We decided to form a publishing company called Girandole Books. A girandole is a 19th-century lighting device, employing candles and sometimes a mirror. Since it illuminates and reflects, we thought that was a good name for a publisher. Turns out nobody can say it or spell it. Amazon argued that it wasn’t a real word. We finally prevailed.

Mary has written another book about the Merchant’s House, Miracle on Fourth Street. It’s about the cast of incredible characters who managed to save the house from being destroyed. Both her books are now on sale at the Merchant’s House and on Amazon. My recently published, Did You See This? Poems to Offend the Politically Correct is also available from Amazon in paperback or a kindle version.

Now since we are too old to dally, we plan to publish at least two books each year for awhile. We will be referring to these books and publishing excerpts. Next up is my novel Beating a Dead Stick, a book about a high school teacher who teaches in a school in the eighties where the students learn nothing and the faculty doesn’t care. No, it is not a fictionalized version of the Pembroke-Hill school in Kansas City where I taught or of Balboa High School in the Canal Zone or of the Canal Zone College or of Kansas City University, but . . . Stay tuned.

-HK

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Why and How We Became Publishers Part Two, Remembering the Canal Zone

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal. Oil by Herb Knapp

In 1983, we were back in the States, having lived and taught in the Panama Canal Zone for almost 20 years. The Canal Zone was a unique American community very similar to the fictitious utopia Edward Bellamy described in his book Looking Backward, which was hugely popular at just the time the Canal was being built.

Nowhere on earth had such a place like the Canal Zone existed. We believed it deserved a close look before it disappeared forever. We decided to write a combination memoir and history about the Zone. We’d call it Red, White, and Blue Paradise.

Since we had been unhappy with our agent, we decided to sell it to a publisher ourselves. I sent a pitch letter to an editor named Jovanovich because I once had a student by that name. I didn’t realize that at the time he was the president of what was then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

718 El Prado, Balboa Canal Zone, early morning. Oil by Herb

718 El Prado, Balboa Canal Zone, early morning. Oil by Herb Knapp

He liked the book. Sent us a splendid advance and turned us over to a junior editor. She told us to make it shorter but made no suggestions about what to cut, which we took to be a brush-off. Weren’t editors supposed to edit? We asked to see the readers’ reports.  She delayed sending them, but when she finally did, we understood. They hated it.

We thought “they” bought our book because “they” thought we could all make money from it. We now realized “they” had not bought it. Their boss had. The book’s title alone was enough to offend their liberal sensibilities.

We knew some liberals thought America was an evil, imperialist nation, and that the Zonians were illiterate bigots, but we had not yet grasped the intensity of these feelings in some quarters of the publishing world. We were still pretty naïve about politics.

The book was mentioned in The National Review, and we thought we were off to a good start. But when our editor told us the sales department didn’t think it would be worth while to set up a booth at the Panama Canal Convention in Florida, we realized they intended for the book to fail. We weren’t surprised to get a letter saying the book wasn’t selling and would be pulped—unless we wanted to buy the inventory, an option that was in our contract.

We sent them a check, and before long an eighteen-wheeler pulled up in our driveway. Using a forklift, the driver stocked one side of our double garage with thousands of books on wooden pallets. Mary took them on as inventory for The Flying Book, a mail-order book business she’d started which until then had been focused on supplying books to Americans living abroad. We spent a couple of hundred dollars on advertising and began selling copies at a rapid pace, making much more money on each copy than we would have made if our publisher had sold them for us. By the time we moved to Manhattan, we had sold them all.  (Next: We discover that while we weren’t looking, a miraculous change had occurred in the publishing industry.)      —HK

 

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Why and How We Became Publishers, Part One, Including Mary’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Mary being interviewed on The Today Show

Mary being interviewed on The Today Show

Since Mary and I have already published two books with major publishers, some of our friends have wondered why we are doing it differently now. Easy. Done that, been there—twice—and we didn’t like it!

In 1970, we were offered a sabbatical leave year from our teaching jobs in the Panama Canal Zone and were soon en route to Indiana University to enroll in graduate school for the second time. While there, we wrote a paper about children’s folklore. The project required a lot of fieldwork with kids and was a lot of fun.

Back in the Zone, I suggested we turn our paper into a book. “We’d get to talk to a lot more kids.” Mary was dubious, but she went along, and four years later, the book was finished.

Our agent was not enthusiastic, and several publishers turned it down. So we were happy when W.W. Norton agreed to publish it.. Our editor told us the company’s readers didn’t much like it because it fell “between two stools.” (Publishers like books that fit into a definite category. They are easier to market.) However, the president of the company liked it, so they didn’t have much choice. Today, 40 years later, it is still on the backlist and available for purchase on Amazon, which must be some kind of a record.

When the book came out, Mary happened to be on leave (unpaid this time). She was in New York, there to put our youngest daughter in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

As was customary, the publisher sent copies of all their newly published books to the Today Show, hoping that they’d pick one to feature. Much to their surprise and undisguised dismay, the Today Show suggested they might be interested in our book! Norton had their hopes set on a book of photographs of Picasso’s studio by David Douglas Duncan.

The next step was for Mary to audition. She went through a practice interview with the Today’s Show screeners, which she passed with flying colors. On her way back to the hotel, she stopped off at our agent’s office to assure her the interview went well. The agent was too busy to see her and fobbed her off on an assistant. This puzzled us. How many of her clients appeared on The Today Show? And why did the woman handling serial rights always meet her in the lobby? Didn’t she have an office?

The Today Show called. They wanted her. Eight minutes. Suddenly she was besieged with requests for interviews. NPR interviewed her by phone on All Things Considered.  She went to Boston to be on the local segment of Good Morning, America. Since she was going to stop off in Kansas City on her way back home, she tried to get Norton to set up publicity events there. “We don’t have authors from Kansas City so we don’t set up events there.”  “But David Douglas Duncan is from Kansas City; we went to the same high school.” Didn’t matter.

In the green room at NBC, Mary discovered she was the only “guest” not accompanied by a PR person. But the show went very well. The PR representatives present complimented her on her performance. “Where else are they sending you?” Norton’s PR rep called to say she was “so relieved” (a real supporter). Here are four sound bites from that interview with Jane Pauley. Mary wants me to say it is not her real voice. Apparently the tape has been sped up a bit. However, she says that as unlikely as it may seem, it is definitely her real hair.

She had booked a flight back to Panama the next day, but as one last effort to feel good about publishing our book, she went to the famous Scribner’s book store on Fifth Avenue, now home to Sephora Cosmetics. She had hoped to see One Potato displayed along with other new books. But it wasn’t. With the help of a clerk, she finally found it on a shelf with the cookbooks.

—HK

 

 

 

 

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Just Released! Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

What Makes the Merchant’s House a Miracle

August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Miracle on FourthEnter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the old house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

merchantshousemuseum.org

Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

 

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Remember Hopscotch? Cooties? Miss Mary Mack? “I’m Rubber; You’re Glue”?

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Years ago, before the personal computer had become part of all of our lives, Herb and I wrote a book about the folklore of children: the rhymes, games, customs, superstitions and jokes that children pass on to each other without the mediation or often even the knowledge of adults.

The thesis of that book is that this body of children’s knowledge, while it may seem trivial, is critically important in helping children in a number of developmental tasks. We interviewed hundreds of ten-year olds who eagerly told us—and showed us—their traditional past times. But whenever we talked to their teachers or parents, often we were told, “Oh kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” That’s why we originally subtitled the book The Secret Education of American Children.

Now that was a long time ago, and although the book is still in print (and to our amazement has been translated into Chinese) we have moved on to other interests so we don’t really know the state of children’s folklore today. After all, it requires face to face interaction. And today children are spending more and more time in the virtual world playing with their “devices” rather than “going out to play,”.  So maybe children really don’t do this sort of thing much anymore. Still, not long ago we observed two girls on a crosstown bus happily engaged in a rapid rendition of “Miss Mary Mack,” a traditional clapping rhyme with deep roots. Watch to the very end of this 32- second video and you’ll get some idea of why this particular past time has endured.

Seen on the terrace in the park

Seen on the terrace in the park

And then there’s this—observed on the terrace of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This doesn’t look exactly like the hopscotch of my childhood or that of the children we interviewed for our book. But that’s not surprising. Like any oral tradition, children’s folklore undergoes a sea change as it’s passed along from one generation to another. And new folklore emerges as children make up formulaic solutions to counteract boredom, solve disputes, conquer fear or cement new friendships.

Do you know any ten-year olds? If so, ask them if they “do this sort of thing anymore.” I’d love to know!

oil by HerbKnapp

Oil by HerbKnapp

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Why I ‘d Much Rather Read a Tree Book Than an E-Book

Tree book and E-book(s)

Tree book and E-book(s)

I appreciate the digital revolution; I really do. For starters,  Amazon has changed my life because shopping—for everything —is so simple. I don’t tweet, but I do have Facebook friends. My cell phone is so dumb all it knows how to do is to make and receive phone calls; however I do own the latest model of the Kindle e-reader.

But after six months or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that reading a tree book—or a real book,  if you will—offers subtle satisfactions that reading the same book on an e-reader simply does not, and I much prefer the real thing.

My objections to the Kindle stem mainly from the fact that you have to deal with it one page at a time. I hadn’t realized until I got the Kindle how often I fan the pages of a book, looking for information I’ve forgotten or to see what’s coming, or to see if I have time to finish the chapter before I have to struggle with the slotted spoon. I like to feel the weight of the pages on the left increasing as I read. in other words, I like to relate to the whole book at once.

Also, I like to write in my books. I figured out long ago that it’s okay. God doesn’t care. They are, after all, my books. Of course I would never write in someone else’s book or a library book (curses on those who do) but I love to scribble in mine. I like to pick up a book I’ve already read, fan the pages looking for the stars, the underlines, and the marginal notes I’ve made in my own handwriting and read those best parts again.

I like the fact that the real books have different personalities quite apart from their content. Some of them are fat, some thin. They are different colors. Some of them are friendly; some are not. As far as I’m concerned a really friendly book lies flat when it’s open, and has pages with ample margins. If there are notes, they’re in the margin or at the foot of the page, not at the end. If there are illustrations, I like them near the related text, not stuffed in the middle together. If, in addition the book is well written and tells me something I don’t already know, then it’s a good friend indeed. All e-books look more or less the same. That’s boring

I like to know where my books are—and I do. They’re on the bookshelves and I can identify them just by looking at the spines; I don’t want them dancing off into the atmosphere when I’m not looking. Finally, I love bookmarks. I collect them—and like to use them.

To be fair I should say there are advantages to the Kindle that I appreciate: you can make the type bigger, it’s easier to read lying down (something I like to do) because the book literally weighs nothing. All you have to hold is the reader itself. You can read in the dark (good if the person next to you is trying to sleep), there are lots of free books available from various sources, including the library. And if you read on the go—on the bus, in the line at the grocery store, or on an airplane or train, then I suppose an e-book is preferable to a real book. But when all is said and done, for me it’s no contest.

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis  Reservoir in Central Park

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park

MY LOCATION As I write this, I’m sitting on a bench next to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. When it was built in 1862, it provided water for the city. Today it is maintained as a scenic attraction and wildlife refuge. A 1.58-mile track encircles it, and waterfowl make it their home.

Behind me is an allee of cherry trees, now in bloom. Their beauty is breathtaking. And somewhere there is something fragrant blooming. Herb is here too, reading— on his Kindle.

A perfect day.

The Cherry Trees Behind Me

The Cherry Trees Behind Me and a Runner in Hot Pink Shoes

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The Heiress Comes (Back) to Broadway!

The Heiress, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. It will run for a limited engagement of 18 weeks.

Washington Square by Henry James tells the story of a young woman, her domineering physician father, and the man she loves.

Based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, it is such a powerful story that audiences can’t get enough of it. The novel is one of James’ most popular and certainly one of his most readable books. In 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote a play based on the book called The Heiress, which opened that year on Broadway and ran for a year. A movie, starring Olivia de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the pathetically shy Catherine Sloper, came out in 1949. In 1995 the play returned to Broadway with Cherry Jones turning in Continue reading

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