Friday, February 08, 2008

Oak Knoll Press: Another Internship Gained Through Dumb Luck After Much Sweating

Even on a cloudy day, light pours through the arched windows in my office. Beneath the windows, a horse and carriage clatters on the cobblestone street. Beyond the rooftops of colonial homes, the Delaware River mirrors the clouds’ steady flow. Classical music is piped into the room. Century-old books, stacked high across my desk, add another layer of cozy antiquity to my workspace. Lady, our black lab mascot, as old as the books in dog years, moping, eyes bloodshot, lies by my feet. For some reason she prefers my company over others. I key a few catalog entries into an ancient computer and take another sip of tea, again kicking back in my chair. No deadlines or direct supervision pressure me. I do bottom-rung tasks over which quality control isn’t that high: cataloging old books, proofreading undergrad interns' cataloged items, and pulling out customers’ orders from the shelves, all whenever I feel like it. I can only thank Dumb Luck for it. She had pulled me out of hardships before, but she was especially generous to me this time.

Like most students in this program, my search for an internship started with nothing. Still, foolish and proud as I was, I refused to give in to my inexperience and lack of connections by getting an online internship like many students did. I wanted a real hands-on experience beyond hunching over my laptop an extra hour or two a day. A position in a publishing company seemed like a good direction for me. It was the foreign industry I knew little about but one that will control my destiny as I become a writer. But Delaware was the wrong state to start looking. Most of the “publishers” I found in the phonebook and called were actually small custom printing offices. I might as well get a job at a FedEx Kinko’s. The few presses that seemed suitable for a grad internship never returned my calls. Weeks passed and the third semester approached. My repeat calls went ignored. Only Dumb Luck would have me come across a small newspaper ad announcing the Delaware Book Fair. With all the local writers in one place, someone’s bound to give me a good lead. It was worth a shot.

The Fair was as small and impractical as the name suggested. Witless small-time writers lectured on modeling all your characters after Hollywood stars to make them identifiable and claimed that freelancers of nonfiction can make six-figure incomes and never check out facts since no one really does. Networking with those people would be fruitless, so I reduced myself to politely begging them for leads. They all basically said the same thing: I’m in the wrong state. As if God was mocking my dismal situation, dark clouds gathered and rain began to fall. Why couldn’t I just snatch a frigging online gig like everyone else? I thought. Still, stubborn as I was, I checked out the last exhibition tent. After being turned away from several tables, I rushed out in frustration and almost bumped into an old woman half my height.

“Whoops. Excuse me,” I muttered without looking at her.

“You’re looking for a publishing internship, are you?” I froze and looked at her.

“Um, yeah.” Believe it or not, the clouds actually parted at that moment. Everything brightened along with my hopes.

She handed me her card and introduced herself as Kelly Chandler, a director at a press called Oak Knoll. She explained that it sells antiquarian books and publishes texts for the bibliophile audience, along with literary criticisms and publication histories. I introduced myself and gave details of my MFA requirements. I told her I knew nothing about old books and the people who collect them. She assured me that it didn’t matter. Later, I sent her my résumé via e-mail and we set up an interview date. Prior to that day, I boned up my knowledge of the publishing industry and prepared for the worst. The only questions she asked were: What days and hours will you be available? Is there any correspondence I have to do with WCSU? That was it. She gave me a tour of the place and handed me a book from the 14th century, still in pristine condition, worth $700,000, as if she was symbolically entrusting me with the company's respectability. But it turned out that Oak Knoll keeps itself running by recruiting English majors desperate for internships, exploiting them for free labor. Since undergrad interns filled up all the cubicles, Kelly gave me an office belonging to a manager who was on an extended leave of absence. Dumb Luck didn't just provide me with an easy internship, it tossed in a fully furnished office of my own and a dog, not to mention a spoiling staff.

I’m exaggerating a bit on one aspect, though. The work isn’t always easygoing. Cataloging demands some extensive researching and background knowledge of the books’ subject matters. For example, a typical entry would look like this:

Johnston, Paul. BIBLIO-TYPOGRAPHICA, A SURVEY OF CONTEMPORARY FINE PRINTING STYLE. New York: Covici-Friede, 1930, tall 8vo., cloth, paper spine label, dust jacket. (xiv), 303 pages. $110.00
First edition, limited to 1000 copies. (Hart no.134). An important look at bookmaking from the Whittinghams to Elmer Alder. Many facsimile title pages and other illustrations. Essays on William Morris, Pickering, and other influences on American typography. Shows the work of Dwiggins, Rogers, Alder, and many others. Jacket is worn with pieces missing along edges. [95795].

To write the description paragraph, I have to understand quite a bit about bookmaking and typography as well as its people to know what would appeal to those knowledgeable or interested in these areas. This requires me to do some audience analysis and niche marketing. I usually do all this by Googling the subjects and names that appear often in a book and cross-referencing them with similar texts I find online that give me clues on the audience's preferences. Depending on the content, rarity, and price of the book, a catalog item can range from a full page with pictures to a couple sentences describing a book’s subject and condition. That judgment rests mostly on me. Tedious work, but it has its perks. At times, I'd come across a book inscripted by Dickens or Twain. I'd feel their handwriting, trying to get some inspirational vibes that might improve my writing.

But I’m told that this job is only until the backlog of books that need cataloging clears up. When the time comes, I’ll switch from the bookselling to the press side of the company. I should then be able to dip my toes in various aspects of publishing: reviewing manuscripts and queries, marketing via trade, tracking distributions, managing funds, and so on. I’m hoping that this internship, if nothing else, will give me hints on the inner workings of the larger dog-eat-dog publishing industry, so I won't be as cruelly surprised when it garnishes my free will and dignity. However, this transition means I’d have to move from my office with a view, and my loyal companion Lady, to a desk at the bottom of a stairway--most likely reading manuscripts and crunching numbers. So I’m stretching my time, savoring the coziness that Dumb Luck provided, before I have to do any of the work she brought me here to do.

1 comment:

esther said...

Chris,
For relying on Dumb Luck, holding a book worth $700,000 actually sounds pretty cool. Can you pick one up for me?
Kathy