November 14, 2009
Roadshow stop: University of Texas Press
Roadshow mentor: Casey Kittrell, Acquisitions Editor
When I worked at Whitecap Books, my favourite days were the ones a new shipment of books arrived from the printers. The Marketing and Sales Manager would circulate the office dropping off a copy for everyone–the spine still uncracked, the dust jacket smudge and fingerprint free. I would stick my faces between the pages, take deep breaths of the new book, and rub the smooth pages against my cheeks. For each new title, I would spend a few minutes like this with my nose pressed into it.
Indicative of a glue-huffing addiction? Perhaps. Mildly perverted? Probably.
But I’m guessing this sensory experience won’t creep out other book enthusiasts–especially ones who have worked in the industry. I think they’ll understand the compulsion to take in every detail of the book, not just the words in between the covers. Because book lovers really do love books. They frequent blogs like this one, dedicated to the design of cover art. Or this one that gives the origins of a book’s title. (Did you know it was originally supposed to be called Catch-18?) Book lovers aren’t just avid readers. They’re a breed apart.
When I was visiting my sister in Austin, Texas, I was invited to spend a day at the University of Texas Press, shadowing an Acquisitions Editor. And although I have already worked in publishing, I jumped at the chance for two reasons:
1. If I said no, I would be breaking Roadshow Rule Number One.
2. I clearly have a thing for books.
A University Press operates a bit different than a private publishing house–obviously, they publish a large list of academic books, including books for college courses. More important, profit is not explicit in the press’s mission. While they publish many books that are widely read and reviewed, others are so specialized their audience is not large enough for even modest commercial success. So UT Press uses its nonprofit status and connection to the university, to fundraise for their most specialized scholarly books–a credit line not typically found in the ledgers of corporate houses (Surprisingly, a title like De-colonizing the Sodomite: Queer Tropes of Sexuality in Colonial Andean Culture is not often a contender for the bestseller’s list and may require a little funding from the alumni).
For my afternoon at UT Press, I sat in on two meetings–the Big EC and the Little EC. (Editorial Council). The first meeting was a check-in with all the departments needed to bring a book from concept to creation–editorial, production, design, accounting, rights & permissions. As with most industries, the creative and the financial departments had the occasional head butt, and there were a few murmurs and suppressed smiles when discussing the ‘marketing plan’ for a book with a proposed print run of 500 copies and a title like The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, HD, and Yeats. But overall, it was a mostly civilized conversation about books.
The Little EC was comprised of the editors and the director. In a round table discussion, each editor pitched projects that they had recently unearthed. The group would discuss the book concept’s potential and then decide whether to pursue it, research it more, shelve it, or bury it. It was another conversation about books with people who loved them as much as I did. And who understood the magic and thrill of how a book proposal or idea could take so many shapes before it became a bound, finished product.
Smart people and Books: Two things I love that face potential extinction
After hanging out at UT Press, part of me wanted to jump off the Roadshow and throw myself back onto the publishing bandwagon. To surround myself with smart people and books. Sure the job has its drawbacks–the pay is lousy, and authors can occasionally get all diva on you. (My personal favourite at Whitecap was a D-list celebrity chef/cookbook author who reamed me out for 45 minutes before I could get a word in to tell him he had dialed the wrong extension.) Overall, however, it’s a pleasant environment to work in.
But part of me is reluctant to re-enter the publishing realm and not just because it’s tough to get into. But because there’s an elephant sitting in the office of every North American publisher—people simply aren’t buying books like they used to, in volume and in format.
There are a lot reasons for the grim state of the book business, some well-documented and some still theoretical. According to my mentor at UT, Casey Kittrell, part of it can be attributed to online access to cheap, used books.
“The Internet revolutionized used book sales,” Casey says. “To the extent that most brick-and-mortar stores now function more as offices for online sales rather than browsing spaces. And it IS wonderful that if the old hippie bookseller down the street doesn’t have a $2 paperback of Noam Chomsky you can have one 24 hours later via an old hippie in the next county, state, country. Ah, Noam doesn’t need the royalties anyway.”
But online used sales are just the trunk of the elephant. There’s also a decline in the number of people reading—people have shifted their attention to other forms of entertainment, such as film, TV, video games, and the web. The analog book is suffering a popularity slump compared to its digital competition.
Digital publishing is another piece of this literary Dumbo. Google announced last month its upcoming launch of Google Editions, which will allow readers to buy books that can be read on their laptop or smart phone. And serial literature is making a comeback on blogs, and in Japan, on cellphones. (Keitai Shosetsu) To what extent these new trends and technologies will affect traditional book publishing in North America remains to be seen.
Some publishers are embracing digital publishing so much that they are redefining not only how books will be read but how they are created. Book Riff, created by Douglas and MacIntyre and Nitobi Software Inc., melds book publishing with user-generated content. Users can pick and choose content from existing publications, combine it with their own, and have a book bound and shipped within 48 hours. But Book Riff is well ahead of the game. Because the majority of publishers don’t seem to be engaging digital publishing with this kind of innovation or zeal. Many are sticking to business as usual.
But information and how readers consume it, is undergoing a continuous transformation. And, as much as I don’t want to admit it, the book can’t continue to hide between its covers–eventually readers will demand (for some genres at least) that books, and book publishers, catch up to the digital revolution.
So although I loved my day with smart people and books, I’m not sure I’m ready to jump back into book publishing. But I am intrigued by what direction digital publishing and other upcoming technologies will do to the book. Perhaps this impending and inevitable publishing ‘revolution’ will present a new industry and a new opportunity worth exploring. Although, I’m not sure if pressing my nose against the screen of an e-book reader and taking a deep whiff of glass and plastic will hold for me the same level of sensory satisfaction.
October 2, 2009
My mentor: Kristine Kittrell
My mentor’s details: A chef with 10-years experience in the kitchen. Also happens to be my sister
Office/Organization/Business: A four diamond restaurant in Austin, Texas
Catch phrase: colourful language, but heard with frequency “F*ck a duck.”
‘It’s hot, noisy, and the pay is shit. But you do it because you love it,’ said Dave, the line cook standing next to me. Dave was working the grill, flipping a recently killed soft shell crab for a crab and bibb lettuce salad. I had been the harbinger of death for the little guy–mercilessly hacking off its head and penis with a huge cleaver. It still twitched with its last pangs of life while grilling to perfection.
This was day one of the unemployment roadshow. I had jumped feet first into the kitchen fire as a line chef at a four-diamond restaurant. And I was nervous as all hell. I had seen the battle wounds on my sister’s hands and forearms–the scars and burns mapping out the menu of her career. I didn’t know much about working in a professional kitchen, but I did know that it was hot, fast-paced, loud, and dangerous. For someone who is regularly soft-spoken, slow moving, and clumsy, this didn’t seem like a likely pairing.
Anthony Bourdain once likened the kitchen to a pirate ship. It’s such an apt description. It’s hot. Space is economized. People cuss. People drink. They wield sharp knives and bang around hot metal objects. They break the rules. When things go to all hell, they call it being ‘in the weeds’. And there is a strong sense of camaraderie that these people are in it together. They even look like pirates. They have lots of tattoos and wear bandanas and loose-fitted pants perfect for squash buckling. And the topics of conversation would make a Human Resources Director faint. The most colourful from the evening was an argument regarding what the term Spiderman-ing meant. I won’t elaborate, but it was sexual and nasty.
Of course, kitchens vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some are run militantly, with no allowance for tomfoolery or nonsense. Others are a den of mischief. My sister came home from one job to tell me she had been waterboarded. It had been a slow day so the chefs decided to do it to one another just to see what it felt like. Another kitchen she worked in allowed almost no interaction during dinner service and every morning they had to polish their cookware and plates with gin. Any screw ups, even the slightest in nature, involved a violent 20-minute reeming from the chef de cuisine. Kitchens also have to constantly adapt to deal with whatever crisis is thrown at them. And there are many. Walk-ins break. Dishwashers stop working. Pipes burst. One shift, my sister and her fellow chefs all had to stand on stacks of cardboard boxes because the floor was flooded with an inch of water. But meals still get sent out. And a successful restaurant will ensure that the diners have no clue as to the chaos that ensues on the other side of those swinging doors. Much like the occupants of a passenger cruiser unaware of the advancing band of marauding pirates, the patrons eat in ignorant peace.
Since I was job-shadowing, I expected to do just that. Shadow. Stand out of the way and watch the culinary mastery unfold. Not a chance. The kitchen was keen to have an extra set of hands, regardless of how blundering and inexperienced they were. I was immediately put to work on a mandolin slicing potatoes for the pomme frites. Mandolins are terrifying. They look like a miniature horizontal guillotine with multiple blades. Chefs make them look easy, like they will save a homecook hours of labour. But they are really instruments of torture designed to remove flesh and bone from the user’s hand. And like all blades in a professional kitchen, they are extremely sharp. This one was missing its safety. The only protection between my hand and the razor sharp row of blades was a flimsy terry cloth rag. I had horrible visions of my fingers julienned, but managed to push through the ten pounds of potatoes without drawing first blood.
From there I was given a list of tasks: slow roast the tomatoes (which I burned), de-membrane and blanche the sweetbreads (de-what the what?), peel the sunchokes (the what chokes?), stack the sheet pans of blanched pomme frites in the walk-in (stack the what where?). I had no idea what I was being told to do. It was spoken in a language that was foreign to my non-chef ears. And there was no time for explanations or demonstrations. Everyone was busy setting up their mis-en-place–preparing the ingredients they would need to cook the foods assigned to their station. They moved with efficiency, precision, and confidence to get the seemingly insurmountable list of things done by only four people. Without explicit instruction, I somehow managed to stay out of the way and still get through my list of duties–with the exception of the tomatoes that were so slow roasted they resembled astronaut’s food.
My last prep task was to scrub and debeard an 18kg bucket of mussels. It took forever. Their beards are securely attached and often have to be pried off with an ice pick. And they are covered in sharp, impossible to remove barnacles that leave tiny razor cuts all over your fingers. It’s a crap job and one that’s given to the person at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, which was me. I felt like I had been told to swab the deck.
The Hot Oil
After four hours of prep, dinner service started. I was given a 2-minute lesson on how to use the deep fryer and was assigned it as a station. I was responsible for cooking all the deep fried items on the menu. And since the restaurant’s signature dish was deep fried oysters, I was busy. The deep fryer is scarier than the mandolin. It holds almost 20 litres of boiling hot oil–190 degrees Celsius to be exact–just waiting to indiscriminately crisp, bubble, and burn whatever slips into its golden bath. But I didn’t have much time to conjure up the worst-case-scenarios involving me and the vat of bubbling oil. I had too much to do. Before I could get one order into the buttermilk, then flour and then into the grease, I had yet another order called out to me from across the kitchen. There was no time to think or do anything but fry. Soon my grease vat was full. Four orders of oysters. A rabbit confit. Three kids of potatoes. A dozen anchovy-stuffed olives. The hot pantry cook called for her pomme frites. The executive chef called three new orders of oysters. The cold pantry chef was demanding her olives. A barrage of ‘need’, ‘now’, ‘what’s the hold up?’s were slewed at me. Waiters hovered impatiently.
Before I could toss myself into the grease to end it all, Sarah, the pastry chef, showed up. She slipped in, refilled my vats of buttermilk and flour, tossed some pomme frites in sea salt and then slipped away again before I could shower her with my gratitude. But I had a feeling this was just what cooks do–they look out for one another so the whole operation can run smoothly. Sarah didn’t just help me because I was the new guy; it was because I was for that day, part of their crew. With just that little extra help, I was back on track. I got the food fried and delivered. I could yell back with confidence that the orders were up and ready.
Cooking attracts all sorts–restaurant cooks are a motley crew of illegal aliens, former lawyers and doctors, transients, teens, ex-cons, foodies. But while their backgrounds might be diverse, they take care of one another. Teamwork is crucial to their success. But with that loyalty also comes an equally fervent revenge when betrayed. One of my sister’s co-workers, who did a no-show for a busy weekend shift, found all of his belongings–knives, clogs, and pay cheque–frozen in a solid block of ice as pay back.
By 10 pm, dinner service was done. I was exhausted and covered in a thin layer of grease and flour. But I also felt great. I had successfully cooked food that was served to high-end diners. And no one sent anything back. They bought it–both in cash and opinion. They bought that their ‘signature’ oysters and other deep-fried dishes had been prepared by a trained professional. I felt like I had duped every single one of them, a pirate in my own right, stealing their credibility as discerning diners. It gave me a bravado and a swagger that lasted all night because Day One of my tour was over, and I felt ready to man the helm.