Monday, January 04, 2010

Medical memories

Ten years - where does it go?

In March 1998 I started work at a medical publishing firm that I shall for the sake of legal liability call InsanelyRun. I returned to work after my second Christmas there on Tuesday 4th January 2000 and by the end of Wednesday 5th January I had been given notice. My boss, who shall be called J, had obviously decided on this course of action before Christmas; he didn't have to let me enjoy the break with a clear mind, but he did and it was kind of him.

I had a long rant prepared to mark the anniversary: then I realised I had already delivered a mini-rant, tantalising long-term readers with a few succinct details, to mark the tenth anniversary of the interviews that got me the job in the first place. So here's some extra detail that I didn't say first time round.

InsanelyRun published high quality, highly illustrated full colour medical textbooks, with a bent towards urology. Runaway success in building up a list had led to the reason they wanted me – they had a large backlog of manuscripts that they just didn't have the resources to deal with and the whole publishing programme was behind.

Jerome was a very good commissioning editor. Unfortunately he had the mad compulsion to keep on signing up the same deadweight, non-producing editors and authors over and over again. One reason he had wanted me was because in an earlier existence I had got a list of academic journals back on schedule. However, that was with the full support of a boss who knew exactly what was what, and measures included sacking the dead weights and only using writers who actually wrote. It was only a last chance sanction; we gave the dead weights every chance and every warning, and many of them responded favourably and worked harder for us, or gratefully accepted the chance to step down gracefully. But some were straightforwardly fired.

At InsanelyRun, the dead weights were rewarded for their efforts by being given yet another book to do. They were authorities in their field. Their names on the book covers sold copies. Or would have, if we had copies to sell.

Time and time again, we came back to the dichotomy between Jonquil's expectations and how the world actually works. A signature on a contract was, to Jolyon, just as good as an actual manuscript in hand. (And to be fair, it should be; a professional author doesn't miss deadlines without a very good reason, and plenty of warning if it becomes unavoidable. But these weren't professional authors, they were doctors.) I suspect that a lot of his signing up was in fact a friendly chat over a drink in a hotel bar, which elicited a vague promise to write something for us, which turned into a contract without too much further thought. He never looked them in the eye and spelled out how it was going to be: "you will provide x, in y format, by z deadline." And he enjoyed the commissioning process too much to let me sit by his side and do the dirty work for him. Thus these busy professionals found they had signed a contract to do a lot of work for so little money that they were pretty well doing us a favour, and meanwhile the job they were actually paid to do involved saving lives and making people better. It's not that surprising that the priority slipped down their timetable.

One book, a multi-author textbook on benign prostatic hyperplasia, did so well that a second edition was decreed, with updated chapters. The only problem here was that none of the authors especially wanted to update their chapters as it had only been a year or so since the first edition and the field hadn't progressed that much. No one was actually ready for a second edition, except Justinian. Guess whose fault it was decreed to be that none of the chapters were coming in?

Or there was the time I failed to get hold of an author for whom I only had a phone number. No address, no email, no web presence, just a phone number, with not even a voicemail at the other end. The phone would ring and ring and ring until eventually it cut out.

Juvenal casually mentioned the author's campaign. What campaign?

"Oh, he's standing for the Scottish Parliament ..."

The twit actually thought that a man in the middle of an election campaign would take time out to write for us.

The final nail in my coffin was a website for urologists which I shall call The idea was good: it would be a regularly updated, dynamic repository of all thing urological – news, articles, abstracts, happenings – with core material was to be submitted by an unpaid editorial board, who like most of InsanelyRun's authors had signed up on a wave of goodwill and then suddenly found reality getting in the way. The editorial board almost universally failed to come up with anything. I phoned them and phoned them and phoned them, leaving message after message after message on their voicemails. I wrote letters and bombarded them with emails. Short of going round and holding them at gunpoint while they wrote, there was not much more I could have done to wring their words out of them. Then one day Jamal sent me an email. "I've just left messages with all the board members. What exactly is the problem?"

I went to see him and demanded to know what the hell he meant.

"I've left messages with each of them," he said patiently, as if explaining to an idiot. "They will get their messages and send their work."

As if. Needless to say, they didn't. Unfortunately Jordan got it into his head that they did and that he had achieved, with a single phone call, what I had failed to achieve with many. And despite my efforts to point out the reality of the situation, he never failed to drag it out on future occasions when my failings needed to be highlighted. The last time I heard this repeated was the final meeting where he finally, mercifully fired me.

But for all that, InsanelyRun was not an unhappy experience. As individuals, Jeremiah and his business partner treated their staff well. Jedekiah let me use the office printers to run off my manuscripts, in those days before electronic submissions. On one occasion he decided the entire company should decamp for lunch to the Head of the River and we stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. (Which didn't help the pressure on anyone's work, but he was the boss ...) The week always ended with wine tasting in the office from about 4pm onwards on a Friday. And the staff were lovely people, all with a considerably better idea of how one actually publishes books than our leaders had.

But, at some point over the last summer, work relations with Jasper reached a new low (once again he dragged out the story of how he had phoned round the editorial board with allegedly more success than me) and I was actually given written notice that I should show signs of improvement. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October I specifically asked: "are you happy with my work?" His answer wasn't quite so specifically "yes"; he talked about how he had had concerns, and those concerns seemed to have been addressed, so yes, he probably was happy.

The year rolled on and into 2000 ...

It would have come as less of a surprise if, at Frankfurt, he had just said "no". Out came the litany of my alleged failings (including, yes, the time he called all the members of the editorial board) augmented by some brand new ones: complaints apparently received from the production manager and the senior editor, neither of whom had at that point come back from their Christmas break. Their version, when I heard from them, was a little different: he had come to them and made them wrack their brains for something, anything in my work that hadn't been quite up to scratch. They obligingly came up with a few instances all of which (they hastened to add, to me) came well within the remit of usual glitches – no production process is ever perfect. But it was enough for Jestocost. I was given written notice and two months pay.

I was a sacrificial lamb. InsanelyRun was strapped for cash. It was eating up money, it badly needed to be getting its books out for its special sales and I was perceived as an obstacle in the flow. Jedekiah didn't even appoint a replacement. The senior editor was given my job on top of her own, which took all her time anyway, with no commensurate increase in salary. She later confessed to me that she had never even looked at the pile of manuscripts I left behind.

Unpleasant though it was, I still maintain getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me for its knock-on effects that last to this day. I may or may not mark more tenth anniversaries over the next few years. Depends how bored I get. I will however share one more memory of InsanelyRun: in tomorrow's post. It will make you smile ...

1 comment:

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