A Passion for Publishing
Radcliffe Publishing Course has been helping students enter the world of publishing for 50 years
By John Lenger
Books are sacred vessels; they are containers for our history, our hopes, our dreams. The makers of books -- and in more recent ages, of newspapers, magazines, and Web pages -- have always been members of monastic orders of a sort, cloistered clerics piously following traditional pathways.
But what happens when calling meets commerce? When oak-paneled libraries clash with the bargain book bin, when leather bindings encounter cyberspace? What happens when the making of books, magazines, and newspapers becomes a business?
For 50 years, the Radcliffe Publishing Course has been bridging the gaps -- not only the gap between literature and lucre, but more importantly, the gap between those who think they would like to have a job in publishing and those who actually work there.
In providing that bridge, the Publishing Course has trained thousands to earn a living by pursuing the literary, and in doing so, has transformed the publishing world itself. Radcliffe Publishing Course graduates are movers-and-shakers at a startling array of major publishing houses and influential publications, from The Nation to The New York Times, from Columbia University Press to Condé Nast. Because of its reach, the Radcliffe Publishing Course is considered to be the most prestigious course of its kind in the country.
On Feb. 4, more than 300 of the most powerful people in publishing and their protégés gathered in New York to celebrate the first half-century of the Radcliffe Publishing Course. In public toasts and private conversations, they recounted how the course had personally changed their lives. More than 3,500 careers and quite a few marriages have begun during those intense six-week summer sessions. But more impressive, perhaps, is how definitively the course has put its imprint on the publishing world.
"More careers in the publishing industry can be attributed to the Radcliffe Publishing Course than to any other single factor," said Steve Florio, president and CEO of Condé Nast Publications. "If you go back and start looking at people's careers, everyone seems to have a connection."
As former Publishing Course students and teachers mingled at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, more than one remarked that name tags were hardly necessary. "We don't even need business cards here," one graduate said. "Because of the course, everyone knows everyone else."
In the Know
Officially known at its inception as the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, the six-week summer program began in 1947 as a practical skills course for recent Radcliffe College graduates. As former course director Frank D. Collins recounted in a 1988 article for the Radcliffe Quarterly, the idea was "to see that the course's curriculum balanced the students' love for literature with a healthy dose of the realities found in the publishing marketplace."
For Edith Stedman, who launched the course from the Radcliffe Appointment Bureau, and Helen Everitt, the New York literary agent who became the course's first director, that meant hands-on training for the young women, and beginning in 1949, young men who enrolled in the course.
"From the first summer Everitt insisted that students be given a manuscript to work with in all phases of its production," Collins wrote. "They were to read and evaluate it, copy edit, proofread, provide instructions to the printer, and write jacket copy. . . . The magazine section of the course employed the same principles, but instead of working with already-written manuscripts, students were required to develop magazine dummies from scratch. They learned how to write articles and headlines, crop pictures, fit copy, and design layouts."
That hands-on philosophy has served students well, and has essentially remained unchanged through the last 50 years, even though students now fit copy with computers and new media are an important part of the curriculum, with Wired chairman and founder Louis Rossetto among those who spoke at the 1997 session.
Another tradition begun early was that of inviting, as Collins put it, "the great editors of the day" to lecture, such as Bennet Cerf, who told of his court battles over Ulysses, and of inviting writers who are household names: Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Nora Ephron, John Irving, and Toni Morrison have all talked to Radcliffe Publishing Course students. More than 90 publishing professionals come to Cambridge every summer to speak at the course.
"You get to meet people who otherwise you would never meet in a million years," is the way Peggy Guthart, a 1988 graduate of the course who now works in the children's books marketing department for Penguin/Putnam, put it.
And after a day of intensive workshops, students also get to meet the course speakers in casual surroundings. Morgan Entrekin, for instance, is famous among students for taking them to the Bow and Arrow Pub. The rest of the world knows Entrekin, a 1974 course alumnus, as discover and publisher of Cold Mountain, a literary novel from a small house that took the best-seller lists by storm and was easily one of the publishing events of 1997. "Radcliffe is what made me a publisher," Entrekin said in paying tribute to the course.
The course has been described as "the West Point of publishing," "publishing boot camp," and "the shortest graduate school in the world," but its current director, Lindy Hess, likes one particular student's description: there are so many wonderful things to learn, in so short a time, the student said, that "the Radcliffe Publishing Course is the intellectual equivalent of a pie-eating contest."
The 50th anniversary celebration also turned into a tribute to Hess, director of the program for the last 10 years. "She's a great coach," said Rachel Kahan, a 1996 graduate of the course who now works at Crown as an editorial assistant in literary fiction. "We all get to ride on Lindy's coattails."
Hess, a former executive editor at Doubleday, came to Cambridge from New York City in 1988, though in some ways she has never left the Big Apple: she dresses all in black, which complements her long dark hair; and the way she works the New York network, one shudders to think of her phone bills. Christina Ferrari, a course alumna who is managing editor of the recently launched Teen People, describes Hess as being both physically and personality-wise "an old-fashioned literary heroine."
A walking Rolodex of sorts, who knows everyone and who they're looking for, Hess is both passionate and matter-of-fact about her job helping other people to get jobs. "It's an apprenticeship industry," she said, "but publishing companies don't have time to train people on the job. To get that first job, it's so important to know the lingo."
In her office at the Cronkhite Graduate Center, Hess keeps a piece of poster board with photos of every student from the previous class. There are hand-cut paper stars by the photos. "When they get a job they get a star," Hess said. And her interest doesn't end when the graduate gets that first job. On the night of the New York gala, with 300-plus guests and a million details on her mind, Hess leaned toward a grad from a few years ago and said, "You have to call Frank. He's looking for someone. You'd be perfect."
Besides the career prospects of her students, Hess's other great passion is recruiting more minorities for the course, and for the publishing industry itself. When she took over the course, there was one black student in the class; this past year, the class was 25 percent minority. "I write to every minority counselor in America myself," she said. Still, she feels that more must be done; a major initiative to recruit minority students was announced at the New York gala. (See sidebar) "It's an incredibly white industry," Hess said. "Especially considering that publishing is a world of ideas."
The Publishing Cycle
Each year 300 to 400 people apply for admission to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, which is very competitive; about 100 get in. More than 90 percent get jobs in publishing right after the course ends. And many of them discover that a whole new world awaits them within the world of publishing. "People don't necessarily know what they want to do in publishing when they enter the course," Hess said, "but they come out saying, 'I'm a marketing person,' 'I'm a circulation person,' 'I'm a sub-rights person.' It helps them focus."
Do people really get excited about a career in subsidiary rights?
"Are you kidding?" Hess asked. "Of course it's exciting -- there's travel, there's a chance to work in another language. When you do sub-rights, you get to negotiate with book clubs. You get to do film deals. It's a very exciting area."
But a student's involvement with the course doesn't end once she or he gets a job. Those six weeks in the summer are just the beginning. Most of the members of each class go to New York, which means an instant network of people who are in the same spot. And grads are expected not only to help out their classmates, but future grads as well. Jamie Brickhouse, for instance, has come back every summer since he completed the course in 1990. The first year he was on a panel of recent grads. Then the associate director of publicity for St. Martin's Press started running workshops about how to do book publicity. Peggy Guthart of Penguin/Putnam, Class of '88, last year hired as her assistant Amy Ferro, Class of '97.
There are a number of strands binding the Publishing Course grads together. One of them is Bennet Cerf's son Christopher, who himself has been teaching at the Publishing Course for 25 years. Another is Lindy Hess. "When Lindy tells you she needs you to do something, you do it," said Steve Florio of Condé Nast. "The whole industry owes her a debt of gratitude."
But perhaps the strongest tie is a love of publishing that they all seem to share. "When I was a student, I was inspired by the instructors wearing their hearts on their sleeves," said one graduate who later returned to the course to teach. "Now I'm inspired by the students."
"The great thing about the Radcliffe Publishing Course," said Hess, "is it's all about telling stories. It's publishing's oral tradition."
Finding Success -- and Satisfaction
Radcliffe Publishing Course students all seem to start out as idealists, those fashioners of the sacred vessels. They learn about the business that supports their passion, and they negotiate their careers from there. Some find what they want to do right away, and for others it takes a while. David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire, said in toasting the program that all it took for him to rise so far was enrollment in the Publishing Course and "12 or 15 jobs."
Alex Kuczynski has an even more involved tale to tell. She was 17 and intent on being the world's greatest poet when she first met Lindy Hess. Some years later, Kuczynski was a college graduate who had made about $1,000 in a year selling her poetry, which a professor told her was "the annual salary of most poets." Kuczynski took the Publishing Course, got a job, hated it, temped, hated it, got another job. Continued to write. Became a reporter at The New York Observer. Became a writer for the Style section of The New York Times. Realized that calling and commerce can mix.
Marking the 50th birthday of the Radcliffe Publishing Course, Kuczynski offered this toast, grounded in reality but worthy of a poet:
To chucking idealism,
And finding it again.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College