How to Make Paper Flowers

 

After the war — that’s World War II, I’m talking about, what did you think? — I went to work as copywriter for a tiny Mad Ave. advertising agency called Thwing & Altman. It wasn’t a boring job, and one of the things I liked about it was that one of my favorite over-the-top novelists, Tiffany Thayer, was among my predecessors in holding it. But I turned out to be good at that kind of work, and they weren’t paying me particularly well, so before long I was studying the Help Wanted pages in the Times again.

It was still a boom time for the unemployed. Jobs were begging for people to fill them as America got back in the business of business. There was one particular listing which seemed to be addressed to me almost by name — I no longer remember what it was in the specifications that seemed to bear my initials, but the moment I saw the ad I lusted for it. The ad had been placed by an employment agency, so I called them up, made an appointment, sneaked out of the office with some of my roughs under my arm and laid them proudly before the man who had agreed to see me.

“Um,” he said. “Not too bad. Have you made a resume?” Of course I had, but when I handed it to him he looked puzzled. He gave me a dubious glance, studied the resume one more time and then said, “It doesn’t name the college you went to.”

At times in the past I had wondered if that question might ever handicap me in my chosen career. But no one who ever hired me for anything had ever asked about it before, so his comment rather surprised me. “Óh,” I said, “I never went to a college. I dropped out of high school as soon as I was seventeen.”

That got a reaction out of him. He gave me a scowl of repugnance, stuffed all my papers back into their folder and said, “You’ve wasted my time. This is a good job with a very important publishing company. Naturally they’re not going to hire anyone without at least a bachelor’s degree.” And I crept out of his office in humility, hardly daring to look at even the receptionist out of my high-school-dropout eyes.

But the ad was still in the paper on the next Sunday, as well as the as the Sunday after that. Moreover, although there were plenty of other jobs on offer, there weren’t any that seemed to be calling me by name, so I got back on the phone. “I called,” I said, after identifying myself and feeling the temperature drop when I did, “because I noticed that ad was still running, and I wondered — ”

“Mr. Pohl,” he said severely, “I told you that you’re simply not qualified for a job of this caliber. If anything comes up that might suit you I’ll keep you in mind. Goodbye.”

I hung up, meditating violence. But time passed and I cooled down. And, more important, the ad continued to run. So a few weeks later I called again. My account executive was beginning to sound tired of the subject, but he admitted they had run out of candidates. “All right,” he said. “I don’t suppose it would hurt anything if I let you try your luck. It’s the Popular Science Publishing Company, on Fourth Avenue around 28th Street. The man you want to see is their advertising director for circulation and books, and his name is George Spoerer. I’ll give him a call to say you’re coming — ”

“Well, no,” I said. “Let’s not do that. I’ll call him for an appointment myself. And, don’t worry, I won’t forget about your commission on my first week’s salary.”

I had been worrying a little myself about what this hard to please Mr. Spoerer might be like, but on the phone he sounded like a reasonable human being and when I got to his office he looked and acted that way too. Not only that, but, when I showed him some of the house ads I’d written at Popular Publications, he revealed himself as at least a part-time science-fiction fan. And when George Spoerer had decided I could do the job he walked me into the office of his boss, the Circulation Manager of the company, Eugene Watson, and he wasn’t bad either. And twenty minutes later I had the job.

I didn’t know how my account executive at the employment agency would take that news. When I phoned he just sighed a long sigh and began reminding me that, under New York law, their commission was a collectible debt and they would expect weekly checks from me until it was paid off. “All right,” I said, and hung up.”

I had intended at least to say “thank you,” but it no longer sounded appropriate.

 
I forgot to mention that, as I was leaving, George said, “Did I tell you about your other jobs?” And when I said an apprehensive no he said, “Don’t look so apprehensive. One is Subscription Fulfillment Manager, and all that requires is that you let Old Jim tell you what’s going on in that department so you can answer any questions the higher brass might ask. That’s where we have twenty-five young girls to type out the addressograph stencils that make labels for subscribers. Old Jim is the actual boss of the department because he’s too old and too religious to cause any trouble with those twenty-five young girls. But he’s hopeless when he tries to talk to a vice president.”

As I had never talked to a corporate vice president myself I crossed my fingers and went on to the next point. “And the other job?”

“That’s no sweat, too. The title is Book Editor for books published by our two magazines, Popular Science and Outdoor Life. We make a good thing out of mail-order books for home handymen and sport fishers. Since the magazines buy all rights we take material that appears in the magazines and retread it for how-to books.

“You don’t do that work yourself, of course. You hire an editor to do it, and you just make sure it’s done right — I’ll show you how it’s done over the table at the Gramercy Park, if you’ll have lunch with me on Monday.”

“A week from Monday, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I’d like to give Mr. Altman a little notice.” And a week from Monday it was.

The Gramercy Park was an elderly hotel just off the actual Gramercy Park that happened to have a good kitchen. I’m afraid my mind was about as much on the chicken a la Reine I was putting away as on what George was saying, but then every other sentence he said was something like, “But of course the editor you hire will know how to do this, so you don’t have to. I’ll give you some names.”

He was absolutely right about that, as I discovered when he walked me through the early stages of the next book on the schedule. It was to be called some variation on The Home Handyman’s Guide to Radios You Can Build in Your Spare Time, because they all were named something like that, and the contents were just what the title said they would be. The raw materials for the book were two copies of every page of home-handyman bits in the previous year of the magazine — everything since the last book was put together — plus a few dozen pretty good articles from earlier issues that just hadn’t fitted into previous books.

And, I emphasize, “fitted” is the operative term. If you had a piece about how any home handyman could build a radio into a model auto that filled two full columns of layout space and half of a third, the first thing you had to do before you could commit yourself to it was to find another piece that started with a half column of text. Putting a volume together was more like solving some holiday-special jigsaw puzzle than an actual editorial experience. It was desirable that contiguous pieces seem to have a logical reason for being where they were, yes, but that was not nearly as important as making them fit together on the page.

And all that was far from the hardest part of the job. The hardest part of all was done by the printer to whom the office handed the list of pieces to go into each volume. The books were printed on the same high-speed rotary presses as the magazines — letterpress still — and each form of 8, 16 or 32 pages was a single piece of metal, curved to fit the cylindrical presses. Once the printers had been told what material I wanted to put in the book, they had cut the metal forms apart and then reassemble all of the bits in their proper places for the book’s pages, which were then run off on much the same presses — though in considerably smaller quantities.

Oh, and there was a fair amount of color in use on those pages, for which reason more than one plate was needed for each such piece. What a filing system those printers must have had! And what patience.

Anyway, once enough material for a 256-page book was on hand the book was printed and bound into rather nice-looking hard covers. These came in two classes. The regular edition sold for $2.98 or so, and the “De Luxe” edition, bound in a different color cloth, cost the buyer some 50¢ more. It should not be assumed, though, that the De Luxe edition cost more to manufacture than the cheaper regular one. Sometimes it accidentally did, but not often. The price difference might just as well go in the other direction, and was never more than a penny or two. What made the De Luxe edition De Luxe was simply that we said it was. But some thousands of our customers were always willing to pay the higher price.

But, George told me, all that technical stuff I could farm out. My real, and actually rather urgent, duties in the book-publishing area, George explained to me, were more selling than creating. In a perhaps ill-advised effort to diversify, a previous editor had commissioned two rather unsuccessful books, one called Outdoor Life’s Gallery of North American Gameand the other a complete stranger to any market PopSci had ever dealt with before, How to Make Paper Flowers and Party Decorations: The Complete Book of Paper Handcraft. With those wonderful subscription lists of the customers for the two magazines for mail-order sales, the book department dealt in rather higher numbers for first printings than many publishers. Both books had had print orders of 50,000 copies.

The Gallery had gone through five or six attempts at making a mail-order appeal that would snap them all up, but the snapping had been a great disappointment. Well over 45,000 copies still languished unsold in the warehouse, in spite of price cuts of as much as 50 percent. With Paper Flowers the situation was slightly less catastrophic. Test mailings had begun while the book was still on the presses, and the results had been so bad that, after several equally sorrowful additional test mailings, the printed pages had been dumped, unbound, into the warehouse, awaiting some decision on whether to bind them and try other things for sales — or dump the pages, still unbound, into the trashcans rather than incur more costs on a doomed effort.

As it happened, I did in fact devise a mailing that ultimately cleaned out every last copy of the Gallery and managed a save on a smaller edition of Paper Flowers as well. But, although faint stirrings of a desire to publish books of other kinds had begun to rumble in my chest, the evidence of those books put the fire out pretty easily. So much for my second editorial job.

When I decided to quit PopSci (in the face of invitations to stay with yet another raise), I chanced to mention the matter at a little party, most of the attendees of which were sf writers, or at least wished they were.. One was Phil Klass, the real name of the author William Tenn, a name that was rapidly becoming famous for his sardonic view of the future. Phil looked so interested in my news that I got suspicious and asked him if he thought he might be interested in the job I was leaving.

“Oh,” he said, “I surely would. Have you ever tried to live on the income from writing short stories?” I had. So I agreed to help him, and so a few days later. I took him into George Spoerer’s office to meet my boss, who, after we had talked for a bit, took us both to Gene Watson’s office. But Gene had other ideas. He thanked Phil for coming in, but it turned out he had already made up his mind about who he wanted to hire for the job. It was the young woman who, for the last five years, had been my secretary, and had the unbeatable advantage of already knowing the job so well there wouldn’t have to be any breaking-in period..

Phil got something out of the experience, though. He created a stand-up farce out of the incident, taking all the parts, and if I had been Gene Watson and had seen it I would have sued him. That is, I would have if I could have stopped laughing long enough.

2 Comments

  1. H. E. Parmer says:

    I have fond memories of reading Dad’s old PopSci magazines from the 50s, when I was a child back in the early 60s: Nuclear-powered jets, giant atoic cargo subs plying the short route to the Pacific under the polar ice cap, hovercars, home breeder reactors and all-plastic vacation cabins in the mountains.

    Like the man said: “The Future ain’t what it used to be.”

    Which, in the case of the nuclear-powered jets and the home breeder reactors, is probably a good thing. A hovercar would be pretty cool, though I’d bet the mileage would really suck.

  2. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    Thanks for that, Fred. For reasons too complicated to explain, I am putting together a talk on Henry H. Windsor, Sr., who in 1902 founded Popular Mechanics, the chief rival of Popular Science.

    Windsor produced books much like the ones you described, mining past issues of his magazine for how-to articles. I like The Boy Mechanic (1913, and many succeeding editions). The order of the articles is so hodgepodge that I suspect it was laid out just the way your books were.

    It’s full of projects that modern parents wouldn’t let their kids NEAR. For example, in the first volume, the words “nitric acid” and “sulphuric acid” appear together in four different articles. Because sometimes, a boy just has to etch something, you know?