A Long Road With No Turns

The long and winding road celebrated in song by the Beatles can lead you to the door of an academic press, but sometimes authors lacking a Ph.D. or an academic position can find the process of getting a book into print makes them feel like a real nowhere man.

My academic press journey came together this year as Johns Hopkins University Press published Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design. But the process started almost two decades ago in 1999, with an idea that emerged out of job search paranoia. Back then, I was working at Penn State University and searching for other jobs within the university. I found that I often lost out to candidates with less experience but more impressive academic credentials (I graduated from Ohio State University in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism). I thought, “maybe I could write a book as a master’s degree project.”

I immediately made an appointment with Penn State’s most prolific popular author, Stan Weintraub, who has written more than 20 nonfiction books, most of them biographies or narrative histories. His books include “Eleven Days in December,” “Silent Night,” “Uncrowned King,” “Edward the Caresser” and “ MacArthur’s War.” I pitched my idea, a biography of Raymond Loewy, one of the most famous and prolific industrial designer’s of the 20th century. He loved the idea, but asked a simple question: “Do you want to spend a lot of time taking graduate courses?” I replied, “Not really.” He came back with “I would just write the book.”

Stan, who had never met me before I walked into his office, spent the next 45 minutes explaining how to get published. I’m forever grateful.  His advice was to write a long magazine article (4,000 to 5,000 words) that can serve as a sample chapter and get that published—anywhere. I published an article on the construction of the Loewy-designed Pennsylvania Railroad S-1 locomotive in Pennsylvania Heritage magazine.

Stan recommended sending it to commercial presses, but by 2000, the market for non-fiction was squeezed tighter than Steve Bannon’s safari jacket. Unless my book was a Hollywood tell-all, a political memoir or had something to do with vampires, dystopian societies or featured the word “Girl” in the title, no thank you. Stan then pointed me toward university presses.

When the chapter was published in 2004, I shopped it around and secured a go-ahead from the University of Notre Dame Press for a “popular” biography. I started my research and immediately applied for several research grants. Someone wrote that “journalists are not thin-skinned, they have no skin” – an observation that I’d say still holds true. For book publishing, you need thicker skin than John Merrick. The reviewers chosen panned the project. Most mentioned my lack of “scholarly rigor,” lack of a doctorate and one sneered I had held “low-level journalism jobs.” Ouch. Hey, I worked at a national news magazine, an international newspaper in Tokyo and a couple metro dailies. I eventually paid my way to the Loewy archives at the Hagley Museum in Delaware and the Library of Congress.

When I handed in the final manuscript, my editor Chuck Van Hof sent it out to readers. Their reports were so wildly divergent that it seemed unlikely they’d read the same book. One wanted me to delve deeply into Loewy’s psyche and expand my reporting to include interviews with Loewy’s wife. Noble goals, but hard to accomplish when both subjects are deceased and left little personal correspondence. The other reader felt I should cut out everything but three chapters on Loewy’s car design. Chuck advised to expand the car section a bit and ignore the other suggestions. Cue the heavenly choir rejoicing. Extensive rewrites ensue.

I handed in the rewritten manuscript, and fittingly for a Catholic institution, the book entered limbo for several years. There was an editorial shuffle, a retirement and finally, a new editor sent it out to readers. Sort of. It turned out that Notre Dame’s stable of readers were focused primarily on religion and many reader candidates did not think the manuscript was scholarly enough. They decided not to publish. Cue the soundtrack from “The Omen.”

Luckily, executive editor Harv Humphrey wrote a generous letter of recommendation and suggested three university presses: MIT, University of Delaware, and Johns Hopkins. Since Johns Hopkins published Loewy’s memoir, “Never Leave Well Enough Alone,” I sent it off to acquisitions editor Elizabeth Demers, who accepted the manuscript. Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Streamliner was published Aug. 15.

John Wall, a former journalist, spent 23 years as a higher education public relations specialist at Penn State University and Juniata College. He is the author of Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design.