Bob Nirkind: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The following is a guest post from recently retired Senior Acquisitions Editor Bob Nirkind, who reflects on his many years in publishing. We’ll miss Bob’s sense of humor, unparalleled work ethic, and true friendship, but we know we’ll be seeing him around!

As my career in publishing wound down—grinding to a halt on 6/ 12—I thought a lot about my 37 years in it: 18 years in educational publishing, followed by 19 in trade. Neither remotely resembles the business it was back then.

I began my career in two divisions at McGraw-Hill, losing my job each time when they relocated—the first to Oklahoma City (a short-lived, ill-conceived venture), the second to Columbus, Ohio (where, when asked if I’d consider relocating, I said that, being from Detroit, I’d rather have my fingernails torn out than return to the Midwest).

I moved on to HarperCollins in time for the merger of its college division with Addison-Wesley’s, and worked for a terrific boss who built an effective development group, only to be pushed out because the acquisitions managers wanted the department under their control. I was forced to resign before being fired for daring to disagree with my boss over whether, as a cost-saving measure, the second edition of an abnormal psychology book should be retooled as black & white in a four-color market, and paperback in a hardcover market (I said the changes would effectively gut the book).

I spent two years working freelance from home, only missing the involvement in projects from start to finish. I became an editor in the college division at St. Martin’s Press and watched “no changes” made after it was bought by German publisher von Holtzbrinck.

More than ready for a change, I accepted a job in trade publishing at Watson-Guptill, a division of VNU (none of us knew what it stood for; we just told anyone who asked that it was a big Dutch media corporation). For a while, I lived my dream of acquiring and developing books on music, musicians, and the music business. Over 12 years I experienced both the joy and excitement of seeing the division expand into new areas and the disappointment and frustration of watching a succession of “leaders” lead it to new lows. I’ve rarely been happier and more relieved than the morning I was laid off–a “difficult decision,” I was told. I just asked what my package was to be and how soon I could leave. (W-G was sold to Random House, where it became less than a shadow of its former self.)

That leaves the best for last—AMACOM, where, for eight years, I had the privilege of working for the best publishers, the best boss, the most talented staff, and some of the smartest, most talented authors in this business. When she hired me, I told Ellen Kadin this would be my last job in publishing, that when I turned 66 I was done. I’m done.

For 61 years, my life has largely been driven by school and work. I’ll never read another textbook, likely never pick up another business book. I’ll still do freelance work, and will never regret my career in publishing. Moreover, it’s comforting to know that the light at the end of the tunnel was not an oncoming train, but a path to finally being able to answer the question of what I’m going to do when I grow up.

While Bob has retired from the 9-5, he will continue to edit projects freelance for AMACOM Books.

Previous posts by Bob Nirkind:


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