Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dan Ehrenhaft: How I Got into Publishing

Nearly twenty years after the fact, I still can’t believe this really happened.

It was May 1993, and I was a senior at Columbia College. Like many of my friends, I had nothing concrete planned for post-graduation. I knew that I wanted to work in children’s publishing, only because I still loved reading “children’s books” at age 22 (everything from Jon Scieszka’s recently published Stinky Cheese Man to S.E. Hinton and Lois Duncan) and I also knew that I’d like to write a book for kids someday.  But I hadn’t interned at a children’s publisher; I hadn’t reached out to potential mentors; there weren’t even any children’s bookstores on the Upper West Side.

Three days before graduation, I panicked. This was pre-Internet. There were no listservs or search engines; my only choice was to go where all the uninformed and desperate went...The Columbia Job Board.  (I’ve since written about The Columbia Job Board in a novel because it still seems too strange to have truly existed: A giant length of cork smothered in alphabetized post-its.)  The only listing under PUBLISHING, CHILDREN’S read: Write cover copy for Sweet Valley High novels!  There was more—involving the actual nature of the job—but to this day, that’s all I remember.

I called the number and arranged an interview. I’m pretty sure I was the only applicant. The company was Daniel Weiss Associates, Inc: a packager that developed mass-market teen series for Random House and HarperCollins. There were nine employees. Two of my senior colleagues were Ann Brashares and Les Morgenstein. Both were 26 years old.  My boss was Elise Howard. 

Over the next few years, under their tutelage, I lived and breathed not only Sweet Valley High (and its many spin-offs) but the entire spectrum of mass-market thrillers and romances that defined teen fiction in the early nineties.  At the same time, we avidly devoured classic children’s literature, “grown-up” bestsellers, films, TV shows; we’d go anywhere for a compelling story. I couldn’t have dreamed a better immersive education if I’d tried. Every waking hour was spent reading, absorbing, editing, writing, brainstorming, attending readings and publishing events, looking for exceptional voices—all in an effort to create and package new hit properties for our publisher clients: something that might live up to the otherworldly success of Sweet Valley High.  

Elise soon left for HarperCollins. Later, Daniel Weiss sold the company to Les and Ann. That company became 17th Street Productions, and ultimately Alloy Entertainment.

Libba Bray once likened this 90s incarnation of Alloy to the Brill Building. Given what I learned and the people I was lucky enough to meet, I’d say that this is a fair analogy.  I’ll always consider Les, Ann, and Elise mentors; all helped me arrive at Soho Press—where (not surprisingly) a small, mutually supportive, and brilliant workforce thrives.  No wonder it feels like home.

1 comment:

  1. Sweet Valley is like the six degrees of publishing... everyone's got a story about that those books!