Why and How We Became Publishers Part Two, Remembering the Canal Zone

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal. Oil by Herb Knapp

In 1983, we were back in the States, having lived and taught in the Panama Canal Zone for almost 20 years. The Canal Zone was a unique American community very similar to the fictitious utopia Edward Bellamy described in his book Looking Backward, which was hugely popular at just the time the Canal was being built.

Nowhere on earth had such a place like the Canal Zone existed. We believed it deserved a close look before it disappeared forever. We decided to write a combination memoir and history about the Zone. We’d call it Red, White, and Blue Paradise.

Since we had been unhappy with our agent, we decided to sell it to a publisher ourselves. I sent a pitch letter to an editor named Jovanovich because I once had a student by that name. I didn’t realize that at the time he was the president of what was then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

718 El Prado, Balboa Canal Zone, early morning. Oil by Herb
718 El Prado, Balboa Canal Zone, early morning. Oil by Herb Knapp

He liked the book. Sent us a splendid advance and turned us over to a junior editor. She told us to make it shorter but made no suggestions about what to cut, which we took to be a brush-off. Weren’t editors supposed to edit? We asked to see the readers’ reports.  She delayed sending them, but when she finally did, we understood. They hated it.

We thought “they” bought our book because “they” thought we could all make money from it. We now realized “they” had not bought it. Their boss had. The book’s title alone was enough to offend their liberal sensibilities.

We knew some liberals thought America was an evil, imperialist nation, and that the Zonians were illiterate bigots, but we had not yet grasped the intensity of these feelings in some quarters of the publishing world. We were still pretty naïve about politics.

The book was mentioned in The National Review, and we thought we were off to a good start. But when our editor told us the sales department didn’t think it would be worth while to set up a booth at the Panama Canal Convention in Florida, we realized they intended for the book to fail. We weren’t surprised to get a letter saying the book wasn’t selling and would be pulped—unless we wanted to buy the inventory, an option that was in our contract.

We sent them a check, and before long an eighteen-wheeler pulled up in our driveway. Using a forklift, the driver stocked one side of our double garage with thousands of books on wooden pallets. Mary took them on as inventory for The Flying Book, a mail-order book business she’d started which until then had been focused on supplying books to Americans living abroad. We spent a couple of hundred dollars on advertising and began selling copies at a rapid pace, making much more money on each copy than we would have made if our publisher had sold them for us. By the time we moved to Manhattan, we had sold them all.  (Next: We discover that while we weren’t looking, a miraculous change had occurred in the publishing industry.)      —HK