Friday, February 22, 2008

Meditations on a very bad career move. Part 1 of a not-necessarily-sequential series.

I read with interest this morning that Rodale had another banner year in 2007. The company, based in sleepy Emmaus, PA—just a few miles down the pike from where I write this—remains privately held and is under no particular compulsion to fully disclose its finances, but says it logged record revenues of $632 million last year. Ad pages are up (in a generally tough market), and 13 of its books hit the various New York Times bestseller lists, notable among them LL Cool J's Platinum Workout. Two years ago, Rodale published Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and the company obliterated all kinds of sales records with 2003's The South Beach Diet, which became less a mere book, really, than a cultural gestalt. Though Rodale has gone mainstream in a big way under the recent leadership of Steve Murphy (shown), the company rose to power on a platform of holistic health, New Age spirituality and other aspects of self-improvement. Beginning in the 1950s, but during the 1980s and '90s in particular, there was not a purer, more concentrated mother lode of SHAM-based activity than Rodale. The company's one-time corporate mission statement said it all: "To show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better."

If you read my book and/or are a regular to this blog, you already know that Rodale is the reason why I sit where I sit as I write this. In the spring of 2000 I accepted the company's offer to come in and run its men's books division, officially known as Men's Health Books. In October 2001 I accepted Rodale's offer to stop running that division. (More on this in subsequent installments.) Point being, my Rodale period occasioned a move away from Indianapolis, where I'd been editor-in-chief of American Legion and, later, a professor of journalism at Indiana University's gargantuan Bloomington campus. I was deliriously happy at IU—more comfortable than I'd been at any job, ever. My students loved me, my colleagues tolerated me in spite of myself, and my evaluations were always top-of-the-charts. Which, of course, if you know me, explains why I left.

The head of men's books had always been charged with isolating and developing topics from Men's Health magazine that were worthy of more expansive treatment. Rodale then had a massive, perpetual-motion direct-to-consumer marketing machine that was in voracious need of new (or seemingly new) material to fill prescribed "mailing slots." Like our counterparts in the women's division—their loose blueprint was Prevention—we churned out books in a regular, unending rotation: a fitness book, then a sex book, then a health book, then back to fitness, then sex, and so on. When I came on-board, the prevailing theory was that guys would not willingly buy an out-and-out diet book—"too girlie." That philosophy changed during the 16 months of my employment, so diet books were added to the mix. All of these were promoted via colossally expensive mass-mailings to millions of former customers and others deemed good prospects based on Rodale's proprietary lists and similar market-research indicators. (For years, Rodale's mailing list was one of the most sought-after commodities in the industry.)

I knew I'd be a bad fit at Rodale. To no small degree, I knew this even before I was hired. Certainly I knew it with a rare clarity* by the time I'd gotten settled in at my executive-editor's desk. It is not altogether unrelated to our story that said desk was set so that I faced out the window, with my back to my office's glass-paned entry door. Among other things, this meant I had to work while looking into the daylight, and I'd never know when people were about to enter my office or might simply be hovering outside in the hallway, watching me. I find it impossible to work comfortably like that, and I soon found other Rodalians who felt the same way. We writers and other creatives are picky about the environment in which we create. Not a few of us have to lock ourselves away in hermetic conditions just to be functional, let alone optimally productive. But I was told I'd have to make do; all of the desks at that campus were positioned according to the dictates of feng shui, a personal passion of Ardie Rodale, the eccentric matron who then still ran the company, at least for the record. See, the important thing was that the building was in harmony with the universe, even if the employees contained therein weren't. There's an important lesson right there about some of these New Age types... But I digress.

You won't be surprised to hear that money was a factor in my decision to ignore that little voice that kept repeating, "Do not take this job, putz." The salary was good, very good, especially for a job where one didn't need to commute to the city**, and off-site lunch specials could be had for $4.95. Equally important, the senior vice president who hired me told me exactly what I needed to hear. We'll call him Neil, which makes sense, because that was his name. "We want to upgrade the program, Steve," Neil told me over a steak dinner that cost an exponential multiple of $4.95, one night as we both attended 2000's Book Expo in Chicago. "We want to bring in more serious writing and journalism. You'd be just the guy to oversee that!" I was also led to believe that my relationship with the magazine would be more of a two-way street: that the flow of ideas and "brand development" would go both ways. Now, Neil was a very bright guy—he'd be the first to tell you—and he knew just what he was doing. He'd sized up the psychodynamics in play here, and he understood that I needed a way of saving face. I needed a way of explaining to myself why, after two decades of investigative journalism and delving pieces of social commentary for Harper's and The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, I was going to place myself in an environment where there were seemingly no more important issues in life than (a) sex, (b) six-pack abs, (c) beer and grain spirits, and (d) the interconnectedness of (a), (b) and (c).

Neil gave me that rationale. And I bought in.

More to come.

* Some would say there are few things in life about which I have much clarity.
** In all discussions of writing and journalism, "the city" = Manhattan.


Elizabeth said...

Steve, you say: I faced out the window, with my back to my office's glass-paned entry door. (...) I had to work while looking into the daylight, and I'd never know when people were about to enter my office or might simply be hovering outside in the hallway, watching me.

This is awful. Just reading it made me cringe. And it is in a business that purports to "show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better"...

The irony would be sweet, if the situation weren't so oppressive.

Looking forward to the next part (and the next).

Anonymous said...

Nice blog, Steve, but not everyone is as convinced of Rodale's seeming success as you are. Try for example Business Week.

Cal said...

My first job I had a windowless office, but the person before me had the desk against the wall where they sat. So when I took over the office, my back was against the wall. I hated it, because people could walk in on me without me knowing. So, I switched my desk around so I could see anyone that came into my little office. I know my boss's boss said after I'd changed it that I was had set up a fire hazard. I know I didn't change it back, and he didn't say anything else so I left it my way.

Steve, I always wondered why you never said much about Rodale. But I thought maybe you didn't want to get sued. So I guess you don't give a .... now.

I'm looking forward to further installments. IU sounds like a nice place, but I know I would have hated the winter weather. How could you give up San Diego?

Elizabeth said...

OK, Steve, so you took a job that made you uncomfortable, but paid well -- and set you up for what appears to be a massive inner conflict. It does not make you a putz, merely human. Unless independently rich, we all have to make money somehow to survive in this world (or so my husband tells me -- and I don't think he'd lie to me).

Your decision is understandable, especially since they promised you creative control, or input, and all. (You'd be a putz not to take it, frankly.)

But of course there is more to your story. Don't let us wait too long.

Elizabeth said...

This is completely off topic,* Steve, but:

You have the best group of faithful commentators on your blog. I'm reading through your archives, including the comments section (well, yes, a sure sign that there is an urgent unfinished project hanging over my head;) -- and keep smiling. What a treat! (Your blog and bloggers, that is, not the project over my head.)

The forums I usually visit are either dully professional (no offense to my colleagues and friends), or competitively academic (of the kind where if no heads are ripped off, the exchange of ideas was unsatisfactory). And then there is the vast, uninviting blogosphere of random, lonely and largely incoherent voices.

But your space is different. Somehow you've managed to create an atmosphere that encourages the type of friendly discourse which is rare in the cyberspace. Darn surprising, given the subject of your blog :).

Not that it is always so warm and fuzzy (hey, I saw that cringe!). You've had some invigorating go-for-the-jugular exchanges in the past as well.

It's weird -- and not at all unpleasant (delightful and refreshing, in fact). It reminds me of the Aunt Thelma's cozy tea salon (it's an obscure reference, so never mind -- but it's all good).

("All good?" Eeeww... Am I allowed to say it here...? Kidding, of course. ;)

What also stands out is how much your readers have grown to like and care for you, relying on your posts to not only give them your comments on the latest example of our daily life absurdities, but also to get your advice on how to live. (Though "advice" is a bit too strong of a word here, I'd say.)

Strange and paradoxical (or not at all). If I did not know any better, I'd suspect the makings of a small cult here, with a reluctant and self-deprecating (anti)guru at its center. ;)

It is presumptuous of me to make these remarks, no doubt, especially after I plopped myself so unceremoniously (and by accident, really) right in the middle of your space. But I thought that you actually may enjoy my observations here (that's the most presumptuous part, I guess) and perhaps even find in them a bit of encouragement to keep the blog going, despite your occasional misgivings about its usefulness.

*Though I think a couple of visitors commented recently on it as well.

P.S. Post it, if you wish, of course; but if not, it's totally OK.

Your PR Guy said...

Now the truth is coming out. See, if you stayed around here, you might've gotten the top editor's seat at Indianapolis Monthly, and we could've shared coffee and conversation at the quarterly Meet the Media get together that the PRSA Hoosier Chapter sponsors.

The IM brass gave use the demographic and psychographic low-down about their magazine. Also gloated about their greatness.

Melanie Gold said...

I too live not far from "sleepy Emmaus, PA" and my husband always criticized Rodale. I was never sure why he was so critical--I mean, I (the pinko liberal in the family) was chomping at the bit to get into their organic cafeteria and work my abs in their on-site gym!

I'm a writer with a background in "managing editorial" or book production, and it wasn't until I heard you speak today that hubby told me he didn't like Rodale because they didn't hire me for any of the jobs I'd applied for. Now, of course, he's glad they didn't, because my work took me to "the city" and now I work from home. I say when and how much, just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. ;-)

Still, I've always been glad that a publishing house exists in my backyard, and I'm almost afraid to read about your experiences there, for fear I might cry into my rose-colored glasses.

But read on I will.

Anonymous said...

I've had bad experiences with Rodale. We got on their mailing list once after ordering a book about cooking, I think it was, and then other books began arriving, and I couldn't seem to get it to stop. And the solicitations for still more books were endless. I hear what you're saying about their marketing, it never ends.

Anonymous said...

There are more important issues in life than sex and bourbon?! *Now* you tell me...

mikecane2008 said...

>>>My students loved me, my colleagues tolerated me in spite of myself, and my evaluations were always top-of-the-charts. Which, of course, if you know me, explains why I left.

Is this a variant of the Groucho Marx line?

Steve Salerno said...

Yeah, Mike, but my basic problem is, few clubs would have me in the first place.

mikecane2008 said...

Steve: Join the club! Ha!

Elizabeth said...

Mike and Steve,
I believe this one is called The Misfit Club (and I say it fondly) -- and it's quite populated, thank you very much. But there is always room there for another odd duck or two. :)