Thursday, March 13, 2008

Meditations on a very bad career move. Part 2 of a not-necessarily-sequential series.

My first item on Rodale elicited a somewhat aggrieved email from a former high-level colleague who seemed to feel I'd been a tad unfair. As I reflect on the points he made, I suppose I do need to own up to a few things. Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to walk out on the last year of my commitment to Indiana University. Nobody forced me to take a job in the very belly of the self-help beast. In my defense, I had no idea how bad it was going to be at Rodale, and it's also true that various aspects of my job, as originally framed, turned out to be illusory/nonexistent. But I'm a big boy, and I'd been around the block a time or two. I should've realized that I'd been offered the job only because every managerial-type editor in New York with a track record and an IQ higher than Sean Hannity's had probably turned it down. They grasped what never occurred to me until way too late: that Rodale of that period was very much a company in transition: The company was undergoing a profound culture shock that was converting what had once been a generational labor of love (and one of America's "100 Best Places to Work") into a soulless bureaucratic monolith that—if it loved anything at all—loved the bottom line. Money was why Steve Murphy, mentioned in my first post, was now there, running—reimagining—the company.

Also, Men's Health magazine had recently lost its iconic long-time editor, Mike Lafavore, who'd built the magazine into a powerhouse brand, along the way establishing men's health—not just the magazine but the genre—as a viable publishing niche. Prior to Lafavore's canny stewardship, male health and especially male diet were areas regarded as, well, a bit "gay" for mainstream male consumption. (No homophobia intended there; it was just that prior to around 2000, America remained in the grips of the Real Men Don't Eat Quiche ethos;  whether or not a guy cared about what he ate and/or what shape his triglycerides were in, he was not supposed to admit it publicly.) Lafavore had been replaced by a guy named Greg Gutfeld (yes, that one), who apparently thought articles with themes like "where do your stifled farts go?" were the epitome of sophisticated service journalism. His selection had been something of a mystery from the first, and I soon learned that despite the studiously feng shui'd harmony of the building, hardly a day passed when the Rodale family wasn't upset with Gutfeld for some reason. (He too would be gone before long.)

In short, millennial Rodale was one of those hornet's nests that you don't walk into if you have any sense. I did and I got stung. It's that simple.

Having said that, if there was a project that both epitomized my Rodale Period and brought SHAMland into tighter focus, it would have to be the sports-motivation book* I'd planned to call Get in the Game (later, Stay in the Game), which would've been written by...see, that's the tricky part. Because the concept came first, I was never quite sure who the author would be. (Or I should say, I was never quite sure whose name would appear on the cover. The plan was that the heavy-duty authoring would be done by [1] a ghostwriter who'd be willing to work for minimal royalties or, it eventually became clear, [2] yours truly, who'd work for no royalties at all.**) The name attached to the project was ever in flux, at approximate three- or four-month intervals. I began with Tommy Lasorda, moved on to Sparky Anderson, then finally settled on Cal Ripken (if settled is a word that can ever be used in discussing someone like Ripken). Then I was instructed to forget the idea altogether. That was about a month before I was instructed to forget that I worked there. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

No matter what I'd been told early on, I soon learned that I wouldn't be doing books like Armies of the Night or A Civil Action. It wasn't for lack of trying. Within weeks of my arrival we had the first look at a project that Greg Critser, a very talented editor and Harper's contributor, wanted to write about the food industry. I also began developing a book about the acne drug, Accutane, then being linked to an alarming number of teen suicides. I saw Greg's book as a sure winner—along the lines of Fast Food Nation but deeper and richer—and I thought the Accutane book could be a sleeper, if we got it done for a modest investment. More importantly, they were the kinds of books I could publish and still respect myself in the morning, putting Men's Health on people's radar for something besides six-pack abs and male versions of the "hot new sex moves!" that women had come to expect from Cosmo.

Alas, I also learned that, while technically I was an acquiring editor, I could not do any actual acquiring. Not without getting my ideas vetted by lots of other people. Those people included an editorial board, a marketing committee, and Rodale's beancounters. Securing such approvals was no mean feat, since these weren't the kinds of smiley-faced books that Rodale was accustomed to publishing. In Accutane's case, my peers and superiors had no idea how to "conceptualize" or "position" such a project within Rodale's standard marketing machinery. The idea was dismissed out of hand. (During one meeting, I thought I even saw in the eyes of some of the marketing people bemused looks that might've translated to: "silly boy.") In Critser's case, I discovered that no one wanted to do an out-and-out exposé on the food industry. The book the marketing committee envisioned would also include a redeeming "service component": like what you'd get if you combined Fast Food Nation with The Beverly Hills Diet. They also wanted Greg to jump through a number of additional editorial hoops before they'd even formally consider his proposal.

As it happens, I already knew Greg Critser quite well. Earlier in our respective careers, he'd been my editor for many years at a succession of glossy magazines, and he was not—hmmm, how shall we put this? Let's just say Greg's the kind of guy where, when you say "jump," the two words you get in response will not be "how high." I raised the marketing committee's objections with him as gently as I could, knowing anyway that he'd tell me just where Rodale could stick its silly, mixed-metaphor vision of his book. Greg did not disappoint. He picked up his marbles and rolled them over to Houghton Mifflin, where, by early 2003 (by which time I was long gone from Rodale), he had the cover of the New York Times Book Review for his bestselling, critically acclaimed exploration of America's eating foibles, Fat Land. If Stay in the Game taught me the most about the company for which I now worked, Fat Land will always be remembered, at least by me, as The One That Got Away. Today Critser's book is considered such a landmark work that it's even used as a required text in college courses.

I should mention at this point that the Rodale family had recruited Steve Murphy to its presidency in 2000 to pilot the company's assault on what everyone was calling "Horizon 3." Not a day went by that I didn't hear the phrase from someone, despite the fact that nobody knew just what Horizon 3 was, or how we'd even know when we got there; all we knew was that we somehow depended on H-3 to facilitate our transformation into The New Rodale. Really, to those of us in the trenches, the sole identifying characteristic of The New Rodale was visual, not philosophical: the way it dressed. Understand, Rodale had once been a very Earth Motherly affair, where employees at all levels favored jeans and corduroys. By the time of my arrival that was changing fast, and was especially noticeable in Murphy and the assorted, highly compensated FOS ("friends of Steve") he brought in.

Murphy himself favored trés-continental double-breasted jackets. He owned about 600 of them, and wore each as if intent on wrapping the garment several times around his delicate frame—that is, more like a bathrobe than a suit jacket. (At my first sit-down meeting with him, he wore an ensemble whose stripes were so widely spaced that it almost seemed his entire torso fit between just two of them.) Then there was Michael "don't-call-me-Mike" Carroll, the patrician human-resources chief who worked for us for a few months until Ardie Rodale reportedly took umbrage at the fact that he didn't stop trimming his nails one day when she walked into his office to speak with him. Michael was a tall, debonair fellow who must have thought he looked especially tall and debonair in an overcoat, because he wore the damn thing (complete with scarf) at all times, even indoors on the warmest days of spring. (He was gone by summer, but I have no reason to assume he wouldn't have worn the get-up then, too.) Michael was also one of those guys who has a cell-phone sprouting perpetually from his ear: At lunchtime, you'd see him standing motionless in the middle of the cafeteria, in overcoat and scarf, having a 15-minute conversation on his cell while around him, dozens of employees sat and ate their meals. It was bizarre. You wanted to tug at his coat and say, "Hey Mike…Mike...You're inside, fella. At least take off the freakin' scarf...and stop kicking me for calling you Mike!" Finally (for now), there was Ben Roter, who I think was brought in to teach us fiscal responsibility. No doubt he fine-tuned his plans for fiscal responsibility while driving to work in his Ferrari, drumming his driving-gloved fingers on the wheel. I don't think I ever saw Ben in a jacket, but I assume that anyone whose car costs more than my house must also own some very nice suits....

Next time: The New Rodale tries to get me to see why Get/Stay in the Game is simply not a Horizon 3 project.

* Yes, I admit it: I was going to dabble in Sportsthink. In my defense, I was going to do it on a higher plane than the standard fare. And let's face it, folks: I'd taken the job. I'd moved my family, including my son and his infant daughter, east from Indianapolis. Every two weeks I was cashing the sizable paychecks that went with my title. What were my options? Was I going to stage a sit-in at my desk until the rest of Rodale came around to my way of thinking? With the childlike naivete that has brought me such success on every inside job I've ever taken (you will recognize that as sarcasm and self-derision), I figured I could work from the inside to effect change.
** When you write something as part of a corporate writing/editing staff, as would've been the case here, you do it as a "work for hire." That means you do not share in the copyright and, generally, get no remuneration over and above your regular salary. Once the words are written, it's as if you never existed; your words belong to someone else, in this case, Rodale.


Elizabeth said...

Steve, you say: "With the childlike naivete (...) I figured I could work from the inside to effect change."

My, my, my... Laughing my head off, with distinct fondness and appreciation of your words, Steve.

I can understand this so well. I could have written this sentence myself... :) (Actually, to think of it, I did -- in other places, at various times in my life.)

Oh, them's misguided idealists... LOL.

Anonymous said...

Ho-hum, sour grapes from someone who couldn't cut it in a competitive environment, got fired, and now wants to tar-and-feather everyone and everything he encountered there. Gee, where have I ever heard that kind of stuff before?

Steve Salerno said...

As regulars know, normally I wouldn't countenance a totally ad hominem attack like the foregoing, but as regulars also know, I allow people more leeway when they're attacking me. And perhaps this is a former Rodalian (though s/he doesn't say so), so again, I give more leash.

At the same time, my observations stand on their merits. It "was what it was."

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it might be a current Rodalian.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon #2, you're right, I don't know why I said "former." I guess what I really meant was a contemporary of mine, at the time. But yes, in all likelihood, s/he's still there.

Elizabeth said...

Gee, you may not realize, Anon, that this is a backhanded compliment ("someone who couldn't cut it in a competitive environment").

Not saying that this applies to Steve to begin with -- we don't know yet, do we; so far it's part 2 of several, after all -- but, by and large (with few exceptions), to be able "to cut it in a competitive environment" anywhere requires a psychopathic-like character structure. Not something to be proud of or promote -- in oneself or in others.

Besides, c'mon people, if you are going to throw cheap shots, at least identify yourself somehow, no?

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

I don't always agree with your take on things, as you know, Steve, but I'm with Elizabeth on this one. I don't see why you feel you need to expose yourself like this, or be more tolerant of such attacks when they're aimed at you than when they're aimed at your "guests" on shamblog. And this one's anonymous at that. A cheap shot is a cheap shot.

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff, Steve. I'm a little put off by the episodic format, however. Why don't you just write a book, "Rodale and Me," a la Michael Moore?

Steve Salerno said...

Great idea, Anon. Now find me a publisher. (I don't think Rodale's likely to want it....)

Cal said...

I'm are naming names. I'm not sure you would have done that a few months ago. What is the reason for the change?

Also, do you think current (or former) Rodalians are monitoring your blog?

Sounds like they were 0 for 2 so far. The Fat Land book and also the chance to do a book with Cal Ripken.

Anonymous said...

"Rodale and Me" reminds me of "Marley and Me," written by another ex-Rodalian. Maybe if you put a dog on the cover you, too could have a breakout bestseller!

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, look, what am I really saying about people here, in "naming names"? That they dressed or behaved in idiosyncratic ways? If they want to try to sue for that, more power to 'em.

A lot of funny things happened at Rodale when I first came on-board. And in fairness, some of it was just timing and turmoil. I think that all things being equal, if I were there today and I pitched the Ripken book (which would've been a surefire best-seller, then, given that I was floating the idea as Cal was making his glorious farewell tour of American ballparks), they'd probably do it. But we'll get back to our story again soon.

Btw, to me, the real risk here is not in motivating Rodalians to sue, but in perhaps losing or at least boring normally dedicated SHAMblog readers with this suffocatingly personal ongoing series; it assumes a level of interest in my career (or a certain familiarity with Rodale) that simply may not be there, at least for some people. I hope that's not the case. But we'll see what happens as we move along.

mikecane2008 said...

>>>Now find me a publisher.

Hmph. Some day, Steve, you will wake up to the Screw You, Dinsosaurs! of ebooks and self-publishing.

DIY Book Marketing
Self-Published Ebook = DIY Or Vanity?

This is also why I cringe at the thought of you dropping this blog. EVERY frikkin writer will need *some* sort of blog.

At some point, Apple will get into ebooks and finally bring order and widespread legitimacy to it. Don't be late to THAT party. (Start reading teleread!)

And oh, how the bloody hell does a guy who wears an overcoat and scarf *indoors* manage to keep a job?!

Steve Salerno said...

How does a guy who wears coat/scarf indoors keep a job? Well, that's the thing, Mike. He didn't keep it....

(But then, neither did I. And I made sure to take off my coat and scarf every time.)

mikecane2008 said...

My own little history with Rodale.

In the 1970s, I listened to much talk radio (oh it was far different than today; the Fairness Doctrine was in force!). Rodale's Prevention mag was a big advertiser.

I sprung for a subscription. The magazine was not available any other way.

The magazine was newsprint, pretty thick, and filled with ads from companies I never heard of. 99% of the ads were B&W.

My subscription lapsed.

When I next spied a Prevention magazine years later, it was on sale in a supermarket(!).

And it was no longer anything at all like the Prevention I first encountered. It was 1/4th the thickness, and filled with full-color ads, some from *drug companies*(!). I always wondered what happened.

Now you're telling me!

Anonymous said...

Of course former Rodalians are reading and roaring at Steve's Rodale experience. He's spot-on in his (COULD ANYONE MAKE THESE GUYS UP???) personality profiles.
The person who bought a subscription to Prevention in the 70's probably ordered from Barry Farber on WOR-NY and syndicated. But the mag had a circulation of well over a million then.
Can't see a case for libel in the personality profiles. Isn't truth a defense for libel?
Steve's big concern should be the Rodale PR machine which brooks no negative comments. Watch your back!

Anonymous said...

My vote for top new-era Rodale affectation? The "Pleshette" middle name! Talk about trading on his wife's connection with second-rate celebrity-dom! Who knows, maybe he's been to court to have his name changed since then, but when he was hired, "Pleshette" was no part of his legal name, at least according to the weekly personnel report. (That report, if you read between the lines, was once upon a time one of the best ways to keep tabs on what was going on at the company.)

Anonymous said...

The funny thing about all this is it is all going on again in 2007 / 2008. The had another hush hush layoff at the end of 2007 and then summarily told the remaining rodalians that the company was doing great. Then the exodous began. High paid execs were also forced out and others just left soon after.

Morale is at an all time low. Middle and upper management continues to get promoted to "new" creatively titled postitions. If you can picture an upside down triangle you can picture the org chart.