Last fall, fledgling publisher Philip Fradkin took his first book, "Broken Shore: The Marin Peninsula in California History" by Arthur Cuinn (Redwood Press: $9.95) to the Northern California Booksellers Assn. trade show. The book was, in fact, not due to reach bookstores until January, and on the first morning of the fair Fradkin had only covers to display until his partner, Dianne Brent, rushed in with some copies that had just arrived from the printer by express mail.
It was, he thought, a shaky start for his campaign to compete for attention with the "slickly organized efforts" of the major publishers. Across the way, for example, Prentice Hall had set up several tables of titles--with "Delicious Sex" perhaps the most provocative and certainly more eye-catching than "Broken Shore."
But surely, Fradkin thought, he could get some publicity out of this, and he shot off an essay on his "humble beginnings" in the publishing world to the book sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. When they showed no interest, he sent it to Publishers Weekly, which did.
Getting his story printed there was just the beginning of his promotional efforts, he said. "I quickly put a mailing together--I love to do mailings--and sent it to bookstores with a cover letter saying, 'It was nice meeting you at the book show, this is what I had to say, I hope you order, these are the distributors.'
"It draws their attention to the title, and myself as an editor. I got inquiries from all over the country. Suddenly I was a guru, a rather ignorant guru."
Fradkin defines himself as "a person who writes, publishes and sells books, writes book reviews, and has taught writing." Reading, according to his resume, is a "major interest," and judging from his book-crammed house at the Pacific edge of Marin County, so is buying books.
For the last year, though, publishing has been the "major interest." Starting up a small press is a lot easier now than it was 10 years ago, Fradkin said, because there are more small publishers around. "A small book publisher can come in and fill a vacuum, and can operate without a lot of overhead," he said. "It doesn't take any equipment to start a press."
Fradkin, 51, started out to be a journalist, not a publisher. He grew up in Montclair, N.J., and went to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. After service in the Army as a draftee, he came to California in 1960.
He was drawn to the West by what he saw as an "image of freedom and independence."
He promptly found a job as a general assignment reporter and display advertising salesman at the little San Carlos Enquirer, moving on to reporting jobs at a small daily in Turlock and then a mid-sized daily in San Rafael.
From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, he was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. "I had a wonderful time, but the (newspaper) format is restrictive in how and what you can say," he recalled. "I am happiest in the medium of books."
The first book he wrote, "California, the Golden Coast," was published by Viking in 1974. His second, "A River No More: The Colorado River and the West" (Alfred A. Knopf, $15.95), came out in 1981.
In 1975, he left The Times to become assistant secretary of the California Resources Agency for a year during the first administration of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., and then Western editor of Audubon magazine. Since 1980, he said "I have mostly worked for myself. What you can surrender is security, but my needs are very small. I would rather be at the top of my very small hill than halfway up someone else's large hill."
Writes and Teaches
He writes books and magazine articles, mostly on environmental subjects, teaches off and on at the Mass Media Institute of Stanford University and the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley, runs his Redwood Press and works part-time in a bookstore.
Currently, he is writing a book about land in the West--working title, "Sagebrush Country"--and is about to redo another one, on fallout from the Nevada test site. He got into publishing, he said, as part of what he described as "the distressing experience" of disagreeing with his publisher on the direction of the fallout book.
Also, he said that "in talking to editors and agents in New York when I go back there, I find a prejudiced, stereotyped vision of the West. They would like to produce things within that context.
"My love of the West is (because) the region is so great, and my knowledge extensive. I am not seeing people back East willing to deal with it on those terms. They have the view of the New Yorker (cover) of everything diminished West of the Hudson."
He has a more directly personal motive, too: "My drive is to become independent. No matter how benign employers are, they are taking your life and effort and giving a minimum amount in return."
He was introduced to "Broken Shore" by a student in his news writing class at UC Berkeley, who mentioned that his rhetoric professor, Arthur Quinn, had written a book Fradkin might enjoy.
He indeed "just loved it." But though the text was worthy, the book had a stark yellow and black cover, no illustrations and no index, and so it soon sank into obscurity. Fradkin had found it on a remainders table in a Berkeley bookstore.
He was not thinking of publishing then. However, by the time he bumped into the student again, and was told that Quinn was eager to get "Broken Shore" resurrected, he was looking for a first project. The two men had lunch, and quickly closed a deal.
Sought and Took Advice
"I went very slowly," Fradkin said. "I had to learn each step as I went. I would go research type setting, then put the bids out, then do the same with printing, and the same with design." He sought and gladly took advice from other publishers, gradually learning what to do--and also what not to do, from those who hadn't made it.
He read widely, the shelves in the little office at the top of his house are lined with "how-to" books--and took classes. "The first course was publishing as a business," he said. "I figured I had to understand it from the business point of view first if I am going to be successful.
"Then I took copy editing, which is a highly technical process. It taught me that, and that I am not a copy editor. I don't have the mind for minutia, or consistency. But I learned how you can farm out copy-editing work. Now I am taking book marketing--how to sell and promote books."
Three afternoons a week, he works at Robbins Book Shop in Petaluma. "There I see how books are sold, how people can and cannot be persuaded to buy, how (publishers' representatives) sell their wares, how and where books are placed," he said. "It is very humbling for an author to see the vast number of books that go through a bookstore, and how minuscule your two books, 'River No More' and 'Broken Shore,' are."
When customers show interest in regional or Western history, Fradkin points them in the direction of "Broken Shore." The book has sold well, which "shows what can be done for a title in a bookstore if there is enthusiasm for it," he said. Nor is Fradkin shy about telling customers "Now, I happen to be the publisher."
The University of Arizona Press paperback edition of "River No More" is still available, but Fradkin said "the copies in the store stood there for some time before I got there." He tells perspective purchasers that he is its author and is "not reticent" about autographing it.
In promoting "Broken Shore," he went into a store that was part of a large chain and had "my friends appear, and phone, and ask for it. A person from the chain called in a sweat and asked, 'Where can we get your book?' "
Fradkin takes books "from conception to sale." After a manuscript is delivered, he said, "I do the overall editing, make suggestions for changes, farm out the copy editing and design work. I like to be heavily involved in that. I don't have the technical background, though.
"Because small publishing is flourishing, there are any number of book printers, mostly in and around Ann Arbor, Mich. They print the books and ship them back. Single or double orders I do here. You can store the books at home or rent a space and have other people do the packaging and billing and send off the larger orders. Fortunately, I don't store the books I print right here. There is nothing more discouraging than surveying unsold books."