How Madonna Propelled Me into Publishing
by Jean Davies Okimoto
After 32 years as a practicing psychotherapist, at age 67, at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression, I did perhaps one of the nuttiest things I’d ever done: I started a small publishing company. I suppose it would have been worse if the publishing world had been entirely foreign to me, but I had worn hats of both author and therapist almost from the beginning of my dual careers.
My first book, a children’s book, was published in 1978, and I had seen the publishing industry go through many changes and many lean years. But the year I started my publishing company was the worst. Independent bookstores were fizzling like town blacksmiths with the invention of the automobile; library budgets were being slashed; banks were failing; and most of the big publishers were handing out buckets of pink slips, hoping to keep their companies afloat.
It was in this deadly business climate that Endicott & Hugh Books was born. Our mission was to publish fiction for older readers, a huge demographic with boomers hitting retirement age, and one I strongly believed had not been well served by corporate publishing.
Endicott & Hugh Books got its name from the middle names of my mother and father. Had they been alive, I’m sure they would have gotten a kick out of the rather posh sound of Endicott & Hugh Books and the image it evoked of some silver-haired, tweedy preppie guy, chewing on an unlit pipe (not a bong), running the company from Boston, in a Beacon Hill office, or better yet London, complete with its solid mahogany door and polished brass name plate: ENDICOTT& HUGHBOOKS. It is a vision quite disconnected from the actual company headquarters—my somewhat musty basement, which also serves as a playroom when our grandchildren visit.
How It All Started with Arnold
My career as a publisher can be traced back to 1990 when Little, Brown published what was then my eighth book for children, Blumpoe the Grumpoe Meets Arnold the Cat, a picture book based on the Anderson House Hotel, a country inn in Wabasha, Minnesota, which has a dozen cats they loan guests who would like a four-legged companion for the night. I named my cat protagonist Arnold because I liked the alliteration with Anderson House, even though the hotel didn’t actually have a cat named Arnold.
As the publication date got closer, it began to bother me that the Anderson House had no Arnold. The more I thought about the Anderson House with no Arnold, the more I felt I must try to remedy the situation, and I approached the owner of the hotel with a proposition. It was quite simple: I would adopt a cat from a shelter; we would name it Arnold and present it to the hotel as we launched the book.
The owner thought it was a dandy idea, and I contacted the Hennepin County Humane Society and explained my mission. I described the way Arnold looked in the book, and they assured me that it would be no problem for them to come up with a white-nosed, somewhat skinny black cat that would fit Arnold’s description.
My husband and I flew to Minneapolis a few days before the book launch, eager to rescue the cat who would be Arnold. But when I arrived at the Hennepin County Humane Society, I was confronted with a difficult situation—a dilemma I had never anticipated. The staff had set aside not one, but four black cats with white noses. It was awful. Like Sophie’s Choice.
I felt terrible about the three cats that would remain at the shelter, and I tried not to think about their fate. Then I imagined adopting them all and writing a sequel to the book to accommodate four Arnolds, but when I pictured arriving at the hotel with four cats and the promise of a sequel, I suspected it might not go over so well. There was no avoiding it. I had to face the four homeless cats and make the choice. It turned out that the cat that best fit the description of Arnold was a girl, but gender seemed inconsequential, and we left for Wabasha with one female, white-nosed, skinny, rather shy black cat: Arnold.
The launch was a great success. Arnold’s photo and reviews of the book appeared in major newspapers in Minnesota, and we got a lucky break when ABC News did a piece about the hotel and the cats—even mentioning Arnold’s popularity with the guests.
And then . . . Hollywood called! Shelley Duvall bought the rights for a television series called Bedtime Stories, and Arnold once again found herself on television. Soon the first printing sold out, and I was absolutely certain that, given the television series, there would be a second printing. But alas, that was not the case. The powers that be at Little, Brown, then part of Time Warner, needed every inch of space in the pipeline for the arrival of their next big blockbuster.
The title of the book was Sex. (I’m not making this up, that was the real title.) And the author of Sex was Madonna. And it was a coffee-table book with a bunch of pictures of her in her underwear. The material girl reigned supreme over Arnold and Mr. Blumpoe, who were destined for the out-of-print graveyard and the big library in the sky.
Reviving Arnold . . . A Publisher Is Born!
Madonna was rich and famous, and I knew millions of people would want her book and the tantalizing photos of her barely clothed body, but I also believed there were people who would like to read about a rather shy black cat and a grumpy man at a country inn in Wabasha, Minnesota.
With this leap of faith, I decided to become a publisher. I published the book under the imprint of a small school and library distributor, and when that company went out of business, I signed with Partners West, which reaches 13 states west of the Mississippi. Every year the Anderson House Hotel buys some books, and a few other orders dribble in. Arnold the Cat lives.
When I semiretired from my work as a psychotherapist, I found so few contemporary novels with characters my age that I decided to write for older adults. A theme that had always interested me was women and creativity: the pull between self-expression and the needs of family experienced by so many women. This interest, along with themes around aging, became the basis for my novel The Love Ceiling.
My agent did his best to find a publisher—several editors reported that they’d wanted to buy the novel but their company’s acquisition committees had turned it down. Rejections began to pile up. There was no getting around it: the fiction market was terrible; nobody knew when things might pick up, and I wasn’t getting any younger (although the editors seemed to be), so I began to think about putting on my publisher hat again.
It was exhilarating to think that a book by Madonna would have no influence at my publishing company. I also liked the idea that no one could fire me. I gave the novel to our local bookseller, who urged me to get it into print. Bolstered by her reaction and by my husband’s encouragement, I took the plunge, and within six months Endicott & Hugh Books published The Love Ceiling. We billed it as “a coming of age novel for women over 50 . . . 60 . . . 70 . . . 80 . . . 90!”
I was nervous about the book launch. One of the wonderful things about having been a children’s author was the fun of interacting with kids when I visited schools. This had the added bonus of captive audiences free of those embarrassing bookstore moments when no one comes to the signing and you chat away with the bookseller, each of you valiantly pretending that you haven’t noticed that you are the only two people in the store.
But on the night of the book launch, women flocked to the bookstore. Most who came were over 60; we had several in their 80s, and the oldest fan of the novel was a woman who had been one of my early readers: Margot Morgan, age 95.
Taking stock now, in spite of the great news we got last December that The Love Ceiling was recommended by the King County Library system as a top pick of the season, the jury is certainly still out on how it will do financially. I don’t relish the idea of throwing money down the toilet, but when I measure the receipts in fun and the people I’ve met in independent publishing who have enriched my life—it has been an overwhelming success.
Jean Davies Okimoto lives on Vashon Island, Washington. Among her awards are ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Smithsonian Notable Book, and the International Reading Association’s Readers Choice Award. The Love Ceiling is the Winner for eBook Fiction, Next Generation Indie Book Award, and a Women’s Fiction Finalist, USA Book News National Best Books Award. To contact Jeanie, visit endicottandhughbooks.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.