Goodbye, Jim—and Thanks for the Memories

I haven't posted here for a while because Jim Leisy, founder and publisher of William, James & Co. recently died of a sudden heart attack.

For a tribute by his colleague and friend (and my editor and friend) Tom Sumner, see http://wmjasco.blogspot.com/2014/03/goodbye-james-goodbye-franklin_14.html.

I’ve worked with several publishers over the decades, and William, James & Co. has been by far the best, dedicated to producing excellent books in the arts and humanities in an age when publishing is dominated by giant corporations churning out junk.

When I was approached by Bill Hoffmann for suggestions for an “evergreen” book that could sell continuously over the years, I showed him my Common Errors in English Usage Web site and asked if he thought it could be made into a book. My condition was that I would continue to provide the material on the site free to anyone who had access to the Web. What followed was an amazing exception to the narrative that the Internet is killing publishing.

Bill (the “William” of “William, James”) left the project before it got off the ground and it took Jim a year to decide to go ahead with it, but I was surprised and delighted when he did. Most publishers try to nail down all rights throughout the galaxy and until the end of time, but Jim took a chance on Common Errors in English Usage with full knowledge that I would retain my rights to the material in other formats. He offered a generous royalty rate, numerous author copies, and terrific support.

He was very particular about wanting an attractive design and high-quality printing. Adding the illustrative cartoons based on vintage engravings was a brilliant idea, executed by Tom (with help from his family).

Jim wasn't satisfied with just selling tens of thousands of copies of my book, he also had promotional t-shirts made, got me speaking engagements in Portland (twice at Wordstock), and hosted us at his house and in lovely restaurants. He negotiated an astounding deal with NBC News for the right to use the material in the book for a Web project of their own, giving me half of the very large sum they paid for nonexclusive rights.

He really wanted to design a set of greeting cards based on the book. Though I appreciated his enthusiasm, I couldn’t think of a way to make an appropriate greeting card aimed at correcting the recipient’s English. My whole philosophy is to offer my advice only to those who seek it out on a “take or leave it” basis. I have no patience with “zero-tolerance” usage mavens like Lynne Truss.

When I put together my photo book project, Four Seasons on Bainbridge Island, although it was too specialized for William, James, he volunteered his services to act as middleman in negotiating a deal with a printer in Malaysia specializing in color photographic work. He also authorized Tom to help me design the book. I offered to pay his expenses, but he declined. Without his extraordinary generosity the book would never have seen the light of day.

Jim was a fine photographer himself (see samples on his site), and he wound up publishing or distributing several fine-art books. As the years passed, William, James became more and more a distributor for other small publishers as well as putting out its own books. This was someone working in a tiny niche who had grand visions, and the business acumen to actually carry them out.

It was an amazing career for someone who started in the very different business of publishing computer science textbooks (under the “Franklin, Beedle” imprint, still very much an ongoing business).

He was always looking for new ways to present Common Errors. He attended a professional workshop on the publishing of calendars in order to create the Common Errors in English “boxed daily calendar.” (Turns out the phrase “Page-A Day” as it refers to daily calendars is copyrighted—who knew?) The calendars, created by Tom, sold very well for five years. When that market dwindled, we switched to an e-mail daily entry, also posted on Facebook. This blog gave Tom and  me a chance to further develop ideas related to the subject matter of the book.

Common Errors always sold well on Amazon, so it was natural to make it into a Kindle, and then recently into an iBook.

Jim had the smarts to keep the price of the book low, which is an important reason it has sold so well. He also disdained gimmicky prices ending in $.95—a disdain I share. It listed originally for $15, and although greatly expanded in its latest edition, it’s still only $19.

 I have been used to being treated with bland indifference by publishers: low pay, little publicity, next to no support.

Jim was a prince of a publisher and a lovely human being. He provided voluntary services not only to the publishing community, but supported theatre and classical music in Portland through his volunteer work.

We’ll miss him.

A lot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful remembrance of Jim Leisy. After reading it, I wish I'd had the pleasure of meeting him!

May he rest in peace at his obviously well-deserved reward.