The luncheon began with the acquisition editor of a major book company telling me I was a pretty woman, but would be a knockout if I lost 10 pounds. I was there to sell Psychology: A Biographical Approach, an introductory psychology textbook. It had been a long road from Philadelphia to this restaurant near Rockefeller Center in New York, where I was pitching an outline and the first three chapters of a book I had worked on diligently for three years.
The story of the book began in 1972. I was sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when I picked up a magazine featuring an article about James Barber, a Duke University professor who had written a book exploring the character of American presidents. At the time, I was an associate professor at Community College of Philadelphia, teaching introductory psychology. The psychology course material seemed dry and boring to my students — how interesting is operant conditioning to 18-year-old kids? — so I interspersed my lectures with life stories related to the subject matter of the course.
My students were amazed to discover that Frankenstein was written by 19-year-old Mary Shelley while on vacation in Switzerland with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she later married. I interspersed her life with the study of heredity and behavior, as she was the daughter of the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher and journalist William Godwin. The experience of consciousness worked well with the writer Aldous Huxley’s life, and the anthropologist Margaret Mead led us into social psychology.
Taking a gamble that the timing was right, given Barber’s success, I sent a book proposal for Psychology: A Biographical Approach to three major textbook-publishing companies. Within a month, I had three offers, one from an acquisitions editor at Prentice Hall.
Advances for textbooks are figured on what a book is expected to earn in sales its first year. We agreed on a figure, and the deal was done. The editor and I met for lunch at the Four Seasons in New York. I signed the contract for my first book. I was 30 years old.
It took three years to finish the book, with the most perfect team a writer could imagine. But a new acquisitions editor came on board at the very end of the process and stopped its publication. He had his own ideas of the kind of textbook he wanted. I got the rights to the book back and kept my advance, but was distraught about not having a publisher after all my hard work.
A week after this, I went to a cocktail party at a Center City hotel hosted by a McGraw Hill sales rep. I told him I was writing an introductory psychology textbook, but didn’t mention that it had been bought, paid for, and canceled. The salesman disappeared into the bedroom of the suite. A few minutes later, he motioned me into the bedroom and handed me the phone. On the other end of the line was an acquisitions editor at McGraw Hill who asked me to come to New York to talk about the book.
He was a nice-looking guy I figured to be in his mid-40s, wearing an expensive suit and fine shoes. After the left-handed compliment about my looks, the editor and I ordered lunch. I handed him a manila folder, with three chapters and an outline, which he placed on the table between us. I was sipping a glass of wine when he told me an off-color joke about a man’s penis. I’m not a prude, but I’ve never found sexual jokes to be funny. I forced a smile. The editor talked about other books he had promoted, and mentioned he had had an affair with one of his authors, a woman I knew from conferences we both attended.
Over lunch, I steered the conversation to my book and asked if there was anything specific he was looking for in a new text. He said he was looking to get a hotel room with me. “I’m engaged to be married,” I lied. He said, So what? He was already married. I told him my fiance was waiting for me at Penn Station. “Some other time,” he said.
We parted on the street after he gave me a kiss on the cheek. I watched as he walked away, my manuscript under his arm. We had not talked about it at all at lunch. I headed home to Philadelphia and cried on the train, upset at the encounter and convinced my writing career was over.
A week later, McGraw Hill bought Psychology: A Biographical Approach and gave me a substantial advance, my second for the same book. Editors changed and changed again over the course of the project, and, in the end, I had a wonderful relationship with everyone who worked on it.
I can’t imagine the kind of sexual harassment I experienced happening to a young author today, but I would have said that about young reporters and actresses, too, before the Fox News and Harvey Weinstein revelations surfaced. No one who isn’t in the shoes of a woman working hard at her career can know the humiliating and frightening feeling of being at the mercy of a man, who in Mary Shelley’s words, was “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, and yet so vicious and base.”
Malinda Jo Muzi is a writer in Penn Valley. Contact her via malindajomuzi.com.