“Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.”
― Margaret Atwood
Paul Cohen brings a refreshing mix of spirituality, down-to-earth demeanor, and business acumen to publishing. Monkfish is where spirituality and literature meet. In 2002, Paul launched Monkfish Publishing – the seeker’s press – to whet the appetite of spiritual and literary seekers of all stripes. Monkfish has published the works of luminary teachers such as Amrit Desai, cultural visionaries such as Matthew Fox, as well as literary renegades such as Marilyn Stablein and best-selling author of The Passion of Mary Magdalen Elizabeth Cunningham.
And, oh yeah (bias alert): Monkfish published the revised and updated edition of my book The Journey from the Center to the Page – a delightful publishing experience.
So what books matter to a publisher of such works?
In this Books That Matter feature, Paul shares the book that changed something profound within him, what grimacing detail catches a publisher’s eye in a book, his forecast for the publishing industry, and the book he wants to write.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Paul: For me, the book was The Passion of Mary Magdalen by Elizabeth Cunningham, which we published. The “frozen sea within” for me was my budding “publisher-hood,” which this book did so much to release. On a more personal note, the book changed my relationship to the historical Jesus, which, for a Jewish person, is no small matter.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
I remember my first experience with the actual book fresh from the printer. It’s a 600-page hardcover. I felt at a glance that the manufacturing aspects were probably okay, but when I opened the book at random, my eyes went right to a typo! We had proofread the designed manuscript over 6 times with at least 3 different sets of eyes. I won’t say it didn’t hurt, but it hurt less knowing that I—and my team—had really done everything we could to make it a great book. And it helped that it was a minor typo which most readers would not be able to detect. After all, from writing to the book’s final form, this error had eluded at least 10 readers, some of them multiple times.
The book you’ve imagined living inside of is what?
The Brothers Karamazov. I was so young when I read it! Growing up, it was just my sister and me, so I had had no brothers. Maybe this book helped me fill in that gap.
The one book you have most often re-read is what and why?
The Bhagavad Gita because its themes are ever-recurring, and there is a bounty of excellent and very different translations. I especially enjoy the Stephan Mitchell translation, having read it several times.
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper?
I have been in a paper-only mode for about two years now. My preferred reader was a Kindle. I went through an e-reading phase, but when I experienced a glitch preventing me from accessing my account, it suddenly seemed more trouble than reward. I had enjoyed the instant gratification that an ebookstore can deliver, but I found I had also purchased more junk than I normally would. Since I am reading all day long on a computer in my work life, physical books just feel more balanced to me today.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
Oh, brother! I think that the results of the digital revolution have basically been a wash, so far, for the traditional book publishing industry. New revenue streams like eBooks and self-publishing services have made up for lost revenues from major downturns such as the Borders Books chain folding. The next frontier is in the global distribution of books. Aided by the newest printing technology, it is now possible to avoid international shipping costs entirely by printing in the country of destination. I do predict that the burgeoning self-publishing industry is due for some shakeups. Note the class action suit for predatory marketing practices against Author Solutions, which is now owned by Penguin/Random House.
If you had the time, talent, grit, and support, the book you would write would be what?
I’d like to write a book about publishing—it would be for writers but written from a publisher’s experience. I would pepper the book with the kind of advice your kind and successful uncle or aunt in the business might give you. Publishing remains a big deal for writers. Few things in life manage to be so public and private at the same time as having a book published. (Only marriage and giving birth come immediately to mind as being events of similar magnitude.) In the “good old days”, writers were ushered through the publishing process by many people in the business, including agents, editors and publicists. Today, that’s only one of many possible publishing experiences an author might have. Given the reality that the majority of writers will not have the benefit of such helping agencies, my book might be able to fill just that gap.
PAUL COHEN is the editor/publisher of Monkfish Book Publishing Company. Monkfish is an independent press publishing spiritual and literary books from a diverse range of perspectives. Genres include memoirs, wisdom literature, fiction, and scholarly works of thought. Monkfish’s eclectic mixture of spirituality books, while dealing with timeless subjects, nearly always shed light on topical concerns, and have been widely discussed and reviewed in newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and Atlanta-Journal Constitution; in the publishing trade such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus; and in the spirituality media such as Yoga Journal, Spirituality and Health and Beliefnet.