I wasn’t always a working writer. Far, far from it.
Thirty years ago, before the monkeys, I was on my way to becoming a print circulation guru. I was a founding staffer at The Clarion, a newsy Toronto, Canada tabloid that never found financial sustainability. But there I learned the basics of the publishing industry, mired as it still was in the transitional pre-PC stage of photo typesetting and newsprint presses.
One May day in our second year the office door popped open to reveal a brash and bearded 22-year-old New Yorker named Jeffery Hollander. He wanted to launch an ambitious and innovative adult education program, and was there to discuss full-page ads in The Clarion for his wares in T.O. His concept was based on The Apple Skills Exchange in New York City that bought such full pages in the then revered Village Voice.
In about five minutes Hollander explained the idea to me and I knew this was the most brilliant business opportunity I had ever heard. Little did I know this meeting would explode into a multi-million dollar publishing/education arrangement that would turn a chunk of the adult North American population back to school.
He wanted me to distribute 50,000 copies of a free, four-page course catalogue on a shoestring budget of $1,000. Without even knowing how to accomplish such a feat, I agreed. The Clarion's circulation never exceeded a few hundred copies, which precluded an effective means of course advertising. But the Skills Exchange of Toronto was born.
Hollander was deported for working illegally in Canada after 10 months, but not before bringing me aboard an identical program in Manhattan. The result was The New York Network for Learning, which was an amazing success based on my principle of "controlled” (read, free) circulation. My guru status grew.
One of the sad side effects of unbridled success, though, is the "monkey-see, monkey-do" factor. A year after the NYNL's launch, The Learning Annex began cluttering up The Big Apple with a product that was indistinguishable from ours. My placid, successful life suddenly became a fiery hell.
It was a business battle not easily forgotten. Our press runs reached half a million copies per month, many inserted into The New York Times, enabling mass distribution to a targeted audience with unparalleled growth and corporate-connection potential. But, unbeknownst to me, Hollander was plotting a course of action without me and I got the sack.
As always, timing was everything. I got a call from a Toronto chum informing that a new alternative newsweekly was starting up. So I traveled on the Maple Leaf Limited, returning once again to Toronto. In tow were 600 street display racks that would soon become integral to my participation in the launch of a fourth, and final, publication.
Within two months, the printing operations of the Learning Network closed and the company repositioned to sell pre-recorded course cassettes, eventually becoming Warner Audio Publishing. The Learning Annex, by contrast, would go on to operate in a dozen cities, claiming over a million course registrations.
Back in T.O., although we didn't know it at the time, the success of the new NOW Magazine was gargantuan and guaranteed. Years flew by and we stood alone and untouchable in the alternative newsweekly market. My guru status was secured. Ultimately the Toronto Star, the city's most mainstream daily newspaper, began publishing a competitor: eye Weekly. More of the old monkey business. The battle still rages.
On my 46th birthday I left NOW to return to India. Here, where monkeys have the same rights as men, for the last 19 years, my life has been comfortably centred and although I have been out of the western world's printing fray for years, I do stay in touch with happenings and events.
I was delighted the other day to read a story in The Herald Tribune about free newspapers now constituting more than 50 percent of print in Spain.
More monkeys, seeing the light.
Buzz Burza is a freelance writer, photographer, teacher, lecturer, film actor and print distribution consultant living in New Delhi, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org