June 27, 2014

Hail & farewell: Paul Kozlowski


paul at powells

Paul “PK” Kozlowski in front of Powell’s Bookstore

It seemed like a miracle at the time, which was barely a month ago: On Friday our marketing manager told us he was quitting, treating the missus and me to a weekend of despair — marketing manager has become a damned important position for a company our size, plus we really loved the guy — and on Monday, first thing, I got an email from my friend Paul “PK” Kozlowski, who once upon a time had been marketing director at Knopf. Seems he’d just left his most recent job.

“’Things change’ and now I am on the loose again,” he wrote, “wondering about my place in the book industry, such as it has become.”

I immediately forgot how sad I was that our marketing manager was leaving and I wrote to PK. I knew it was a ridiculous long shot — the former director of marketing at Knopf, working at Melville House? — but I was practically vibrating. I couldn’t believe the timing of his email. “Jesus is telling me to move on this,” I told Valerie. “But you don’t believe in Jesus,” she reminded me. “I will if this works,” I told her. My email to Paul said something like, “Please please please please please.”

A bounceback said he’d gone off to the woods — literally — to think.

A few days later, however, he got back to me. The woods, as it turned out, were buggy. Let’s get dinner, he said.

So we did and thus began a series of dinners with PK, at Ciccio’s, a basement trattoria on Sixth Avenue in Soho. Or I should say, thus began a new series of dinners with PK. We’d already been meeting him for dinner, drinks, coffee, whatever, regularly for years. Valerie and I don’t really network as often as you’re supposed to — we both usually think it’s more important, and usually more fun, to be home reading — but, well, Paul had contacted us out of the blue one day years before, and asked if he could come out to Brooklyn and buy us drinks. Now, I confess I didn’t know much about him then except that he was a nice guy I kept running into at sales conferences and such (our companies had the same distributor, Random House). But, well, free drinks are free drinks, so we took the meeting.

Later I would find out that I was an idiot for not knowing who Paul was. He’d been a bookseller who’d risen through the ranks to become a regional manager at Barnes and Noble, then become a national account sales rep at Penguin, then gone on to Random House where he’d been Director of National Accounts, then VP, Director of Field Sales, then Director of Marketing at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon, before eventually leaving to become associate publisher at Other Press 

Which is to say, he knew retail, he knew sales, he knew marketing, he knew publishing — he knew conglomerates, he knew indies — and he knew them all at a very high level. I’ve never met anyone else with such a deep experience in publishing.

And where did that elite-level experience leave him? As the kind of guy who would call up a little indie publisher and say “I would LOVE to meet you!” and sound like he meant it.

And at that first meeting he just fired questions at us, questions that revealed he’d been studying us: How did you make this book work? Why did you buy that book? Does your blog help the company, or just get you into trouble?

What I didn’t realize immediately was that all his questions made me think about my own business in ways I hadn’t before. Valerie and I went home that first night, as we would forever more after evenings with Paul, only to stay up late revisiting the conversation and the new considerations it was inspiring.

Then there was the commiserating — there’s always a lot of commiserating when indie publishers get together, but nobody could commiserate like Paul. He’d roar with laughter at your most depressing story, say “I know!” accented with a forehead slap, then tell one of his own stories that was similar but worse. It would make him laugh again at how ridiculously bad things were, then he’d lean forward and say, open-faced, “What can we do about these fuckers?” And by George if we wouldn’t brainstorm some good ideas about exactly what to do about those fuckers then and there. He was a real turn-around artist when it came to commiserating.

One other thing about Paul that, frankly, thrilled me: While he was the kind of person you’re eager to get together with because you know he will understand your particular pain — oh, the joy of sinking into completely blindered conversation with someone who understands your obsession because they share it! — he was also the kind of guy who would forever spin off that conversation into quotations from poetry or classic literature or some noir thriller. You couldn’t help but trot after him when he did that.

And it’s strange to say but this is more rare in the industry than you’d think. Not that book people don’t talk about books obsessively, they do, but the business itself is so consuming — the conversation about Amazon and distribution can go for hours on auto-pilot — that often enough the conversation is limited to today’s book. But PK could never contain himself to just that. And that was a freeing thing to witness.

It was simple: Everything about the man was animated by a love for books. By a love for everything about them: the beauty of books, the power of books, the fearlessness of books, the ability of books to break the bounds of time and circumstance — the possibilities of life presented by books. We had to keep getting them into peoples’ hands.

All of which is to say, by the way, that he provided another lesson to so-called “radical” indie publishers like me, particularly in a fractious time like this: Careful with your assumptions about people in conglomerate publishing. They may be just like you. Or better.

But all that had sunk in to my dense noggin years later, when we began our latest round of gatherings with Paul in Ciccio’s. I couldn’t really contain myself and I offered him a job pretty much immediately. Valerie placed a hand over mine and asked Paul how his time in the woods had gone.

Except for the bugs, he said slowly, it had been … good.

He’d recently turned 60 and suddenly not having a job had clearly thrown him. It was easy to imagine what must have been going through his mind: Should he retire? Was it over? All the murderous shite. “But I feel good,” he eventually told us. “I want to keep going. I love this business and want to die with my boots on.” We toasted that. We all felt the same way.

Paul took our job offer home, along with our catalogue and our sales reports, and for the next week he analyzed the company. Then we met again at Ciccio’s and began to talk turkey — his ideas about how the company could do better, our ideas about how he could help, about what the job would be, precisely. He walked us through every title in the catalogue: What’s the story with this one? Why are you doing it? Behind it all, though, was the growing sensation that he was as convinced about the company as we were. It was exciting — it was clear to us he could take us to the next level, and it seemed he was enthusiastic as hell about selling books like ours.

Then it was time to go off and structure the deal — except there was, abruptly, a complication. During the ensuing week Paul had had another offer, this one from a conglomerate.

Valerie and I spent the next few days fretting about how we could compete. We couldn’t come anywhere near the salary a conglomerate would offer, the salary Paul was used to getting. Depression began to set in. Then we realized: Paul knew that too. He’d seen our numbers, read our accounts. We would have looked like the kind of fiduciary idiots no one wants to work for if we’d offered him more than he knew we had, even if he deserved it. And yet he was still talking to us …

He took the job with Melville House a few days later. He was supposed to start next Monday.

I was getting ready to set up his office when I got the news. Paul — the ruddy hiker and woodsman — had had a heart attack and was gone. Just like that. I hung up the phone and went and stared at the office I’d been planning to spend the day setting up for him. Move some boxes, assemble the new chair from Staples, clean out the filing cabinet, find him a stapler. One of the editors has two damn staplers.

I stopped believing in Jesus again.

But I’ve had a few hours to let it sink in now.  And what I do believe in, more than ever for knowing Paul, is the thing he believed in and that made me like him so very damn much. As he puts it on his Linked In page, “Selling books is an intellectual challenge and a noble pursuit. I’m lucky to be doing it.”

I guess I’ve always believed that all of us in publishing, if we’re any good, are fundamentally salespeople. Publicists, art directors, editors, marketing people: we all love books so much that we do our part in the business of making them to the very best of our abilities … so that someone will buy them.

Paul Kozlowski was the living embodiment of that idea, and of the idea that this is an undying characteristic of the best people in our industry — the people who wouldn’t know how to die in any way other than with their boots on.

And as I stared off at the office ole PK would never occupy, I remembered one other extremely notable thing about him: His career had left him happy. He was a jovial person, a classic hail-fellow-well-met, to the extent that in that email from him that I mentioned, the one he’d written after finding himself unexpectedly out of a job at age 60, he had closed by saying, “It is a lovely morning on this May 12th, I’ve taken my Zyrtec, and plan to breathe deeply. The world, if not always our place in it, is really a miracle, isn’t it?”

It is indeed. Thanks for reminding me, Paul. And love, love, love, from all of us here at Melville House who would have been your colleagues … something we still, in a way, aspire to be.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.