In the changing world of publishing, local man carves niche
Bob Goodman finds his place in ‘book packaging,’ literary memoirs
By Arthur Lightbourn
ContributorBob Goodman, who has a Ph.D. in colonial American history, always had a hankering to become a publisher. He had a proven talent for research and things technical, but it wasn’t until he had trouble understanding a food label in the late 1980s that he became energized into the publishing business.
“I realized when I was looking at a food label that I had no idea what this stuff was that I was eating and I decided I wanted to find out,” he recalled.
In 1988, he founded Silvercat publishing and became his company’s first client, writing and publishing “A Quick Guide to Food Additives” and the sequel “A Quick Guide to Food Safety.”
That was the pre-digital era when publishing was even more technically labor-intensive than it is today.
“I wanted to learn the publishing business,” he said, “and I figured the best way to do it was to make the mistakes on me. After the second book, I started publishing other people’s books.”
Why the name Silvercat? “I had a silver tabby and he was getting very old at the time. He lost a fight with a car. He was just the sweetest cat, one of those magical cats. I wanted to find some way to make him immortal.”
We interviewed Goodman, 63, in his local home/office.
He is the divorced father of a 22-year-old son who is studying engineering at a community college in Portland, Oregon.
Not a fan of aggressive physical exercising, Goodman prefers to keep in shape “walking a lot.”
When he’s not working or walking, he serves as the current president of the 20-member Torrey Pines (La Jolla) Rotary Club.
His company, Silvercat, which started out strictly as a publishing company, has changed with the times.
It now does “book packaging” for publishers who outsource to Silvercat to convert manuscripts into a ready-to-be-published books, “and sometimes we’ll even handle the printing for them.”
Goodman also helps writers craft their memoirs through his companion company, Silver Threads, launched in 2001. So far, he has published five memoirs and two books about writing memoirs, including “Turning Your Life’s Stories into a Literary Memoir,” which Goodman co-authored with veteran San Diego editor Peggy Lang.
He is also the founder and past president of Publishers and Writers of San Diego, a past board member of the Independent Book Publishers Association, and a founding faculty member of the La Jolla Writers Conference.
Goodman was born in West Orange, N.J., the first-born in a family of three children. His father was a chemist who got in on the ground floor of the plastics industry developing a process to laminate metal film onto Mylar® plastic sheeting, thereby combining the bright colors of metal with the flexibility of the plastic.
Goodman’s father was a non-observant Hungarian Jew and his mother a church-going English Methodist. “Their backgrounds were so different that they had to sort of create new territory for me to grow up in. For example, they couldn’t agree religiously, so I became a Unitarian, which is basically not having any religion at all. It was the only church they could agree on.”
At Michigan State, Goodman developed a love and fascination for American history, in which he earned his undergraduate degree, his master’s and a doctorate in colonial American history.
He is particularly proud of his doctoral dissertation, “Our Poor Distracted Condition: Newbury, Massachusetts, 1635-1685.”
The dissertation centered around a church dispute in the colonial town of Newbury between traditionalist Presbyterian ministers and their congregants who wanted more influence in how the church was run. The dispute escalated to the courts, but “eventually just sort of disappeared as generations changed.”
“It confirmed what I suspected all along,” Goodman said, “which was, yes, friendship and kinship made a big deal of difference in how you saw the world… and I could nail it statistically.”
In 1974, after earning his Ph.D., Goodman moved to San Diego and worked as a teacher and administrator with the Educational Cultural Complex for five years, urban transportation planner with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) for six years, and as a technical writer for a year before founding the Silvercat publishing company in 1988.
If someone wants Silver Threads to become his or her publisher, Goodman said, “We need to work on it [with them] to help craft the story, because there’s an awful lot of lousy memoirs. I call them ‘I done its’, you know, ‘I did this’ and ‘I did that.’ We try to develop literary memoirs, using the techniques that fiction writers use to tell a story, but telling a real story.”
Asked if he thinks too many books are being published these days, he said, “Yes. Last year, there were a million books published in the U.S. How anybody stands out, I don’t know. Everybody is a small fish in a huge pond.
“But the whole publishing world is changing. I don’t know if I’d call it for the better or worse, but it’s going to be very different. The whole digital technology, whether it’s publish-on-demand books or electronic books, is making it possible for everybody to get published. And that’s diluting the quality.
“It has to,” he insists, “because a lot of the censors that a book had to pass through when it was mainly big publishers who were doing the publishing, don’t exist anymore. So people can write and publish without any critical feedback.
“Most people live a life that nobody cares about, but when they’re writing a literary memoir, we try to give something to the book that people can relate to.
“Take [the memoir] Angela’s Ashes, for example. On the surface, he [author Frank McCourt] is just an ordinary person, but the way he wrote the book, it draws you in and you feel like it’s part of you.”
What advice would he give to anyone who wants to write a memoir or a work of fiction or non-fiction?
“Get help. Join a writers’ group or a trade group like Publishers & Writers. And whenever someone gives you a criticism, take it seriously, even if you don’t agree with it.
“And finally,” he said, “understand that when you’re writing a book, you’d better write it for the joy of writing it, because the chance of it being a commercial success is very, very small.”
Will he be writing a new book? “I’m toying with writing a memoir. I don’t know if I’ll publish or not, but it’s for my son. And I am going to be re-publishing my dissertation, finally.”