The Story of GUITARMAKING: Tradition and Technology
Originally published in American Luthierie magazine 1989
(Updated at end)
|by William R. Cumpiano
GATHER AROUND AND LISTEN TO a strange tale; a saga of oppression and self-imprisonment, of unending, grueling effort; of frustrated expectations and missed opportunities. But it is a sad story with a happy ending.
My story begins ten years ago when I, a budding young luthier, hired a booth in a large
Northeastern crafts fair. It was the dawn of my career: I was green and I was anxious and
I could not have known then that craft fairs make sense for makers of ceramic pots and
leather bags, but a waste of time for guitarmakers. But I had to learn that for myself.
"Think of the exposure," I was told. "Just think of the exposure... "
Wow! a voice in the crowd exclaimed, what are you asking for one of those? Haltingly, I responded, a little tongue-tied: "Sev... six... five...five hundred and fifty dollars."
"FIVE HUNDRED and FIFTY? Come ONNNN! What could there POSSIBLY be in a guitar to make it cost that much? A little greedy there, dont you think?"
It then dawned on me that I had paid the craft fair organizers two hundred dollars for the privilege of standing there in front of this ignorant heckler, and several others to come. Yes, this was The Public. No doubt about it.
Three tiring, crazy days passed. Nobody laid out the green stuff, but something rather
peculiar did happen: I was approached by no less than three publishers agents, each
of whom asked me if I would consent to write for their company. And each one cooed,
"think of all the exposure I would get!"
The third agent represented one of the largest and most prestigious craft and trade
book publishing firm in the U.S. (a division of Litton Industries). If I could be
persuaded to take the time off to write a textbook on the craft, they could make it worth
my while. "Thanks for the offer," I told them, "maybe some other
After the fair, I put the whole matter out of my mind. First of all, I didnt yet
feel qualified for the job, and second, all of what I knew about writing a book was pretty
negative. A friend of mine had just finished one and likened the experience to
"enduring a protracted illness." Fate would deem it that I would eventually
learn that he was understating his case.
The notion of writing a book stole upon me much later, as it did to a close buddy and co-worker, Jon Natelson. He had acquired considerable technical writing skills, developed before he dropped out of ivy-league law school long ago to take up guitarmaking in the original shop where I too, had learned. It seems we often found ourselves laughing and groaning in dismay at the abysmal fare being sold as guitarmaking text at the time. I had also been approached by nearly a dozen aspiring table-top guitarmakers, with despair in their voice, all asking for help on their book-induced guitarmaking projects.
Invariably, the results of their hard labor was a pathetic mess: available texts were
simply not up to the job. They were inadequate at best, and at worst, minefields for the
unsuspecting. Some books had numerous full-page studio-quality photos but sparse text.
Others had mountains of text that was illiterate or incomprehensible. It appeared to us
that the techniques described were not very good. Current writers seemed to have little
knowledge of, or interest in traditional methods and preferred their own home-grown,
learn-as-you-go approach. We also thought it was bogus that a writer should write a book
about the first or second guitar they had ever built, but that seemed to be the state of
affairs in the guitar-book field. On the other hand, Jon and I had either built, or
participated in the building of well over three hundred guitars, and I had done extensive
technical research into the history, traditions and technology of guitarmaking. We thought
we could do a better job.
The better part of a year passed. We finally complained like hell. To quiet us, they
sent us $80 to cover our out-of-pocket expenses: nothing for our time. We would eventually
come to know that a writers time, like a guitarmakers, has no price. It
appeared that the book was so ambitious in its scope that no one at the magazine dared
decide on it. So they left us dangling. Several months later, we sent them an ultimatum.
Our prodding worked, and they decided: We got our boards back! We regret...
As a token of their contrition for our wasted time they gave us a hot tip: They had it
on good information that the largest and most prestigious craft book publisher would be
most interested in the project and they gave us the name of a contact at their executive
offices. It was the same name as the one on the card I got at the crafts fair several
years earlier. Thanks.
The largest etc., publisher accepted our credentials and samples and a month later gave
us the go ahead. They were hot on the project and agreed that, indeed, it should be as
large and comprehensive as the subject merited and they were the ones who could handle it.
Then, in a very short letter they asked us how much money we would NEED for the manuscript
to be produced.
How much money we would NEED. Not, how much money would we CHARGE. Not, what would be our FEE. How much money we would NEED. The words were deceptively simple yet carefully selected.
We were stunned. Was this a first move in some deadly serious game? Was it a ritual
maneuver for position in a formalized dance which was just now beginning to be acted out
before us? Or maybe it was code in some foreign language, an offer in some distantly
curious but alien language beyond our comprehension? It looked like English, but we
couldnt be sure...
We took it like a burning bush, the precise meaning of which we couldnt yet
decipher. What sort of response was appropriate? In hindsight, the only appropriate
response should have been:
So of course, we took the deal. They had not mistaken us for fools. They had read us quite accurately.
But we did hire an agent, thinking that we would need an ally in this cold, cryptic alien world of big-time publishing. Alas, but that was the foolishest move of all. Our agents function turned out to be that of a priest whose task it was to explain and justify the great mysteries of the megabucks corporate publishing world to us, and then translate our unworthy requests into pitiful supplications, which might ultimately (if we performed the proper penances) allow us, perhaps, to receive a small amount of grace from them. For this service, our agent would be henceforth tied to our project with chains of steel, forever and for ten percent. This would be earned as the result of several phone calls made to the publisher over a period of two weeks about a deal the PUBLISHER was seeking. Towards thatend, our agent would succeed in wrestling us into accepting the publishers terms no matter what the pain and cost to us would be. This she did by scolding us until we finally accepted, in the end, that this is How Things Are Done In The Publishing World.
Although their response was that it was quite well, even stylishly, written, they told
us to cut twenty percent of it out. The hard part was now to begin. The great writer,
Oscar Wilde, once wrote a friend a letter and ended it, I apologize for the length of this
letter. "If I had had the time, I would have made it shorter." We were now told
to make a seven hundred page manuscript shorter. We had to, in effect, rewrite the whole
thing: had we just chopped it, it would have come out like a stitched-together
Frankenstein. Out came the leisurely details, the parts on how fret-wire and herringbone
is made and how lutenists had to tune the fretboard. Out came all the good stuff on
historical strings and where abalone shell came from and how it was processed. Out came
most of the mass-production techniques we had felt would make the book into a permanent,
Out went the original title, The Complete Book of Guitarmaking and in went the
non-commital Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology. Then, another half-year of grueling
writing, revising and rewriting. Everywhere it said, see section 11, procedure 14 we had
to make sure it was still there and that it still said what it ought to. But at long, long
last, after finishing the third revision of 350 photo captions, it was done. Not our
original dream; a bit rough in spots, but finished. We thought, even as it was, it was
damn good, that there was no better text available in or out of print. It would be the new
standard, against which future efforts would be compared.
The production process began, the ball now being in the publishers court. Our manuscript eventually was returned to us in the form of typeset galleys, which then had to be read word for word and corrected for typos and slip-ups. Then the galleys became dummies on which had the typeset copy was broken up into the actual page format, sharing space with the drawings and art. We didnt quite like the cover art and tried to negotiate for changes. The project kept requiring endless buckets of time, which we couldnt refuse since the end was always just...within...sight.
We could do nothing but wait and hope that they would soon find a buyer for the whole ball of wax, of which our baby was just a little smudge. We felt used, abused.
Then, a ray of light! Probably one of the biggest houses in the country, Simon & Schuster, wanted to buy the works! Somewhere in fine print in our original contract our agent had indeed done something good: where it said the publisher reserved the right to assign (sell) the rights to someone else, she had added with our approval. This tiny addition put us into the bargaining; it meant we had to approve of the new deal before our baby could be assigned.
Good thing. We had by then heard through the grapevine that monster publisher Simon & Schuster ate writers for breakfast, arbitrarily acting pretty much as it cared to. Kindly old Mr. Simon and Mr. Schuster no longer owned the company, and it was no longer a book-making company. It was a money-making machine. We were told of nightmares of authors losing their babies to this behemoth; instances where S & S decided not to publish OR to return writers works after agreeing to. We were understandably, then, scared stiff of making deals with them big boys. But our thoughts danced to dreams of mass distribution and their three-hundred member sales force.
Six months later, negotiations began. We demanded two iron-clad assurances as
conditions for our approval: a date certain for publication and a written promise of
immediate return of the rights to us if they changed their mind about publishing. Their
answer confirmed the arrogance we were warned to expect. No assurances of any kind,
pipsqueaks. By then Jon and I had been jerked around so many times by these big boys, we
had become rather blase about it all. We gave Simon & Schuster a little rejection slip
of our own: NO DEAL.
We signed the dotted line (their line was still blank) and sent it off.
* Dont deal with the big boys unless youre a big boy.
* Keep your dreams intact and alive no matter the cost.
* Dont sell your dream cheap: if you got something good, keep your price HIGH dont think of the exposure. Whats in it for them should equal whats in it for YOU.
* Nothing worthwhile comes easy!
The well-unpublished luthiers became well published luthiers.
Jon had by then dropped out of the impoverishing trade of luthiery (joke: Know how to make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and make guitars with it) and back into the lucrative trade of lawyering. So with a line of credit of around $50,000, we retrieved the manuscript, galleys and film from Simon and Schuster (that was a real David and Goliath story, trying to get it back: they couldnt use it but they didnt want to give it back, either. Several threatening letters on legal letterhead finally pried it out of their fingers six months later). We hired Sam Bittman, an old friend and book-deal expert and paid him a chunk of money to put all the pieces together into a stack of 1000 beautifully bound and covered first editions in a printers warehouse. We called ourselves: Rosewood Press.
Then Jon and I started to market it. As mentioned before, who would know better than us where the interest for such a product lay? We sent copies to movers and shakers of the guitar world, who liked it, and their comments appeared on the back cover. As a result, the book appeared in several nationwide woodworkers and guitarmakers supply catalogs. We got a list of 11,000 libraries and sent them all a brochure. Sales started to come in. The profit was considerable: in a little over a year, the bank loan was paid up. A second edition, and then a third, and Jon and I were by the early 90s bringing in an important fraction of our incomes in from book profits. Jon was selling, dealing with the bank and the printer; me and my wife were stuffing copies into padded envelopes and we got to know our UPS man quite well.
By the early-mid 90s sales had climbed steadily and then started to level off. We figured we had hit the glass ceiling, for a business made up of part timers with no marketing budget. We had found all the rabid buyers who were out there searching high and wide for a book like ours: we had skimmed the cream of the market, had run out of fish who were ready to jump into our little boat despite our sorry bait. Dragging the rest of the lake would take the 300-saleman sales force of a big company. So we resigned ourselves to sell the rights to a nationwide publisher. We chose one with a boss we could actually talk to on the phone: Chronicle Books. They produced a beautiful paperback version at half the price of our original hard cover, and before long it appeared in bookstores nationwide and even on the net.
Jon and I had such a positive experience with this whole saga (clearly we've forgotten all the bitter parts), were planning to resurrect Rosewood Presson the net. Weve reserved www.guitarmaking.com and will publish the original hardcover version (unavailable now), a spanish-language version, instrument plans and selected tools; and Jon will market his Brazilian Rosewood guitar sets, all from our webpage.
We have been updating the text on the web too. I will be inserting a alternate neck joint to the admittedly cumbersome pinned-mortise and tenon system described in the original text. You can find it and other additional tips and articles here. Stay tuned.
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