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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... "

Yes, I was to learn. There I stood, an innocent with a hopeful smile on my face, my shiny wares hanging on a makeshift masonite wall behind me, each one of my little babies stamped with the mute evidence of all the care, sacrifice and painful experience that had brought them into the world.

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 publisher’s 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 first was publishing a crafts encyclopedia and wanted me to write the section on instrument making. Later, I was to learn that the section on instrument making was budgeted at $50. "But think of the exposure," the editor pleaded. The second request was from an agent for a brand new, glossy woodworking magazine. Their magazine was geared to the upscale trade: lawyer- and- doctor -hobbyists who (loving the look and feel of real wood) could be persuaded to plunk down, say, four hundred dollars for a chisel honing system. "Here’s my card," she said,  "if you ever feel you need the exposure, we could talk about publishing a book."

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 time."

After the fair, I put the whole matter out of my mind. First of all, I didn’t 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.

Soon, Jon and I were fantasizing about which features would make up a book which would prove to be fully adequate to the complexities of guitarmaking; a book which would make a serious and permanent contribution to the craft. To be thus, it would have to be thorough, articulate, profusely illustrated, and contain every single step described in full and leisurely detail. It would have to offer a set of alternative techniques geared to the students individual resources and commitment. It would cover both steel-string and classical building if it was to be called complete. It would have to include enough historical and technical information to validate each of its techniques. The books graphic design, organization and physical specifications would have to reflect the standards of refined beauty and all the aspirations of a noble craft. It would be a great, a hard, but a worthy task. It probably would not make a lot of money, due to its limited readership and its esoteric subject. But it could be a legacy to our Great Love, a sacrificial offering. In this way, we talked ourselves into it.

My first choice was the glossy magazine publishers who had approached me at the crafts fair. It turned out they were just breaking into book publishing and were delighted that we had consented to write for them. They required a sample chapter and several sample pages to illustrate our concept in order to make a final decision. This in itself was not a small project. It took the better part of a month of writing and the joint efforts of a talented graphic designer who shared an adjoining studio. He consented on a contingency basis to design and produce several finished, typeset pages which he mounted on large boards for display. They looked just like pages from an actual book. Our combined effort was polished and professional. It described a book that, by extension, would be nothing less than fabulous in appearance and content. We mailed the text and boards and waited for the go-ahead. And waited. And waited.

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 writer’s time, like a guitarmaker’s, 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.


Well, as true artists, we really hadn’t given it much thought. At that time we were charging $20/hour to our customers. But to be generous and cooperative, we would elect to wholesale our time at $10/hour. We could work part-time at 20 hours a week for 50 weeks, 1000 hours apiece. That would amount to $10,000 apiece. This would hire two highly-trained technical people to deliver a sizable product to a highly capitalized, profit-making firm.


Their reply was even shorter than before. We are prepared to provide you with a total of $2500 as an advance against possible future earnings, for manuscript expenses...

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 couldn’t be sure...

We took it like a burning bush, the precise meaning of which we couldn’t yet decipher. What sort of response was appropriate? In hindsight, the only appropriate response should have been:

"You have obviously mistaken us for fools. We are not used to consenting to our own exploitation. We suggest you take your offer to fund a guitarmaking pamphlet elsewhere!"

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 agent’s 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 publisher’s 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.


When the dust cleared, we had signed a contract that would bind us into submitting what would turn out to be a seven hundred page manuscript, five hundred photographs and line drawings, a full index and three seven-hundred page xeroxed manuscript copies (at fifty bucks a copy), all in exchange for an advance (not a payment) of ten thousand dollars (half of what we NEEDED), most of which we would get after the manuscript was delivered. The advance would be deducted from accumulated royalties, at a little over a dollar per book for each of us (from a book selling at forty dollars per copy). We would start to see some money for our troubles after the second printing, assuming the first was sold out. Of course, they would chose how many books would get printed, how long it would stay in print, and would reserve the right NOT to print at all. Although we owned the manuscript, they owned the right to print it, or to sell the right to print it to somebody else.


"Sign it. Its the best deal your gonna get," said our agent. So we signed.


Thus began the journey of a thousand miles. We spent the advance solely on production costs; remember, we had to construct two guitars for a photo sequence, pay for the professional taking and printing of a thousand photographs, pay a typist to type the taped transcript of the steps and the finished manuscript (this was all before personal computers: we composed the text the old way: pencil on paper). Before we finished, of course, we ran out of money and had to cough the rest up ourselves, but we finally produced the manuscript, feeling pretty good about it, not believing it was actually finished. It wasn’t.

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, comprehensive document.

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 publisher’s 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 didn’t quite like the cover art and tried to negotiate for changes. The project kept requiring endless buckets of time, which we couldn’t refuse since the end was always just...within...sight.


Finally a publication date in time for the Christmas market of 1983
was set. Then, it was changed for spring of 84.  Then, on the eve the books publication, when the book was so close we could almost see it, the boom fell on us. The publishers parent company’s parent company decided quite unexpectedly to sell off the division actually working on our book, so Guitarmaking was put in the freezer, along with the seventy or so other titles concurrently in production and the six hundred or so titles already in stock. Yes, it meant they were NOT going to publish it, and now were looking to sell the rights to publish it to somebody else. No guarantees, no assurances of how long it would be before the book was on track again. We were shunted into limbo with no recourse, nobody to complain or plead to. The pain was excruciating.

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.

Believe me, it felt great. But then, something incredibly weird happened. Soon after, we got a contract by return mail, with all our assurances written into it. Symposium 85 in Easton, Pennsylvania, became a wonderfully happy celebration for Jon and I and for all our well-wishers.

We signed the dotted line (their line was still blank) and sent it off.
Well, they got the last laugh. They just didn’t sign their half! They jerked us around for six months and then they just told US "no deal," "HAH! HAH!"  Yep, that’s just what they did.


[This is 1988] Now our tale draws to a close. The galley copy is on the shelf, gathering dust. I’ve used it several times, allowing several student builders to use sections of it over the subsequent months. We’ve had to recount our tale over and over to dozens of well-wishers who have asked, your book isn’t out YET?

What can be learned from all this? A few things, among which are,

* If you’ve already got a deal, you don’t need an agent. You just need a lawyer who, for a one-shot fee will advise you on a contract, and then get out of your life.

* Don’t deal with the big boys unless you’re a big boy.

* Keep your dreams intact and alive no matter the cost.

* Don’t sell your dream cheap: if you got something good, keep your price HIGH – don’t ’think of the exposure.’ What’s in it for them should equal what’s in it for YOU.

* Nothing worthwhile comes easy!


Addendum 10/99:

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 couldn’t use it but they didn’t 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 printer’s 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 woodworker’s and guitarmaker’s 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.

THE FUTURE

Jon and I had such a positive experience with this whole saga (clearly we've forgotten all the bitter parts), we’re planning to resurrect Rosewood Press—on the net. We’ve 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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