Ronnie Polaneczky: Elderly author is finding his e-book to be a tough read among friends

Bernie Cohen, with his wife, Selma, holding a framed cover of his new e-book. Reviews of the book seem to be helping sales, but Bernie's elderly friends aren't latching on to its digital medium.
Bernie Cohen, with his wife, Selma, holding a framed cover of his new e-book. Reviews of the book seem to be helping sales, but Bernie's elderly friends aren't latching on to its digital medium. (RONNIE POLANECZKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: October 03, 2012

I WOULDN'T NORMALLY feel sorry for a man like Bernie Cohen.

At 86, he's had a vibrant life. He's been married to the same sweetheart, Selma, for more than six decades and is a proud father and grandfather.

Although he's long retired as a clinical psychologist, he's still a professor emeritus at West Chester University, where he taught for years. And he had a fine career in private practice and managed a bustling psychiatric clinic in Norristown.

He may move a little slowly, but his wits are quick and his eyes crinkle when he delivers the punch line of a favorite joke.

We should all live so long and so well.

And yet, as I leave the pretty Center City apartment he and Selma share in the William Penn House, I think, "Poor Bernie!"

In July, Bernie published his first novel. It's an e-book called A Warning, published by Musa Publishing, a digital publisher that celebrated its first birthday on Monday. The book is getting nice buzz on Musa's website.

Enthusiastic word-of-mouth reviews seem to be helping sales of this wonderfully menacing tale of a psychiatrist who warns a woman that her husband, his patient, plans to kill her. An illicit relationship develops between the doctor and the woman, and the tale's end ensures there will be no sequel for the protagonists in this suspenseful tale of desire gone wrong.

The problem is, Bernie's elderly friends haven't read A Warning. They either don't have the right device to download it or they lack the skills to do so. Or their book habits are so cemented in the past, they won't turn any page that isn't paper.

It's like an O. Henry plot: In his golden years, a would-be author finally writes a book he wants all his friends to read. But they can't, because everyone has gotten so old.

"It's frustrating," says Bernie, who, to produce the book, had to master the digital technology his peers avoid. "People are excited for me. But when they hear I have an e-book, they say, 'Oh . . . ' "

One elderly William Penn resident who pens copious book reviews for the building's newsletter said to Bernie, "Let me know when it comes out in paper."

This isn't how Bernie envisioned his debut as a novelist. He'd published about a dozen short stories over the years in small journals. But nothing was as ambitious as A Warning, whose 60,000 or so words took him about three years to write.

When he finished, though, no publisher or agent replied to his written requests to bring it to the masses. Then, last fall, he saw an ad in a literary journal that Musa was accepting submissions. So he pitched A Warning.

"We were very interested," says Musa editorial director Celina Summers. "It needed some work, but we thought it was a very different sort of psychological thriller."

Summers was impressed not just by how doggedly Bernie worked on the revisions but by how hard he worked to learn the ins and outs of working in a digital medium. Communication is handled via email and Skype - Musa's editors are scattered around the country, the company has no physical office, and edits are handled electronically.

"We have a number of older authors, and it's fascinating to watch them adapt to technology that they couldn't have imagined 30 or 40 years ago," says Summers. "We have to teach some of them how to attach a file to an email, or how to track changes in Microsoft Word. It's like we're doing an education process in addition to the editing. For the most part, they're so gallant about it. They forge ahead so they can realize their dream of publication."

If only their older friends could read the books that require such a breach of the digital divide.

Maybe, to support him, Bernie's friends might pay a visit to the Digital Bookmobile. It's a retrofitted tractor-trailer, run by a company called OverDrive Inc., that provides e-book-lending services to libraries. The Bookmobile staff teaches newbies how to select a digital reading device and how to download books onto them. This week, the Bookmobile will be in South Jersey (see Overdrive.com for details).

Spokesman Matt Lovett tells me that elderly readers are among the most enthusiastic converts to e-books.

"They embrace the technology once they get over a few little hurdles and find out how easy it is to download books," he says.

Certainly, Bernie has learned to love the technology that has allowed him to circumvent the New York publishing industry - a behemoth of scaredy-cats so cold and risk-averse to new authors, not one would even send Bernie a rejection letter when he sought their services.

Still, he admits that e-publishing took some getting used to.

"When my book came out, I was so appreciative I wanted to shake my editor's hand," says the gentlemanly Bernie of the woman he has yet to meet. "That would've been nice."

A Warning, by Bernard Brachya Cohen, is available through Amazon, Kindle and Musa Publishing.


Contact Ronnie Polaneczky at polaner@phillynews.com or 215-854-2217. Follow her on Twitter @RonniePhilly. Read her blog at philly.com/ronnieblog.

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