Monthly Archives: November 2009
>I hate interviews. There’s something about being scrutinized like a bug specimen that makes me a little nervous. Go figure. I find myself giggling unnaturally, saying stupid things that don’t make sense and – oh, God – stuttering. My worst flaw in an interview is my horrible tendency to answer questions on a delay. If it is a telephone interview, the interviewer will inevitably say something like, “Is this a good time?” and I’ll just sit there for, like, an entire ten seconds and then say something ridiculous as a failed attempt at humor: “Yeah, this is a great time. I’m just driving.” Marvelous. Irresponsibility makes for a great first impression.
Interviewers, at some time or another during the interview, will ask if you have any questions. On my first job interview, I confidently lifted my chin and said, “No, I think I have all the information I need. Thanks!” Crash and burn. This response is the absolute worst to this question. The interviewer wants to know that you are interested enough in the position to ask questions. Any question will do. And, really, did I know everything about the position? Anyone who thinks they know so much about a position that they haven’t a single question to ask, is either way overqualified for the position or way too cocky to be given the job.
So this time around, when my interviewer asked very sweetly (she was really nice), “Do you have any questions?” I knew I had to come up with something. But I had forgotten to prepare a question and all my safeties had already been answered! So, pacing in front of my bookshelves during this phone interview, I hastily asked,” Can you recommend any reading I can do for background material before I start the internship?” I shut my eyes tightly and waited for the proof in the interviewer’s tone of voice that I had asked a stupid question. It came. She stiffly said, “No, I don’t think there’s anything that–” and then she paused. I opened one eye – was there hope that this question wasn’t so stupid after all? Yes! As she rattled off different blogs, websites, books and magazines I could consult, I opened the other eye and ran to my desk for a pen and paper. She kept going! There is so much information out there about publishing and this girl seemed to have all of it catalogued in her head! When she finally took a breath, she said, “Wow, that was a really great question. I’ve never heard that one before.” Grin from ear to ear on this end.
Note: some of the sources she mentioned were Publisher’s Weekly, Publisher’s Marketplace, Twitter, her company’s website and blog and Romantic Times Book Reviews, which have all turned out to be beyond informative.
>So, I just landed an internship at a literary agency in New Jersey. It’s not a paid internship, and by the way those are few and far between, not to mention highly coveted and competitive in the cut-throat tradition. Many, if not most or even all, companies in the publishing arena offer to work with your college or university to get you at least three credits for the internship, which is near enough to getting paid. But those three credits, at least at my own school, Pace University, are assigned an actual course number, which means I can’t take the credit for an internship more than once without taking the same course twice. Even if I did want to take it twice, one instance of it on my transcript would cancel out the other so what’s the point?
My point? I’m a slave. Literally. Not only will I be working for free and not getting any college credit, but I’ll be driving something like sixty miles there and back twice a week in order to perform my slave tasks. Am I a masochist? Not really. My own worst enemy? Depends on whom you ask. In order to make it in publishing – and by this I don’t just mean get a job – really make it, you have to become a mule for a few years, suck it up and take your crap years.
Publishing courses like those at New York University and Columbia boast that very high percentages of students get jobs after completion. This is because they thrust the students, who have been groomed and educated within inches of their lives (we’re talking day, night and weekend classes at Columbia) in front of the people who hire entry-level publishing candidates. Sounds great right? Sounds like a done-deal? It is if you work hard enough – but in order to be allowed to pay the $5,000 – $7000 to work hard enough, you have to work hard.
So that’s why the slave labor. The key is to like it. Without pay or college credit, the only benefit I can gain from this situation is to soak up as much information and experience as possible, and to enjoy myself in the process. Beyond that, it’s another set of brownie points on my resume and another reference in my pocket. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t actually enjoy interning. I do! Just sitting idly in the office and listening to the industry jargon and news is worth its weight in gold. Something said and remembered now can become small talk in your next interview, securing your next internship and therefore your next line of Excellent Resume. Is it a game? Yeah, a little. But, really, what isn’t?
>Students who are looking to break into the publishing industry tend to pigeon-hole themselves into the editorial job functions. But there is a wealth of information to be gleaned from literary agencies and writers groups, too! I’ve lately gotten into the habit of reading a particularly information-laden blog, written by a literary agent in New Jersey. Not only is the blog a wealth of knowledge about what works in publishing, what is acceptable as far as etiquette goes and how to critique mss, it is also, at times, entertaining! For those who want to check it out, don’t forget to read the archived posts. I find that reading the responses to the agent’s posts is also very informative. I’ve really gotten into the minds of writers, which I expect will be valuable when it’s my turn to write rejection and critique letters. Here’s the URL: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/
>A word about diversity on the planet of publishing: it is both diverse and not. Here at S&S, they have benefits for same-sex life-partners of employees. That seems like a good idea, because there are more gay men working in this industry than there are in some others. Although, like I said, I haven’t met many men. I hate to spew stereotypes, good or bad, but this building has a healthy measure of witty, intelligent remarks floating around which makes every day here all the more fun. So, in this way, S&S is diverse and they really cater to the needs of a population of gay people who have some different needs than straight people might.There are very few black people here, and almost no black men. I mean, there aren’t that many men, let alone getting into white men and black men and Asian men. I read somewhere, I believe it was an e-book on the publishing industry, that when young, college-educated black people began to join the professional trades, a bzillion years ago, they sought jobs which would pay the most, the earliest, in order to support their families. Whereas, those whose families were already generations in to the publishing industry didn’t need to make immediate money (parents are good at funding the beginning of a career) and could wait until they advanced in their careers to make a very good salary, as is the case in publishing. Many were women whose spouses were able to support them through the statistically low salaries that come with lower jobs in publishing. I have seen exactly one black person. She was a woman, which makes sense because the ratio of women to men here is something like 60:30. There are also not that many Hispanic people here. I have met only two Hispanic people. Racially, this workplace would seem exclusive. As though non-whites were unwanted. Except for the fact that no one here seems racist. I believe racism usually stems from ignorance and I have met exactly zero ignorant people here. But, in a city like New York, it stands in stark contrast that a good percentage of the people working here are white. Yet, they have diversity day and all kinds of banners and fliers about diversity. I guess there aren’t that many black or Hispanic or Asian people who want to work in book publishing.Please understand, I’m not discussing this because race is of high importance to me. I’m just sort of examining this workplace because I imagine I’ll find myself working in this industry after college. I think it is important to consider all aspects of an industry before building your life around it. I would love to have a very straightforward answer as to why publishing is not as diverse as other industries, but I just don’t.
>I’ve begun to get a handle on the hierarchy of employees here. The top-guy for financials, it appears, is the publisher. TF’s editorial and publicity offices are arranged along one very long and very narrow hallway. The publisher’s office, a huge behemoth, is situated at the end of the row in the only place which could accommodate such a big office while allowing it to have ample windows. I find it interesting that, save for one, the only man in the imprint is in the top position. Call me hysterical, call me paranoid, but I do wonder if this has anything to do with a glass ceiling. I’ve read, in more than one source, that the “glass ceiling” does not exist in book publishing because of the ratio of women to men. In a different industry, like law, for example, a woman might be prevented from emerging at the top because she needs to prove herself so much more than a man might need to. Sounds awful, sounds like fifty years ago, I know, but it’s true! Here in the publishing world, however, most of the employees are women. I have interacted extensively with not a single male. I know the names of three, as opposed to knowing the names of three times that many women. But the publisher doesn’t appear to rule over the women (and one man) under him, exactly. He appears to be a well-educated man who knows that to be a leader you must interact, cooperate and work with your inferiors. He appears to do a very good job of this. Also, the editor-in-chief, who I’ll get to in a minute, is also a high-boss, while being a woman. Down in human resources, the director (or top guy) is a woman. So I’m leaning toward agreeing with the sources that say there is no glass ceiling in publishing. At the other end of the long editorial half of the hallway is the editor-in-chief’s office which is also quite huge. The EIC is the big-girl for all things editorial. What I can’t figure out (and don’t have the nerve to ask) is who is whose boss there? I want to say that technically the publisher is the EIC’s boss because of his title, but that’s not exactly cut-and-dried. Judging by their interaction with each other, I’d say that their relationship goes one of two ways: either he is her boss and they work very, very well together (no barked orders or anything like that) or neither is the other’s boss and they are horizontally responsible for the imprint. Perplexing.Outside the EIC’s office, sits Danielle, who is my boss. I think. She’s an assistant editor, which means that she’s an editorial assistant with a bigger paycheck, only one editor to work for and the freedom to take on projects of her own. The editor Danielle works for is that EIC, and Danielle appears to have an immense amount of work to do. She also acquires her own books to edit, even though she’s technically an assistant. I believe this is because no one gets too comfy in Danielle’s position. The idea is to move up to be an editor and the EIC is helping her to do that by giving her (or letting her get for herself) a project much like those an editor will handle. Danielle is a step above an editorial assistant who rarely takes on projects of her own, but handles a lot of work for her editor. The editorial assistant I’m sitting next to, seems much less busy than Danielle and probably a little less knowledgeable. Hence, I suppose, the distinction between “assistant editor” and “editorial assistant.” I know the difference between these two titles sounds like simple semantics, but despite the subtleties, believe me, there is a big difference. Danielle seems to be a wealth of knowledge while the editorial assistant seems to be just learning. And then, of course, there’s me. I’m at the bottom and I receive work from anyone who wants to give it to me. I don’t get nearly enough work to do, but I love every piece of it that comes my way. I feel like every new task is a way for me to prove that I’m intelligent, too. I can handle these tasks. It is important to me that I impress my superiors here, because one day, when I’m out of college, I might wish to apply here as an editorial assistant so that I may continue to stare blankly during editorial meetings, absorbing all the information. If I consistently do my best in every menial task I perform, maybe they’ll remember me.
>As I sit at my worn-out, old desk for the very last week, it occurs to me that I will miss the slush pile. It is the bottom of the publishing structure, designated to the bottom of the publishing pecking order. But it has taught me more than I could ever have learned. In order to know what works in publishing (the most important skill in an editor’s toolbox) one must know – deeply, know – what doesn’t work and why. All things are defined by their opposites, and good books are no exception. So as I walk away from Rockefeller Center, probably tearfully, it will be a comfort to know that although I’ve never collected a dime for my efforts and although I’ve spent my time here feeling intellectually inadequate by contrast to my coworkers I have added one hugely important skill to my toolbox.
I can’t say that I feel completely comfortable here at Touchstone/Fireside. I’m surrounded by wonderfully intelligent people which is a welcome respite from my usual days surrounded by immature students giggling about boobs and pot. For a while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of my discomfort, but this week, I’ve finally realized it: I’m inadequate. All of the people I work for here are infinitely smarter, more diplomatic and more accomplished than I am. They use words that I don’t understand, like “writerly” (according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of this is of, relating to, or typical of a writer. Now that seems really obvious.) and they are all so darn graceful. I often feel like I’m working with a bunch of Jackie Os! But despite how stupid and childish and clumsy and awkward they make me feel, they are all so wonderful. They are each a personification of a quality I wish to have. The editor-in-chief is power and influence, Danielle is intelligence, Michelle is grace, Lauren is style, Shawna is friendliness and tact, Zach is this accomplished coolness (if there exists such a word), Alex is composed competence. My problem, of course, is that I see these people not for what they are, but for what I am not. This must stop. I’m sure that these people have insecurities and shortcomings they have filed down along the way. I imagine them at home. I see Michelle crying hopelessly on her sofa, watching Sleepless in Seattle while eating ice cream in her pajamas. I see Zach standing in front of his fridge eating lo mein out of the carton with his fingers. Not because he’s a slob, but because he’s a guy. I see the EIC, the mega-editor, gardening on her hands and knees. I see Danielle in a very ungraceful fit of giggles while shopping with her friends. I see them all in situations that do not involve books and intelligence. Does it help? No. I’m still the one who didn’t go to Wesleyan or Columbia or wherever. I’m still the one who turns red anytime someone speaks to me. I’m still the one who knows nothing.
Where, you ask, do these feelings come from? Zach read my reader’s report on that awfully offensive manuscript with the trashy sex and unbelieveably cheesy dialog. In the email to which I attached my report, I told Zach that I found the entire manuscript incredibly offensive. I also wrote that despite my scant knowledge of the legal intricacies of book publishing, I didn’t think it was legal to publish something that offensive to that many groups of people. That was seven days ago, exactly. Today, Zach called me in to Michelle’s office to talk about my report. Nervously, I stepped into the office and had a seat. Michelle sort of sat and watched while Zach very diplomatically attacked what I had to say about the manuscript. Zach said if I was offended by what I was reading, I should not have read it. I told him it was my first project and I didn’t want to be a complainer. He then proceeded to say that before I deem something “illegal to publish” I should check my facts. The first ammendment is the foundation of journalism and publishing. Of course, he’s right. I was once the news and features editor of my school newspaper. Why hadn’t I considered this most basic of publishing tenets? Now, I feel incredibly stupid. Now, I can’t believe that I actually thought something would be illegal to publish. I wanted to jump out the window into Michelle’s beautiful and well-earned view. What an idiot!
Then, he told me that many published books contain profanity and are offensive to different races and different types of people. He had brought books along with him to show me. One was a joke book that was full of racial humor and profanity. Another was a book about lesbians. I wanted to tell Zach and Michelle where I was coming from, but I thought it would probably be in poor taste to argue with two senior editors. I still feel sort of bummed out, though, so I’ll just tell my argument here.
To me, the offensive manuscript was unacceptable because it wasn’t very obviously supposed to be offensive. The book Zach showed me, and other humor books of its kind are not offensive exactly because their covers and titles say to the reader, “Hey! Looky here! I’m a book that’s going to say offensive things in order to be funny!” The offensive manuscript’s title, as an example of how it’s not supposed to be funny, refers to one part of the book in which the children of the main character learn about decorator crabs and how they use pieces of their environment to cover up their sameness. The title is a metaphor for human behavior. That’s not funny. The book was about one man’s journey from uncaring attorney to avenger of social injustice. Also not funny. The profanity and offensiveness that peppered the manuscript, and probably amounted to at least half of the book, was out of place and therefore offensive. To exemplify my point here, let’s use a non-book-related example. If someone said “fuck” in a show like South Park, which is designed to be offensive, I can’t say I would be offended by it. In fact, I love South Park and own eight seasons of it. However, if I went to court for a parking ticket and the judge said “fuck” during the proceedings, I would absolutely be offended and confused, just like I felt while reading that MS. Damn! Why couldn’t I find those words? Where were they when I was stupidly nodding my head and mm-hmming while Zach looked down his nose at me and forced Michelle to watch?
Of course, later on, when my embarassment has cooled, it will occur to me that this experience is valuable. Next time I write a report – and Zach said he would send some my way – I will keep these things in mind and write a smarter, more educated and informed report.
Of course, my learning experience here – what Zach was trying to teach me – is that an editor can’t worry about his own personal feelings when reading a manuscript. He can’t let that sway his decision to publish the book because ultimately it doesn’t matter if he thinks its entertaining or stimulating or whatever. What matters in the end is whether or not it will sell. That’s why Zach brought the other books with him into Michelle’s office. Because he wanted to say that profane and offensive books absolutely do sell – to a certain audience. An editor, I’ve learned from this experience (thanks, Zach!) has to be completely objective, just like he would be on jury duty. If you’re part of the jury on a case in which someone is accused of rape, and you’re a rape victim, it is not appropriate for you to be on the jury and you most certainly will not be allowed.
Although this experience was embarrassing for me, I have to say I would not have it any other way because I’ve learned more in those five minutes than I have learned during my entire college career. And I hope all of you don’t make this mistake!
I was given my first big project this week. One of the senior editors asked me to read an unpublished manuscript and tell him what I thought. Of course, I had no idea how the format for such a thing should be, so I wrote down this, like, running commentary covering all my thoughts about the manuscript. It was pages and pages long by the time I finished the first two or three chapters and I emailed it to the senior editor. When he didn’t get back to me gushing with admiration and pride at what a good job I did, I began to worry. When he finally returned my email, he wasn’t very happy about the job I did. Evidently, there is an exact formula for writing what is called a reader’s report. It goes like this:
1 or 2 sentence sales handle. What is this and who is it for?
1 or 2 sentence overall description. What happens, briefly?
2 or 3 paragraph plot description.
2 or 3 paragraph analysis. Strengths? Weaknesses?
Most importantly – is it publishable?
Had the editor told me this to begin with, I would have saved myself so much time and worry. I think he wanted to see what I would do with his request. He was probably not surprised by the outcome. I had no idea what he wanted, and I probably should have said as much instead of attempting to wing it and imress him. Anyway, so I had to read all 534 pages of this awful monstrosity written by a psychopathic lawyer from Texas. I kept thinking, Why me? What did I do to deserve this? As I wrote my short synopsis of each chapter, I fantasized about printing out the manuscript – all of it – slamming it down on the editor’s desk and shouting, “You read it!” with a defiant hair toss. But no. I do have some control. I took my satisfaction from letting the editor know how incredibly offended I was by this manuscript. And I was offended. The pages contained more cheesy, trashy sex than I’m comfortable thinking about, more mean, gasp-provoking racial epithets than I’ve ever heard, and more stereotypical, chauvinistic images of women with large, perky breasts who just love to constantly have sex. One of the characters is named for her breasts. I’m not joking. It was absolutely the most dirty, offensive, trashy piece of fiction I have ever read. I had my husband read part of it. I chose him because he watches plenty of late night shows on television and funny videos on the Internet – the more irreverent it is, the more uproariously he guffaws. He was disgusted and he, in a very docile and traumatized voice, asked me never to mention it again. Then he hung his head and slunk out of the room. So now I couldn’t even discuss my work day, which consists entirely of me sitting at my desk with an expression of aghast horror on my face, reading this smut, with my husband. Wonderful.
Evidently, I have proven to TF that my skill set exceeds that of a chimp, because this week I have taken a siesta from the deliciously mundane and tedious book-like tasks that used to be my only purpose here. The reader might think I’m speaking in oxymorons, but truly, I love the mundane work of this industry: photo-copying, emailing, mailing, logging submissions, filing, etc. These tasks are those that take little skill, so they allow my already-overworked brain to relax. Brain vacation, you might say.
But I’ve been allowed, beginning this week, to take on more important tasks. Now, the editors and assistants are commandeering me for “projects”. These projects are fascinating to me, the dork who finds such things fascinating, because I’ve been imagining for a long time now what my day-to-day experience in the publishing world will be like. For me to finally see the day-to-day workings here is comparable to one of those people who read Star actually seeing one. Giddy hysteria. I try to remain calm.
Shawna, Zach’s editorial assistant, started it all with a request to conduct some investigative work on a potential author. Basically, I just googled the author’s name, absorbed all of the information and spit it back out at Shawna in an email. She said thanks and that was that.
Apparently my skills as a private eye pleased her, because yesterday, Zach approached me with not one, but three projects. Sitting in his cushy office overlooking one of Rockefeller Center’s rooftop gardens, Zach asked me about my goals, how I landed myself at TF, blah, blah, blah. The first project was to find out information about Sig Hansen and his brothers, who are ship captains on the enormously popular reality TV show, Deadliest Catch. There was an awful lot of information and I made certain he got as much as I could give – even MySpace friend-counts. The second project was much like the first, with a different person, someone uninteresting and not famous.
Finishing those two jobs, Michelle, another senior editor approached with a new project. Maybe Zach told her I did a good job, maybe it was just a coincidence. I like to stay hopeful, though. Michelle is editing a baby-name book, which, by its very nature, has few selling points aside from the actual count of baby names. Expectant mothers will choose the book with the most names so they don’t miss the perfect name. Makes sense. Unfortunately, the book is almost finished and no one bothered to count the names. This is what I’m here for – the crappy task net. Anyway, Michelle took pity on me and suggested that instead of hand-counting all of the names in this three-hundred-page book, I could simply take a sample of pages, say 30, count all the names and multiply that by 10. Then, she would conservatively make an estimate. Smart lady. Unfortunately, I have this ridiculous tendency to open my mouth when it belongs wired shut – in the shape of nice, compliant smile. But since I’m a complete fool, I suggested back to Michelle that, since she had a count of all the base names (not variations, which are many), we could count the variations of each base name in a sample and average it. Then, we could multiply that average number by the number of base names. She looked very confused and after attempting to seriously consider my idiocy, she said very diplomatically and gracefully, “Well, let’s give this a try. If it’s not working and you feel there’s a better way, I would love to hear it.” At least then I had the sense to shut up. Her way was much easier anyway.
To make up for acting so crazy, I placed my results as neatly and comprehensively in an Excel spreadsheet, totaled it into subtotals and a grand total and emailed it to her with a smiley face. She thanked me both in person and in an email. Yay!
It went downhill from there, however. As his third project, Zach asked me to “take a look at a manuscript.” I didn’t really know what that meant and I didn’t want to ask, so I decided to wing it. I read the first three chapters of the manuscript, which were absolutely awful, and wrote down all my thoughts. Then, I emailed them to Zach. He has yet to get back to me. But, now that I’m reading further into the manuscript, I realize that some of my initial thoughts are set to rest by further information. Next time, I’ll wait until I’ve read the whole thing. Maybe that’s what the problem was. Or maybe he just wanted a simple, “I like it” or “I hate it” instead of three typed pages of the intern’s inexperienced, jumbled thoughts on a manuscript. I guess we shall see. At the moment , I’m completing yet another of Zach’s projects. I’m trying to log into BookScan and can’t. Fabulous. Now I have to show him how incompetent I can be and email him this problem. More next week.
So, I’ve been here a month, now. I’ve begun to attend the editorial meetings on Wednesday afternoons, which are incredibly informative. The meeting begins with The Closing List, which is a list of book proposals for which an editor must give their final offer. Books are bought from an author and his agent, not just taken on. The offer from a publishing house could be in the thousands of dollars, but it could very well be in the millions, depending on who the author is and how great her book is. The editors, marketing people, assistant editor, editorial assistants, editor-in-chief and publisher discuss each of these titles. I just sit and listen, even though I desperately want to tell these people my own opinions on the books they are publishing. The discussion is usually led by the acquiring editor, the person who will be buying (with S&S’s money of course) the book. In these meetings, actual money is discussed far less frequently than whether the book will be bought at all.
In auctions for books, Touchstone/Fireside seems to always have the floor. To “have the floor” is to make the first offer, thereby making sure that any other offer must beat the first one. If you’re a little guy who offers $10,000, this might not seem important. But to a major player like S&S, this means that many will walk away because of a high floor, leaving Touchtone/Fireside (the buying imprint) with few competitors for the book.