Monday, March 28, 2011

Publishing Asst's and a long overdue Thank You Note

Okay, I know I'm coming a little late to the game here, but a steady rage has been seething in the back of my mind since then...and it's just now cooked itself into coherent thoughts.

I read this article a week or so ago. You know, that one which describes assistants in publishing as privileged starry-eyed dreamers, who find themselves confronted by real world problems (oh no! Taxes! Answering the phone! The horror!). Dreamers who are shocked, of course, by said problems because they thought that they'd be sitting at a desk, reading Great Works of Literature all day.

This article does have a kernel of truth to it. But a kernel of truth the same way that Propaganda can a teensy, tiny element of truth - usually one fact taken out of context and blown way out of proportion. I won't go point by point here and refute each paragraph of the article, because some other awesome people have already done this - here and here.

But I still feel like I need to stand up and defend the assistants of the publishing world.

Their life is hard.

Yes, their job is filled with tasks for which their education has over-qualified them: the mailings, the phone calls, the routing, the filing, the schedule keeping, etc. Yes, if a new assistant doesn't have prior office experience, they have to quickly master their polite business phone voice. All of them have to master how to prioritize their tasks and how to manage both their own time - and actually some of their boss's time as well.

They have to learn it pretty much on the first day and hit the ground running.

Is that actually different from most entry-level positions in New York? Not really.

Honestly, in New York, the competition for jobs is fierce. As an assistant, you're so grateful that you've gotten your foot in the door that you'll do these tasks gladly and do them as well as you possibly can.

In fact, many of these assistants were passionate, Type A, high-achievers when they were still students. So, a lot of their stress comes from the fact that they're still trying to do the very best job they can for everything they do - all the tiny little tasks that take up their day and the big tasks that conquer their 40-hour workweek.

So, what happens? The job spills outside the nine-to-five/ten-to-six portion of the program. Publishing assistants also work evenings and weekends. Almost all reading gets done not during the day, but well after all their bosses have gone home.

Yes, despite how many times on Twitter you might hear about so-and-so having drinks with so-and-so, the publishing assistants are usually hard at work when other people are commuting home or beginning to eat dinner with their families. With reading, and after hours catch-up, 60-hour workweeks are the norm. Usually, it is more.

Again, this isn't all that different from other entry-level jobs in New York. Everybody works insane hours there.

Here's what is different: the way people view assistants in the publishing biz.

For instance, these assistants get articles like this hounding them. Why?

I think it's jealousy, partly.

Publishing assistants have the entry level positions in what is essentially many people's dream job. Because it's a dream job, because other people fantasize about what life would be like in this industry, people also don't view it as a real job.

It definitely doesn't have that hardworking mystique which is attached to landing a job as an assistant in other high profile industries. *cough cough* advertising *cough* stock brokers *cough* investment bankers *cough*

So, the assistants in the publishing biz get crap from these other folk in the City, who look down their noses at them. (And heaven forbid if one of these assistants works on the children's side of the book world. "When do you get to graduate to the real books?" many brainless people have asked. "You know, for adults?")

And say these poor assistants leave the City, go home to visit family in Wisconsin, or North Carolina, or someplace, and they're forced to explain their job to friends of the family. You know who I mean. The ones who - if you told them that you were majoring in English - they automatically ask, "What are you going to do with that? Teach?"

These people find you, say that they've heard that you live in New York now, and ask you how you're doing. You explain your job with pride thinking, Take that, you condescending jerk. I got a job where I use my major, and it's not teaching. They listen with interest, and then they say something like, "It's so nice that your parents let you do that. I had to [work in the coal mines/labor in the fields/sell my firstborn child/something else really hard] when I was your age."

Then, without skipping a beat, they add, "Listen, my aunt [brother-in-law/son's best friend/business partner's wife] has written this novel. Would you take a look at it?"

That's right. They insult you and your hard work, and then they want your help. (Bastards.)

Another big difference: what publishing assistants are paid.

Peanuts, y'all. And sometimes - but not always - free books.

In 2008, the starting salary for an editorial assistant at one of the bigger NYC publishing houses was $30-35K/year. With taxes, and the cost of benefits, that's like $2K/month in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. Where rent - even when you have a roommate or several roommates - frequently exceeds $1000/month.

Compare that to the starting salary for those college grads entering investment banking.

So, there's little prestige in this job, and even less money, and next-to-no free time to enjoy the many cultural riches of their new hometown, NYC.

So, why do these assistants do it?

They love books. That is the truth, plain and simple.

Unlike some people, these assistants believe that literature is not dead. That the book industry is not dying. That the world of words is alive and growing and well.

Not only do they believe that literature is still a living breathing entity, full of stories ripe for the picking, assistants in publishing are literally staking their lives on it. They are devoting the majority of their waking hours to words - to the creation and publication of more books.

They are sacrificing their youth to literature, because they believe in it so passionately.

This is not an exaggeration. This is a fact. They work in the trenches, and they fight on the frontlines in the Battle for the Book's Survival. They do it for love. And this is no small feat in this day and age, with all the panic about e-readers, rising illiteracy, and the overall state of publishing.

For that fact alone, these young people deserve our respect and our thanks.

(I am looking at you, Kat Stoeffel. Well, glaring at you, to be more exact.)

How do I know?

I spent my first year out of college as an editorial assistant in children's books. In New York.

(If you didn't already know this, you might have started to guess when I started to get peeved all over again halfway through this post.)

And to be perfectly honest, I couldn't handle it. I couldn't handle the pace, or the demands on my time, or actually, living in New York, especially on a shoestring budget. So, after roughly a year, I quit.

(FYI: it's not like I'm any less passionate about books, though. I mean, I'm a writer now, for crying out loud.)

I'm just telling you so that you understand two things:

a) I do know what I'm talking about.

b) This post is not about me.

It's about the friends behind in New York, good friends who - even after several promotions - are still publishing assistants. It's about the lovely young ladies, who took the (kind of) job I left behind. It's about the new hires in the publishing houses, and the literary agencies, and the magazine world. Yes, it's about the interns too.

This is for them:
Dear long-suffering publishing assistants,

I want to thank you guys. I want to thank you for your time. For your energy. For your sacrifices and for your passion.

Thank you for answering those phones, and making those copies, and routing those documents to those VIPs, who are too busy to do it themselves. Thank you for answering the fifty emails you received this morning, which you didn't really have time to answer. Thank you for writing flap copy/marketing letters/pitches, and for revising said copy/letters/pitches every time your boss told you there was something wrong with it. Thank you for taking home those submissions and reading them when you could've gone out to dinner with your friends. Thank you for giving 110% at a thankless job, which costs you a great deal and which gets you insulted. Thank you for believing in books - all books - so very much.

Your passion keeps the publishing industry alive. Without you, the world would be a bleaker place, where books had fewer champions and more stories would be left untold. Without you, we writers and readers would be lost.

You guys are rockstars.

With undying gratitude and all of my love,


Maria said...

You are so very awesome.

Laurel Symonds said...

Thank you so much for this post!

P.S. I interned for Joanna before landing my dream job as an ed assist at HarperCollins Children's Books! So that's like two degrees of separation! :-)

Shelby Bach said...

Maria - No, YOU are awesome, MG. I heart you. (I also hope you are MG. Otherwise, I might be sending my love to a stranger, which is not a bad thing, but it might make the stranger uncomfortable. (If so, stranger, I'm very sorry.))

Laurel - Thank YOU for being so awesome and hardworking! And that's craziness with degrees of separation and Jo. She always tells me how blessed she is and has been with interns, so I know you're fantastically talented. :-D

Katie said...

Thank YOU, Shelby! After three years in the media department, I'm finally in children's editorial and loving it, in spite of (because of?) all the challenges you mention above. Hope you're well!

Shelby Bach said...

Katie - Congratulations on landing a job in children's editorial! That's awesome!! I hope you're doing fantastically, and I'm glad you liked this post. :-)

debby said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you.