The Book Publishing Office: Stay or Go? 

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click to enlarge Man with computer


What was your title and what did the job entail?
I was an editorial assistant at a major publishing house (Random House). I worked directly for one of the division’s vice-presidents, who was also a publisher and editor. In a job like that you do a lot of manuscript reading, a ton of paperwork, and you perform a variety of tasks like making your boss’ lunch reservations, fetching your boss’ tea, checking your boss’ messages, and pretending not to want to kill yourself each and every day. That kind of job also typically involves a lot of hand-wringing as you wait to be chided for one thing or another. But that’s corporate life, I suppose. Shit rolls downhill fast in big offices, and if you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, you’d better have a heavy-duty umbrella, a shovel and a thick skin. I had none of those things; thus my mere 18 months in the field.

Has leaving an office setting given you a chance to pursue your dreams?
Surprisingly, yes. Working for a major company (even one that’s deeply involved in a creative endeavor like publishing books) frequently requires you to compromise a lot of your free time. When I began the job, I was in a band, I was working on my own creative projects, and I was really excited to be in the city. Alas, as many recent college grads find out, I learned that (especially in some fields), you’re really expected to make your work your life. I tried that for a while, going to various publishing events, panels and elbow-rubbing evenings surrounded by people in the business. When I left publishing, I got a job at Starbucks, applied to MFA programs in writing, and took an internship at, err, The L Magazine. About seven months later, I was in a funded MFA program where my tuition was free and where I was being paid to write. So, yeah, that worked out really, really well.

Do you keep in touch with your former co-workers?
You know, I’ve managed to keep in touch with a handful of my old publishing friends, and it’s been great. Admittedly, I wasn’t a great assistant. I wasn’t particularly interested in fetching tea and making sure the boss got the correct table at Balthazar. But a lot of my coworkers were dedicated enough to put up with the nonsense and stick with it. Despite my own negative experience in publishing, there are some wonderful people who edit, market and publicize books. From the outside looking in, it’s really easy to demonize agents, editors and publishers, but I don’t know anybody who works in publishing for the glory of it. They do it because, like writers, they love good books, and I’ve got a lot of respect for my former coworkers who have stuck with it and, by and large, been successful in the industry.

What do you miss most about office culture? And the least?
I miss the camaraderie. The younger people in the office — those typically at the assistant and associate level — were often very good-natured about their jobs, no matter how much scut work they ended up having to do. And so many of the old guard, the editors and publishers who’ve been in the business for 20, 30 and 40 years, were really helpful, interesting and, despite their hard noses, friendly. I miss those folks. I don’t miss the domineering boss/sheepish assistant culture that you sometimes see, and that I experienced. There’s no need for a superior and a subordinate to be abusive to one another. Some people simply won’t work well together, and I wish that was recognized in the corporate world. Too much bad blood makes for a stressful work environment, and too many people think that an adversarial relationship with the boss is all a normal part of having a job. I don’t think things have to be that way.

Was there a moment when you realized “office life isn’t for me”?
Oh, God, that was a recurring thought, but the day that it was probably the most obvious was the day that my boss told me not to be “womanly” when ironing out a disagreement with an author (a descriptor that stuck for my remaining months with the company). Around that time, I was at lunch with some other assistants when — in the middle of a conversation — I looked up from my plate and asked the table, “What in the hell are we doing here?” That kind of killed the conversation.

Was your office more The Office or Mad Men?
You know, people were pretty good dressers, and there were many solid drinkers in the office, so I’m going to have to say Mad Men.

Where do you steal office supplies from now?
Anybody who’s been a T.A. at a major research university likely has a stockpile of good pens, legal pads and letterhead. That’s all I’ll say.

What are three things you think someone should know on their first few days outside of the office?
1. I guess I’d recommend finding something you really want to do with yourself: if office life isn’t for you, then don’t waste your time in office jobs.
2. Keep in touch with those office folks. Quitting a job doesn’t mean you can’t stay in touch.
3. Find a way to afford health insurance! The real golden handcuffs of a corporate job is the benefits. Let’s hope we get a public option, then we won’t have to worry about this one anymore.

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