Thursday, October 9, 2008
Blistering, Festering Publishing
I knew that when I moved to New York, it was going to be extremely difficult to find a job in children's publishing. And I knew it was going to be nearly impossible to land something right away where I could work on the types of books that I love. I was ready for the stress and hard work like Luke Skywalker preparing to take on the Death Star.
I had grown up reading E.L. Konigsburg, Betsy Byars, Beverly Cleary, and Jerry Spinelli and, even as an adult, felt their books speaking to the awkward 10-year-old I used to be. A little part of me will always be Ramona Quimby, Age 8. I still fantasize about living at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like they did in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. And every time I see a dog in the park, hot on the trail of a squirrel, I always think, "What is it, Mud? Possum?"
The summer before I packed up my two gigantic suitcases and boarded a plane for JFK, I spent nearly every day reading book after book and trying to figure out 1) who published it 2) who the editor was and 3) how I could possibly use my enjoyment of said book to get some sort of foot in the door at that company. I made a spreadsheet of this information and began drafting emails to these editors. I knew all it would take was one of my emails reaching the right editor at exactly the right time. I didn't care if it annoyed the crap out of them. I was going to be persistent, and eventually...hopefully...it would pay off. One day, I would sit at a desk and edit books all day long. I would work long hours and take piles of manuscripts home and people would say to me, "You sure are married to that job." And I would reply, "You'd better believe it! This is the job I was meant to have."
And so, I left the comfort, safety, and warmth of the life I had known for 25 years and moved to a couch in a friend's apartment. Because I love books. I love sticking my face in them and sniffing the new page smell. I adore old books and wondering whose shelves they lived on in the past. Whenever I felt scared of the enormous new experience of living in a big city, I would just wander down to Books of Wonder, Barnes & Noble, or Borders and run my fingers along the spines on the shelves. The books reassured me that I was doing the right thing. They were my friends.
I went to book signings to try to talk to editors. I read all the latest publishing news. I clung to my cell phone at all times in case someone called me for an interview. I went over interview questions in my head, even when I didn't have one to prepare for.
I ended up temping for seven long, terrifying months before I finally got my foot in the door at Scholastic. I worked at a doctor's office, a tooth whitening company, an engineering firm, an architect's office, and some places where I suspected all they did all day was dial each other's extensions just to say "Hurrumph!" I was sitting at the reception desk at a record company when I finally got the call back for a second interview. It was like Harry Potter himself had called to invite me to my first year at Hogwarts.
"This is it," I thought. "It's finally happening for me."
They tell you that being an editorial assistant in publishing is hard. You live on almost nothing. I used to get really excited if I could afford the $3.25 grilled cheese sandwich in the cafeteria.
When I had been at Scholastic for almost two years, I was doing the job of probably three people without any promotion or pay increase in sight. I watched editorial assistants around me move up, leave publishing altogether, or simply be replaced with someone who was more enthusiastic about administrative work. It was about that time that a very wise person said to me, "If you haven't been promoted by a year and a half, you have to begin exploring your options." Both of the editors I had "assisted" when I started had left the company. I was handling entire projects on my own. I figured it was time to get the official title change.
So, I gathered my wits about me and went to the executive editor to ask for a promotion. "You do a great job," she said. "I'll see what I can do."
I waited a week before going to talk to her again, steeling myself against the possibility that she was going to tell me that it just wasn't in the budget.
Giving me a puzzled look, the editor said, "You never asked me for a promotion, did you?"
I wish I could say that I'm a rare case of being overlooked and under-appreciated. But I'm not. Sadly, it's become commonplace to simply never promote editorial assistants at all. If one assistant quits, there are fifteen recent college grads happy to step in and replace her. If you don't get sick of it and quit, you just stay there, get older, and thrive on $3.25 grilled cheese sandwiches for the rest of your life. One day they find you dead face-down in your slush bin. "I thought we promoted that assistant ages ago!" your boss laments, borrowing your stapler and wondering who will do her expense reports now.
I quit five months after being told that I just wasn't ready to be promoted. And I was replaced by an intern who was made associate editor.
When I was a little kid and proclaimed, "It's not FAIR!" my parents would always say, "Life isn't fair. Get used to it."
And yet, you also hear that if you work hard enough, you can do anything. You can move up through a company, take it over, then burn it to the ground, and pee on the ashes if you want.
I've always loved that Langston Hughes poem, "A Dream Deferred." Because nothing says poetic to me like stinky festering wounds. Here it is if you have never read it.
A Dream Deferred
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
They've started laying people off at Scholastic recently, one of my very good friends included. And it's brought all of the sadness back from that really difficult time when I realized I was going to have to put away spreadsheets and my dream and find something different in order to pay my rent. One can not thrive on grilled cheese alone, I've learned.
Yes, Langston. It stinks. It certainly does.