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 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.


Jen said...

Aww. *huge hug* Hang in there. I really need to take you out to dinner soon.

Also, I have walked by Books of Wonder but haven't been inside. I bet they have pop-up books and puppets. I must investigate.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@jen: It sounds like a sad-for-me post, but it really isn't. I'm fine. It's really my wee friend peach I'm sad for. And my taller friend jody!. Because it's bullshit what people have to go through to work for a company that appreciates them so little.

Jen said...

Bullshit indeed.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@jen: Also, you need to go to Books of Wonder. It's a magical place. Books and cupcakes. Hello?

margo channing said...

You're not going to be an editor because you're a writer. Even Langston knows that.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@margo: That made me tear up a little. Thank you so much. That's so nice of you to say. I'm trying!

t.c. said...

If only there were some way of combining your extraordinary baking skills with your scrumptious writing... [thought bubble]

lalaland13 said...

Honey, I'm so sorry. But you're still working in the industry in some capacity, right? Just not the dream one? But yes, I think this was about your friend and dreams dying, wasn't it?

Corporate sucks. Always and forever. When I left my last job and they put in a hiring freeze for my post after I left, I was furious. I had to leave partly because we were ridiculously understaffed, and they were doing it again, those bastards.

I've had dreams die as well. Some totally. Others in a smaller, quieter but no less painful way. It sucks regardless. I thought my last job was great and grand and I was going to be friends with everyone and have a million newspaper buddies. Not so much.

Andrea said...

It's like this in almost every field and industry these days. The idealistic toilers are exploited and then spit out instead of rewarded. It is a sad, sad world. Unfortunately, we all have to get wise and realize no one will look out for us except ourselves. Like you've wisely done, it seems we can only ride out a good thing for as long as it lasts, and then try to jump to the next rock quickly if we find we are not being treated as we should. But we should never let go of our overall dreams!!

BTW, Mixed-Up Files is one of my favorite books of all time!

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@t.c.: But baking blogs have soooo been done before. Hey, speaking of, can I have my tupperware back?

@lalaland13: Yeah, I still work in publishing. Absolutely. And I'm kind of okay not being in the part of it I planned on being in.

@andrea: RIGHT? I love that book so much. Every time I go to the Met I have to wander around the furniture rooms and pick out pieces for my dream apartment.

t.c. said...

Oh, no, I didn't mean to suggest that you change your wonderfully creative blog into a baking blog. I was just musing on how you might combine two major passions. (I tried to reference the picture of writing with cupcakes.)

Please maintain your own unique blog path, which makes it such a pleasure to read.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@t.c.: Ooooh, gotcha. I fear if I did that people would not read the words as much as drool over the cupcakes. :)

Where are you these days? I haven't seen you in decades.

Jen said...

@Beth: If you wrote on cupcakes, I would read and cherish every word. And then devour them. Mmm. Yummy.

M said...

fortune-cookie-like cupcakes?

The Domina said...

Aw that poem makes me want to cry...touches a very raw nerve.

lalaland13 said...

@bethville: I totes understand about being OK with where you are, even if it's not where you thought you wanted to be. I'm happier now than I was previously. I've learned that the amount of stress you have on a job doesn't correlate to how "good" the job is. Mostly it just correlates to how stressed you are.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@the domina: It makes me sad every time I hear it.

@lalaland13: One of these days things will work out in my favor. I had a very promising fortune cookie last night.

sigourneyfever said...

I know this feeling quite well, as well. And now I want to take you to the Whopperburger, so a kind old gentleman can secretly pay for our meal to prove to us that there is some kindness in this wacky world.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that really took me back to my last job. I toiled for nearly four years in a crappy position for very little pay, only to be told by an editor that I too was not ready to be promoted. So I left. And since half my coworkers have been laid off in the year and a half since, I think I made the right decision.

And for what it's worth, I agree with margo--you are a natural writer and that's what you should be.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@sigourneyfever: What I could really use is someone just offering to pay off my credit cards for me. One of those people who drops a few thousand for things they don't really need. Kind of like an outreach program. That would improve things greatly. :)

@bubblegumculture: People not being promoted regularly is a sign that something bad is coming.

And thank you for the kind words re: my writing. Hopefully it will pay off soon.

angiesyounglover said...

i really liked this post, though difficult for me to read, as someone who wants to get into this business. i agree with margo...the best revenge on fucklastic would be them publishing you, then your bitch boss could say, "did she ever ask me for a promotion?" before realizing, YES, she did. i mean it seems like you have lived the childhood needed for some great stories.

and i'm so excited that you have read the mixed up files of mrs. basil e. frankweiler. because of that book, me and my sisters all call each other "claude." long story.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@ayl: Don't let this dissuade you in any way from looking for jobs in publishing. There are lots of people who do get into it and find a way upward within a reasonable amount of time. I would advise looking for an internship when the time comes.

Have you read The Westing Game? It's one of my other favorites.

angiesyounglover said...

@beth: of course i have! i enjoyed it very much. and of course, the ramona quimby series owned my life!

angiesyounglover said...

and anything by betty ren wright. my favorite was "a ghost in the window." ya know, cheesy mystery books ;)

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@ayl: And Ribsy, and Ellen Tebbits! BC came up with the best character names ever, I swear. Otis Spofford? Beezus Quimby? Dude.

angiesyounglover said...

...and a doll named chevrolet?!!! ahhh <3

Jenn said...

*Sigh* 'Tis sad that a love of books, good personality, and common sense aren't enough to get you in the door and promoted.

When I interned at Scholastic they had just laid off a slew of people. Including my intended boss! A girl I knew in college ended up leaving soon to go to Little Simon as an Associate Editor (she knew she wouldn't move up any higher). And low and behold you know my BS stories in Academic Publishing--a place you'd think it'd be easier to move up. On the bright side, a friend of mine at St. Martin's just signed her first book so she has a list!

But, alas it does suck (big time balls) because it seems like you have to know how to complete a damn rubix cube behind your back to get promoted in most of publishing. I just don't get it and never will. You'd think baked goods would help...but not at all.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@jenn: Dude, you speak great truth.

jody! said...

i am so behind on the times, that i am just catching up on your blog now. why? because i finally emerged and said, "fuck you" to my submission pile.

you might have a fear of an abnormal death... i have a fear that my abnormal death will be when the stack of submissions falls over on top of me. at 6PM at night. when i am the only fool left in the office. and even worse, when i'm pronounced dead, my obituary will read, "editorial assistant" as my occupation.

and for the moment, i'm supposed to kiss the horribly stack of reading and thank baby jesus for my job. which i do. in a way. but sometimes, it makes me hate myself.