My Adventures in Book Publishing, or, the Schlub I Was

TheFutureOf1This week we’re talking about the writing biz. What could be more in the biz than working in New York City at one of the Big 5? This I did, though well before the major players got gobbled up and consolidated into the Big 5.

I’d previously worked in South America in international finance. (Seriously? Yep.) I wore boxy business suits and discovered that I sucked at numbers. By the time I returned to the States I was determined to change careers. I got into the NYU Summer Publishing Institute and landed a job at Warner Books (now Grand Central) and took long elevator rides up into the Time-Warner Building every work day. Then I got a job at Doubleday Books and took long elevator rides up into the Bertelsmann Building in Times Square.

It was all very heady and wondrous and glamorous in a genteel, poverty-stricken way. For example, I used to go to book parties. All the time. I mean like so all the time that I took them for granted. My fellow underpaid colleagues and I would show up for the free food, ogle the famous writers, and then leave for the closest bar.

I could tell you some great stories, like about showing Jackie Onassis where the coffee machine was located even though she’d been a senior editor at Doubleday for years. (Man, she was gorgeous.) Or, about the time Madonna stomped to the Warner Books publisher’s office with earphones and dark glasses in place, followed by her entourage. On her way out I almost bumped into her coming around a corner. She smiled at me. Made my week. (Man, she was tinier than expected.)

There were the publicity rooms filled to the brim with shelves upon shelves of the latest novels. There were phone calls from authors and agents. There were book swaps between publishing houses. Yes, we got all the free books we could want, and we’d swap them for other free books from other houses.

I was an editorial assistant, which is to say a glorified secretary at the beck and call of acquiring editors. I was in charge of tracking the submissions that came in from agents. I was also in charge of ensuring that my bosses’ books made it through the production process in a timely manner. I was in charge of gathering the front matter (dedication, acknowledgements, etcetera) from the authors and confirming the ISBNs for the copyright page. There were production schedules and data sheets and catalog copy. While my bosses edited and went out for long lunches and read the important submissions, we underpaid editorial schlubs kept the paperwork flowing. Unfortunately, this included filing too.

Notice what I said above — the important submissions. Yours truly (me) read the submissions from the lesser agents. These would be agents who had no track record with my bosses. I’d write reader’s reports, and based on my reader’s reports — based on MY NEWBIE OPINION — my bosses would either read the manuscripts or have me write the rejection letters.

Now I think back on the little bit of power I wielded and I’m amazed. I thought nothing of the disappointment to come for the authors. I wrote my letters conscientiously, describing story flaws — me, who knew practically nothing! and after reading maaaybe three pages! — and my bosses signed them.

This was normal. This is still normal. Our lives as authors are often at the mercy of schlubs. It starts at the literary agencies with their schlubs. If you make it past a schlub, it’s a miracle, and then you’ve got to contend with the publishing house schlubs. It’s amazing anyone gets published at all.

And considering how long it took me to get here, I must have had some bad karma coming to me!

So here’s the takeaway lesson, another lesson about rejection: Rejections have nothing to do with your merits as a novelist. Believe me, I know. Because I was one of those schlubs who ruined your life.

Do you have a period from your life — whether job-related or not — that you look back on with nostalgia?

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

15 thoughts on “My Adventures in Book Publishing, or, the Schlub I Was

  1. Wow, Lisa! Who knew? I mean, I’ve heard stories like these of the schlubs doling out rejections, but I had no idea you were one. It must give you true perspective from your side of the table.

    BTW, I would have loved to meet Madonna and see all of the frenzy that surrounds that woman. Must have been very interesting.

    I’m glad you have defied the system. I can’t wait to read Kilmoon!

    • Thanks, Heather! The hubbub surrounding Madonna was amazing to behold. Everyone went quiet — awestruck — when she passed by on the way to see the publisher. She didn’t look around or acknowledge anyone. I didn’t mention Richard Simmons. He was the opposite. He stopped every 10 feet on his way to the publisher’s office to say “hi” and wave at us like we surely among his legions of fans. Dead of winter, he was STILL wearing those silly short. (Man, he was more orange than I’d expected.) 🙂

    • Oh Susan, I could go on about Jackie O. I so could. I saw her all the time, but I never got used to seeing her around. I tried not to be mesmerized. She definitely had “it,” whatever that really is. She epitomized “You can never be too rich or too skinny.” Maan….

      I lived in Ecuador and Brazil, so I was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese. Brazil was crazy — a total blast. That country’s people know how to party! 🙂

  2. That’s fascinating, Lisa. You’re like, my new hero.

    By the way, are you still fluent in Spanish and/or Portuguese? I studied Portuguese in college but since I haven’t practiced it in years, I’ve forgotten so much of it. I can understand it much better than I speak (or write) it, which funny enough, ended up being a skill I had to use this week for book-related things. I’ll message you with details later 😉 It’s kind of random and funny.

    • OH yes, I want to know all about your random and funny thing! I’m still good with Spanish — rusty but passable. Portuguese is tough because I learned it via Spanish, if that makes sense. I was speaking/thinking/dreaming in Spanish by the time I got to Brazil, so I went from Spanish to Portuguese rather than from English to Portuguese. That said, I could get up to speed fast. Como vai? Tudo bem, e voce? 🙂

      Interestingly, when I go to Italy, I pick up Italian pretty quickly.

  3. I had a friend who was a reader for a top literary agency for many years. There was a whole office of them, separate and on a different floor from the editors (who they almost never saw). Their only job was to read and evaluate unsolicited manuscripts (the writers paid for this — I think it was $75 a book). Sometimes the readers would have contests to see who could read the most manuscripts in a week (just to keep it interesting).

    Occasionally my friend would send up a book with a recommendation. In all those years, only one book he’d evaluated was ever published.

    And remember, this was before the books would ever have got to you at the publisher.

    (I was in a band once that did a gig with Madonna — I don’t remember it that well because she wasn’t famous yet and we did a lot of gigs with a lot of other bands. I remember she acted like she was famous already. 🙂 )

    • Anthony, hi! Have to say, the agency you describe doesn’t sound legit. Why would anyone pay 75 bucks to get their manuscript read?

      As for Madonna, strikes me that she never lacked for confidence. 🙂

      • Well, apart from how it was carried out (by schlubs), there is some merit to the idea of paying for professional-level feedback from a top agent. I don’t know how much they pushed the fact that you’d definitely get the feedback compared to the (very small but real) possibility that you’d get published.

        • Hmm…I’ll agree to disagree on that one, Anthony. Aspiring novelists should steer clear of literary agencies who charge reading fees. That’s a big no-no in the legit. literary agency biz.

          • I did a little research, and apparently it’s a big no-no now, but that was not always the case. It started as “reader fees,” where you paid the agent to read your manuscript. Well, that was such an obvious scam that they moved to “evaluation fees,” where you got a written evaluation of your work (that’s what my friend did). Then rules were passed against that, so the agencies moved on to inventing other types of fees. Here’s one of the links I found: http://www.sfwa.org/fees/

            I’m not advocating this (they never got anywhere near _my_ $75 🙂 ), but when it was being offered by a major agency you can see why people fell for it (and apparently enough people did to support a whole staff of readers at the agency where my friend worked).

  4. Hi Anthony — agencies never got anywhere near my $75 either. 🙂 It’s amazing what agencies charge back to authors — like photocopying manuscripts! Granted, this was back in the day, but still.

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