This 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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