Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Oh, The Observer. You're Silly.

I just interrupted writing an editorial letter (for a stellar manuscript that I pulled from the slush with my own grubby little hands) to write this response to The Observer's adorable little article on Publishing Assistants.

Because it's pissed me off. And not only because of the derogatory tone of the article, which derides publishing assistants' supposedly rampant "chatty notes on...personal stationery" and "affection" (bad?) for our bosses, imprints, and agencies.

In this article, the Observer paints a picture, for the most part, of any assistant in any industry:
forming "productive connections" with bosses (called "masters" in this article), cliquey, ambitious, hopeful. Hired for "their taste, their poise" and (?) "their pedigree."

The author then goes on to describe some less-than savory elements of a publishing assistant's job, all of which could again be applied to any assistant, in any industry. Chauvinism, problem clients, tasks-outside-the-job-description.

Then there's this gem: "the publishing assistant's duties have steadily declined on an asymptote toward the menial."
Because why? We don't spend all day, every day, reading "elite literary fiction?" Well f*#%ing duh. Here's the thing: neither do our "masters."
Neither does ANYONE in publishing.

I don't know what Ms. Stoeffel thinks of as the "meaningful work" that our masters are supposedly doing behind their gilded gatekeeper shields made of shattered author dreams, but very, very little of it is actually reading/editing. "Acquiring" a book is not a one step process, either. It involves myriad phone calls, emails, and numbers crunching. It involves, by the way, an editor's assistant.

So, here. At an agency. If we spent even a quarter of the day reading Elite Literary Fiction (or even reading queries), here's a short list of what wouldn't get done: calls to editors to follow up on (a sampling:) contracts, money, submissions; emails or calls to clients (yes, I TALK to the authors! OMGGG!!) to discuss the revisions I wrote at 3am or over the weekend; stifling leaks on major projects being shopped for film, TV, and foreign translation; Writing copy and pitches for books going on submission (editorial and (gasp) even publicity assistants have their own versions of this). And this is all ON TOP of the blog/article/Twitter (yes, friends, Twitter is research!) reading that has to get done in order to stay on top of what's going on in markets in which we're selling books (all of them) and who's moved to which imprint of whatever house today.

Does any of that sound menial? If so, I guess you're not cut out to be a publishing assistant, or any assistant, anywhere--because all assistants have similarly diverse tasklists. Maybe you should go write for the Observer.

To give her credit, Ms. Stoeffel did get it right. Once:
"Little of their workday is left to discover the next Lorrie Moore; to read the thousands of manuscripts you have to mine to find The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, they sacrifice their weekends."

Yes. This is totally true. I don't know how late publicists/marketing/production works, but it's probably not exactly 9-5. But everyone. EVERYONE on the acquiring side of publishing (editorial for the houses and us at agencies) reads/edits/revises at night and on the weekends. Because our work days are filled with the other stuff that has to get done to get a book published. Because we love books and are willing to read 1. after hours and 2. a lot of crap to find The One.

I'm confused where any of that translates to "menial" or unimportant or yes-man-ish as Stoeffel implies. Hmm.

But I should get back to fetching coffee...err...wait. Actually that's a phone call about a pending film deal. Oh, and don't forget the client call at 1 to discuss a proposal...oh, and that editorial letter that got interrupted with this crazy article.


  1. "Then there's this gem: "the publishing assistant's duties have steadily declined on an asymptote toward the menial."
    Because why? We don't spend all day, every day, reading "elite literary fiction?" Well f*#%ing duh. Here's the thing: neither do our "masters."
    Neither does ANYONE in publishing."

    It's official. I heart you.

  2. *tries to picture the article's version of "Assisterati" working in the shark tank*


    Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha *snort*

    If that article was in anyway based on reality, you'd all be chum finger-sandwiches by now.

    I'd bet the writer saw mention of the YA Mafia over the last few days, and decided to think up something in the same vein. Nothing trumps YA Mafia like making assistants out to be their own secret society of industry worshiping sycophants (in matching sweater dresses, no less).

  3. "Maybe you should go write for the Observer."


  4. It's an extraordinarily demeaning article. And apparently you work for Don Draper. "Have your girl fetch me some coffee." (Or perhaps John Updike is secretly still alive.)

    But I can't believe an actual writer attempted to coin such a clunky word as "assisterati." Therefore, I believe this piece was composed by robots. Robots from the 1950s. QED.

  5. I wonder where the writer did their research to even base their "facts" on for this article. Unless they wrote it this way because no real assistants would even talk to them.

  6. I'm thinking that Observer writer didn't interview anyone. She stumbled upon "The Girls in Publishing" book on Janet's blog and didn't realize it was written in the 70s.

  7. Great explanation. I guess you weren't on Gchat that day when she was conducting her interviews...

  8. You know, as I was reading the original article, I kept hoping that it was a parody, all tongue-in-cheek. The fact that I got to the end of the article and had to realize it was meant to be serious just about broke my heart.

    When one person is that decidedly thick, the entire human race suffers.

  9. I found the whole tone of the article off-putting and inappropriate, given the current climate. In a country where the unofficial rate of unemployment or underemployment is projected to be 25%, there is no such thing as "menial" work, no matter if you're an assistant to someone in the publishing industry or you wait tables for a living.

  10. This article is not so much a report as an attempt to simultaneously condescend to and sympathize with an obviously diverse group. Those are somewhat mutually exclusive goals.

    Like Melissa said, the idea that menial work is somehow degrading is very silly. Someone has to make the photocopies and that does not make the person who does so lesser.

    The article also misses that in a job where you have to find product and sell it, being personable and having good taste are important skills, but no single skill is ever going to gloss over the fact that a job requires you to work. Not all of the work required to reach a goal or get the job done has to be glamorous.

    There is a nasty tone of entitlement and poor-little-me-ism to the whole thing that I have never seen on any of the assistant's blogs that I follow.

  11. This article seems to have hit a chord with the industry as a whole. I think this is the third blog I have read laying into the article.

    Thanks for the insight!

  12. I'd love to have a job doing those 'menial' tasks.

    'Cause, ya know, it would be A JOB.

    And it would pay more than what I'm making now, which is the pitiable amount that is unemployment. (Also, I wouldn't be going stir-crazy sitting at home. I would actually be able to get out of the house more than once a week.)