Sunday, December 13, 2009

Competing Internships

Like any intern worth her second-hand briefcase, I applied to several internships simultaneously for the upcoming semester. While most inquiries yielded no reply at all, two valuable opportunities arose. Grateful for something that work with my schedule and teach me things I didn't already know, I accepted the first position that came my way, completely forgetting that I had inquired elsewhere and hadn't heard back. Sure enough, a week or so after I had accepted the internship a literary agency in New Jersey had offered me, Princeton University Press got in touch to invite me for an interview. I knew that if I interviewed, I probably would have had the position. Although the word "Princeton" anywhere on my resume would have been a boost, I declined to interview with them.

Friends told me I was crazy, family told me I should dump that literary agency and hop on the ivy-league bus. But I have a conscience. And the literary agency that offered the internship seems like a great opportunity. Although they specialize mostly in romance, a genre I don't expect to work with in my career (I'm most knowledgable about literary and mainstream fiction) I have a feeling my time at the agency will be worth my while. I wanted to get a glimpse of the industry from an agent's point-of-view and that's exactly what I'll get.

If I had had the choice, I would have taken Princeton because of their "brand name". But things happen for a reason and I expect to learn something valuable about at the agency I might not have at Princeton University Press. Would the agency have collapsed without the help of this intern? Um, no. They would have found someone else, perhaps someone better, even. But when a person commits to something, they shouldn't go back on their word. It's unprofessional.

My advice to all of you? When you've applied for several opportunities, upon an offer, get in touch with the other companies (before you accept) to let them know you've gotten an offer and give it a week. If there's still no response, accept the offer. This way, you're allowing yourself the choice (if it's available) of more than one experience, while also being professional. And don't worry! The other company won't mind your taking the time to "think about it" for a week or so. Next time, I'll take my own advice!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Interview Questions

I hate interviews. There's something about being scrutinized like a bug specimen that makes me a little nervous. Go figure. I find myself giggling unnaturally, saying stupid things that don't make sense and - oh, God - stuttering. My worst flaw in an interview is my horrible tendency to answer questions on a delay. If it is a telephone interview, the interviewer will inevitably say something like, "Is this a good time?" and I'll just sit there for, like, an entire ten seconds and then say something ridiculous as a failed attempt at humor: "Yeah, this is a great time. I'm just driving." Marvelous. Irresponsibility makes for a great first impression.

Interviewers, at some time or another during the interview, will ask if you have any questions. On my first job interview, I confidently lifted my chin and said, "No, I think I have all the information I need. Thanks!" Crash and burn. This response is the absolute worst to this question. The interviewer wants to know that you are interested enough in the position to ask questions. Any question will do. And, really, did I know everything about the position? Anyone who thinks they know so much about a position that they haven't a single question to ask, is either way overqualified for the position or way too cocky to be given the job.

So this time around, when my interviewer asked very sweetly (she was really nice), "Do you have any questions?" I knew I had to come up with something. But I had forgotten to prepare a question and all my safeties had already been answered! So, pacing in front of my bookshelves during this phone interview, I hastily asked," Can you recommend any reading I can do for background material before I start the internship?" I shut my eyes tightly and waited for the proof in the interviewer's tone of voice that I had asked a stupid question. It came. She stiffly said, "No, I don't think there's anything that--" and then she paused. I opened one eye - was there hope that this question wasn't so stupid after all? Yes! As she rattled off different blogs, websites, books and magazines I could consult, I opened the other eye and ran to my desk for a pen and paper. She kept going! There is so much information out there about publishing and this girl seemed to have all of it catalogued in her head! When she finally took a breath, she said, "Wow, that was a really great question. I've never heard that one before." Grin from ear to ear on this end.

Note: some of the sources she mentioned were Publisher's Weekly, Publisher's Marketplace, Twitter, her company's website and blog and Romantic Times Book Reviews, which have all turned out to be beyond informative.

Slave Labor

So, I just landed an internship at a literary agency in New Jersey. It's not a paid internship, and by the way those are few and far between, not to mention highly coveted and competitive in the cut-throat tradition. Many, if not most or even all, companies in the publishing arena offer to work with your college or university to get you at least three credits for the internship, which is near enough to getting paid. But those three credits, at least at my own school, Pace University, are assigned an actual course number, which means I can't take the credit for an internship more than once without taking the same course twice. Even if I did want to take it twice, one instance of it on my transcript would cancel out the other so what's the point?

My point? I'm a slave. Literally. Not only will I be working for free and not getting any college credit, but I'll be driving something like sixty miles there and back twice a week in order to perform my slave tasks. Am I a masochist? Not really. My own worst enemy? Depends on whom you ask. In order to make it in publishing - and by this I don't just mean get a job - really make it, you have to become a mule for a few years, suck it up and take your crap years.

Publishing courses like those at New York University and Columbia boast that very high percentages of students get jobs after completion. This is because they thrust the students, who have been groomed and educated within inches of their lives (we're talking day, night and weekend classes at Columbia) in front of the people who hire entry-level publishing candidates. Sounds great right? Sounds like a done-deal? It is if you work hard enough - but in order to be allowed to pay the $5,000 - $7000 to work hard enough, you have to work hard.

So that's why the slave labor. The key is to like it. Without pay or college credit, the only benefit I can gain from this situation is to soak up as much information and experience as possible, and to enjoy myself in the process. Beyond that, it's another set of brownie points on my resume and another reference in my pocket. That's not to say, however, that I don't actually enjoy interning. I do! Just sitting idly in the office and listening to the industry jargon and news is worth its weight in gold. Something said and remembered now can become small talk in your next interview, securing your next internship and therefore your next line of Excellent Resume. Is it a game? Yeah, a little. But, really, what isn't?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Literary Agencies: Great Information!

Students who are looking to break into the publishing industry tend to pigeon-hole themselves into the editorial job functions. But there is a wealth of information to be gleaned from literary agencies and writers groups, too! I've lately gotten into the habit of reading a particularly information-laden blog, written by a literary agent in New Jersey. Not only is the blog a wealth of knowledge about what works in publishing, what is acceptable as far as etiquette goes and how to critique mss, it is also, at times, entertaining! For those who want to check it out, don't forget to read the archived posts. I find that reading the responses to the agent's posts is also very informative. I've really gotten into the minds of writers, which I expect will be valuable when it's my turn to write rejection and critique letters. Here's the URL:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


A word about diversity on the planet of publishing: it is both diverse and not. Here at S&S, they have benefits for same-sex life-partners of employees. That seems like a good idea, because there are more gay men working in this industry than there are in some others. Although, like I said, I haven't met many men. I hate to spew stereotypes, good or bad, but this building has a healthy measure of witty, intelligent remarks floating around which makes every day here all the more fun. So, in this way, S&S is diverse and they really cater to the needs of a population of gay people who have some different needs than straight people might.There are very few black people here, and almost no black men. I mean, there aren’t that many men, let alone getting into white men and black men and Asian men. I read somewhere, I believe it was an e-book on the publishing industry, that when young, college-educated black people began to join the professional trades, a bzillion years ago, they sought jobs which would pay the most, the earliest, in order to support their families. Whereas, those whose families were already generations in to the publishing industry didn’t need to make immediate money (parents are good at funding the beginning of a career) and could wait until they advanced in their careers to make a very good salary, as is the case in publishing. Many were women whose spouses were able to support them through the statistically low salaries that come with lower jobs in publishing. I have seen exactly one black person. She was a woman, which makes sense because the ratio of women to men here is something like 60:30. There are also not that many Hispanic people here. I have met only two Hispanic people. Racially, this workplace would seem exclusive. As though non-whites were unwanted. Except for the fact that no one here seems racist. I believe racism usually stems from ignorance and I have met exactly zero ignorant people here. But, in a city like New York, it stands in stark contrast that a good percentage of the people working here are white. Yet, they have diversity day and all kinds of banners and fliers about diversity. I guess there aren’t that many black or Hispanic or Asian people who want to work in book publishing.Please understand, I’m not discussing this because race is of high importance to me. I’m just sort of examining this workplace because I imagine I’ll find myself working in this industry after college. I think it is important to consider all aspects of an industry before building your life around it. I would love to have a very straightforward answer as to why publishing is not as diverse as other industries, but I just don’t.

Office Hierarchy

I’ve begun to get a handle on the hierarchy of employees here. The top-guy for financials, it appears, is the publisher. TF’s editorial and publicity offices are arranged along one very long and very narrow hallway. The publisher's office, a huge behemoth, is situated at the end of the row in the only place which could accommodate such a big office while allowing it to have ample windows. I find it interesting that, save for one, the only man in the imprint is in the top position. Call me hysterical, call me paranoid, but I do wonder if this has anything to do with a glass ceiling. I’ve read, in more than one source, that the “glass ceiling” does not exist in book publishing because of the ratio of women to men. In a different industry, like law, for example, a woman might be prevented from emerging at the top because she needs to prove herself so much more than a man might need to. Sounds awful, sounds like fifty years ago, I know, but it’s true! Here in the publishing world, however, most of the employees are women. I have interacted extensively with not a single male. I know the names of three, as opposed to knowing the names of three times that many women. But the publisher doesn’t appear to rule over the women (and one man) under him, exactly. He appears to be a well-educated man who knows that to be a leader you must interact, cooperate and work with your inferiors. He appears to do a very good job of this. Also, the editor-in-chief, who I’ll get to in a minute, is also a high-boss, while being a woman. Down in human resources, the director (or top guy) is a woman. So I’m leaning toward agreeing with the sources that say there is no glass ceiling in publishing. At the other end of the long editorial half of the hallway is the editor-in-chief's office which is also quite huge. The EIC is the big-girl for all things editorial. What I can’t figure out (and don’t have the nerve to ask) is who is whose boss there? I want to say that technically the publisher is the EIC's boss because of his title, but that’s not exactly cut-and-dried. Judging by their interaction with each other, I’d say that their relationship goes one of two ways: either he is her boss and they work very, very well together (no barked orders or anything like that) or neither is the other’s boss and they are horizontally responsible for the imprint. Perplexing.Outside the EIC's office, sits Danielle, who is my boss. I think. She’s an assistant editor, which means that she’s an editorial assistant with a bigger paycheck, only one editor to work for and the freedom to take on projects of her own. The editor Danielle works for is that EIC, and Danielle appears to have an immense amount of work to do. She also acquires her own books to edit, even though she’s technically an assistant. I believe this is because no one gets too comfy in Danielle’s position. The idea is to move up to be an editor and the EIC is helping her to do that by giving her (or letting her get for herself) a project much like those an editor will handle. Danielle is a step above an editorial assistant who rarely takes on projects of her own, but handles a lot of work for her editor. The editorial assistant I’m sitting next to, seems much less busy than Danielle and probably a little less knowledgeable. Hence, I suppose, the distinction between “assistant editor” and “editorial assistant.” I know the difference between these two titles sounds like simple semantics, but despite the subtleties, believe me, there is a big difference. Danielle seems to be a wealth of knowledge while the editorial assistant seems to be just learning. And then, of course, there’s me. I’m at the bottom and I receive work from anyone who wants to give it to me. I don’t get nearly enough work to do, but I love every piece of it that comes my way. I feel like every new task is a way for me to prove that I’m intelligent, too. I can handle these tasks. It is important to me that I impress my superiors here, because one day, when I’m out of college, I might wish to apply here as an editorial assistant so that I may continue to stare blankly during editorial meetings, absorbing all the information. If I consistently do my best in every menial task I perform, maybe they’ll remember me.

Last Day at S & S

As I sit at my worn-out, old desk for the very last week, it occurs to me that I will miss the slush pile. It is the bottom of the publishing structure, designated to the bottom of the publishing pecking order. But it has taught me more than I could ever have learned. In order to know what works in publishing (the most important skill in an editor’s toolbox) one must know – deeply, know – what doesn’t work and why. All things are defined by their opposites, and good books are no exception. So as I walk away from Rockefeller Center, probably tearfully, it will be a comfort to know that although I’ve never collected a dime for my efforts and although I’ve spent my time here feeling intellectually inadequate by contrast to my coworkers I have added one hugely important skill to my toolbox.



I can't say that I feel completely comfortable here at Touchstone/Fireside. I'm surrounded by wonderfully intelligent people which is a welcome respite from my usual days surrounded by immature students giggling about boobs and pot. For a while, I couldn't quite put my finger on the source of my discomfort, but this week, I've finally realized it: I'm inadequate. All of the people I work for here are infinitely smarter, more diplomatic and more accomplished than I am. They use words that I don't understand, like "writerly" (according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of this is of, relating to, or typical of a writer. Now that seems really obvious.) and they are all so darn graceful. I often feel like I'm working with a bunch of Jackie Os! But despite how stupid and childish and clumsy and awkward they make me feel, they are all so wonderful. They are each a personification of a quality I wish to have. The editor-in-chief is power and influence, Danielle is intelligence, Michelle is grace, Lauren is style, Shawna is friendliness and tact, Zach is this accomplished coolness (if there exists such a word), Alex is composed competence. My problem, of course, is that I see these people not for what they are, but for what I am not. This must stop. I'm sure that these people have insecurities and shortcomings they have filed down along the way. I imagine them at home. I see Michelle crying hopelessly on her sofa, watching Sleepless in Seattle while eating ice cream in her pajamas. I see Zach standing in front of his fridge eating lo mein out of the carton with his fingers. Not because he's a slob, but because he's a guy. I see the EIC, the mega-editor, gardening on her hands and knees. I see Danielle in a very ungraceful fit of giggles while shopping with her friends. I see them all in situations that do not involve books and intelligence. Does it help? No. I'm still the one who didn't go to Wesleyan or Columbia or wherever. I'm still the one who turns red anytime someone speaks to me. I'm still the one who knows nothing.

Where, you ask, do these feelings come from? Zach read my reader's report on that awfully offensive manuscript with the trashy sex and unbelieveably cheesy dialog. In the email to which I attached my report, I told Zach that I found the entire manuscript incredibly offensive. I also wrote that despite my scant knowledge of the legal intricacies of book publishing, I didn't think it was legal to publish something that offensive to that many groups of people. That was seven days ago, exactly. Today, Zach called me in to Michelle's office to talk about my report. Nervously, I stepped into the office and had a seat. Michelle sort of sat and watched while Zach very diplomatically attacked what I had to say about the manuscript. Zach said if I was offended by what I was reading, I should not have read it. I told him it was my first project and I didn't want to be a complainer. He then proceeded to say that before I deem something "illegal to publish" I should check my facts. The first ammendment is the foundation of journalism and publishing. Of course, he's right. I was once the news and features editor of my school newspaper. Why hadn't I considered this most basic of publishing tenets? Now, I feel incredibly stupid. Now, I can't believe that I actually thought something would be illegal to publish. I wanted to jump out the window into Michelle's beautiful and well-earned view. What an idiot!
Then, he told me that many published books contain profanity and are offensive to different races and different types of people. He had brought books along with him to show me. One was a joke book that was full of racial humor and profanity. Another was a book about lesbians. I wanted to tell Zach and Michelle where I was coming from, but I thought it would probably be in poor taste to argue with two senior editors. I still feel sort of bummed out, though, so I'll just tell my argument here.

To me, the offensive manuscript was unacceptable because it wasn't very obviously supposed to be offensive. The book Zach showed me, and other humor books of its kind are not offensive exactly because their covers and titles say to the reader, "Hey! Looky here! I'm a book that's going to say offensive things in order to be funny!" The offensive manuscript's title, as an example of how it's not supposed to be funny, refers to one part of the book in which the children of the main character learn about decorator crabs and how they use pieces of their environment to cover up their sameness. The title is a metaphor for human behavior. That's not funny. The book was about one man's journey from uncaring attorney to avenger of social injustice. Also not funny. The profanity and offensiveness that peppered the manuscript, and probably amounted to at least half of the book, was out of place and therefore offensive. To exemplify my point here, let's use a non-book-related example. If someone said "fuck" in a show like South Park, which is designed to be offensive, I can't say I would be offended by it. In fact, I love South Park and own eight seasons of it. However, if I went to court for a parking ticket and the judge said "fuck" during the proceedings, I would absolutely be offended and confused, just like I felt while reading that MS. Damn! Why couldn't I find those words? Where were they when I was stupidly nodding my head and mm-hmming while Zach looked down his nose at me and forced Michelle to watch?

Of course, later on, when my embarassment has cooled, it will occur to me that this experience is valuable. Next time I write a report - and Zach said he would send some my way - I will keep these things in mind and write a smarter, more educated and informed report.
Of course, my learning experience here - what Zach was trying to teach me - is that an editor can't worry about his own personal feelings when reading a manuscript. He can't let that sway his decision to publish the book because ultimately it doesn't matter if he thinks its entertaining or stimulating or whatever. What matters in the end is whether or not it will sell. That's why Zach brought the other books with him into Michelle's office. Because he wanted to say that profane and offensive books absolutely do sell - to a certain audience. An editor, I've learned from this experience (thanks, Zach!) has to be completely objective, just like he would be on jury duty. If you're part of the jury on a case in which someone is accused of rape, and you're a rape victim, it is not appropriate for you to be on the jury and you most certainly will not be allowed.
Although this experience was embarrassing for me, I have to say I would not have it any other way because I've learned more in those five minutes than I have learned during my entire college career. And I hope all of you don't make this mistake!

The Reader Report


I was given my first big project this week. One of the senior editors asked me to read an unpublished manuscript and tell him what I thought. Of course, I had no idea how the format for such a thing should be, so I wrote down this, like, running commentary covering all my thoughts about the manuscript. It was pages and pages long by the time I finished the first two or three chapters and I emailed it to the senior editor. When he didn’t get back to me gushing with admiration and pride at what a good job I did, I began to worry. When he finally returned my email, he wasn’t very happy about the job I did. Evidently, there is an exact formula for writing what is called a reader’s report. It goes like this:

1 or 2 sentence sales handle. What is this and who is it for?
1 or 2 sentence overall description. What happens, briefly?
2 or 3 paragraph plot description.
2 or 3 paragraph analysis. Strengths? Weaknesses?
Most importantly – is it publishable?

Had the editor told me this to begin with, I would have saved myself so much time and worry. I think he wanted to see what I would do with his request. He was probably not surprised by the outcome. I had no idea what he wanted, and I probably should have said as much instead of attempting to wing it and imress him. Anyway, so I had to read all 534 pages of this awful monstrosity written by a psychopathic lawyer from Texas. I kept thinking, Why me? What did I do to deserve this? As I wrote my short synopsis of each chapter, I fantasized about printing out the manuscript – all of it – slamming it down on the editor’s desk and shouting, “You read it!” with a defiant hair toss. But no. I do have some control. I took my satisfaction from letting the editor know how incredibly offended I was by this manuscript. And I was offended. The pages contained more cheesy, trashy sex than I’m comfortable thinking about, more mean, gasp-provoking racial epithets than I’ve ever heard, and more stereotypical, chauvinistic images of women with large, perky breasts who just love to constantly have sex. One of the characters is named for her breasts. I'm not joking. It was absolutely the most dirty, offensive, trashy piece of fiction I have ever read. I had my husband read part of it. I chose him because he watches plenty of late night shows on television and funny videos on the Internet - the more irreverent it is, the more uproariously he guffaws. He was disgusted and he, in a very docile and traumatized voice, asked me never to mention it again. Then he hung his head and slunk out of the room. So now I couldn’t even discuss my work day, which consists entirely of me sitting at my desk with an expression of aghast horror on my face, reading this smut, with my husband. Wonderful.

First Tasks in Publishing


Evidently, I have proven to TF that my skill set exceeds that of a chimp, because this week I have taken a siesta from the deliciously mundane and tedious book-like tasks that used to be my only purpose here. The reader might think I’m speaking in oxymorons, but truly, I love the mundane work of this industry: photo-copying, emailing, mailing, logging submissions, filing, etc. These tasks are those that take little skill, so they allow my already-overworked brain to relax. Brain vacation, you might say.
But I’ve been allowed, beginning this week, to take on more important tasks. Now, the editors and assistants are commandeering me for “projects”. These projects are fascinating to me, the dork who finds such things fascinating, because I’ve been imagining for a long time now what my day-to-day experience in the publishing world will be like. For me to finally see the day-to-day workings here is comparable to one of those people who read Star actually seeing one. Giddy hysteria. I try to remain calm.
Shawna, Zach’s editorial assistant, started it all with a request to conduct some investigative work on a potential author. Basically, I just googled the author’s name, absorbed all of the information and spit it back out at Shawna in an email. She said thanks and that was that.
Apparently my skills as a private eye pleased her, because yesterday, Zach approached me with not one, but three projects. Sitting in his cushy office overlooking one of Rockefeller Center’s rooftop gardens, Zach asked me about my goals, how I landed myself at TF, blah, blah, blah. The first project was to find out information about Sig Hansen and his brothers, who are ship captains on the enormously popular reality TV show, Deadliest Catch. There was an awful lot of information and I made certain he got as much as I could give – even MySpace friend-counts. The second project was much like the first, with a different person, someone uninteresting and not famous.
Finishing those two jobs, Michelle, another senior editor approached with a new project. Maybe Zach told her I did a good job, maybe it was just a coincidence. I like to stay hopeful, though. Michelle is editing a baby-name book, which, by its very nature, has few selling points aside from the actual count of baby names. Expectant mothers will choose the book with the most names so they don’t miss the perfect name. Makes sense. Unfortunately, the book is almost finished and no one bothered to count the names. This is what I’m here for – the crappy task net. Anyway, Michelle took pity on me and suggested that instead of hand-counting all of the names in this three-hundred-page book, I could simply take a sample of pages, say 30, count all the names and multiply that by 10. Then, she would conservatively make an estimate. Smart lady. Unfortunately, I have this ridiculous tendency to open my mouth when it belongs wired shut - in the shape of nice, compliant smile. But since I’m a complete fool, I suggested back to Michelle that, since she had a count of all the base names (not variations, which are many), we could count the variations of each base name in a sample and average it. Then, we could multiply that average number by the number of base names. She looked very confused and after attempting to seriously consider my idiocy, she said very diplomatically and gracefully, “Well, let’s give this a try. If it’s not working and you feel there’s a better way, I would love to hear it.” At least then I had the sense to shut up. Her way was much easier anyway.
To make up for acting so crazy, I placed my results as neatly and comprehensively in an Excel spreadsheet, totaled it into subtotals and a grand total and emailed it to her with a smiley face. She thanked me both in person and in an email. Yay!
It went downhill from there, however. As his third project, Zach asked me to “take a look at a manuscript.” I didn’t really know what that meant and I didn’t want to ask, so I decided to wing it. I read the first three chapters of the manuscript, which were absolutely awful, and wrote down all my thoughts. Then, I emailed them to Zach. He has yet to get back to me. But, now that I’m reading further into the manuscript, I realize that some of my initial thoughts are set to rest by further information. Next time, I’ll wait until I’ve read the whole thing. Maybe that’s what the problem was. Or maybe he just wanted a simple, “I like it” or “I hate it” instead of three typed pages of the intern’s inexperienced, jumbled thoughts on a manuscript. I guess we shall see. At the moment , I’m completing yet another of Zach’s projects. I’m trying to log into BookScan and can’t. Fabulous. Now I have to show him how incompetent I can be and email him this problem. More next week.

Technical and Aspects of Publishing


So, I’ve been here a month, now. I’ve begun to attend the editorial meetings on Wednesday afternoons, which are incredibly informative. The meeting begins with The Closing List, which is a list of book proposals for which an editor must give their final offer. Books are bought from an author and his agent, not just taken on. The offer from a publishing house could be in the thousands of dollars, but it could very well be in the millions, depending on who the author is and how great her book is. The editors, marketing people, assistant editor, editorial assistants, editor-in-chief and publisher discuss each of these titles. I just sit and listen, even though I desperately want to tell these people my own opinions on the books they are publishing. The discussion is usually led by the acquiring editor, the person who will be buying (with S&S’s money of course) the book. In these meetings, actual money is discussed far less frequently than whether the book will be bought at all.
In auctions for books, Touchstone/Fireside seems to always have the floor. To “have the floor” is to make the first offer, thereby making sure that any other offer must beat the first one. If you’re a little guy who offers $10,000, this might not seem important. But to a major player like S&S, this means that many will walk away because of a high floor, leaving Touchtone/Fireside (the buying imprint) with few competitors for the book.

Logging Submissions in FileMaker


My job here at Touchstone/Fireside is incredibly boring – to the normal, social, book hating college student. To me, it is so stimulating and so satisfying that I smile when I wake up on an interning day. Sure, I basically read all day long, but to a person like me, who would do that anyway if I didn’t need to make money or go to school, that’s a dream come true. A prayer for the impossible, answered! But I’ll assume that many people reading this, perhaps most, are the normal sort of people. You know, those who have lives and interests that don’t involve paper, those who come to work in order to make money, in other words, instead of showing up anyway, knowing full well there will be no check.
One part of my job that I do all day long would be particularly mind-numbing to someone who isn’t me. I get emails from the editorial assistants (who have gotten the emails from the editors they work for) to log submissions. This function can be performed by a well-trained chimpanzee, I am sure. I enter the information – name of potential book, name of author, name of literary agent and agency, date and editor’s initials. You might be thinking, “But you have to go digging up that information, right? You have to dig through piles and piles of archived submissions, right?” No. I wasn’t being sarcastic about the chimp. All the information is right in the email. The editor could have done it herself if she didn’t have a bzillion things to do. The editorial assistant could have done it herself, if she didn’t have a bzillion of the editor’s things to do. The task has been relegated to lowly little me, because the universe is always trying to depress and cut-down her poor, human inhabitants. Interns are no one, so why should they have interesting tasks to complete? But, alas! The universe has overlooked one tiny little factor: I like logging the submissions. Yup, I said it. I even look forward to it.
You see, lodged in the bland covering of sugarless and flavorless chocolate that is the log-submissions task, is a little nugget of yummy, yummy caramel: attached to each of the emails of information from the editorial assistants is the actual submission. Just one click, and I get to read proposals of very exciting new projects, first chapters of books written by famous people’s ghostwriters and I get to hear about, in depth, idea after interesting and intriguing idea. So what, I have to eat the bland stuff to get to the gold? Big deal. I get to be mentally and intellectually stimulated – all day long. Who says I don’t get paid?
Today, I read a proposal for a book about all of the disasters and mishaps in the past that have the potential to or have almost caused the apocalypse. It’s a humorous book, but under the humor are all well-researched, actual facts. The sample chapters included the megatsunami that is scientifically proven to happen to New York City in the near future, killing everyone, the little nanorobots that are designed to do nothing more than self-replicate all over the place, ripping apart everything (including us) to make more of themselves, man-made tornadoes that run out of control and so on. The book would be hilarious except for the Colbert-report type realism underlying the humor. I’m laughing out loud at the jokes and the Halloween-haunted-house tone, but I’m actually a terrified, screaming little girl inside ready to run for my life. I mean, this is like, actual-factual.
Another great proposal (I thought) was one for a book about the menopausal mom, which sounds like such a drag just from the title but is actually a great idea. There are so many more babies born today to moms over thirty-five, and there have been books written on early parenting, infertility and other support topics for just this set, but nothing of real substance has been written for women who are going through menopause while trying to bring up teenagers. No one has given much thought to the mom who has a sarcastic teenager with an attitude, parents she might be parenting and all of the tiring, depressing symptoms associated with menopause. Doesn’t this woman need a book much like What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Absolutely. Everyone does, in this day and age. Unfortunately, the tone of the book’s writing is reminiscent of a mom wagging her finger in your face during a lecture. The tone here, in my own ridiculously inexperienced opinion, needs to be light-hearted, candid and funny. It should remind the poor menopausal mom of a snappy, funny, somewhat bitchy dialogue between girlfriends, not her grandmother come to rearrange her life. There are millions of parenting books out there. What these moms truly need is a book that teaches them a thing or two while providing support in a you’re-not-alone way. Not easily accomplished, I know, but what venture of value is?
Also, the writers of this book went into great detail about how to speak to your children. They had sample dialogues which read like an episode of Full House: way, way too sweet to be real, boring and just impossible. That was contradictory to me. The authors claimed to provide a book for moms who were going through menopause, bringing up kids and parenting their own parents, yet didn’t allow for the chaos factor in the lives of these same women. They need real approaches to modern-day parenting, not June Cleaver come to make them feel inferior.
These proposals were agented by real agencies with clientele exceeding one. But, as I’ve learned, that does not mean that they are perfect and all-set for publication, let’s go design the cover. They’re flawed. Sometimes, badly. Sometimes they are not even written yet. Amazingly, sometimes these proposals have spelling errors and errors of syntax and glaring, howling errors that would have been caught had the proposal been proofread before it was emailed. It appears that the editors here don’t care. That actually makes sense because those kinds of errors can be weeded out by a copy editor, who is, by the way, sometimes someone who works from home and is not even on Simon and Schuster’s payroll. But it grates on me. I want to rip the proposal from my computer screen and mark it all up with my pen. I want to chastise the agent for allowing this. I mean, any editor will notice these mistakes and any editor will be at least a little annoyed. Wouldn’t the agent want the editor to be completely enthralled by the proposal? But, again, the editors care more about the bigger picture which I’m absolutely sure is the best way. They know what they are doing and I am just a little intern who thinks she can spell better than anyone else.

The Slush Pile


The slush pile, the bottom of any publishing house’s boot (or that of any literary agency, come to think of it) is just what you might think it is: a huge pile of slush – submissions from authors who can’t write well enough to get published but whose mothers were cruel enough to praise them. Very rarely, you can find some actual good writing in the slush pile by authors who are unaware that you really do need an agent in this business. Here at Touchstone/Fireside, the Slush Pile isn’t very large. Anymore. I tackled it, sending polite notes of rejection to the authors.
Generally, if the author has no agent, I send a form letter that says something to the effect of “We’re sorry, but we only accept agented submissions, due to the overwhelming quantity of submissions we receive.” If the submission did happen to be agented, but it still became slush because no one has heard of the agency and the proposal was unprofessional, we generally send a short note on an editor’s letterhead thanking the agent and gently declining. I write these polite little notes while snickering. Some of this stuff is truly awful. I know, I shouldn’t be this mean, but just hear me out!
One of the very first pieces of slush was an expensively prepared folder/binder with professional graphics. Inside was a professional proposal, first chapter and table of contents, just as there should have been. The front was a photograph, blown up and set in nostalgic tones of sepia, of a little girl in an old-fashioned white frock. Yes, it was a frock. I think the little girl was the author. The text over the photograph read If I Only Had a—and the last word was covered by a slip of paper that read CENSORED: US POSTAL SERVICE. My first impression was that this was the story of a girl who always felt like a guy and so eventually, after years of inner turmoil, had a sex change. Possibly, I have seen too much daytime television. I’ve also recently read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, so that might have something to with it.
The story this author wanted to tell was actually the story of how men are treated better than women and still have a superiority complex. The author then went into great detail about how her own father had stalked home from the hospital and not spoken to her mother because she had borne him a girl, the author, instead of a boy. Had this been a professional and unique exploration of gender roles in our uber-modern society, I might have read on. But I have a distinct feeling that this author wanted simply to tattle on her dad for being sub-par. Not exactly a venture this (or perhaps any) publishing house would be willing to take. So I sent the professional package back to the author with the same ol’ form letter everyone else gets.
I find the slush pile to be a muted, boring version of American Idol. Each submission is sent in by someone who honestly believes that a person on the receiving end of their writing will get back to them immediately and enthusiastically, just as each bad singer truly believes that Simon Cowell will give them a thumbs-up. In both cases, rarely does it happen.
It is an old piece of advice to writers the world over – write what you know. Unfortunately, most people know little beyond their own lives. Therefore, the magnitude of their life story is exaggeratedly large – to them. Quite frankly, to a publishing house, their life story means nothing. Even if they have survived life-threatening illnesses and managed to stay optimistic. Even if they are a good mom who started a business so she could spend time with her kids. Even if they’ve written 98,000 words already. It just simply doesn’t matter. If the submission is not agented, no one but an intern is likely to give it a glance. And if the intern doesn’t want to learn or is a little lazy, (I swear, this is not a self-description!) even she might chuck it in the trash. Who would notice?
However, there does happen to exist a related industry called self-publishing which is a near, less accomplished cousin of the book publishing industry. Self-publishing can be done online, with little or no help from an agent or an editor. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. No one at the self-publishing house will market, sell or edit any book, unless the author pays for these optional services. The self-publishing establishment will never, ever take responsibility for any book. So why read it? They simply print it the way an author specifies and ship it out. They are a giant copy machine in a tie. This is where a few of the submissions that cross my desk belong. The autobiography of Grandma Sara who’s on her death bed and wanted to see her story put to paper belongs at AuthorHouse or one of several other self-publishing companies with a print-on-demand feature, not at a major publishing house who is interested primarily in making money from an author’s ideas. (Don't worry, ideally, the author benefits greatly as well.)
I have seen, in the past couple of weeks, more candidates for self-publishing than I’d like to think about, most of them autobiographical accounts that would interest no one but the children of the authors. Sad but true, undeniably. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting, occasionally, but only that they don’t seem very lucrative.
Trends seem to filter through every branch of the media and that doesn’t exclude even the Slush Pile of a publishing house. A testament to our monkey-see, monkey-do tendencies if ever there was one. As I’ve mentioned, there is a group of people out there that seem to think everyone in the world will be interested in their life story. These people can be seen on a park bench, when all you meant to say was, “Hello,” and, “How ‘bout this weather,” and got stuck in a sob story. They can be seen at work, when they actually respond with a truthful answer to the question, “How are you?” and they can be seen in a publishing house’s Slush Pile. What they don’t realize is that no one wants to hear a sad, melodramatic story unless the main character is a celebrity of some kind or if the person has done something astronomically huge that no one else has done. Both instances are rare and, accordingly, so is the publication of this type of book.
A second trend I’ve noticed is the prison mail. America’s prisons and jails are chock full of prisoners just itching to tell their own stories. I think many of them have so much time on their hands that just as Malcolm X decided to copy down the dictionary, these men and women write down their own lives. Many wish to tell their story of innocence despite the fact that they’re serving life sentences. The truth is, frankly, it is difficult for readers to sympathize with the bad guy. For all our sinning, we humans are self-righteous as can be. We want to see the bad guy stuck in jail, not having his story published. The nice guy finishes last isn’t really a feel-good scenario. So, sales on that type of book would probably be a little lacking. Next!
The most disturbing prison mail I’ve received so far was from a sex offender who felt that the New Hampshire state law was allowing people to be hateful toward him. He wanted to write a book about acceptance of all people and how sex offenders should not be ostracized and publicly humiliated daily. Granted, the New Hampshire state law requires that all sex offenders’ faces, descriptions of cars, workplaces and other personal information be published on the Internet for all to see. Pretty much the modern age’s answer to a good ol’ fashioned lynchin’. But when this man has raped someone, it’s hard to feel bad for him. The fact is, we as a society don’t accept him. His whole existence has become unacceptable, hence the prison address. Not a salable topic, to be sure. But, I must guiltily admit, that I enjoyed the proposal. I enjoyed the argument the inmate has made because it was an excellent illustration of human selfishness. The man did not, and never will care that he ruined someone’s life. He cared only about himself and had the New Hampshire laws not placed him under the lens of public scrutiny, he’d be perfectly content. A defense of New Hampshire’s law, to be sure.
Not all unagented submissions are so bad, though. I have found exactly three that made it through the first cut, and even then someone told me I was being generous! I handed all three off to the assistant editor. I do not know what eventually became of them, but I haven’t heard anything so I imagine nothing.
The first was a joke-type book which was full of obituaries. I know, I know – just hear me out, ok? They were obituaries of fictional characters that have become like friends and family members to us. We identify with these ultra-popular characters and they are pretty much “out” - or dead. The author had included some examples of his obituaries to be included in the book. Snow White had died at, like, 50 years old. The obituary read – It Finally Worked! Pat the Bunny had died of a rare skin disease caused by excessive amounts of infant drool. They were all similarly hilarious. I enjoyed them immensely. Had the author gotten an agent first, someone might have taken a closer look. I know I did.
Another piece of (technically) slush was a proposal for romance novels for the elderly set. I thought this idea was great. Written by a woman in her eighties (!), this series of novels would be about finding love – again. As an old person. Old women have time on their hands – tons of it – and what they often choose to do with this plethora of time is read – romance novels. But I’m sure they’d enjoy a romance novel about someone in their own shoes. However, the author chose to name the series something like “Never Too Old” or “Young Enough” or something equally condescending. In my New Jersey town, there is a nursing home that runs a pick-up and drop-off service for the people attending only during the day. The bus they use for this is plastered all over with the name of the nursing home – Young at Heart. Personally, I would not want one of those white-haired heads bouncing up and down in that bus’s windows to be mine. I might as well wear a sign that says, “Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m old and obsolete riding on a short bus!” It would make me feel like a child or an invalid. How embarrassing! The series names the author picked reminded me of exactly this situation. A person reading a book that said in bold on the front, “Never Too Old…” might as well wear a sign that says, “Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m too old for real romance, so they made this to pacify me!”
I thought it needed to be a series without a name. Just a bunch of romance novels that were marketed in places where the elderly would see the ads. The author was an elderly person, so maybe she had a better handle on how to market to her own group, but I felt that no older person would want to read something that was pretty much engineered for them. Much like most teens don’t want to read “teen fiction” which is often read by kids much younger than their teens.
I wanted to see a sample chapter because I felt that the whole idea was pivotal on the author’s ability to write, not just think up a good idea. I let the assistant editor know this and my ideas about the name, but I never heard another word, so I assume this proposal ended up where the previous one did – in publishing ether. I don’t know if there is such a thing, I’m just saying I never saw it again.
The third and last proposal that has caught my eye did so because of the author’s actual ability to write. I was amazed, reading his sample chapter, that he could string sentences along like that! And from the Slush Pile! It was a crime thriller, not unlike C.S.I, and I thought it was pretty good. Not good enough, apparently, because I never heard boo about that one either.
The Slush Pile has now disappeared. It will fill up again, and it’ll disappear again as long as there is an intern to hack through it. I wonder what aspiring authors would say if they knew that the person deciding their fate, deciding whether or not their book actually crosses an editor’s desk, is just an intern with no experience whatsoever?
I don’t believe publishing houses are nasty or mean exactly in their choosing of who gets published and who does not, but most are in this game to win. They want to collect on an idea, not just marvel at how unique it is. Although, when an editor gets to enjoy both is a happy, happy day. Publishing people are still book worms. They love a good book, one with dense, three-dimensional characters and unique plot twists. But if that book they love so much won’t sell much to the general public, a good editor knows when to say no. And a good editor knows when to pick up that very salable but immature book and sing its praises. Because, at the end of the day, we all want to go home and eat dinner. Not live in a cardboard box, sleeping under the manuscript pages of a really great book we can’t sell.

First Day in Publishing!


My first official day of work at Simon and Schuster's Touchstone/Fireside imprint began in the waiting room of the HR department. A fellow intern, Adriel, and I exchanged small talk and some pretty scant industry knowledge while we perused through catalogs and waited for the human resources coordinator to arrive. It was 9:05 AM, and both Adriel and I were itching to start our careers in book publishing, his in marketing, mine in editorial.
Orientation sounded more like an auction than an introduction to an industry and a company. I must have heard over twenty different policies, related to just as many different topics, in maybe eight to ten minutes. It was in written form in front of me, but I tried to follow what the coordinator was saying anyway. Internships at the Big Ten of the book publishing world (McGraw Hill, Random House, Harcourt, Holtzbrinck, Scholastic, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, Harper Collins, John Wiley and Simon and Schuster, as of 2001) don't necessarily come along easily, and I wanted to have all the tools and resources to make it worth my while.
S&S has a business casual dress code, which can be ambiguous without clarification. For men, it's easy: wear a suit. You can't go wrong. Khakis and a dress shirt work too, though. For women, it's a minefield. You can't go wrong with a dress shirt and slacks or skirt, but I've seen so many different variations on the people at S&S that it's difficult to articulate an actual policy. For example, a skirt is almost inarguably dressy. But what if it's denim? Dress code flexibility appears to come with seniority. To be certain I wasn't violating an unwritten political rules, I usually wore dress pants and button-down, collared shirt. However, I did commit my share of dress-code transgressions. I wore open-toed shoes, once. They were very dressy and quite conservative, saving for the toes. Everyone stared at my feet all day. I became so self-conscious that I made an effort to stay behind my desk all day. While I suspect their staring was a subconscious awareness (two of these things are not like the other ones!) my paranoid and overworked mind kept screaming that they were doing it deliberately to punish me for violating the dress code. Yikes. But I digress.
I was pleased, half-an-hour after orientation, to be seated at my new desk, in my little corner of S&S. I was even more pleased to learn the desk was dedicated to me, the intern (or “slave” if you prefer). I had a name plate (okay, so it was a paper one) just like all the real employees. I took a picture with my BlackBerry and hoped no one would notice. I had voicemail, which I promptly set up, making sure I sounded like I really worked at S&S. I also had an email address - and email messages! One was from Irene in IT, informing me that my ID to Rockefeller Center was ready for pick up. Already, I was important enough to have email.
I was astounded. I was relatively new to the city and did not know that 1230 Avenue of the Americas was the address to one of the Rockefeller Center buildings until I opened that email. In fact, I hadn't even recognized the buildings on sight, or noticed the advertisements for Top of the Rock. When I'd visited S&S the first couple of times, I had been too busy gazing longingly at the Random House skyscraper, which is in the opposite direction, but essentially right across the street. So, Simon and Schuster had a great view of the back of my head. As if it cared. Like every other publishing industry hopeful, I had read that feature in BookNews about Random House being the best possible workplace in book publishing. And it hadn't been retired to the back of my mind with all the information I acquire from reading so much.
When I returned from picking up my ID for the Rock (already I've picked up the lingo. Does that make me a progressive, or a dork?) I was very pleasantly greeted by every single person I work with. It was as if they all waited until I officially had an ID. Each person, from the lowly assistants to the publisher of Touchstone/Fireside himself, told me they were happy to have me, asked what school I attended, commented on Pace and wished me luck. I was impressed by this show of kindness by nearly all of the people for whom I'd be working two days a week. It suddenly seemed very unimportant that I was working for nothing, when I had the joy of working with these kind and sparkly-eyed literati!
Until they returned to their desks and promptly proceeded to ignore me. Had I done something wrong? I've always been a bit shy and introverted. Perhaps I'd been overwhelmed by all the attention and didn't smile when I should've, or nod at the right moments when editor so-and-so recanted her own internship experience. Had I somehow committed a social faux-pas, miraculously insulting all my coworkers at once and thereby ruining my career in book publishing before it had even begun? To salvage my career and popularity in the business, I began to grin toothily at each passerby. The result, each time, was a polite, tight-lipped smile and quickly diverted eyes. Eventually, they stopped making eye contact. Fabulous. They probably thought I was Pace University's class idiot come to pester them...or worse, someone with poor social skills! [enter maniacal, blood-curdling scream].
Oh, stop it! I scolded, giving myself the equivalent of the cinematic slap-across-the-crazy-girl's-face. They think you're weird, because you are being weird. You're trying too hard. No one else is running the I-can-impress-the-world marathon, so why are you? Just chill out, for goodness' sake. Stop the constant worrying and trying to impress these people with your knowledge. Besides, do you really have that much knowledge? I resolved to focus on my work and be myself...not a blithering, grinning idiot. That's right, work. The stuff I'm here to do. Now, if only I could figure out where they kept the work. My co-workers were all typing away with intelligent and well-read expressions on their faces, or chatting on the phone with literary agents. Oh, how I longed for their jobs.

And then, after working pretty hard to become a sophomore in college, I was sitting just outside the door to a senior editor's office and listening to her business. It was a wonderful experience to be able to learn from what she said in her conversations, even if it is technically eavesdropping. For example, I now know that in a galley (a pre-print of a book used for final editing before it goes to the press) the table of contents might not necessarily match up with the actual page numbers in the book. I know that a series page goes in the front matter of a book along with the title and copyright pages. I know that if some book only sells 10,000 copies it could be considered a loss. I also know that it is extremely rare for a proposal or manuscript to make it all the way to publication if its point of entry is a publishing house’s Slush Pile which is a pile of submissions from people who think they can write but don’t have an agent. Generally, if they can’t get an agent, they can’t write. And no one, to an agent’s dismay, can be taught to write.

My First Telephone Interview

Because I didn't know they existed at the time, I completed my first telephone interview without first having consulted any of countless resources on interview etiquette and procedures. At the time, I felt perfectly confident, having once worked in an office environment. (I worked for a small office supply company in high school) Wasn't that enough? Apparently not, because I completely bombed that first telephone interview with Simon and Schuster's HR department. When the interviewer asked me, "Why do you want to work for Simon and Schuster?" which is a very common interview question, I didn't know what to say. Um, because you're a huge publishing house in New York and I know it will look good on my resume? I didn't say that, of course. I wasn't that naive. I think I told her it was because Stephen King was one of my favorite authors, which isn't the worst answer and not really the best either. I'm sure S&S doesn't appreciate being summed up by the name of only one of their authors. Now that I've completed and internship in this industry, I have a firmer handle on what this interviewer was trying to ask. They like it when you know about the industry and the company to which you're applying. Peruse the Internet for news reports and recent acquirements (books taken on).
The only experience on my resume at that time was my college literary magazine work. I expected her to ask questions about what kind of work I had done on the magazine, so I had my answers rehearsed and at the ready. But she threw me for a loop when she asked, "What would the advisor of the literary magazine have to say about you?" Um. I told her he would say he couldn't have done it without me, which is true since I created that magazine, but this answer sounds way overconfident. Instead, I should have discussed specific qualities that were necessary in order to complete the work involved with the literary magazine. This would show the interviewer that I've put thought into that question, instead of providing a sweeping overgeneralization that sounds awfully contrived. A great resource for interview techniques and sample questions is "Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?" by Ellen Gordon Reeves, who is the resume expert at the Columbia Publishing Course.

After months had passed and I heard whether I had nailed the opportunity or not, I sent a thank you note to the HR (human resources) representative who'd interviewed me. She got back to me right away to tell me they still had a position, and would I like to come in for my second interview? Since I had read up on interviews and how to behave during one, I felt totally confident in the second interview, which was in person, and I did get the internship!


Welcome fellow job-seekers and students! And, of course, welcome publishing industry professionals willing to impart advice and guidance. I hope this blog provides some information, good reading material and, if nothing else, a sounding board for questions about the publishing industry and its many career paths. Interning in publishing is often slave-labor, but if you put enough into it, it can become infinitely more valuable. My first publishing internship was at Simon and Schuster's Touchstone/Fireside imprint and although I made more copies than I'm willing to think about, I took away industry jargon, ideologies and experiences no book or career guide could hope to afford me. I never delivered a single cup of Starbucks, even though I would have fallen all over myself at the chance. =)