Life as a Literary Assistant

Skendall stormed through my office and into the lair just about twenty minutes ago, saying she was so angry she had to take a walk.

Mer Bear immediately jumped in too and they began venting to each other.

Naturally I was curious.  What could get these two so upset?


And of course after I read it, I was infuriated too.

I've been the office manager at FinePrint and an executive assistant to Peter Rubie, the CEO of FinePrint since May 2010.  I was an unpaid intern before that.

I'm still technically an assistant.  I'm an agent in my own right, and damn proud of it, but for at least a few more months, I'm also Peter's assistant.  I interact with assistants at every major publishing house on a daily basis, and I know plenty of assistants at well known literary agencies.

Which is why I'm wondering who was actually interviewed for this article and if their words were taken out of context.

Because not one assistant I know would read this and say it was an accurate portrayal of publishing.

"THE ASSISTERATI ARE hired for their taste, their poise and their pedigree, but once they settle into their cubicles, these traits are about as valuable as perfect punctuation in the cover letter of a slush submission."

Actually no. Sure does a college degree from an Ivy League impressive? Yes. But as someone who has has co-coordinated an intern program and placed all of our interns last semester in a job at major publishing houses, it's damn hard to get a job in publishing. You can't just have impressive credentials and pedigree. I know an assistant who got her job after three rounds of interviews, two writing assignments that included reading two whole manuscripts, and then having a former intern supervisor forward multiple examples of her stellar editorial work on the job.

""The things that are the hardest, or maybe scariest, for me are admin things, like phones, paperwork—especially tax forms!" a 22-year-old assistant to a literary agent told The Observer from her office, over Gmail chat."

Administrative tasks are scary when you're in your first job anywhere because the potential to screw up is HUGE. Um tax forms, they may not be glamorous, but they're important.

"A distinguished if not currently prominent author recently took a meeting with the assistant's boss and upon arrival, standing not three feet from her desk, said, "Have your girl print my boarding pass for my flight this afternoon and bring me a coffee.""

Have I occasionally run into chauvinistic men who've asked me to get their coffee? Yes. But not while I've been in publishing. Oh, I'm sure it exists, just like it exists everywhere. You ask any female recent college grad about her experience in the workforce, and she'll have a story.

"Thanks to industry-endemic budget tightening, the publishing assistant's duties have steadily declined on an asymptote toward the menial. More and more time is spent scheduling lunches, taking minutes and mailing galleys (often to the other members of the Assisterati, with chatty notes on their personal stationery). They may be drafted into bartending a party—a debasement of one of the job's few perks. 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."

Actually due to industry-endemic budget tightening, the publishing assistant's duties have doubled or tripled. They might be scheduling lunches, taking minutes, and mailing galleys (I've done all three), but they're also editing for their bosses, acquiring their own projects, and working nights and weekends in order to get it all done. As a general rule, when an industry tightens its budget and lays people off, but then still produces the same output, it means the people who still work there, take on more work.

"The Assisterati's bosses are the gatekeepers to the kind of meaningful work—acquiring or editing books—that they must master in order to move up the ladder."

Welcome to real life. Bosses are bosses in every industry. When you take an entry level job, you put in the work in order to learn and move up.

""I spent easily 80 percent of my workweek with my boss," remembered Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants. "He would talk to me about his kids. I knew his Social Security number. I still know his doorman's cell phone number by heart.""

I know similar details about my boss, and I also spend a similar amount of my official workweek with him. And I can list all 40+ of his clients and tell you not only what titles they have coming out in 2011 and 2012, but what those books are about, what publisher is putting out, and what some of those clients are working on now.

And the 19 hours a day I spend working or the weekends I'm in the office ? I'm working on the manuscripts for my clients so I can add to the deals I've done.

"Only one of the mostly early-stage Assisterati The Observer spoke with at the party betrayed such fatigue. She likes the work, but it's not a good fit personality-wise, she said with utmost diplomacy. She'll consider leaving after the one-year mark. The rest of the crowd still wore a honeymoon glow."

Right. This is because the writer of this article most likely came in with preconceived notions (which were wrong) about the industry and then did a terrible job listening to the assistants he/she interviewed and getting the true story.

All in all, one of the worst articles I've read from The Observer.

(For Mer Bear's reaction, she blogged about this HERE.)

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Josin L. McQuein said...

Ah yes, the gmail chat. Such journalistic dedication to getting the facts in a professional and unbiased manner!

Lexie said...

It sounds as if someone read (or saw) Devil Wears Prada, heard some assistant venting and decided 'OMG This must be what its really like!' then only chose the quotes that supported that theory.

eejits seriously. I'm not anywhere near a literary assistant and even I know that.

juniperjenny said...

It was a ridiculous, petty, patronizing article stinking faintly of sour grapes. Seriously - did she fail to get an assistant job in publishing at some point? Why else pick on such a specific profession in that way?

Jonathan E. Quist said...

"Print my boarding pass and get some coffee"...

Aside from the wording in the article, I'm not even sure I'd call that demeaning. I've been an IT engineer for 25 years, and I've occasionally made coffee runs for visiting customers or senior management. I still do, as a 50-year-old white male.

That used to be called "courtesy", and as long as it's a polite request rather than a demeaning command, what the heck is wrong with that?

An assistant is getting tons of experience, learning whether he or she really wants to pursue a career in the industry, and in the process making it possible for the industry to publish more and better books.

Personally, I'm thankful for that. Even as a pre-published writer. So to any literary assistant who happens to find me at Bouchercon this year, the first drink is on me.

Magan said...

You're totally right about how it's going to be the same being an assistant in any job field. I'm an assistant in an insurance field and no one asks me to get their coffee, but I do spend my time doing things that aren't exactlly glamorous. It's not like one can expect to have a big 6 figure job right out of college as someone else's boss and the only way you can really appreciate something is to start from the bottom up...or to get someone's coffee...

Josh said...

When did the Observer get into the habit of hiring trolls?

That said, any point the author was trying to make is completely lost in the midst of the condescending, patronizing tone of voice. Between that and what appears to be statements of the bleeding obvious, any merit this article might have had is dead on arrival and its author may want to start questioning the contents of any coffee an assistant brings to Kat in the near future.

Cynthia Lee said...

I read that article earlier today and I thought it was a load of horse**** immediately.

Jeanmarie Anaya said...

Pffftttt. Whoever said sour grapes was right.

I was a corporate associate at a large law firm in NYC for several years. Much of the angst the interviewer/author describes could have come straight from the mouth of a first-year associate. And frankly, I don't have a problem with getting someone coffee if it means they'll thank me and remember my name in the future.

Hello! ANY ENTRY LEVEL JOB FEELS THAT WAY. At least, in the beginning. That's what working your way up the ladder is all about.


Alwyn said...

I do not understand where the level of rampant entitlement displayed in this article comes from! I've seen it in some of my friends fresh out of Uni who think they're "too good for their jobs". I want to smack those people upside the head and tell them that just because they have Ivy league "pedigree" does not make them equipped for the job they might want (or sometimes even necessarily for the job they are already doing).

I am technically an assistant in my office as well and my general outlook on things is that if you think you're too good for a task then it should be a reason to do it better, not phone it in or whinge about it. Because those 'Masters' rarely miss a beat in my experience. And the truth of the matter is, you're actually probably NOT that overqualified. Just because you wrote a brilliant dissertation comparing Hardy to Homer does not mean you can handle stress and deadlines and deal with clients effectively and know how to work well as part of a team. Those are life experience skills you pick up *gasp* working as an assistant!

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I particularly like the detail that no one drank from the six-pack of beer. Does that go towards the pedigree or the workload?

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Alwyn, my dissertation, Hardy vs. Homer was brilliant.

I proved conclusively that Fenton Hardy could outsmart Homer Simpson any day of the week, just as long as Frank and Joe are allowed to help.

Nick said...

Wow, good job hitting the article point by point.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, print the article on toilet paper and use it for what it was meant for. Wish I was in New York, I'd buy you all a drink. Viva assistants!

Unknown said...

To me the article sounded clunky. Many of word choices sounded like my 5th grader pulling out his thesaurus to find the "big words" to put in, without proper context or use.

Overall, the tone did come off as someone who can't join them, so instead the writer will tear them down. And I agree with the earlier statement of how "The Devil Wears Prada" it all sounded. I'm not in the publishing industry, as a freelance writer (who fell into that) working on her first novel while being a Mom to a toddler and preteen and wife to military man. However, not one of the sources sounded credible to me, so don't get too upset. No one with an ounce of brains really thinks literary assistants are anything like what the article portrayed them to be.

readingkidsbooks said...

A condescending article, but then if you read some of the writer's other articles, you'll notice a similar tone...he tends to write to get a rise from readers. Not someone I care to read again...too cynical & superior for my taste.

Did enjoy your slam though.