Friday, July 16, 2010

Publishers’ Question Time, vol. I

You may have noticed that, although we identify ourselves as “publishing professionals” on our biography page, we don’t go into any specifics: where we work, what we do. There are many reasons for this decision, and they are good ones—namely, we don’t want to get into trouble. But I think that conspicuous absence also serves to separate us, as founders of this project and active [tk] reviewers, from our work identities. Such separation between work and play is healthy (or so we’ve been told), and there’s a lot to be said for shedding your “office” skin at the end of the day when you slither out of the door.

However, the reality is not always that simple. To a certain extent, our work and private “selves” are inextricable because a love of books and reading is so fundamental to both. If you want to work in publishing and be happy, you have to feel passion for what you do incredibly deeply, in your heart and brain and bones, because it is what will sustain you through the long hours, low entry-level salaries, and the constant demands of a creative environment.

This inability to separate church and state, as it were, is probably why I find myself want to write a bit about my job. I’ll come out of the closet right now: I’m an editorial assistant. It’s an interesting job but a somewhat ambiguous one, because although most people understand what an editor does, very few understand the full scope and responsibilities of the role. I sure as hell didn’t when I first started. On the subject of jobs, most of my conversations with new acquaintances go something like this:

PERSON: “What do you do?”
ME: “I’m an editorial assistant.”
PERSON: “Huh. Does that mean you get to read all day?”

If only. If only. So, in a very unscientific social experiment, I polled some of my crew, including fellow [tk]ers, for the a) most common; b) weirdest; and c) funniest questions they get asked about their job.

The responses (thanks, guys!) were revelatory. Many of the most common questions speak to a fundamental lack of knowledge about publishing and how it works – no wonder the industry is viewed as some kind of elitist, lumbering dinosaur. So, for this two-part post, I have chosen my favorite (representative/interesting/funny) questions and done my best to answer them in my own words. Please share your own responses (as mine are hardly definitive), and look out next Friday for the second installment, which will deal with the biggest, baddest, most awkward question of them all.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Well, I can speak only as an editorial assistant, but let me tell you – a lot. Here is a random morning from last week. By 9.30 am I already had a list of tasks from my boss that was mutating like a fast-growing vine: pull sales figures, proof-read a title information sheet for the upcoming season launch, track down an out-of-print biography of Bach, read a manuscript. First, though, I had to prepare a contract, so I was doing long division on a Post-it in order to figure out how an advance of $135,000 breaks down into fourths and the scale of earnout advances. Suddenly, the phone rang, reminding me of a packaging meeting; I went and took notes as my boss and the art director and the publicist and the editor-in-chief debated the merits of various cover designs. When I got back, there was a finished manuscript in my boss’s in-box that I had to prepare for production. It’s the editorial assistants who package the whole manuscript with the front and back “matter” – the title and copyright pages, the dedication and epigraph, all the end notes and footnotes. Freaking footnotes. I HATE FOOTNOTES!

Take a moment to experience how your brain feels after reading this paragraph. Because that is how my brain feels 99.9% of the time.

So your job is to, like, insert commas?
Well, I suppose that if I saw one missing I would put it in. But editors vary in their approach – some are meticulous line editors, whereas others leave the nuts and bolts to copyeditors. A lot of the work editors do is developmental and conceptual; most of the grammatical stuff is left for the copyeditor. And don’t forget that sometimes commas are left out on purpose. Think of James Joyce.

In your best guess, how fast do you read on average?
I’ve never thought about this before… On a quiet day I could probably finish an entire manuscript and still take a lunch hour. So that’s, say, 400 pages over about six or seven hours, which is roughly 60 pages an hour. And that, weirdly enough, works out to about a page per minute. Huh.

Have you developed really strong fingers from writing and editing all the time?
I have calluses from holding pens and pencils. They’re kind of gross. And don’t even let me start on the paper cuts. We should be reimbursed for Band-Aids.

If you were Douglas Adams’s editor, would you have made him change the answer for the secret to life, the universe, and everything from “42”?
No. I think that, especially when it comes to fiction, asking authors to alter things is a delicate art. How much content can you change before you end up with a different book – and if you want a different book, why did you buy this one in the first place?

Is your name going to be on the book jacket?
Sadly, no. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest injustices of the industry. It takes a village to produce a book, and unless authors include acknowledgments (which, fortunately, they often do) a lot of hard work goes unrecognized. Remember that next time you’re in Borders.

Is it “Noff” or “Kuh-nopf”?
The second. And yes, I definitely enjoy “Kuh-nopf, Kuh-nopf” jokes.

While we’re on that topic, is it Scribner or Scribner’s (or Scribners, or Scribners’)?
Technically the imprint is Charles Scribner’s Sons, so it’s singular. I do think it sounds better in plural, though. But what do I know?

Is publishing a dying industry?
Oh God. It is a changing industry. Publishers will have to adapt, and I’m confident that they will. Radio had to accommodate television, and television had to accommodate the internet – and 26 million people still listen to NPR, and 99% of American households own a TV.

On that rather somber note, I’m going to shuffle off and fix myself a gin & tonic and dream about Maxwell Perkins. Until next week…

No comments:

Post a Comment