A production assistant will work with copy editors, typographers, binders, and designers to help with the actual construction of a book. As more and more publishers realize that an unusual design or arresting cover art cn help sell books, this area of publishing is getting more fun and inventive. Of course, good copy editors have always been and will always be essential to publishing of any sort.
On Writing and Publishing
A publicity assistant sends out galleys (early bound and typeset copies of a book) to select book reviewers at newspapers and magazines, maintains and updates lists of reviewers who should receive free copies of the published book one it’s out, works with his/her boss to arrange radio, print, and television interviews for authors, and may work to organize book release parties and signings at bookstores. Additionally, the assistant needs to know all the social media venues like Facebook and Twitter as this, too, is how books are promoted. Publicity assistants go on to become publicity directors–and because good publicity is so important to book sales, the best publicists sometimes move on to corporate marketing and executive publishing levels.
There are also two other ‘assistant’ roles, one in marketing where the department seeks to build ways of promoting the book on its own, via web campaigns and book events. There is a role for an assistant in the Subsidiary Rigths Office, which means lots and lots of data entry, recording the details of the many, many deals that come through, and constantly communicationg with agents and other publishers.
The changing, consolidating nature of publishing staff today is that everyone, even assistants in various departments, are taking on more and more responsibility. In the past, where the job of ‘assistant’ use to mean mainly administrative tasks, today the position comes with more and more duties and responsibilities. That said, there are basically three entry level jobs in book publishing. The first one is:
An editorial assistant, in addition to performing the universal assistant-duties mentioned above, might be called upon to review incoming manuscripts and provide reports to his/her boss; to go through the “slush” pile of unsolicited queries from hopeful authors, and bring anything worth a look to the editor’s attention’ and to work with agents and authors to ensure that contracts are handled and processed correctly. Today, many Editorial Assistants will have their own authors and projects, and participate in editorial meeting where books are presented by other editors seeking to buy them for the company. Editorial Assistants also make luncheon reservations for the editor and handle special request. For example, my wife’s first assistant in publishing, when she was a young editor, had the job of getting her a Coke every afternoon (to be fair, she also bought him one!).
Editorial assistants often go on to become assistant or associate editors, and then senior editors. Each position brings with it more direct responsibility for the overall concept behind, and presentation of, a new book. The pinnacle of any editor’s career is to have his or her own ‘imprint’ –a line of books to be determined completely by the editor’s own tastes.
Often, and I am seeing more and more of this lately, as the book industry is shrinking, editors are leaving (i.e., getting fired) book companies, they are becoming literary agents and free- lance editors.
Remember that former editorial assistant for my wife who got her Cokes? Well, today he has his own imprint and is incredibility successful in book publishing. Now someone else is getting him his afternoon Cokes!
RPCVs who love books and magazines and want to find work that matches their love of literature and language are drawn to the world of publishing. They want to get a job where they can sit around all day and read books and get paid for it, you know, like being a PCV.
As a way of helping newly returning PCVs, I am going to post a series of short blogs about finding work in publishing. It is an area that I know a little about and these blogs might be of some help to all of you currently going through reverse cultural shock.
Getting a job in publishing can be a problem because most RPCVs lack “publishingese,” the insider’s special blend of vocabulary, knowledge, skills, and manner of doing business that conveys a cosmopolitan, confident, can-do attitude worthy of an entry-level position.
Aspiring publishers also lack information about the range of opportunities available. Most of all, they don’t realize how many jobs and careers there are in publishing. Here’s a quick course on working in book and magazine publishing, and a few observations on how the world of books is changing, and what you need to do to keep ahead of the game. These few blogs are about how to find a job. It might be the shortest graduate course you’ll ever take.
Most book publishing companies are broken down into several departments; editorial, publicity and promotion, and marketing and production. No matter which of these words your first job designation begins with, it is likely to end with the word “assistant.”
Common to all assistants everywhere, regardless of department, are certain inescapable duties that define the position: “assisting” superiors; handling correspondence, answering phones, writing memos, and generally carrying out whatever administrative duties are needed. They are ways, however, in which the assistant position differs from department to department.
In the next blog(s) I’ll talk about working as:
A free lance editor who has worked very successfully with an award winning RPCV writer is Lorraine Bodger. I want to recommend Lorraine to you if you are looking around for help with your manuscript. If you are submitting anything to an agent or publisher, it has got to be ready to be published. Lorraine might be the person who can make it happen for you. Here’s what she has to say:
LORRAINE BODGER: PRIVATE PROFESSIONAL EDITING FOR YOUR WORK
Whether you’ve got a book proposal or finished ms that’s ready to be submitted OR you’re under contract and working on a final ms OR you’re aiming for a POD book, your best chance of success is to present as perfect a piece as possible. I can help. A lot. I’ve been working with writers for more than fifteen years, and I treat my clients with the respect and care they deserve. Every manuscript needs editing; talk or write to me and let’s see what we can do to get yours into great shape. Please visit my Web site to find out more. I look forward to hearing from you.
John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979 for his collection of stories. He also won as well the National Book Critics Circle Awardand the Natinal Medal for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work also has been included in the Library of America. He is considered by many one of the finest short story writers that America has produced.
However, when Cheever attended Thayer Academy as a teenager he was expelled for not studying. Nevertheless, at the age of eighteen, one of his first published work, “Expelled” appeared in The New Republic.
In 1942 when he enlisted in the army he tested low-normal on the government IQ test. It was the same year that he published his first short-story collection, The Way Some People Live.
So, when someone tells you that you are not smart enough to be a writer, remember John Cheever.
Okay, here are first lines from 10 Memoirs by RPCVs. I’ll make it easier and give you the names of the authors. You need only match the prose with the person.
1. The nicest thing anyone ever said to me came cloaked in an insult which, while essentially inaccurate, proved astute in its initial perceptiveness: “We all thought you’d fail.”
2. They took us in the Land Rover, Mike and me, with Kim Buck driving. We had planned to leave that morning, as it was a good four hours’ drive, although it was only about sixty miles from Mbeya.
3. A single lantern filled the room with flickering light, throwing Fanta’s shadow toward the door. The glow bronzed her tight cheekbone, her deflated breast, her moving stomach.
4. These were momentous times. Pope John died and the only clergyman with the guts to stare a television camera in the face was the old croaker himself, Cardinal Cushing, who eulogized from the heart.
5. Two days after I arrived in Ghana to join the first group of Peace Corps volunteers ever to go anywhere, I stood before my first class an libbing a discussion of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Is Shylock good or bad?” Already I was making Zionist propaganda).
6. How do you pack for a two-year trip to Africa? I knew what I needed to take but not how to carry it all.
7. The Doue, a tributary of the Senegal River, flows inside its red-tan banks past a small village of clay houses with thatched roofs.
8.We were sitting in Jere living room floor in the dark, clutching our handmade weapons–two-by-fours with five-inch nails driven all the way through them, so that the business end of the nails emerged like fangs from the mouth of a poisonous snake.
9. I came to Fuling on the slow boat downstream from Chongqing. It was a warm, clear night at the end of August in 1996–stars flickering about the Yangtze River, their light too faint to reflect off the black water.
10. I got my Peace Corps application at the post office in Red Bluff, California, put it on the table in the kitchen, and walked around it for ten days without touching it, as though it were primed to detonate–as indeed it was–trying to convince myself that for a forty-eight-old farmer the idea of Peace Corps service was impractical and foolhardy.
Under the Neem Treeby Susan Lowerre (University of Washington Press, 1991)
High Risk/High Gain A Freewheeling account of Peace Corps training by Alan Weiss (St. Martin’s Press, 1968)
To the Peace Corps with Love by Arnold Zeitlin (Doubleday & Company, 1965)
The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn by Mike Tidwell (Lyons & Burford, Publishers, 1990)
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins Publisher, 2001)
Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village by Sarah Erdman (Henry Holt and Company, 2003)
Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (University of Washington Press, 1969)
When I Was Elana: A memoir by Ellen Urbani Hilterbrand (Permanent Press, 2006)
The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa by Josh Swiller (Henry Holt and Company, 2007)
An African Season by Leonard Levitt (Simon and Schuster, 1966)
One last comment. What is particularly interesting to me is the variety of ‘openings’ to Peace Corps memoirs that you see in these ten books, and published in ten different years. No two are alike (and not one begins with the weather! Thank you Mary-Ann for that reminder.) Starting with the first sentence you have (as the reader) no idea where you are going in the book. Not bad for ten first-time writers all writing about the same topic: the Peace Corps.
Phil Damon (Ethiopia 1963-65) came close, but didn’t get all 10. He missed #6 and #8
Here is the correct list
1. Jack Kerouac, On the Road
2. John Knowles, A Separate Peace
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
4. James Jones, From Here to Eternity
5. William Faulkner, Light in August
6. Hamilton Basso, Th View From Pompey Head
7. Irwin Shaw, The Eighty Yard Run
8. John O’Hara, You Can Always Tell Newark
9. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
10. Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
This snowy day I have been thumbing through writing magazines and it is amazing the advice you get from second rate writers (like myself!) telling other writers (like you!) how to write.
I have been reading about ’submission strategies for literary journals’ and ‘what makes literary fiction literary?”
Most of the advice is predictable (by the way that’s a no-no, writing a predictable story.) The advice goes this way: Know the literary journals; Themed issues are your friend; Play the odds. Etc. Not too useful.
One comment stood out, this from Marc Fitten, editor of the Chattahooochee Review. I never heard of the little magazine, nor Marc, but he commented, “A strong, distinctive voice is the first thing I read for. Whammo! Does the voice grab me and make me read the story.”
That I agree with. Now whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, a memoir or an academic tome, you can’t throw your voice like a ventriloquist. Your voice is your voice. And the more I read, what brings me back to a particular book is that clear voice that catches my attention.
So here’s a little snowy morning test. Here are ten opening lines. Name these writers based on their distinctive style, their voice, and I’ll send you a prize. Also, note that 7 of the 10 are first person. When you write your next book, do it from the first person. Meanwhile, let me see what you guess.
1. I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.
2. I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student fifteen years before.
3. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind every since.
4. When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.
5. Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. And the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.’
6. It was one of the grievances of the business element of Pompey’s Head that the all-pullman train from New York to Miami reached its community at five forty-six in the morning.
7. The pass was high and wide and he jumped for it, feeling it slap flatly against his hands, as he shook his hips to throw off the halfback who was diving at him.
8. Not many people ever see the game and not all those who see it can follow the scoring, and among those who can score it fewer still can play it, and, finally, in the entire world there are probably fewer than fifty men who play it well.
9. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
10. On Sunday, the eleventh of November, 196_, while sitting at the bar of the New Parrot Restaurant in my home town, Watertown, New York, awaiting the telecast of the New York Giants–Dallas Cowboys football game, I had what, at the time, I took to be a heart attack.
[On Monday, Peace Corps Day, I'll tell you the winners!]
Last month (1/30/2010) there was a great article in The Wall Street Journal entitled, “The Death of the Slush Pile” by Kathrine Rosman. It told of the depressing straits in publishing, how an unknown–unless extremely lucky–can’t find a publishers. No publishing house is reading unsolicited manuscripts. Most film producers won’t read anything that comes from a new writers, unless they have an agent. Why? Well, film and television executives are afraid of being sued for plagiarism. There is the 1990 case where Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio took his idea and turned it into the movie, “Coming to America.”
Also publishers and movie executives say they can’t avoid to hire young college graduates to read through the mail. And since 9/11 and the aftermath, remember the anthrax scares? Well, everyone is afraid to open the mail.
It doesn’t get any easier (getting published) at place where unsolicited work is read. The Paris Review gets roughly 1,000 short stories submitted every month. Of those read by at least two people, the literary journals publishes one slush pile piece each year, or you have a .008 chance of having your story see the light of day.
Of course, we have the exceptions. Harry Potter was submitted to 12 publishers (by an agent) before it found a home. In 2003, Stephenie Meyer sent a letter to Writers House saying she had written a 130,000 manuscript about teenage vampires. A young assistant, who had the job of looking at a 100 such letters that arrived every month at the agency, didn’t realize that YA should be about 40,000 to 60,000 words, and had Meyer sent in the book. The rest, as they say, is history, (or pure dumb luck).
Simon & Schuster has an automated telephone greeting telling writers that they don’t accept submissions unless they come from a literary agent. They tell new writers to go to the library or bookstore and get a copy of the Writers Market and find an agent. But HarperCollins, in 2008, launched Authonomy.com a Website slush pile where writers can unload their manuscripts, readers vote for their favorites, and then HarperCollins editors take a look. About 10,000 manuscripts have been loaded on the site and so far HarperCollins has bought four of them.
As Hannah Minghella, president of production for Sony Pictures Animation, told Katherine Rosman in her WSJ piece, “It does create an incredibly difficult Catch-22 on both sides, particularly for new writers wanting to get their work seen.”
That reminds me, Joe Heller’s novel Catch-22 was turned down by more than 50 publishers back in the 1950s. When it was finally published it became a best seller and was made into a movie. That novel is still in print.
Publishing has never made much sense as a business, and just this week I read an encouraging piece in the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein who launched the trade paperback format in the US back in ‘52 when he was an editor at Doubleday. In 1963 he founded The New York Review,and in ‘79 co-founder, with the late Edmund Wilson, they started Library of America. In 2007 he went onto co-founded On Demand Books.
So Epstein has been around publishing longer than any of us and he knows what he is talking about. He begins his long essay on publishing in the New York Review of Books by writing: “The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible.”
He points out that today we are experiencing “a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg’s German city of Mainz six centuries ago.”
The fear today by publishers to a digital future is because of the “understandable fear of their own obsolescence.” Then goes onto say, “[T]he huge, worldwide mark for digital content….is very large, very diverse, and very surprising: its cultural impact cannot be imagined.”
What this means is that we can forget the slush pile, forget the agent, forget the publishers and digitally produce books about our volunteer days. There is a wide world of readers here at home as well as back in our host countries where the students we had in class, the friends we made, all will have the chance to read the stories we are telling of the time when we were in the Peace Corps.
About On Writing and Publishing
On Writing and Publishing will address PCV and RPCV questions on what to write, how to write, and how to get published with practical and clear (non-academic) prose. I will help you decide on how to tell your Peace Corps story, as well as, other tales that you would like to tell. The blog will also provide information on editors, agents, and what magazines and publishing houses might consider your writings. — John Coyne (1962–64)