I am not ashamed to tell you that I periodically look at job listings posted by all of the major publishing houses. This is a habit I started back in 2012, after graduating from college.
Despite being a massive cliche, I always wanted to be that young snappy bookworm in the Big Apple, drinking lattes at her desk and sifting through the manuscript slush pile for hidden gems. I still fantasize about this sometimes, and that is how I make my way to the career sections of publishing houses who will never take a second look at me.
Even when I was a magazine editor, I couldn’t get the likes of Simon & Schuster or Hachette Book Group to return my calls and emails about featuring their Naomi Judd books in our nationally syndicated publication (I’m almost over it guys, I swear.). So you can understand why I have never held out hope of actually getting a job at one of these places.
Even if such a prospect were to come to fruition, it wouldn’t be affordable or feasible in any way. Since 2012, every time I have checked these listings, the salary is the same: $40,000/year as an Associate Editor/Editorial Assistant living in New York City. I mean who in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks could survive off of that in a city with one of the highest costs of living? It’s pretty laughable, although not that shocking for a position in literary publishing. Funnier still are the job descriptions themselves, which toss around words like “managing” and other skills that are anything but entry-level.
But when I actually applied for several of these jobs after graduate school with both a master’s in creative writing and editorial experience at a literary press, communication was radio silent. Not even a thanks-but-no-thanks? Not gonna lie, that hurt my feelings a little bit. And, like a glutton for punishment, I still find myself perusing these job boards from time to time, which is how I came across something very unexpected (see image below).
I must have laughed for a solid 10 minutes at this. I mean, I’m just trying to picture my life as James Patterson’s editor (which, admittedly, is way too presumptuous). Like all I do, day in and day out, is read James Patterson while making line edits and coaching him through his manuscripts. After a good belly laugh, I began wondering what happened to the last editor? Seems like a pretty sweet gig so I can’t imagine they just up and left. There’s also something extremely meta about the mystery of James Patterson’s missing editor, don’t you think?
Part of me wonders if this has anything to do with the rumors swirling around Patterson’s writing technique, which allegedly involves a team of writers who formulaically churn out books like factory assembly lines. I have no idea if there is any truth to this gossip, but part of me wonders how anyone is capable of producing that much copy, going through the editing process, book design/layout, and having it out on the shelves so quickly (“up to 10 books a year”), but it’s certainly not impossible. I have witnessed as much on the production side of things.
Even though the listing came as a bit of shock, this is actually a great opportunity for any experienced mystery and/or thriller editors out there. What’s the weirdest job posting you’ve come across?
I remember how much my heart ached in the snowy mountains of Colorado that first year. I had never seen snow in person before, let alone touched it.
That morning after the MFA Halloween party felt fuzzy, almost like buzzing static or the high-pitched ringing after a bomb goes off.
I woke from a restless night of sleep next to my boyfriend, still dressed in a half-assed mermaid costume. One feathery eyelash had fallen off, but my scales, which had been sculpted from eyeshadow and fishnets, remained somewhat intact against my forehead. My hands roamed over my body and face, until reaching the top of my head. I was surprised to find the pink hairpiece faithfully secured there, albeit tangled beyond help.
A faint pink light matching the color of the newly formed nest on my head cast itself over every inch of the room. Sunrise.
There comes a point in the many stages after a party when one wakes much too early and is in too much physical pain to go back to sleep, and I had hit that point. I tried waking my boyfriend without luck, then decided to move around.
The first thing I noticed, after walking to the bedroom window, was a small streak of red-orange peeking over the mountains, fighting its way to me despite my desperate need for continued sleep and aspirin. The second thing I noticed was the endless, snow-covered landscape. Every ordinary object I had come to know was now unrecognizable, and I could not tell where the parking lot ended and the street began.
The night before had been chilly, sure, but no one, especially a southern girl like me, had expected to wake up to this. I’d waited almost three months to see my first snow, and it was otherworldly.
Starkwhite quiet blanketed the cars in the parking lot below. My Black SUV could’ve been mistaken for a white dune. The light seemed brighter than usual, as if amplified, reflecting off of the shimmering earth and into the air, causing me to squint, the way I did when looking at a pool of water. It was beautiful and completely foreign.
I practically squealed as I threw on a men’s jacket, running out of the door, down the stairs, and into pearly dawn.
Snow wasn’t something I minded in the beginning. Perhaps because it was new and exciting to me then. I hadn’t yet driven in it with my pathetic 2-wheel drive nor had a group of strangers pushed me out of a drift on campus, and I certainly hadn’t skidded to a jarring halt just barely avoiding a violent smack into the back of a stopped Subaru. Like everything else in this new world, snow was alluring until it wasn’t.
I must have looked downright insane twirling around the parking lot in my fish scale leggings and irretrievable pink hairpiece with one giant, vibrant eyelash flapping in the mountain wind, but I didn’t care. And I didn’t know the turbulence that would follow in coming months.
Not long after that morning, my then-boyfriend gifted me a copy of Mary Ruefle’s poetry collection, “The Most of It”. When I opened the book, I noticed an earmarked page; on it, was a poem entitled, “Snow” – a poem that now serves as a time capsule of that day.
There is something about this poem now that makes me feel completely enveloped by a time when everything felt damn near perfect, if only for one day. It reminds me of a world where I could be anyone or anything. A world where I was 24, in love, and finding joy in the ethereal unknown landscapes around me.
I am no longer the woman who once felt astonished in the presence of snow, but the beauty of poetry is that it can take you right back to a place you thought you’d left behind.
Something I’m asked fairly often is: “Why don’t you self-publish?”
In the moments following this question, I usually mumble some quick excuse and shrug the idea off because the truth is that my aversion to self-publishing is complicated. It’s not like I haven’t thought about uploading an e-Collection of work onto Amazon.com before.
I mean, why not, right? It’s modern, convenient, affordable, and you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do it. Nor do you have to fight through a massive slush pile to be noticed by publishers. Heck, you can bypass the publisher altogether, avoid book contest fees and months of waiting to hear back, and maintain creative control over your work.
As someone who has built a career in publishing as both an editor and as a writer, I believe my perspective diverges wildly from the majority of my peers, at least when it comes to legitimizing yourself as an author and legitimizing the work itself (both of which important are incredibly important to me).
So what exactly makes an author or a book “legitimate”?
If you’ve never sat down and thought about your own definition to this question, you should do so asap, and try not to overthink it either. Like snowflakes, no two responses are the same, and there is no right or wrong answer. Your beliefs and the standards you impose on yourself are completely subjective.
My personal journey through publishing and my lifelong academic pursuit in the field of creative writing have both come to define my somewhat high standards.
The truth is that anyone can publish an eBook, and I mean anyone. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about self-publishing is the endless wave of YA paranormal romance novels and sci-fi books with mediocre, redundant vocabulary as well as completely predictable story arcs, characters, and narratives, which began popping up after “50 Shades of Grey”. For writers in these genres, self-publishing makes absolute sense, and might even be the most optimal method of publication. What better way to get your work directly into the hands of readers in this incredibly competitive market?
Also, I don’t mean to knock these genres as a whole. I’m just not a paranormal romance novelist or much for sci-fi in my day-to-day writing. More importantly, for me to be taken seriously in the writing community I’ve built my life in, self-publishing just isn’t an option. Other people have to recognize your skill before you earn your place in the sun.
Industry & Incest
The circles I am referring to here are chiefly comprised of two main groups:
1) Higher Education
This includes a) insular MFA communities which are somehow still connected on a national level that often feels downright incestuous and cult-like; b) overall holier-than-thou ivory tower poets, fiction writers, essayists, professors and intellectuals; and c) university presses.
2) Small Press
Anything other than the five or so major publishing houses like Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins is considered “small“ press. Even if the press makes millions of dollars a year, it’s not considered a major publisher. This leaves a pretty wide range of presses. Many though, don’t make much in the way of profit and are run by professors and/or well-to-do writers that supplement the press with their income.
The kind of publications that come out of these circles are the kind of publications that have limited prints, big community and award prestige, as well as zero financial return. This is this type of work that is created out of love and is often the most rewarding to read.
Only a douchebag would self-publish in such circles. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to start your own press to publish work from other writers you enjoy but never for the purposes of packaging and distributing your own work.
One benefit of small press is creative freedom. Editors rarely try to push the work in any way. Manuscripts are, for the most part, published as-is. This is also a space where you can push the boundaries of genre hybridity, which is awesome. However, you pay between $15-30 in reading fees every time you enter a book contest. While 99% of these fees go directly toward producing the winning book(s), most can’t help but feel like they just bought into a pyramid scheme, one which they have no hope of reaching upper echelons of.
Given the unspoken rule about self-publishing, insular community, and competitiveness of it all, an insidious type of nepotism results, despite the best efforts of the community to prevent such conflicts of interest. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours (i.e., you publish my book; I’ll publish yours). This is something I quickly grew tired of in graduate school. When you begin to notice how those who are published are connected to one another and who the heads of these presses are, it’s a little disheartening. But, in a way, it’s not much different from the highest form of publishing.
“No one said life would be fair.”
In grad school, it was insulting if you were dubbed a “career poet”, which implied that you were a brown noser intent on schmoozing your way to the top because your writing couldn’t stand on its own.
The serious academics in my program didn’t really care about this insult though because, unlike the rest of us, they knew that anyone who wanted to get ahead in this industry, like it or not, had to network; also, that this practice was critical to becoming a successfully published author. And yes, of course, there are exceptions to this statement, but not many.
This is a fact I never much cared for. I grew up with this grand fantasy of some freckle-faced editor at a major publishing house randomly picking up my manuscript from the slush pile and, within a few lines of reading, them exclaiming to everyone within earshot that they’d just struck 14ct gold, thus propelling me into my new life as the next J.K. Rowling.
Unfortunately, publishing is neither fantasy or based on merit. It’s based on sales. If you’re an optimist, maybe it’s a little of both.
You and I may look at a book like “50 Shades of Grey” and balk or wonder how the hell so many people enjoyed a book that was intentionally written as “Twilight” fanfiction. But here we are in 2018 the year of our lord still talking about it. After growing in popularity, it was picked up by a subdivision of Random House, not because it’s a good book but because it’s popular. 50 Shades was a smart business decision that drove sales through the roof and led to a three-part movie deal.
And I’m reminded of this shit-eating lesson every time I open up my HBO GO app and see the image of Christian Grey teasing a blind-folded and tethered Anastasia Steele.
What can we learn about publishing from pop fiction?
Over the years, I have done my research on some of my favorite and relatively popular authors and discovered that most of them were not classically trained in writing. Many of these writers didn’t bother with the slush pile, not in small press and not in any of the major publishing houses. Instead, most of these people grew an internet following, publishing their work online for free initially, then releasing eBooks that actually made money, which is damn hard when your book costs $0.99.
The first real-life example I saw of this was both unforgettable and way too close to home.
As part of earning our master’s degrees, we had to teach at least one ‘Intro to Creative Writing’ course per semester, and we often discussed our trials and tribulations in the MFA lounge. One day, a classmate, who was already well-established in the small press fiction community, told me she had a young student in her class who’d electronically published one of those YA paranormal romance novels on Amazon.com.
I rolled my eyes at this. But when we went to look at the book profile, we were both shocked to see that the student’s book had been purchased and downloaded thousands upon thousands of times. There’s a metaphor buried somewhere in this anecdote that I don’t care to parcel out. Just know that it stung.
While part of me feels against self-publishing and also that it is the downfall of literary quality and integrity, as it allows the market to be shaped by popularity, I can also see the appeal of it. Moreover, the act of self-publishing feels like a reflection of my generation, a generation characterized by instant gratification and ADHD (which I have btw). However, if you take a closer look at us millennials, we aren’t just a bunch of tech-hungry, selfish, pick-me jerks. We are brilliant entrepreneurs who constantly find new ways around a system that benefits from our mindless complicity and financial participation, like weeds refusing to be left under concrete to wither and die, always finding a way to the light. Perhaps, self-publishing is merely an extension of this resilience as well as a refusal to be buried.
a heart is not a
way to tame something fierce
when I was young
a pack of wild dogs ate
the livestock at my school
even taking with them
the llama that spat in my eye
one cold morning
your mother is back in town
leaving notes in paint chips
about love and other demons
I have been waiting
for the right moment to collapse
in a room without men
something other than self-importance
became big enough to swallow
you never asked to whom or what I belong
which is for the best because the answer
is nowhere near the surface
my heart is an animal
bolting at the slightest disturbance
when it is dark
I send prayers to the forest
and yearn for a being
I do not know
Artemis, cast into shadows,
had a twin brother
who became the sun
became a reminder
of how to hide
love from a man
Thinking of You at 2 AM
The stove clock is still off by an hour
despite the fact that it’s been a whole week
since daylight savings time.
A baby water moccasin darts
across the foot of God without much thought.
This is still a city. Where your arms meet my waist.
Where the river bend meets a bus station.
In my dreams, you are pressed against my back. Loving me fiercely.
The past is a shroud I carry through wet southern streets.
It’s not you that needs letting go.
When you speak the world is still.
When you speak the restless brambles bend back.
I am the god of war. Even if that war is me.
You have to keep me at the right distance.
Which is unfair. A bit like heaven if you ask me.
Is this a test? Sometimes I wonder
what’s between the teeth of knowing.
Last night I fell asleep to the sound of Anthony Bourdain’s voice. He did not appear as an apparition.
I realize what I’m about to say may sound blasphemous to many of you, but I sometimes forgo handheld books for audiobooks. The reason being, I’m busy as hell, and it helps me fall asleep 99% of the time. This habit started a little over a year ago when I started commuting across the longest bridge in the world.
I know what you’re thinking…that’s one expensive habit. FYI, you can rent audiobooks for free if you have a library card.
The point though, is that Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw is read by the author himself, and it is pretty damn phenomenal. There are many poignant parts about his feelings on suicide, which are both intriguing and hard to listen to now. It’s quite a window into his motivations.
For instance, near the beginning of the book, he says that when he got his first show and stopped working day-to-day, his life descended into chaos. You can also tell he is hyper aware of his privilege by the way he often calls himself out or glazes over these moments, detracting from his own pain and experience, but they’re still there.
I guess I recognize some of myself in Bourdain’s autobiography. Mainly these moments of complete self destruction and moments when he, despite his better judgement, goes along with questionable people and situations because he is bored of his life and monotony.
What I find interesting though is how often in interviews and in the book he lives on this edge of craving routine and also detesting it. It seems like no matter what he does, including travelling the world with a TV show, he eventually becomes numb to any moment of pleasure. Of course, this is exactly how depression works, and, once someone has it, their chances of relapsing skyrocket.
I had a strange moment last night where I thought, maybe there is something to that whole positive attitude thing. Although, for the most part, I believe depression to be both chemical and situational, which takes more than merely redirecting your thoughts to come out from under. Bourdain was very candid in his books and sometimes in his shows, but he clearly, and often, redirected his suicidal thoughts in front of others almost as quickly as they appeared.
One thing that stuck out in the book is just how frequently he played with death. In most of his anecdotes, it’s always at the edge, if not the forefront of his thoughts. In chapter two, we learn that he regularly let the next song on the radio determine whether or not he drove off of a cliff while living in the caribbean. Listening to this, I wondered how Anthony Bourdain ever made it to 61 years old. To say that he had a death wish was to put it mildly.
Still, his writing as a whole and descriptions are incredible. I am now convinced that he could have lived another life as a successful fiction novelist. Until last night, I seemed to have forgotten all about the explosive memoir that pushed him into the limelight in the first place, Kitchen Confidential (2000), which he discusses in Medium Raw (2010).
You can bet he used this follow up as an opportunity to go in on the Food Network and celebrity chefs once more. But, as we now know, the Food Network actually gave Bourdain his big break with the show No Reservations. Eventually though, he recognizes himself as a sellout. To make matters worse, they pull his show after realizing that audiences will eat up dumbed-down, buzzfeed-style TV features. This is a big point of contention for him in the book, particularly the way the network begins using anti-immigrant, anti-poc, anti-diversity language in reference to his show.
Where most people might move on from something like this fairly quickly, I get an overwhelming sense of hopelessness from Bourdain, even now, as he recalls something from his past. It’s like every moment, every event, every interaction in his life left a lasting mark. Hearing his voice through my headphones as I writhe around in sleep is both soothing and unsettling.
I could probably write my own book about this, but, alas, I must go. However, if you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain and want more insight into this recent tragedy and into who he was, I recommend starting at the source.