Thursday, 13 June 2013

How I Broke Out of Publishing and Learned to Write in Obscurity

- Guest Post by Ted Olinger, Author of The Woodpecker Menace: Stories from an Accidentally Unseparated Island

I was in my cubicle, a large, gray pen lined with unsolicited manuscripts from unknown writers, when the phone rang. It was from a friend in Publicity, on the other side of the building.

“Get over here. You’ve got to see what’s on television right now.”

I crowded into the department head’s corner office with two-dozen others, all staring at a big screen TV. Germans were standing on the Berlin Wall, demanding its removal, live. Some of us wept, some of us wondered if the East Germans would fire on West Germans. At last the department head said something like, “We’ve all got plenty of books to sell now. We’ll worry about Berlin next season.” And we went back to work.

I didn’t know it then, but that was to be my last day in publishing.

I had already been laboring away at this famous New York publisher for more than two years. Editorial assistants, at least then, took the job of long hours and low wages to learn the business. I was fortunate to work for a veteran editor who was determined to mentor me whether I wanted it or not. I studied the manuscripts she bought and all of her line notes and correspondence with the authors. I read five to eight submissions a week and wrote one-page reader reports that she used to cross-examine me. I wrote respectful and even encouraging letters to writers, returning their rejected manuscripts months after they’d arrived. And this was all after working hours.

During the actual working day, I fielded phone calls from agents, authors, and other editors or publishing departments. I proofed galleys and drafted jacket and catalog copy. I carried proposals, contracts, and cover designs around the office seeking approval signatures from a dozen people. There was endless photocopying, coffee drinking, and sharpening of blue pencils.

But I wanted to be a writer. I had found this job to learn about it from the inside out, and I wasn’t writing anything under my own name. That began to gnaw at me.

My boss was sympathetic. She included me in editorial meetings and introduced me to agents and editors who were writers as well. But they were a wary lot, downplaying their own work even as they promoted the work of authors they represented or published. One confessed that the more success he had as a writer, the more skeptical his superiors became about his work as an editor. He later found himself “down-sized” to smaller and smaller publishers, until he went freelance.

My own end was less subtle.

One day I pulled yet another unsolicited manuscript off the towering shelves surrounding my cubicle. I took it home to read, as I always did. But I did not write a reader’s report for this manuscript. I handed it to my boss and said something like, “This is the kind of book I want to write.”

She frowned. She read. She bought.

The manuscript went into production the following season. She argued for an elaborate dust jacket, lobbied for publicity money, and solicited blurbs from name brand writers and reviewers. Our new author acquired an agent who rode us for a still better cover, more quotes, and more ad money, as a good agent should. The author called me directly and repeatedly with expensive last minute changes to the galleys, which I shepherded through Copyediting into print. We worked hours on the single paragraph that would promote the book in our sales catalog.

And that’s what killed it.

A voice from Sales or Marketing or Somewhere saw the ad and made its way around us to the Editor-in-Chief, who walked down the hall to our office one day saying, “We don’t think it’s gonna earn its money back after all,” and pulled the plug.

My boss took us out to a midtown bar close to the office on the company’s dime. We watched the news from Berlin on the overhead televisions. The wall was coming down. She had earlier absorbed the reactions of our unknown author and his enraged agent. The agent swore never to work with her or me again, ever.

“Doesn’t he know what we did for this guy?” I asked.

“We have to be grown-ups about this,” she answered.

After a moment, I said, “I don’t want your job.” We smiled at this, but then it began to sink in. I really didn’t want her job. We were watching history being made on TV, Europe was coming apart, war in the Persian Gulf was approaching, and we were battling our own copyeditors and sales department for nothing.

My boss remained at her post for another year before moving on to a second successful career.

But three weeks after that night, I was in Berlin writing down everything I saw.

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