Monday, August 29, 2011

My summer at a publishing company

Parts 1 and 2. Part 3 to come.

When I arrived at Abrams publishing company, I was led not to my desk, but to a 5-foot tall roll of bubble wrap.

“Take this 6-foot Wimpy Kid snow globe and make it snug,” Jason, my newly-introduced manager, said. “We’re shipping it off tomorrow.”

"No problem," I replied. I can do manual labor. I’m flexible. And bubble wrap – that sounds fun!

I proceeded to suffocate Greg Heffley (the Wimpy Kid) in 5-foot by 20-foot rectangles of bubble wrap. Packaging peanuts spilled all over the floor, and because I didn’t have a broom, I bent down to pick them up one by one. I padded the shipping crate by stapling bubble wrap on its four sides, then delicately lowered the Wimpy Kid snow globe into the crate. The job took two hours, and it wasn’t unpleasant work. After I finished, I walked back to Jason's desk and thought, "Now, time for the real stuff."

Two weeks later, I had opened and sorted 2,470 letters from 6 to 16 year-olds for a comics contest, placed stickers on 2,040 cardboard cutouts, copy and pasted contact information from 300 farmers’ market websites, and processed 102 warehouse order forms. Needless to say, I had lost my sense of entitlement from my first day.

This summer, I worked as an intern in Abrams’ Sales and Marketing division. Here’s a one-sentence description: we work with the media to publicize our books, and book sellers to sell our books. The senior executives manage the relationships with the magazines and bookstores; the assistants (including me) turn the cogs, mailing out advance book copies and other promotional materials. The assistants also print out PDFs, compile lists of media contacts, format book descriptions into press releases, write in mailing labels, update the Publicity Assistant database, deliver books by taxi to big-wig studio executives, and attempt to fix the printers when they break. In my 9 weeks (wow, it was that long?), 80% of my time was spent on these tasks.

The job was menial. But as my bubble-wrapping boss Jason repeatedly told me, it was all necessary. “The Library Association needs copies so that they can consider them for the awards this year”; “The bags will draw eyeballs at the conference, because, well, they’re literally huge eyeballs”; “The author just died, and we’ve received a deluge of requests for his latest book.” (Jason, of everyone I worked for, took the thoughtful extra step of telling me how what I was doing added value to the company.) So I folded and collated and printed, feeling slightly satisfied with my work, while harboring the thought that if I didn’t do it, someone else would be “wasting” their time. A majority of the tasks – like manually assembling 750 cardboard tubes – took days. I wondered, frequently, how the company managed without interns.

9 weeks stuffing envelopes almost made me disillusioned and apathetic. Thankfully, the other 20% of my time kept me afloat. I had four one-on-one meetings with our perpetually busy editors – Charlie, Cecily, Jennifer, and Tamar – about the books they published (Thanks for the advice, Anne!). I worked in our library, organizing the Abrams canon and reading a cross-section of our books, from the heartbreaking comic Mom’s Cancer to a retrospective on Picasso. I attended Sales, Publishing Board, and Editorial meetings to learn the process by which a manuscript turns into a consumer product. Most importantly, I spent 2 weeks at Abrams reading slush.


For the uninitiated, “slush” is publishing’s pseudonym for unsolicited manuscripts. It’s called slush because “crap” isn’t PC enough for the workplace. When a manuscript is unsolicited, it's usually one of two reasons: either the author doesn’t know the process of submission, or he isn’t good enough to secure an agent. Either way, the author's already in a hole. Most publishing companies do not read slush; envelopes are received in the mail, then promptly recycled. (The opposite of slush are agent-represented manuscripts, which go straight to the editors or assistants, where they are either read and considered a viable property, or read and sent back, with a nice, personalized email note attached.)

The slush I dealt with came from Abram’s children’s department (we don’t publish adult fiction). I first saw it in slightly unruly piles on the shelves of the editorial assistants, Brett and Jenna. All together, the slush looked around 14 feet deep. According to my expert back-of-the-envelope calculations, that translates to roughly 40,000 pages of stories, pictures, cover letters, and return envelopes.

I asked Brett and Jenna if I could take some off their hands. They looked at me as if I were asking them to help unclench a dog with rabies from their feet. They said yes.

So I started through the slush. Apparently, it’s an editor’s wet dream to pick out “a diamond in the rough”; look up the rags-to-riches stories of Harry Potter and Twilight (rejected by 14 publishers, accepted by one) for a general sense of what I mean (though I think they were represented by agents). I approached my pile with the same mindset: I was going to find the story everyone had discounted and make it famous.

This thought quickly died. Most slush is not very good. Actually, most slush is crap. I started out trying to separate slush into three piles: Yes, No, and Maybe. After the first hour, I realized there were no “Yes” stories. I axed my Yes pile and renamed my other two: No Chance, and Maybe but Not Actually. My binary pile system, though, didn't feel right. I realized I had no idea what I was looking for.

Before I started, one of the editors, Cecily, told me it was ironic that editorial assistants were the first filter for manuscripts. It’s like leading while blind: how can the most inexperienced have enough experience to cull the gems? The only moderately helpful heuristic she had for me was: save anything that really jumps out at you.

Problem was, of the 100+ stories I read, none jumped out. That doesn’t mean there weren’t solid stories: some had great rhyme schemes; others were built around great ideas; a few were just written with solid prose. But nothing popped. None of the stories grabbed me. I was never transported to another world.

Of course, if you only read the cover letters, you would think every manuscript I read was literary gold. They were destined to unearth "a new and untapped market”; each had “unique marketing potential to become one of the most profitable stories of all time”; and, of course, every submission was “the tip of the iceberg in a series.” The cover letters were such a hyperbolic arms race that the cover letters played no part in my decision-making process.

After I had read and re-read everything, 3 stories made the cut to the “Maybe” pile – one about different methods of making ice cream around the world; one about a mermaid at sea; and one about how Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass became friends. The more I looked at them, the more excited I became.  “Can I see this as a book on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles?” – my answer evolved from No to Yes. I gave the pile to Brett and told him, “These look good. I think they have promise. Let me know if you like any of them.” I never heard from him again.

My foray into reading slush ended after I picked out those three stories. The pre-sales conference, where all our Fall titles are presented to our sales representatives, brought a deluge of more urgent work. There would be no more editorial work for me this summer. Thankfully, I learned a key lesson in becoming a professional writer: find an agent.

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