What Does an “Assistant to the Publisher” Do?

A story has been circulating the internet about Elon Musk’s firing of his assistant of 10 years that business websites/magazines have been psychotically passing off as a “business lesson.” Long story short, when the assistant asked for a hefty raise, Musk told her that she should take two weeks off and he’d do her job for her to see if the raise was warranted. When she came back, he offered her a different position and said her job wasn’t necessary anymore. The “hard business lesson” is, according to some of the journalists who have been repeating the story, that you have to make yourself indispensable that you can never ever be fired.

So, a couple things.

This isn’t my main point, but I think there are few things more obnoxious that someone who approaches work from a position of making themselves unfireable. Mostly, that attitude doesn’t make people work harder or be kinder. It makes people hide passwords, keep bad records, develop elaborate, unnecessary systems that only they understand, and when they move on to a different position, makes life a living hell for anyone who needs to step in to fill in the blanks. And chances are if they wanted to “stick it” to somebody in the organization, they will not be the ones cleaning up the mess.

My main point is: Of course he could do her job. Of course he could do her job. Her job was to help him do his job.

So Musk has come out and said the story is misleading and untrue. You can go look it up yourself, because I don’t need to waste my time defending him (and he doesn’t need it either). The frustrating thing is that business publications treated this like some kind of magical billionaire fable from which everyone who thinks they deserve a good quality of life for loyalty and working hard should learn.

And now, stepping down from my soapbox, I’ll tell you what I do as assistant to the publishers at a book publishing company. It’s probably similar to what a Publisher’s Assistant does at another company, but I’m sure there are some differences. Notably, the heads of each of these different departments could probably do what I do. But if they had to do all of the things I do, there wouldn’t be enough time for everything that they want to get done. This is why assistants exist, which seems pretty obvious to me, but apparently not to some of the people who write for Business Insider.

My main reason for writing this is to be helpful in providing some realities of a day-to-day, 9–5 job in publishing, as well as a little encouragement for people who are stressed about finding and keeping work that provides a decent quality of life. Celebrity culture trains us to disproportionately value billionaire superstars and to believe that certain people “deserve” things more than others, and I think that’s a problematic attitude that’s all tied up with racism and sexism and most of the other problems we’re facing today. I’m not my job (and neither is Elon Musk). I have many criticisms of a system where I need to have a Master’s degree to be competitive for a job as an assistant, and I’d be a lot more anxious about my future if I weren’t so privileged as to have a partner with a higher-paying job. But at the most basic level, I’m very happy for the job I have.

And no matter what your current level–even if you don’t have a job right now–you are valuable too. Don’t let any gullible business blogger tell you that you’re not.

Administrative Assistance

I thought when I started my job that I would be the person who answers the phone all the time. While I do that sometimes (and should probably do it more), the phone-answering duties are distributed throughout the office. My administrative assistance is more relegated to:

  • Making appointments for the publisher and creative director
  • Sitting in on meetings and calls and taking notes
  • Reminding my bosses when they’re supposed to be somewhere
  • Updating the editorial calendars with changed pub dates and specs for all the books, card decks, and movies (we distribute some DVDs in addition to publishing books)
  • Gatekeeping
    • Someone called asking for my boss recently and refused to give me her name. It felt a little weird not to be helpful and obliging, but it also felt pretty righteous to exercise my “NOPE” muscle on her.

Marketing and Technical Assistance

I don’t do as much in the marketing arena as I have at other jobs, but I do help out from time to time. My boss got an idea recently to do an “old-fashioned” marketing campaign where I mailed a letter and a single “oracle” card from a recent deck we had done to about 400 specialty bookshops across the country. Since the marketing coordinator was busy coordinating, I took on that job (and enjoyed more than a few podcasts in the process). Other things I do include:

  • Sending out sales letters
  • Mailing galleys
    • Those are the advanced copies of the books that people who host radio shows, podcasts, TV morning shows, and other publications read and review
  • Updating customer databases
    • Our sales/accounting people are busy and often need someone to clean up and organize stuff

 Editorial Assistance

  • Our managing editor is on leave, so I was able to help project-manage one of our in-progress book projects, interfacing with the author and making sure that everything was where it was supposed to be.
  • Recently I was able to copy edit an upcoming deck of cards that has inspirational phrases and the book that went along with it.
  • I also do a lot of random proofreading and copyediting.
  • Our developmental editor for adult books has been copying me on some of her recent emails (at my request), so I can learn more about what she does.

Acquisitions Assistance

The acquisitions at my job are a little different from what I learned was done at other publishing houses. Instead of an “acquiring editor” we have a Creative Director who both reads manuscripts and watches films that we might want to distribute. A very large part of my job is reading potential manuscripts and researching authors, which is actually what I would have envisioned back when I was a younger person thinking about what “working in publishing” might entail. And that’s kind of fun.

  • Reading the slush pile
  • Helping to get pitch documents together
  • Comp title research
    • “Comp” as in comparable books or competing books–sort of the same, both relevant
  • Author research
    • Finding out how big their platforms are
    • Researching whether they’re famous for something already…take that to whatever extreme your imagination can dream up
  • Embracing my number-crunching side and taking the first run at Profit and Loss Statements
  • Sending out the rejections to both literary agents and unsolicited authors (yes, we still read unsolicited manuscripts where I work)

Miscellaneous Projects

Since the publisher and creative director also run the company in this case, they are out of the office at conferences and for other business trips frequently. When I’m not helping them organize their time, I also do other random projects. It’s in these unusual areas that I’m excited about learning and growing more.

  • Sourcing, designing, and installing custom pages for books
    • We (mostly I) personalize books for people who want to give their loved ones a fancy gift and for companies who want to do the same with their customers and employees.
  • I’m currently transcribing some conference calls for one of our authors…I’m guessing this isn’t a traditional task for a Publisher’s Assistant, but I’m hourly and it’s kind of interesting.
  • My bosses know I can make ebooks, so there’s at least one title in my near future that I’m ready to convert to EPUB and MOBI.
  • We put on an event every February that adds some slightly un-bookish aspects to my job and might even lead to adventure.


Well. That Was Something. Now what?

murder mystery party
Why yes, I did end up being the killer at the murder mystery party. I’m not that hard to figure out.

Being a part of a publishing graduate program had the desired effect. Since November, I have gainfully employed as a publisher’s assistant at a Big 5 imprint. I redid two websites and built one WordPress site from the ground up and took a lot of photos. My classes taught me about all of the detailed research that needs to get done when one considers acquiring a book, including how to do a P&L (which I did six of just yesterday at work). I learned real life design, ebook-making, and copyediting techniques. You can see evidence of these gains all over the website that has been redesigned to showcase all the work I did this year. High up there on the list of important things is that I cultivated a posse, which me and my main girl commemorated in ink.

bff tattoo pic

A month is probably enough time to exist without stewing about the next step, right? As far as a big picture “next step” goes, I don’t really have one. Unfortunately I still find myself struggling to settle on a specialization, something that’s always been a characteristic. Here are a few things that are happening and that I’m also asking myself about:

  • There’s a possible backlist ebook conversion project at work. I’m going to call dibs on it since I think that we are currently only outsourcing frontlist titles.
  • New editions to my copywriting portfolio are already in progress.
  • I’m finally going to get back on those Netgalley reviews (yusssss).
  • There’s an entire self-publishing world out there that I’m intensely curious about. (If I were going to make a criticism of my program, it’s that there wasn’t nearly enough information about those important, disruptive trends.) I’ve joined a couple of forums and am strategically following a few blogs on social media in hopes of continuing my education.
  • I’ve signed up to volunteer for a local literacy council that teaches adult ESL classes. Not sure if I’m actually going to teach the classes yet, but we’ll see.

Lastly, I’ve been wondering how can I make this blog valuable to other people? What can I write about that will be good for anyone who stumbles upon my little patch of internet? If you have any thoughts to that point, please don’t hesitate to comment.

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Three Lessons from Transmit Culture: “Portland’s Publishing and Maker Communitites”

On Tuesday, May 3rd, Ooligan Press put on its third “Transmit Culture” panel of the 2015-2016 year, which explored our publishing community in a “maker” context.

The term “maker” evokes diverse pursuits from mobile-app making enfants to overalled artisans sliding ceramics into kilns. For all intents and purposes, this panel referenced both sides of that gamut and everything in between, but put special emphasis on making books–only appropriate considering the historic DIY book and zine culture that’s thrived here for so long.

Photo courtesy of @AlanScottHolley
Photo courtesy of @AlanScottHolley

Asst. Prof. Kathi Berens hosted the panel which included Kelley Roy of ADX Portland, Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing, Rick Turoczy of the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), and Charles Heying, a PSU professor and author of the Ooligan Press Book Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy. ADX is a workspace and resource locale where people can craft and build products as well as take classes to build their skills. PIE is a “startup accelerator” that touches the tech realm, but wasn’t defined as precisely as I would have wished. Microcosm’s mission focuses on “empower[ing] readers to make positive changes in their lives and in the world around them.” As the book’s title implies, Charles Heying has spent a lot of time studying the maker culture in Portland and was an excellent addition to the panel.

The conversation touched on some widely applicable entrepreneurial/business lessons that could be distilled to fit the publishing industry:

  1. Embrace niches: Joe Biel of Microcosm pointed out that developing titles into specific pieces conscious of their specific audiences is an important way for a press to make money. “4,000 books are published every day…the niche-ier the book, the better the sales.”
  2. Value oneself and one’s work: Kelley Roy consistently drove the conversation forward with optimism about the value of lovingly and skillfully made artifacts. She said that people constantly complain about two things: being busy and being broke. “Let’s not be broke,” she said, “let’s thrive!.” And one of her most emphasized suggestions for how to do that was for artisans to take time-spent into account when figuring out a price for their products.
  3. Be intentional about preserving place: a conversation arose over fears that the “Portlandia” effect had brought so many people to the city and that it was at risk of losing its identity and becoming just like any other city (and not in good ways). In a panel that had been so full of optimism, this was the most anxiety-riddled topic, but the panelists encouraged community engagement and creative thinking to come up with ways to Keep Portland Weird.

“Makers” is such a broad title for a number of different modes of creating and manufacturing that even defining the term itself could take up an entire panel. In the future, I would love to see the topic revisited and refined, and I think its an important continuing dialogue for the homegrown publishing culture that’s so prevalent here.

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All Amped from the Transmit Culture Panel and Trying to Keep the Buzz Going

diversity in childrens lit

I was pretty much born an angry feminist and have had to reel it back a lot over the years (for the sake of my blood pressure). In second grade the boys wouldn’t let girls play kickball with them, so I lined all the other little girls in my sphere of influence along the kickball court and yelled, “Girls are as good as boys!!!” at them until they let us play (or at least I think that’s what happened…maybe we just broke up the kickball game into a pandemonium of playground-chasing).

I was always disappointed that there were so few girls in books like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. And let’s be real; I was even more disappointed in the fact that the only girls in the Bible who were really important were just important because they gave birth to important babies.

Drove. Me. CRAZY.

So just imagining trying to grow up as a black, hispanic, Chumash, Asian American, or basically any non-white kid with nearly zero representation in my favorite books and movies? Fricking infuriating!

I might even have decided that reading was no fun and given up on it. I don’t know if I would have been as cool as Marley and started a national movement.

At least in California elementary schools like mine the librarians made an effort to find books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Skirt, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry and others that center on non-white, female characters. But what about the kids in less conscientious places? And why just a couple tokens for other ethnicities?

And more importantly: what about the non-literary, fun books and comics that actually make kids want to read in their free time? The ones that, I don’t know, little boys might even read?

Last night Ooligan put on a panel about this very issue featuring literary agent DongWon Song, Multnomah County librarian Alicia Tate, and founder of Portland Youth Poet Laureate Project S. Renee Mitchell. One of our alumni and founder of Believe in Wonder, Brian Parker, moderated. They covered the lack and the need of diverse books both to act as avatars for kids from different cultures, as well as make the mainstream more familiar with and hopefully sympathetic to other cultures.

(Because <ahem> diversity isn’t just assuming everyone should be the same because we’re in a “post-racial society.” I don’t know who decided that was a thing but they could sure benefit from reading a fricking book or two…that isn’t by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.)

“Diverse” in our conversation meant both books with central characters of color as well as books written by authors of color. Brian brought up a question that I personally would have been too afraid to ask. He said that one of his white friends said they were too scared to write black characters into their work. The friend sitting next to me and I shared a look…it was exactly what we had been thinking.

“Well, I think that’s silly,” Alicia Tate said.

“That’s just lazy,” DongWon said. “Writing is a hard thing to do…You’ve got to do the research to write a good book anyway, you can do your research about this, too.”

(I’ll just interject that DongWon is my editing teacher and I’m sure you can imagine the necessity of stepping up one’s game in that class.)

One of the most important things here is that all young people are able to see themselves as the hero of the story — of many stories in fact. That they have multiple people in literature and film and art to relate to that don’t just play a subordinate, supporting position.

For me, personally, this issue is important for two reasons.

First of all, my aspiring author friends can’t find homes for their stories. One friend in particular told me that she’d been turned down by 70 agents because nobody can “place” her book, a common problem for authors of color. She’s a great writer and one of the most interesting people I know, and writes about issues informed by her travels as a consultant for NGOs in Rwanda, Egypt, Europe, and America. Yet despite her skill and experience, there’s apparently no place for her writing.

The second reason is I’m tired of stories like my friend’s losing priority to tiresome suburban angst. I no longer want to live in a country where Jonathan Franzen is the pinnacle of modern literature. These books are about as enthralling as eavesdropping at brunch in Lake Oswego. Or at Sambo’s in Santa Barbara. You guys, it’s still called Sambo’s.

Currently, about 80-90% of the publishing industry is white and female (the other 10% are dudes in the high-paying executive positions…looool…just wait). So I’m not really breaking any ground in my chosen profession. So when I got called on to ask a question, I asked what I could do as part of that majority hunk to promote inclusion and diversity.

Alicia said, “Say YES!” She also said that once I’ve got more influence I should really promote diverse books to booksellers and libraries.

And DongWon said that I should be prepared and open enough to say yes when stories that aren’t about me and my own experience come across my desk. And in order to do that I should be as widely and deeply read as possible.

“It might not be something that you can relate to,” he said. “But thousands of other people can.”

And that’s something that, even though I’m no big wig, I can start now. For my writer friends, for the kids who need someone to emulate, and for all the readers out there starved for new perspectives.

I hope you’ll join me.

Resolution: don’t let the internet tell me who to be (and don’t capitalize it either)

Most of this past year was spent trying to figure out, both for myself and clients, how getting attention online “works” and how to leverage that to make money. For business purposes it still matters, of course, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. I can’t close my eyes, put my hands over my ears, and refuse to acknowledge the value of marketing. I’d never make money again.

As I mentioned in my last post, I went through “analysis paralysis” around September regarding what this blog should be all about. Niches are mandatory for bloggers and businesses. I didn’t need to go to grad school to know that envisioning your audience as “everybody” is one of the stupidest moves you can make.

I loved writing this blog when it was “Craft Fear” because of the ability to indulge and mix together my two favorite hobbies. However, I was also wanting to explore my career quest along with countless other interests.

Should this be a book review blog? A publishing blog? A “help-me-I’m-in grad-school” blog? Or should I stick to the movie + beer format?

Looking honestly at my Instagram account over the last couple of years, in addition to the exquisite portraits of my hound and some special moments with my family, I see a lot of empty consumption outweighing my creativity and production.

This isn’t about drinking too much alcohol, though, it’s about acting automatically when it comes to things that should be approached with thoughtfulness. It’s watching the same shows over and over again on a loop just because it’s a habit and I don’t want to try new things (or, heaven forbid, watch what everyone else is watching at the moment). It’s setting my “Goodreads Challenge” at 75 and then ripping through a bunch of books I won’t really remember and don’t really care about.

It’s like I’m consuming films, books, drinks, concerts, work outs, and other life experiences and then throwing them over my shoulder like partially picked-over chicken wings.

What a waste.

So in an effort to rectify this shortcoming, I’m breaking out of my niche without burrowing into a new one. I want the movies I watch, the books I read, the places I go, and the events I attend to be more than wasted chicken bones and empty beer cans. This blog will be a tool in commemorating what I read, watch, witness, and experience.

Potential colleagues and clients, you are welcome to read my blog. You may see a lot of industry-relevant posts, or you may see me talk a lot about hop balance and werewolves. I might talk about politics sometimes, especially if I’m reading non-fiction. I will make an effort to be balanced and thoughtful, and not to use too salty of language. But I honestly doubt we’ll have fun working together if those things are deal breakers for you.

But here’s what I will not do:

  1. Try to berate you into agreeing with me, all the while knowing that my tone is only making you want to do the opposite.
  2. Hide my true convictions behind vague slams and attempted satire.
  3. Limit the scope of what I’m writing for the perceived sake of making Google like me better.
  4. Scream my lungs out into the echo-chamber of whatever is frothing everyone up this week (although I might post some links from time to time…but only if they’re amazing, and mostly if they’re funny).

Hopefully this will bring a sense of freedom to my posts. Ultimately, this whole thing is an effort to bring more meaning into my own life, but hopefully it can help bring some more to those of you who read what I right as well.

Take as many selfies as you want. Don’t take selfies. Be on Facebook. Don’t be on Facebook. No matter what the latest psuedo-scientific article on social media and the internet says, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what you create and what meaning you draw from those things that you actually do.

Make 2016 count. Only you can know what that means.

Top 5 posts in 2015 according to my own disorganized standards

What follows is a rundown of 5 posts in 2015 that I’ve written on this blog and others that I’m relatively happy with.

  1. Most recently, I wrote this post for iArtisan’s blog about a punk rock/roots music website for which I helped write copy. It’s tied together with thoughts on the Mike Watt/X show I saw in NW Portland a couple of weeks ago. Craig is a dude I work with a lot who is a total boss at WordPress. Hire him.
  2. My review for the movie Starry Eyes might be the movie + beer pairing/review that I’m the most proud of this year. It’s a great horror film with a clear archetype and an approach that rings especially true for me as a member of Gen Y. What makes me particularly proud of it, though, is that it resulted in the director Tweeting this at me:Twitter acclaim
  3. Here is an interview I conducted with an alumnus from my graduate program about the “Write to Publish” event, which I have been working to promote through my involvement with Ooligan Press (what most consider the core of the publishing program). And for which I’ll also be moderating a panel in exactly one month. Eep. More on this one later.
  4. On a Jack the Ripper site that I write most of the content for, I gave my two cents on the “undeniable DNA evidence” dude who claims to have Catherine Eddowes’ shawl. After reading his whole book, of course. And if you didn’t know I wrote for a Jack the Ripper site…well…yeah.. More than a little bit.
  5. A tribute to Wes Craven rounds out this list, he being one of the most formative directors of my young life and the genre that I love so much.

Rebranding this blog at the same time I began school for the first time in five years wasn’t really great for posting volume. I became paralyzed every time I tried to think about what sort of a blog this “should” be, and naturally ended up doing nothing at all. Trying to keep on top of two jobs, freelancing, and all the demanding work of a grad student is like trying to run up a sand dune. It can be done, but not nearly as prettily as you might like. For at least the next year and a half, I will not promise regular updates, even though I’d like to, and will keep trying to.

Changes are coming, as they do at the turn of the calendar and at every other time of year, but more on that tomorrow.