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.


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