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December 27, 2006

It's the system that's the monster

The book industry is supposedly atwitter about the 'monster editor-bosses' in a pair of new novels. These books portray publishing in the sinister way the lackluster novel (but decent film) The Devil Wears Prada portrayed fashion: as an eat-or-be-eaten, extremely hierarchical, snob factory and sadomasochistic proving ground.

In both industries -- fashion and publishing -- the focus of gossip has always been on who was the original model for the book's despotic boss. But anyone who has dealt extensively with either industry can tell you that, as nice as an individual boss may be, the system itself is designed as (and perpetuates itself as) a kind of ruthless (mostly) 'female boot camp.'

Publicity assistants in publishing, for example, are often young women, single, with no social life, who are willing to fetch and grovel and grind the work out on weekends and until 11 at night during the week, all for wretched pay and all in the belief that if they eat shit like this for several years, they get to be Max Perkins (or Meryl Streep) and lord it over their own staff.

Sounds caricatured, doesn't it? OK, several months ago, when I first considered leaving The Dallas Morning News and began looking around for other employment possibilities (still looking! ahem), I spoke to several publicity directors/managers in publishing. Remember, these are successful women -- people who, more or less, are in positions of authority. And half a dozen of them told me flat-out that the system essentially thrives on exploiting young women. Yet unless someone climbs through that boot camp, they'll find it hard to enter publishing because this is how publishing trains people.

[A late addition -- my memory was jogged by a former publicity assistant's e-mail to me about this post: Years ago, I was at a book event in New York, had gotten to know and generally respected this particular publicity director. Then I saw her order around her underlings at the event. For a moment I thought they had to be the catering staff to be so peremptorily spoken to and dismissed. Or I figured, well, maybe this is what they do with illegal immigrants in Manhattan -- the New York equivalent of the Highland Park matron shouting at her lawn boy in bad Spanish (Highland Park is the extremely exclusive, all-white-until-very-recently inner suburb of Dallas.)

I tried to have as little to do with the manager as I could after that.]

All of this only confirmed what I'd learned 25 years ago during a summer in graduate school. I went to New York and interviewed at a couple of houses -- at 26, I was already considered too old, too educated for the jobs (and I suspected, too male, therefore, more able to find something better and leave at the first sign of abuse). I was even asked on occasion how eager I was to do anything for the manager -- not just basic publicity tasks like writing press releases but fetching manuscripts for the manager on weekends or fixing hors d'oeuvres.

In short, this exploitation has existed for decades. It's systemic. And it continues, in part, because publicity has little glamor or clout in the book industry; most people don't want to do it, even though, if publishers had any brains, they'd realize that publicity/marketing these days is almost the whole game (how can you get any bookstore browser to distinguish your new release from all the hundreds of new thrillers/romances/movie tie-ins?). Yet they leave the front lines of publicity/marketing to the lowliest, most powerless staff members. If they ever were in publicity, big-cheese editors like Nan Talese and Judith Regan got out of it fast and got to the source of real corporate power: courting and signing profitable authors.

As a book critic, I learned that I often had to get beyond the assistant to get much real information or help. That's because the assistants didn't know who I was, didn't even know their own authors very well, didn't know the territory. After all, they are impossibly young, horribly overworked and hardly well-read, and they often vanish within a year (sometimes promoted, but usually gone to another firm to a better job). I sympathize with them -- I once wanted to be one -- but I had to keep explaining basic facts about Dallas or Texas to them (which bookstores to send authors, what radio or print outlets there are in the area). My book editor eventually created a lengthy phone message directed solely at publicists: what reviews we published and when, what we didn't review, whether there was a local angle to a book or author. All the basic info publicity people ought to know about one of the largest newspapers in the country but rarely ever do. There seems little "institutional memory" at most publishing house's publicity departments -- or inclination to learn the field out there -- because of the incredible turnover in unhappy assistants. As for the assistants' bosses, mostly what they know, it seems, is how to get ahold of someone at a network morning talk show and pitch them an author. That's their chief duty, their prized knowledge. Forget about print coverage; forget about the world outside New York media. No one earns social or professional advancement in Manhattan by getting an author interviewed in Gainesville.

I must add that in this area, journalism can hardly hold up its own head as an enlightened, equitable employer, given the exploitative nature of many internships at newspapers, magazines and TV stations. And over the years, I have certainly worked with any number of extremely intelligent and blessedly helpful publicity people. My thanks to all of you; I couldn't have done my job very well without you. But my primary (and ongoing) experience with publicists has been with the unfortunate grunts, the cheap migrant labor of the book industry, and I suspect that's true for the vast number of journalists who cover publishing and who don't happen to write for the NYTimes.

Posted by jweeks at December 27, 2006 10:54 AM

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COMMENTS

I almost fell out of my chair reading this. Writing anything whatsoever like this puts you immediately (and forever) in the Impossible Camp. Where these people will never deal with you again. Period. Anyone who suggests that the way publishing functions is dysfunctional will be summarily shunned, and your're right; the problems are systemic. Corporate culture with its own rules and rituals has made it worse.

In my own case, the mythology would have you believe that I never told anyone who I really was while publishing books. The poor publicists. They were working to promote someone who was someone else. What phooey. In order to get on a plane to do the rote author's tour (where I read in a dozen bookstores in a dozen cities mostly to an audience of one or two), you had to have an ID. The publicist does the travel arrangements and they have to have your real name to get you on the plane. They knew who I was.

But they live in a world of pretense and hierarchal obfuscation, and after thirty years of writing, and not being able to get beyond the editorial assistant, I decided to join that world of pretense and obfuscation, and publishing was delighted to finally have me. The work never changed. But the box or shell it was put in changed and the shell game continued for ten years.

The problems are, indeed, systemic. My crime was not pretense; it was getting caught. My fantasy that I would then write about that was deluded. They won't touch it. Not because they don't want to know. They know. The dysfuntion is no secret. Prada be damned. The emperor is stark raving naked, and anyone who says so (in public) will have his head chopped off. I don't write anymore. It's not worth the grief. The focus on who you are and not what you write inherently fits your corpse into the great machine. When you are processed and come out blood and bone, they are all horrifically shocked when they have to wash their hands.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at December 29, 2006 8:41 AM

For those who might wonder what in the world the comment above is about, you should know that Tim Barrus is better known as Nasdijj -- the author of three books, "The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams" (2000), "The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping" (2003) and "Geronimo's Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me" (2004). Each was identified as a work of nonfiction and were acclaimed as contributions to Native American writing -- Nasdijj claimed to be Navaho.

In January 2006, however, the LA Weekly revealed Mr. Barrus as the real author and that he had previously written works of gay S&M, all of which triggered a media uproar. The entire affair was one of this year's fine trifecta of fake memoir scandals -- including James Frey's and JT Leroy's.

I should make this point here: When one publicly questions a powerful, established system -- OK, when you rant about it a bit -- you often pick up strange fellow travelers, people who attach their own grievances to your argument. I once wrote a column in which I extolled David Foster Wallace as a favorite writer but confessed I could not make it through "Infinite Jest." I got several letters from grumpy, sympathetic readers who chimed in, saying, basically, yeah, and James Joyce's "Ulysses" is a fraud, too -- when my column actually hailed "Ulysses" as a model for Mr. Foster Wallace.

So: With this as background, I'll leave the reader to disentangle Mr. Barrus' legitimate gripes from his self-justifications -- good luck with that, by the way -- and then separate those from my original claims concerning the systematic exploitation of publicity assistants and the resulting floundering around when it comes to publicizing books.

Hope your holidays have been splendid, too.


Posted by: Jerome Weeks at December 29, 2006 3:58 PM

When I started as a publicity assistant in 1995, I made $19,500 a year. I think most authors have extremely inflated expectations of what they will get for the going rate. Needless to say, perhaps, I am no longer employed in the publishing industry.

As for the lack of institutional memory, I think it derives from a multitude of sources. High turnover is certainly one of them. I would also credit antiquated database systems, publicists who are too overworked to routinely and thoroughly prune database entries, employers who want to see that you've made all the calls, regardless of whether those calls are appropriate to a given title (remember that authors drive this practice as well because they want proof that publicists are working on their behalf), and publishing companies who refuse to send publicists into the field where they might actually learn about the market. Everything I learned about publicity, I had to teach myself from books and simple trial and error. Can you tell me the best local radio and television programs in St. Paul, Minnesota?

Posted by: Noah at December 30, 2006 12:14 PM

I've been working at as a publicity assistant in a huge academic press for the past four months, and I'm insulted by this gross generalization of my career.

My department is incredibly supportive and kind. The director goes out of his way to give us publicity assistants large, important tasks like planning launch parties, pubbing our own clothbacks, and lunching with media contacts. During his vacation, we actually complain that we miss his constant good-natured jokes and support.

The latest I've stayed at my desk has been 6pm, and only because I was working on an important press release. My publicity manager tells me that if our press isn't going to offer over-time, I should go out and enjoy my youth. Yes, I make photocopies and send out mailings, but I am appreciated by the senior publicists and feel respected.

I take incredible offense to being labeled as "hardly well-read." I majored in both English Lit and Creative Writing and minored in Philosophy at one of the country's finest universities. I have read much of the western canon, the greatest poems of the English language, and everything from the classics to the pretense that is the McSweeney's-error current fiction. My colleagues are equally bright and learned. We all take pride in working in such a non-competitive, intellectual environment, and enjoy in-house author lectures to better understand the books we are pubbing.

When one is dealing with thousands upon thousands of media contacts, it is often hard to keep straight that one newspaper editor is particularly fussy about the books we send, while others exploit us for free books every other day. Young publicity assistants are faced with a huge database of names, and we try to keep the database up-to-date with subject preference, preferred methods of contact, and other assorted odds and ends about the individual and his or her company. While it is impossible to memorize every contact, we try hard to stay on top of this database for the press's sake as well as yours.

Clearly, I am a lucky publicity assistant. I have responsibility, trust, friendship, brains, and good hours. I hope rather than merely complaining about the in-and-out-the-door publicity assistants you have dealt with over the years, you can complain about their cruel bosses who drive them away from the industry, and praise the rare gems like mine.

Posted by: Elkie at December 30, 2006 12:46 PM

I too was an overworked, underpaid publicity assistant. Some of Mr. Weeks' musings ring painfully true: the very bad pay, the bitchiness of NY media, etc. That said, working in publishing was a lot of fun as a 20something -- my office was full of young people, I got all the free books I could read, and I had a few terrific bosses who were willing to show me the ropes. I *don't* think that publicity is as undervalued in the industry as Mr. Weeks charges -- most of the higher-ups realize that it's a key element to successful publishing. I also think that what he calls a lack of knowledge re: local media among publicity folk is more likely a "falling behind" on details. Keeping up with every local media market is a tall order. Changing business practices at bookstores and various journos shuffling about in print and broadcast media (book publishing isn't the only biz with high turnover) are why depts keep databases in the first place -- and these things necessarily change faster than databases do. It's very common for people who have been in the industry a while to share this knowledge with friends just because there are so MANY contacts and such to keep track of.... "The overburdened publicist" referred to here is just a fact of life in the industry -- ribbon-thin profit margins ensure that this will be the case for the foreseeable future. That said, the new publicity assistant shouldn't have such delusions of grandeur -- staying late to "work on an important press release" will win brownie points for all of two seconds. A thin skin re: her literary pedigree won't suit her well when pitching her umpteenth diet book to radio producers in Paducah, Kentucky. And make no mistake, it's all about the bottom line. The pressure of "you're only as good as your last booking" can be daunting -- and when you're getting paid crap, and getting bossed around by people who do little more than smile and nod in meetings while you pound away at the phone can be a very bitter pill to swallow.... Especially when you're making less than a livable wage. Hence my current ensconcement in a different profession.....

Posted by: HG at December 31, 2006 12:44 AM

1.) I never claimed to be a Native American. I do have Native American heritage but do I need my blood test. I CLAIMED (it's in print but you never read my books so where do you get off) to be a mongrel.

2.) I never ever ever wrote a book called MY BROTHER AND ME ever. I defy you to find a copy of such book. I did not write it.

3.) I am not your fellow traveler. I SAID the problems in publishing are SYSTEMIC. Do you think they are limited to editorial assistants. Get a clue.

4.) Kicking my ass is easy. Multitudes have done it. Ho hum. It's banal. You're late to the game. But if you're going to do it, get your FACTS right.

5.) One more blog with a bitch tone. Just what the world needs. Substituting cognition for ideology. Indeed.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at January 1, 2007 10:14 AM

The full title of the book Mr. Barrus claims he never wrote, the full title I listed, is "Geronimo's Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me," and it can be ordered through Amazon.com, here: http://www.amazon.com/Geronimos-Bones-Memoir-My-Brother/dp/0345453921/sr=1-1/qid=1167668439/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-9911331-4856165?ie=UTF8&s=books.

On the inside back flap of that book is this author description: "Nasdijj was born in the American Southwest in 1950. He grew up partly on the reservation -- his mother was Navajo -- and partly in migrant camps around the country."

On the other hand, in "The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping," Nasdijj writes about sitting in his Jeep at Navajo Lake on the Navajo Nation with his dog, Navajo, and watching the thunder and lighting, which are weapons used by a Navajo god to fight dragons:

"I believe in dragons. I believe in the power of the mythology I grew up with. Even if I am not entirely an Indian. My father was an Ango. With skin as pink as peaches. Mythology is oblivious to the blindness of race. When you grow up surrounded by language and stories, you become the stories and languages you know. The desert does not care who your parents are."

To summarize: Mr. Barrus explicity denies being a full-blooded Indian. But he makes sure to mention his mother's Navajo heritage prominently, names his dog Navajo, claims he still believes in Navajo mythology -- and, besides, that mythology is oblivious to race and the desert doesn't care about your parentage, anyway -- and also claims that "when you grow up surrounded by language and stories, you become the stories and languages you know."

So Mr. Barrus' argument that "he never claimed to be Native American" and that he only claimed to be a mongrel would seem to be true. But he mentions his bloodlines even he appropriates as much Navajo thinking and coloring as he can (the attitudes, the mythology, the familiarity with their ways and stance toward nature, toward fate, the similar treatment from the desert and, of course, his dog).

In short, Mr. Barrus is making a distinction without a difference. Or let's put it like this: He's very deliberately having it both ways.

As for the insolent tone of my site, I note only Mr. Barrus' enthusiastic agreement with it in his first post.

Posted by: book/daddy at January 1, 2007 11:01 AM

How dare one assume a young female college graduate works on Diet pr when she is busy working on modern philosophy and politics.

How dare one assume that a young publicity assistant works for "brownie points" and not respect and experience.

How dare one assume that because their career came to an unfortunate stand-still, another's isn't going strong.

Posted by: Elkie at January 2, 2007 1:41 PM

How dare I?

I've been a professional critic for 20 years. That answers that question.

As for your other points -- my post does try to give more evidence for my analysis other than personal anecdotes. Would you like to contact my former book editors so they can confirm their frustrations? Note the half-dozen successful women PR who advised me about how exploitative the system is. Note the people who've worked in book PR and have commented here -- I couldn't post others because they requested I didn't for fear of reprisal -- a fact that would seem to underscore the system's punitive nature.

Posted by: book/daddy at January 2, 2007 2:16 PM

Look, there are awful slave-driving bosses in most professions. In fact, I think most industries are worse. Advertising, music, movies, magazines are all brutal. Publishing is certainly tame by comparison.
At the end of the day, it's hard to be on the bottom.

Posted by: Elkie at January 3, 2007 9:09 AM

"How dare I? I've been a professional critic for 20 years. That answers that question."


Oh, I didn't realize your job was to critique PEOPLE. I'm so sorry, you're right. My fault. Please excuse my sad young female with no social life existence while I grovel for brownie points from my boss.

Posted by: Elkie at January 3, 2007 2:32 PM

I'm sorry, Ms. Elkie, but you didn't try to refute my points with logic or evidence. You found a high moral horse to climb on and demanded to know, HOW DARE I?

I could have climbed on my own moral high horse (I keep it out back but it often has to eat crow so it doesn't like me much) and then done the same back atcha: How dare you defend, in effect, a system that often exploits young women?

But I didn't for this simple reason: All of this does little to advance or deepen (or even counter) the argument. It just expresses Deep Outrage at the other side, a way to pretend that I have Moral Superiority. Fine, you may have all the moral superiority in the world, and I'll put my horse back in the barn. But it doesn't really alter a single point I made.

For example, you angrily attack me for "critiquing" people -- which has all the rhetorical force of yelling "You're a meanie!" Far more importantly, the whole point of my original post, bizarrely enough, was to argue that individual bosses or individual assistants may be splendid people, brilliant workers, or even awful jerks and complete idiots, but the PUBLICITY SYSTEM ITSELF has some serious things wrong with it, a judgment you more or less grudgingly concede in a later post but only by noting how things are worse elsewhere, as if that justifies the system in an industry whose execs regularly pretend to a cultural and social leadership position. A few PR assistants got irked by my sympathetic characterization of their kind as so young, so overworked, so untrained, so underpaid that often, they're really not that helpful to working journalists. Yet none of these conditions, as I tried to make clear, is their fault.

It's their plight.

Posted by: book/daddy at January 6, 2007 9:48 AM

As a book critic, I deal with publicists at all the major publishers all the time. And they generally seem to be bright, motivated, hard-working and friendly people.

But they've got a damn difficult job to do, and they don't often have the tools to do it with. (Note: this is not their fault.) The job turnover alone demonstrates what an impossible position they're in.

It's a lousy job, but if you want to move up in publishing, you've got to make your bones.

I agree with Jerome that the system is exploitive... But if intelligent, rational people willingly allow themselves to be exploited, I'm certainly not going to be outraged on their behalf.

Posted by: David J. Montgomery at January 6, 2007 7:47 PM



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