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Sunday, October 15, 2006


First of all, I have to yell it loudly: IT’S TEEN READ WEEK!

This is important for several reasons. The first is that your library is probably doing some good events! The second is that you can vote for your favorite YA novels of 2006. And, why, look at that! (*cough, cough*) 13 Little Blue Envelopes is on there! There are lots of good books on the list, and voting is quick and easy.

I’ve gotten some interesting e-mails recently asking me what it’s like to work in publishing. Specifically, the questions were about being an editor, and whether or not that’s a good job. There are many kinds of editors—but I’m going to talk about fiction editors. Book editors. The kind I work with.

First thing to note is this: editors in big publishing houses work really, really hard for basically no money for a long time. And unless your family actually owns the publishing company, you’re probably not going to start editing books on your first day. Your first job will probably be as the slave of a higher-up editor. You will handle their busy schedules, find missing shipments of books, deal with calls from insane writers. Your desk will groan under the weight of all the submissions that agents have sent to your Editor, submissions you will have to sort and catalog and read.

You are Edit Monkey, and you belong to the publishing house. That includes your evenings and weekends, which you will spend reading manuscripts. You will get lots of free books that you really, really want, but you will never have time to read them because you will be busy reading all the crap your Editor doesn’t want to read.

And you’ll like it, Edit Monkey. Free time is overrated.

No, you can’t afford your apartment or food or anything, but you will sometimes be asked (told) to go to a cocktail party for some writer, where you will steal all the canapés you can get your mitts on.

“I love you mini soufflé,” you will say to your food. “And you too, little piece of bread with stinky cheese on it. I have been so very hungry.”

Perhaps you will encouter a cheese ball shaped like a lobster, like this one. See how it grips crackers in its cheesy claws.

However, if you like books, this is something you may be prepared to deal with. And if you have a good Editor, you’ll start editing pages of actual novels. You’ll be asked your opinion when it comes time to select books. You will be invited to lunch, instead of hunkering at your desk with a sandwich and a stack of paper. You will meet writers (which is a point of debatable value). You will climb from position to position—through all kinds of levels of “assistant” and “associate.” And if you make it through and you’re good, then you will become an editor.

Editors do all kinds of things. They acquire books—meaning, they decide to publish that book that you’ve worked so hard on. They guide your through the process of revising it. They deal with your agent to get you a contract. They work inside of the company to make sure your book is advertised. They do a hundred different things that the writer never sees, but makes all the difference in the world.

If you’re really excellent, you will be like my editor, Emma Lollipop. Emma has an air of Jedi calmness about her. She knows exactly what to say to help you along with your book. She can stare down a room full of salespeople and never blink. And she supports her writers. For example, Emma came to see me speak at the Brooklyn Book Fair. She rode over the Brooklyn Bridge on her pearl-pink bicycle, opened the basket, and pulled out a box of beautiful pastel-frosted cupcakes. (A little nod to Devilish.) Now, that’s style.

But now I will tell you about my first experience working as an editor, which has no bearing at all on any of the above. It was a bad job. I freely admit this.

I worked at a small company where I was quickly promoted, in much the same way that sailors on a sinking, scurvy-infested ship can quickly rise through the ranks. The company I worked for was owned by two people who just thought it would be a good idea to start a publishing company. I don’t think a lot more thought than that was put into it. They rented a big loft in New York, stuffed it full of IKEA furniture, and let it all just kind of happen. And happen it did.

The place was run with a kind of breathtaking incompetence. For example, one of the owners hired her own daughter to be a bigwig there. On her very first day, she sat down everyone and said, “I don’t really know how to make books.” This is sort of like someone wandering into NASA on his or her first day of work and saying, “Do I get one of those uniforms like they have on Star Trek? Oooh! What does this button do?”

My boss acted like someone who had recently been broken out of a cult compound and deprogrammed. She had glazed-over eyes, a deep paranoia, and not even a hint of a clue what she was doing. She wrote poetry about hats that she forced everyone to read. She sometimes erased the server by accident. She could not budget or edit or manage. This never stopped her from trying, so most of what we did all day was repair the damage.

It may shock you to hear this, but the company went broke in record time. We received no Christmas bonuses or gifts, but my boss forced us to contribute to ones for the owners. They were two inexpensive cable-knit sweaters, which we were asked to decorate by cutting out paper “ornaments” shaped like the owners’ favorite things. I cut out small paper airplanes to reflect our one boss’s passion for his private aircraft. There was a party, but we had to bring the food.

It was not a fun day. We all stood around a table full of the meager offerings we could afford, celebrating the fact that the owner of our company was rich enough to buy himself a plane. My deranged boss read her poetry aloud—a soul-crushing experience that left us all zombified. Then she forced us to sing carols. And I do mean forced. She swung her arm and sang out in a shrill voice, as we shuddered by the Doritos and the bean dip. Then we were told to get back to work.

The physical office took on the qualities of the business that inhabited it. Everything was broken. My lamp occasionally burst into flames due to faulty writing, but was never replaced, merely extinguished. The IKEA kitchen wall unit once disengaged itself from the wall and fell on to my friend, who had to stand there and support twelve feet of Swedish home interior until someone ran over to help.

The office had mice that sat on the copier and mocked me when I worked late into the night, forcing me to keep banging my feet floor into the floor in a mad keep-away dance. The owners of the company finally addressed this problem by getting two cats and forcing them to live in an office. The chairs, the keyboards . . . everything was covered in the hair of these poor, enslaved cats.

I left, deciding that nothing was really worth this. When I made one of my last visits to pick up my final check on a cold December day, I found my friends working in coats, hats, scarves, and fingerless gloves. The rent had not been paid, and the heat had been turned off. Not long after that, the checks stopped coming, and people started working on credit. And when the doors finally closed on this doomed enterprise, the money stopped coming entirely. All that was left was some cat hair, some bad chest colds, and our memories.

When we got cold, we sometimes resorted to burning scraps of our dignity.

But, to answer your question, person who e-mailed . . . being an editor is great!

No, really!

I'm serious!


Anonymous 'Jordan',aka that girl with the annoying questions about paintings and pineapples! said...

Hello! just wanted to tell you I am supporting 13LBE for the best YA book of '06.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Cat said...

To celebrate teen read week, the advanced placment and honors english classes at my high school are going to some middle schools to talk to the students about reading, tell them what kind of books we like to read, tell them how we make time to read, and tell them that reading is fun (which it is).

5:15 AM  
Anonymous Emma Lollipop said...

Being an editor is really fun if you get to work with someone like Maureen Johnson. She writes sentences like, "See how it grips crackers in its cheesy claws." It doesn't get much better than that.

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Tony Doyle said...

I purchased your books for our library because they are popular with our female students but I really had no burning desire to read them myself until I stumbled upon your blog.

I believe I worked for those same people. They once owned a hotel in Austin, TX. The entire business plan was "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to build a hotel?" How come people like that have so much money and real humans are forced to burn shreds of dignity to stay warm?

2:32 AM  
Blogger Maureen said...

JORDAN: Thanks! Of course I remember!

CAT: Good for you guys. that is an excellent way to celebrate.

EMMA: It was very, very classy. And see! These people are REAL!

TONY: Thank you. I like to think of my blog like the internet equivalent of Bird Flu . . . dangerously catchy. And yes, these people are ALWAYS around.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Daphne Unfeasible said...

Remind me sometime to talk to you about trying to sell the French translation rights of a novelization of a movie based on the MOST FAMOUS WORK OF FRENCH LITERATURE. I had to scrub the grime off my soul afterwards with a brillo pad.

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Chelsea said...

This is sort of like someone wandering into NASA on his or her first day of work and saying, “Do I get one of those uniforms like they have on Star Trek? Oooh! What does this button do?”

That is genius. I'm sure it has happened, sadly.

10:26 AM  
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