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Perspectives From Inside the “Show”

Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week.

Being a publicist is a full time job—you never know when you might come across your next pitch. For example, when the Chris Brown/Rihanna story broke, one of our publicists seized the moment and pitched author Evan Stark, an expert on domestic violence and author of Coercive Control, landing him an interview on Forbes.com. Another Oxford book, Always On, discusses a world in which our identities are enmeshed in online technology and cellular phones are practically a human appendage. I would say that this concept of “always on” aptly describes the lifestyle of a publicist—always skimming, reading, and listening to the news across technological mediums (video streams, podcasts, Google Reader, Twitter, etc.), honing in on the next big thing.

While I’ve come to understand the necessary mindset of a publicist, I was curious to learn how someone in another department and new to the industry like myself, has adjusted to life in this demanding world. So I contacted two very cool editors I know, and asked if they would answer some of my questions. They kindly agreed and gave me the okay to publish on the OUPblog. Michelle Rorke and Dayne Poshusta are both 24-year-old Assistant Editors who have been in the industry for two years. Michelle works on primarily non-fiction at Simon and Shuster, while Dayne works on the Trade History list at Oxford University Press. I’ve excerpted their responses below:

Michelle Rafferty: What is your average day like?

Michelle Rorke: I imagined that a job in the editorial department meant that I would be left alone in an office with a pencil and a manuscript, but I learned pretty quickly that editors don’t get to close their doors. In fact, most of the their editing seemed to take place at home while the workday was used for interdepartmental meetings, discussions with authors and agents, running numbers, making deals, and working with publicity, art, sales, and production to get a quality package into stores. My day involves all of the above, as well as many unglamorous duties for my two bosses, such as writing flap copy, putting together marketing materials, sending out manuscripts, and writing rejection letters. I do most of my reading—submissions or manuscripts that we’ve already acquired–either before work or in the evenings.

Dayne Poshusta: Mornings start at 7 and I’m out the door by 8:15 (on a good day). I usually get to work around 9 and catch up on any urgent email first thing. Then I usually read the NYTimes online for a bit while I wake up and have my coffee. Work before noon consists mainly of answering email, routing paperwork, and project management things like finding reviewers for proposals. Lunch is often spent at my desk, working if I am especially busy, or I read more online stuff like Salon, Slate, my friends’ blogs, and The Onion. During the summer I try to eat outside at one of the nearby parks. The afternoons are spent reading and evaluating proposals, and I often have an author meeting or a design meeting during these hours. I try to do author scouting in the later evenings as this requires a lot of internet searching and slow trolling through lit blogs, The New York Times Book Review advertisements, other presses’ catalogues and the like. I try to leave work by 6:30 and head to the gym or out to a happy hour with friends. I’m home around 8:30 or 9 PM most nights. I almost never have time to actually cook so dinner is a bit haphazard. I either read manuscripts before bed, or I go on Facebook or YouTube for awhile. I like to sleep, so the light is out around 11 most nights.

Rafferty: What is a project you are particularly proud of?

Rorke: Well, I can’t really say I’m proud of this project because it wasn’t my acquisition, but I’m very excited about A Homemade Life: Recipes and Stories from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg, the creator of the blog Orangette and author of a Bon Appétit column. The writing is just gorgeous, and although I’m not much of a crier, the proposal left me with telltale red eyes in the middle of the workday. I’m mentioning it because it has been sort of a case study in a certain kind of successful publishing. My boss approached Molly with the suggestion that she write a book, and a combination of house-wide enthusiasm, a beautiful package, glowing reviews, a great marketing plan, and perhaps most notably, an incredible amount of blog attention, has helped launch the book beautifully.

Rafferty: What is it like to work in a rapidly transforming industry?

Rorke: There is certainly some nostalgia for the old days of long lunches and unexamined expense accounts, but this is more than balanced by a sense that I am lucky to be young at time when things are changing so quickly. There are a lot of different opinions on where the industry is headed, but I think there is a consensus that there is no place for complacency. At S&S one gets the feeling that creative ideas will get serious consideration regardless of their source, which is exciting for someone just starting out.

Poshusta: I have the sense of an in-held breath while everyone waits to see how the internet—Google and Amazon—affects our livelihoods. I worry about starting out in a shrinking industry. I wonder what the landscape will look like in 20 years. The main challenge I face day-to-day is trying to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can. I feel like the best editors have an incredible breadth of knowledge and fingers in lots of different pies.

Rafferty: What is your work-life balance like?

Poshusta: I feel like my work-life balance is decent, but I also love my job and don’t mind spending lots of extra time on it. I might be more career-focused than some of my peers because I moved from the other side of the country to work in books. I also think that many people my age overlook the fact that great success requires a huge amount of effort.

Publishing right now reminds me of the Disneyland “teacup ride”, in which you sit ensconced on a giant spinning tea cup that sits a top a large wheel that is also spinning—and you’re just trying not to throw up. So work doesn’t make me want to throw up, but it is (to steal a word from my colleague) “dizzying” to always be in two moving worlds. The industry races to churn out new books, while it sits atop a landscape that is always racing to the next technological medium. Publishing houses are desperately trying, unlike the teacup ride, to not go in circles. Michelle and Dayne both demonstrated the amount of work it takes to be a part of this industry, but as far as I can tell, they both seem to think it’s worth it.  Now I understand what my boss meant when he said on my first day of work, “Welcome to the show.”

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