How the sausage gets made; or, “Yeah, I still want to write”

Portrait of the Editorial Assistant
Portrait of the Editorial Assistant as a Young Woman

A full year into my Actual Adult Career in publishing (I’m not counting the three months I interned at the company I’ve called home since last June, because I wasn’t getting paid, and Actual Adults get paid), I’ve been asked a few times now if working in publishing has in any way killed my writing dreams. Sometimes, I misinterpret the question and say, “Nah, I’ve realized I can actually be super productive on the commute in and out of the city.” I’ve been reading on the train since I started doing the commute, but I only recently realized I also had a solid hour to get some writing done, and that’s been a game-changer. Even if I’m only listening to music and staring out the window, I’m usually plotting the next phase of a new project. Reading and editing and working all day makes me actually yearn for those train rides, the time when I can let my mind wander. At the end of the day, I want to go home and write something that isn’t a pitch letter or a tweet.

But when I’m pressed, I have to say that working with editors and authors and agents, and being surrounded by digital manuscripts and galleys and finished books all day, has actually been exhilarating. No, I’m not writing as much as I should be some weeks, and some nights I plan to write a magnum opus and I’m lucky if I work up the strength to work on a blog post. But there are also nights — and mornings and weekend afternoons — when I start writing and I don’t stop. And there are mornings I write all the way to work and sit by the East River and read, and I cherish those uber-productive days.

Somehow, someway, I know what’s in your book-sausages, and it’s only made me hungrier.

Publishing is, above all, a business. People’s livelihoods depend on making sure books get sold and money gets made. Sometimes, editors lose out on projects they fell head over heels in love with because someone else got there first (or offered a five-figure two-book deal). And you have to judge submissions both by their content and quality, but also by the company’s ability to sell the story, once it’s in book form. Who’s the audience? How have comparable titles performed in the last few years? And even then, something you’re sure will be the next Gone Girl or Harry Potter, a sure-thing kind of runaway success, flops. It happens. You pour your heart and soul into something, and spend hours editing and promoting, and it’s the nature of the market that some books will take off and others will flounder.

But I don’t find that disheartening. I understand that some great manuscripts must be passed over because they don’t fit the usual genres the house publishes, or they’re just not quite up to snuff just yet. I understand that, while everyone who works in publishing genuinely wants the stories they love to reach readers who will love them just as much, that isn’t always possible. I understand that what I do is, number one, a job. I make money by editing and drafting social media posts and working on ad design and unpacking boxes of new titles and helping to send out ARCs. I thank the universe every day, in some small way, for allowing me to work with books, the physical, non-sentient objects I love most in the world. And I understand that if my company stopped trying to sell books tomorrow, then we’d stop making money, and I’d be out of the job.

So, I chose to focus on the positives. As I said, I get to do what I love everyday — writing, reading, and editing come into play every single day at work. I count myself lucky to be able to see so many submissions. I find it comforting and extremely exciting that so many people have so many different stories to tell, and that so many of those creative folks have found agents and will, eventually, find publishers. If it isn’t with the manuscript they just sent us, then perhaps there’s another waiting to be shopped around. Agented submissions tell me that those authors have at least one person in their corner. I hope to have the same one day soon (if I ever edit my BFA).

And yes, of course, you can’t help but compare your work to the manuscripts you read at the office — the good and the bad. But I’ve learned that you also can’t let the good stuff get you down, and you can’t let the not-so-good stuff make you feel superior. Even the manuscripts your company chooses to pass on have people working to make sure they get into the right hands at the right publishing house. It’s best to let both the good and the bad inspire you. The good manuscripts show you what works, and might help you figure out how to push through and finally finish the draft you’re working on. And the not-so-good tells you what doesn’t work, or what isn’t currently in vogue.

My work is no better or worse than the manuscripts I see come into the office — it’s just different. And the only way to find out how it would do out there in the big, bad world of publishing is to finish it and send it out there with all the other sausages.

So, yeah, I’ve seen one very small and specific slice of the ~behind-the-scenes~ world of the publishing life. But yeah, I also still want to write. Thanks for asking.


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