Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Perils of Pairing Passion and Publishing

One of the problems with working in publishing is sharing books with colleagues. It’s not like working as a grocery store cashier, having a bagboy say to you, “Yeah, I love to read. Stephen King is a phenomenal writer,” and knowing you can happily trade horror novels back and forth with him, and he’ll be grateful (which is how I lived my reading-and-sharing life during my high school years). The stakes are ratcheted up when the person you’d love to lend the book you just read is someone who sends your marked-up emails back to you. You find yourself thinking, “Well, the story was all about Montreal and frogs, and I know how much she loves both Montreal and frogs, but will she complain about the author’s overuse of adverbs?” You’ll find yourself wondering if you should have kept tabs on exactly how many typos/grammatical errors you found in the latest Harlan Coben novel, so you can warn your office mate before he reads that copy you noticed he bought while out on his lunch hour, because you'd been raving about it earlier that day. And lest your friends think you would ever recommend anything that was less-than-stellar when it comes to punctuation and grammar (although, that means they must not be reading anything published by the major trade publishing houses these days. Oh wait a minute, many of them aren’t), you feel compelled when lending Sloane Crosley, say, to one of them, to include a yellow sticky that says, “If you can ignore the fact that the copyeditor and the proofreader both ought to be fired, and focus on the content, I’m sure this one will make you laugh out loud.”

It’s a true double-edged sword, though. I mean, with the exception of libraries and book stores (and they pay even less well than publishing companies do), where else are you going to work where you’re surrounded by so many readers? My company actually has a white-board specifically for making book recommendations, providing one-or-two sentence descriptions, which I do, every time I visit the office, feeling somehow obligated, because I’ve gotten some great recommendations from it. I doubt IBM headquarters has such an animal hanging in its hallways. I don’t need to tell you, my book blogging friends, how wonderful it is to work in such an environment. There are people at the office for whom the first words out of my mouth after “How are you” are “So, what are you reading?” Again, I can see VPs at McDonalds looking at me cross-eyed were I to have the misfortune of working for them and to ask such a thing.

I’ve mentioned in the past that making book recommendations is never an easy enterprise. Lately, when people come to stay with us, I like to go around the house and pick out four or five books to leave on the bedside table that they can read while here and borrow if they’d like. I find this much easier to do for some than for others. Family members are very easy. Friends of Bob’s (which means they probably think Plato is a light beach read) I’ve only met once, not so much. What if I choose something they absolutely hate and then get labeled “Bob’s flighty wife who actually reads things written post-1800?” Think what it’s like to have to worry about colleagues labeling you “the editor who obviously has no judgment and should not be in charge of acquiring books.”

Try adding an extra factor to this enterprise, which is that most who work in the publishing industry are pretty picky about such things as books filled with awkward sentences, missing serial commas, facts that are just plain wrong, and unoriginal material (makes one wonder who the editors are who are allowing such books to be published, but the publishing bottom line is a subject for a whole different blog post). And yet, I don’t seem to be able to keep myself from recommending books to them. You’d think I’d just keep my mouth shut, forget about advising my colleagues, pretend I’m the only editor in the history of the industry who enjoys neither reading nor writing. Instead of blurting out, “Oh, you’ve got to read A Death in the Family!” when asked what I’ve been reading lately, I ought just to say, “I don’t read much. You know, I read all day long for my job, and I want to do other things when I’m not working.” (In fairness, A Death in the Family is not likely to raise too many eyebrows, but I haven’t been reading Tamar Myers or Laurel K. Hamilton lately.)

However, I don’t even have to be asked. I’ll just hand books over to people and tell them to read them. I’ll send around company-wide emails extolling the virtues of Persephone Books, which of their books I’ve read, how everyone ought to be reading them and can borrow mine, if they’d like. I’ll blurt out, “Did you ever read Wild Swans?” because someone is talking about China in reference to the Olympics. I’m a walking, talking version of What Do I Read Next?

Maybe I need to go back to working in grocery stores. Nah. Then I’d probably start telling people what foods they should buy and recipes they should try. And I’d rather have an angry editor, appalled he or she wasted time on my latest recommendation, wielding a “Track Changes” button at my emails than an angry chef wielding a cleaver at me.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I myself am becoming more and more intimidated over recommending any books to you, especially since my last two recommendations were Georgette Heyer and Harry Potter. I'm the family member for whom* you can leave piles of Agatha Christies by the bedside (they are usually pretty well edited.) linser

*haunted by the ghosts of grammatical parents past, I had to use "whom."

Emily Barton said...

Ah, but Linser, don't forget you're the one who recommended _Anna Karenina_, the book instrumental in bringing Bob and me together. You also recommended _The Sound and the Fury_, a book that awed me. And I haven't read any of the "good" Georgette Heyers yet. And, believe it or not, the Harry Potter books are actually pretty well edited for recent publications (I hate to say that, Scholastic being the "enemy" and all...).

Anonymous said...

I can understand how that would be intimidating, but it sounds nice to me as I have the opposite problem. It's near-impossible to explain why in hell you're sitting around reading Bleak House just for funsies. **laugh**

Anonymous said...

Keep up the recommendations, Emily! It's still the other person's choice to follow up on them or not. And it's a sad fact that the people who can't bear to read badly edited books are going to be SOL pretty soon. Or restricted to reading only Hesperus and Persephone (there are worse fates).

Rebecca H. said...

I get scared of making recommendations. If someone wants a recommendation from me, they first need to give me all kinds of background on the stuff they like (assuming they don't write a book blog so I would know all that already). Occasionally students ask me for recommendations, which usually leaves me flummoxed. I love the idea of the white board list of books!

Emily Barton said...

Jordan, yes, I am well aware of the fact that I work in a very rare place, and that in most places, I'd be more likely to be labeled "weird" as I go about shouting out recommendations for books I "read for funsies."

MFS, don't worry: I can't help myself. Too bad we can't turn back the clock to the good old days of publishing, but it would be the bad old days in many ways (e.g. no female acquisitions editors) that maybe the typos and poor copy editing aren't too high a price to pay.

Dorr, well, from my experience, you seem to do an excellent job!

litlove said...

Oh yes, I empathise. I have yet to recommend a book to an academic (unless they happen also to be a very good friend whose taste in reading I'm quite sure of - I make this one person in my acquaintance). And working in a bookstore was worse! But I cannot resist asking, if I were to stay with you (which I do hope one day I will) which five books would you leave beside the bed?

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, what fun. It would probably change as I read more, but if you were coming tomorrow, here's what you'd get:

The Victorian Chaise Longue -- Marghanita Laski

The Haunting of Hill House -- Shirley Jackson

The Big Rock Candy Mountain -- Wallace Stegner (I can't remember whether or not you already read that one. If so, we'd have to substitute something else.)

Three Men in a Boat -- Jerome K. Jerome

To Say Nothing of the Dog -- Connie Willis (which must be read after Three Men in a Boat)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Emily. I found this post very interesting. The work environment you talk about sounds exactly the kind I would love to work in. And then, when I read that you're a telecommuter, well ... let's just say, it seems like the ideal job I'm looking for these days.

I am a writer, currently residing out of the United States but planning to phase back. I have published a children's book here in Pakistan, and am in the process of publishing two more. In addition, I have mentored six teenagers in writing a murder mystery in English based in Karachi. The manuscript is undergoing final editing touches on my part. Lastly, I am also working on an educational guidebook for more effective teaching of English Literature here in Pakistan.

Now, I am reaching an end of my projects and
am looking to remotely work in a publishing house in the States (preferably the East coast since I am from New Jersey). If you (or anyone else visiting this blog) could help guide me in any way, kindly email me at I would like to send you my profile and cv.

I would appreciate your help very much. Take care!