Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sometimes It's the Admin Stuff That's Hard

My intern has spent the better part of her week working on the firm's website. Now she's only in two days a week, so today she emailed me that she forgot to link a bunch of author pages to their title pages. Oops. I guess I can't be too harsh, as her English is still way better than my Dutch. Oh, did I not mention she's from the Netherlands? Getting quite international here, we are.

So if you noticed a glitch or two on the site recently, rest assured that those will be fixed next week.

Every time I get a new intern, the hardest part of getting them up-to-speed is often the administrative stuff. How many college kids or grad students actually know how to use Outlook? And if they have used it, they've used it for email alone. They don't know about Tasks or Journal entries.

Most, surprisingly, know little about how Microsoft Word works and its many features. I guess I shouldn't be that surprised, since most authors don't seem to know it, and one presumes an author is working with it a lot! Add in Microsoft Access, Excel, FrontPage or Adobe Dreamweaver and Acrobat, and you have an internship that swiftly becomes a software usage boot camp. Now I'm thinking of adding in Act!, because I think it might do something Outlook doesn't when it comes to tracking submissions, and we purchased Dreamweaver to work on the website late last year, so now I'm the one who has to go to boot camp. On top of everything else I have to do.... Oy.

What many authors don't seem to realize is that agents aren't just pitching books all day, going to three-martini lunches, and reading. The administrative workload is huge. Frankly, I'm not sure how most small agencies do it. I know how I do it, though: by working long hours and leveraging software to streamline the process. But having helped three or four agents learn QuickBooks or other software programs, I can tell that I'm a bit ahead of the average agent in the software usage department.

And it's not just agencies. Publishers are software-challenged and admin-challenged also, though they may have more money to throw at some of these problems. Most editors I know have no idea how to do mail merge using Word. I once walked an editor I know through the process so she could move twenty rejections out of her office. She was stunned by how much easier it was.

A lot of what goes wrong in publishing is, of course, human error. UPS has called me more than once asking what my current address is because something was shipped to an old one. Now, I have moved twice in less than two years, once from New York to Solana Beach, CA, and then from Solana Beach to San Diego. And both times, letters went out to each publisher's Contracts and Royalties departments and emails to every editor in my contact list. And I had cross-over between the two California addresses for six months, so I could let folks know they still needed to update their records. So why are boxes of books still going to Solana Beach? It's simple human error.

A enormous part of what happens in any publishing house is accomplished by editorial assistants and assistant editors who, honestly, are not in my contact lists. So if their boss didn't update them on my address and Contracts didn't update the central database (if there is one!), then those assistants are probably just pulling out contracts and sending materials off to whatever address is on the contract. Heck, I wonder how much stuff has been sent to my old New York address?!

Good assistants are hard to find. They are even harder to keep, because the good ones have no interest in being assistants. They want to be editors. It takes about six months to learn everything you can learn as an assistant about the grunt part of the job: How to log submissions and rejections; how to transmit a manuscript to production; how to deal with a manuscript coming back from the author after he reviewed the copyediting job; how to request a check for acceptance of manuscript; where the cafeteria is; who the best agents submitting to your boss are; etc. After that first six months, the "This is what I went to Harvard/Yale/Columbia for?" dissatisfaction starts to settle in. At which point the assistant starts to lobby for a promotion or starts looking for a new job or starts applying to graduate school.

At Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Penguin Putnam, I'd hazard a guess that the average assistant has to stick it out for three years before getting promoted. (When I was at Penguin, there were three separate levels of editorial assistant.) Three years of being a glorified secretary and fighting the urge not to kill the CEO when you end up standing at the urinal next to his. After all, he has the power to make things better for the assistants, right? He has the power to pay them a living wage. He has the power to decide that editorial assistants from Ivy League schools are a waste of talent. Let's just hire secretaries, like I have and we have in Sales and Marketing and every other department, pay them a living wage, and keep them forever. Then, each year, let's bring in a half-dozen interns and work their tails off and let them know that the two that perform best will get hired as Assistant Editors at a living wage. Might this help stop the revolving door of assistants? Might this bring consistency and efficiency to the house? After all, the CEO has a secretary and he's had the same one for eighteen years. He drinks a soda and she burps. She's been doing the job for so long that she knows how to handle any contingency that comes across his desk. Why shouldn't editors have the same kind of assistant?

More than once, I have had to explain to editors and contracts people what their contract says and means. Why? Because I have read it more often than they have. Because I have negotiated it and discussed it more than they have.

Editors often never bother to read their contract. If you bring up something beyond basic deal points, they say, "Oh, that you'll have to discuss with Contracts." But how is an author or agent supposed to get to the point where they can accept the terms if one of the terms isn't up for discussion until there's actually a contract draft?

Contracts, by the way, will often tell you that they can't change something and if that was something of genuine concern, it should have been brought up in the original negotiation with the editor.

I once killed several entire afternoons exchanging emails and talking on the phone with an audio company over the question of whether or not the author would get his full royalty if the publisher chose to give his book away for free via download or if the publisher offered it as part of a "buy two, get one free" deal. This is not uncommon on Amazon.com. I suggested the easiest solution would be to not include the author in such promotions, if they didn't want to pay the royalty. Keep in mind that publishers create these programs and do not ask the author's permission. If, by chance, the net effect is that the publisher sells many more copies of various titles but the author gets little or no royalty for his or her copies, is that something in which the author really wants to be included?

Book-clubs used to offer the chance to get four books for a penny. Now it's five for a dollar. At one point, the authors whose books were included would get a royalty based on that book selling for twenty cents. Yes, twenty cents. And then they split that with the publisher. Obviously publishers wised up and told the clubs that they can offer it in that deal, but still have to pay a full royalty. So why shouldn't the publisher do the same now that they can offer books or audios as downloads for free as a part of various offers? Coming to a compromise took days, I kid you not, and the deal nearly died more than once because of it.

So why am I writing about all this today? Well, because I see so much online from authors complaining that agents aren't "responsive" and take too long to get back to prospective authors. I wanted to give you all a taste of why they might not be getting back so quickly. Not to mention letting you know what you may be in for if you ever decide to get a job as an editorial assistant!

Z

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