playing for the house: an editorial assistant on the dangers of going agent-free
A few weeks ago, INTERN received an e-mail from an editorial assistant at a New York publishing house who had recently had a distressing—but telling—experience with a brilliant manuscript, an unagented author, and an offer that had "poor sucker!" written all over it. Unagented writers, take note...
I want to be clear—I love my job. But this isn't a post about how hard won it was to
get an editorial position or how great it is to work with authors or make decisions
that will impact a book that people will read. This is a post about the less glamorous
part of the job. This post is about the money.
It feels so long ago that I had the good fortune of finding something in slush, that
strange and hopeful pile of paranormal love and dark futures. But what I found was
a quirky memoir with an itchy, infectious voice. My boss "Steph" read the partial
and loved it. So with butterflies, I emailed the author to ask if it was still available.
I know authors feel like the wallflower at the dance but I want you to know editors
It was still available, and the rest of it was fresh and wonderful. We got the approval
to make the offer, but it was a pittance really. New and naïve, I did the silly thing of
asking “Steph” if we could offer a higher advance. “Steph” looked at me like there
was a fly on my face and I wished I had never spoken up. Maybe “Steph” thought I
was being cute, maybe “Steph” chalked it up to my previous post at an agency. In
any case, “Steph” made it clear very quickly that we were playing for the house. In
fact, when “Steph” called to make the offer to the joyous hoots and hollers of the
lovely author I’d dredged up from the deep of the slush, “Steph” offered less than
the pittance. “Steph” explained to me that we needed to leave room for negotiation. I
There was no negotiation. There were only profusely thankful emails sent to me for
that one chance that changed everything. There were lots of rants in the evenings,
empty threats to quit this moneymaking machine, shouts of indignation that were
unheard save for my poor friends who had seen me work myself to the bone and cry
on the floor for only a chance to work in publishing.
I got over it, cut my teeth on other deals, compartmentalized what I did during the
days and what I did in between—write, write, write.
A few months later, the author came down to New York and we took him out for
a fancy midtown lunch. It broke my heart when he told us he hadn’t even read the
contract before signing.
Maybe you think “Steph” is a terrible, terrible person. But “Steph” is not a bad
person. No, actually “Steph” is the kind of boss who never makes an underling
get coffee at the Starbucks down the street. “Steph” never gets mad, even when
people make really, really dumb mistakes. “Steph” is one of the best editors I
know. “Steph”’s authors, including the memoirist, adore “Steph” for “Steph”’s kind
words, endless insights, and personal touch.
If anything “Steph” is not the exception but the rule. Please get an agent. A good one
is worth it, I promise.
There you have it, straight from the mouth of an editorial department insider. It shouldn't come as a shock that the house is playing for (gasp) the house, but sometimes you need a not-so-gentle reminder. To this, INTERN would like to add: Editors seeking a lower price tag aren't any more evil than agents seeking a higher one. Everyone wants to get a really good deal. It's just how the game works.
Writers: please don't make any more tender-hearted editorial assistants cry on your behalf. Get an agent, educate yourself, and read the freaking contract.