Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reader request 2: My glamorous life as an editorial assistant

Suzanne asked me to report on my first job, at a women's magazine in New York. At the risk of 1) boring the rest of you to tears and 2) dating myself quite significantly, here goes.

An EA is a secretary/administrative assistant. (I had to pass a filing test in addition to a typing test in order to get the job.) The only difference is that there is an expectation of advancement, and that the documents you handle might actually be kind of fun to read. Oh, and the meetings you go to might be to generate ideas for articles about sex or to come up with come-hither coverlines to help sell your magazine on the newsstand. An EA is generally considered part of the editorial team, and is encouraged to make suggestions, participate at idea meetings, and take on small writing and editing tasks (I used to write the table of contents! I even saved them in my portfolio for awhile...).

Still, most of what I did was pretty boring. I read a lot of slush--unsolicited manuscripts that came through the door by the dozens every day. This was before email, so everything came in big manila envelopes with SASEs inside (remember SASEs?). I wielded a letter opener with alacrity. Most everything was crap and was immediately rejected with a form letter, but I did discover one story (in two years) that was eventually published. When I called the writer to tell her that we wanted to buy the piece, she wasn't, in my opinion, suitably ecstatic. I don't think she really understood the odds she'd beaten.

This magazine was one of the very few that still published fiction (hells no it wasn't the New Yorker), and I worked for the editor who managed those pages; so I also dealt with the fiction slush. Actually, we had a freelance reader who came to the office every couple of weeks to pick up a big box of slush. When it came back from her, I'd dutifully send slightly personalized rejection notes to everyone (using a typewriter and carbon paper). The reader had been instructed to find a few stories in each batch that were worth a second read. I'd read those, and reject them too; once every few months I'd find one promising enough to send on to my boss. I don't remember any of them ever being printed, but I do remember sending rejection letters to Ursula Hegi. Take that, Oprah! (We had strict rules about the type of stories we'd publish, and anything not in a contemporary, North American setting was out.)

I've already mentioned the perks that made up for some of the hours of slicing open mail, taking phone messages, filing, and typing (since there was no email, most of our manuscripts came to us as hard copy, and I had to choose between retyping everything or rehabbing the output of our temperamental scanner, which usually rendered every third or fourth letter incorrectly). Along with the freebies, we sometimes got free food from the recipe-test kitchen, and plenty of movie screening passes. Using these usually required posing as someone else--typically one of our bosses, who had far better things to do than go see Speed two days before it came out in the theaters. While these screenings didn't involve hobnobbing with celebs, just saving $8 on a movie was a big deal at the time.*

Mostly, though (and here's where it gets corny) the best perk was the people I met. I count two of my fellow assistants from those days as very close friends, and two more as old friends I wish I had the chance to see and talk to more often. At least five of the people I worked with at that job are now editors-in-chief of major magazines. Many more are senior-level editors, and others are busy authors and freelance writers. We give each other work (making it harder for anyone else out there to break in...sorry), celebrate each other's successes, and commiserate about the sucky stuff. Was it worth all the paper cuts and ramen noodles? You bet.

*One of the editors I reported to was a minor celebrity in the industry, though. Her husband worked on the business side at another big publishing company, and his mother had a long and distinguished career as the editor-in-chief of a very high-profile magazine. My boss later went on to launch a very successful teen magazine--and then shock everyone by quitting and moving to Europe with the much older man she'd been having an affair with, an executive at the company where she worked. Google is silent on what she's been doing since then, except for one brief stint at a British publication nearly five years ago. The other editor I worked for became one of the founding editors at O. She's been there ever since.


Lady M said...

What a cool story! Other professions seem so glamorous from the outside, but it's always hard work on the inside. I started out in consulting, and I'm sure I could find a few nice things to say about it, if I think hard enough. ;)

jen said...

what a great story. i love hearing about other people's evolutions, and like lady m said, it always seems more glamourous. (well, pretty much most things are more glamourous than what I do anyways)

Suzanne said...

This is fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing.

BlondeMom said...

That is really cool. I worked as an editorial assistant right out college in 1991 at a university. The friends I made at that job I count as friends today.

Typewriters and carbon paper. Those were the days. ;)

Tree said...

That was fascinating. I would love to read more about it. Just having a small glimpse whet my appetite for more.

mothergoosemouse said...

I love to hear about this stuff. And I definitely like your version MUCH better than Meghan Daum's essay on the same topic. ;-)

Nancy said...

This is great. I love hearing about people's past (and current) jobs. And I agree, isn't the best part of so many jobs the people?