Among the Assisterati: Bottoms Up with the Highbrow Bottom Feeders

THE FACTIONS WITHIN the Assisterati are as fractious as the tribes of Tripoli. At the top of the hierarchy are the assistants to editors, publishers and agents who deal exclusively with decorated or soon-to-be-decorated writers. (“Mr. Roth is on line 2, Andrew.”) The next tier down are those whose bosses manage the mid-list, novelty books and books by comedians, celebrities or bloggers. (“She has over 10,000 followers-an instant market!”) Then there is the extra-literary fringe of Assisterati who toil under book publicists, salespeople and marketers. (“I was on the phone all day with Powell’s.”) Literary scouts, often foreign, are something of a wild card.

Each clan has its own folkways, troubles and traits. Publicity assistants are pretty and personable. Editorial assistants are earnest keepers of the flame but report to work each day knowing that they essentially work in manufacturing. Literary scouts’ assistants are world-weary polyglots–and sometimes exotic. And literary agents’ assistants are soldiers, a writer’s biggest advocate and first line of defense. This is both a point of pride and a source of anxiety.

“I just get so worked up,” confessed a literary agent’s assistant. “Before I call, I have to decide what I’m going to say, then they don’t answer, so I hang up. Then I don’t want to be the guy who called 10 times, so I have to wait, get up and take a walk around the office and plan the message I’m going to leave.”

Lurking among the phone answerers and galley swappers are a few who quietly believe that their destiny is not to sit in their bosses’ seats but to become writers. Yet it is an aspiration left unspoken.
    
SIX MONTHS AGO, if you had asked me what I wanted to be doing, working as a marketing assistant is the last thing I would have said,” said a young hire at a mass-market publisher. The Observer caught up with her in between her day job in book sales and her second job. She said she wanted to handle literary fiction “like everyone else.” But with student loans looming, she took the first gig that came along. Still, she allies herself socially with the editorial side.

“My core group is editorial kids, mostly.”

What about the publicists?

“Not really, no. Publicity assistants even have a different look. It’s their job to be appealing; a lot of them come from fashion industry.” Another editorial assistant turned down a position in a publicity department.

“I knew a better job was coming,” he said.

“Editorial assistants look down on publicity assistants to overcompensate for the fact that publicity assistants typically work saner hours, enjoy more opportunities for advancement,” Megan Hustad, a onetime assistant who has worked as an editor at various houses, told The Observer in an email. “And yet, in the editorial assistant’s mind, publicity assistants are stupider. Oh, the ironies.

“Publicity assistants also don’t metabolize vodka as quickly, if memory serves,” added Ms. Hustad, the author of How to Be Use
ful
.

“It’s all women,” said one publicity assistant. It’s a popular criticism of publishing generally, though the Assisterati encountered at the party tweaked the ratio by extending the invitation to male-trending New Yorker staffers.

When a song with a workable beat came on, a pixieish publicist dimmed the lights. A group of women congregated in the corner of the living room began to bounce in time. The hostess turned the lights back on.

“You always try to start dance parties!” someone scolded. 

It was hardly 10 p.m., but the assistants took their cue to disperse for Williamsburg, Harlem or another party in Chelsea. But first, an assistant made sure to connect with one of the dancing vanguard. She had a birthday party coming up.

kstoeffel@observer.com