On a Tuesday evening not long ago, a group of publishing assistants in their early 20s gathered in a well-appointed apartment on the West Side of Manhattan.
“Assistants: Meet the person on the other end of the telephone,” the email had said. Still in their workday Moscots and belted sweater dresses, they found live human beings and an assistant’s paycheck worth of cheese and wine, along with a gestural six-pack of beer that would go untouched.
Most of the guests were already connected through a network of private colleges on the East Coast. The prospect of an endless name game loomed. Some were on intimate terms, having attended the same summer camp, the Columbia Publishing Course.
For six weeks, at a cost of $7,000, Columbia University offers recent college graduates forgettable workshops, fleeting encounters with important editors and access to the best unlisted job openings in book publishing and magazines. After swift job placement, these hyper-literate 20-somethings occupy a peculiar professional class: the Assisterati. Their institutional affiliations lend them a sense that they are the caretakers, soon to be inheritors, of a sublime patrimony. Their proximity to literary creation–via email, telephone or fax–suggests they possess a cultural credibility they couldn’t acquire in, say, Chicago, or on Wall Street. Underpaid but brimming with hope, they, like the people they assist, will one day run this town and steer the course of American literature. That is, if they stick around with their egos intact.
THE ASSISTERATI ARE hired for their taste, their poise and their pedigree, but once they settle into their cubicles, these traits are about as valuable as perfect punctuation in the cover letter of a slush submission.
“The things that are the hardest, or maybe scariest, for me are admin things, like phones, paperwork–especially tax forms!” a 22-year-old assistant to a literary agent told The Observer from her office, over Gmail chat.
A distinguished if not currently prominent author recently took a meeting with the assistant’s boss and upon arrival, standing not three feet from her desk, said, “Have your girl print my boarding pass for my flight this afternoon and bring me a coffee.”
“I felt like I should be wearing a tight, white sweater and stenographer headphones,” she said.
That writer’s expectations weren’t far off. Thanks to industry-endemic budget tightening, the publishing assistant’s duties have steadily declined on an asymptote toward the menial. More and more time is spent scheduling lunches, taking minutes and mailing galleys (often to the other members of the Assisterati, with chatty notes on their personal stationery). They may be drafted into bartending a party–a debasement of one of the job’s few perks. Little of their workday is left to discover the next Lorrie Moore; to read the thousands of manuscripts you have to mine to find The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, they sacrifice their weekends.
The Assisterati’s bosses are the gatekeepers to the kind of meaningful work–acquiring or editing books–that they must master in order to move up the ladder. Even the most effete or doddering editor exerts the power of a colossus over his charge.
“You definitely have a certain worshipful attitude,” a 23-year-old editorial assistant explained. “If they sucked, where would you be? You play a shell game when you fuck up, so you can fix things without your editor knowing they went wrong.”
“I spent easily 80 percent of my workweek with my boss,” remembered Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants. “He would talk to me about his kids. I knew his Social Security number. I still know his doorman’s cell phone number by heart.”
Assistants who fail to form a productive connection with their masters often make a lateral move, to try again under another editor or with a different company, as Ms. Marcus did. Others defect for M.F.A. programs, law school, a journalistic stint in a Third World country or a follow-your-bliss move like pastry school.
Only one of the mostly early-stage Assisterati The Observer spoke with at the party betrayed such fatigue. She likes the work, but it’s not a good fit personality-wise, she said with utmost diplomacy. She’ll consider leaving after the one-year mark.
The rest of the crowd still wore a honeymoon glow. One had started a literary magazine! Another had contributed his fiction to said magazine, thanks to a referral by the hostess.
Two assistants discussed the dinner their bosses have planned, delighted that both had logged it in their calendars as “Bros’ Night.” Another could barely contain his affection for his imprint’s most well-known editor.
“He’s the man,” he said, reeling back. He, too, stands the chance of being the man one day, but that night he looked like a boy.
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
“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.