Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Foot in the Door, a Brogue in the Basket

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A Foot in the Door, a Brogue in the Basket

Back when I was serving my time as an intern, there was an editorial assistant in the building who loved to wield her power over her underlings. She guarded proofs, manuscripts and information as though we were dastardly thieves rather than smart people working for free in exchange for a chance to learn. We were below her in the pecking order and by heck we knew it. One unsuspecting serf spent her first day at work cleaning out a fridge.

Mere months later, having graduated to a world of contracts of employment, I started my first full-time job-job, as an editorial assistant for a literary publisher in the UK. My new boss was a giant of the industry with a reputation as a publishing maverick. He also — I learned subsequent to accepting the job — had a reputation for making his assistants cry.

I think it’s fair to say he was an odd man to work for. Instead of an “in-tray” there was a large, rectangular basket, which each morning would be overflowing on my desk, and each evening would be returned to his office ready for a re-fill. It contained a bafflement of paper: printouts, newspaper clippings, receipts, edits in progress (these dog-eared chunks of marked-up manuscripts that never began at the beginning of the text). One morning, it contained a pair of large brown brogues. I filed, sorted, mailed and collated. I put the brogues quietly back next to his desk and said no more about them. The basket was a never-empty, time-sucking beast. Through all this, only once did my boss make me cry.

In addition to being an endless circulator of paper, however, my boss was a publishing gentleman, a stickler for details and a fount of knowledge about both the craft of publishing and everyone who practised it. Sometimes, coat already on and heading for the door, I would be detained by an impromptu publishing sermon – about printing, signatures, spine brasses, stitching, end papers, ligatures, colophons; about the precise number of millimetres house style dictated we leave between two design elements on a cover or the correct way to address an ambassador in person versus in correspondence.

These were finicky things I was never going to be sent on a course to learn, and I understood I had to accept them as and when they were offered, in a work environment in which there was little differentiation between work and leisure. Listening to the sermon might make me late for dinner, but it would also make me better at my job. And the lessons weren’t limited to the “proper” way of doing things. I wouldn’t realize this until years later, but I also learned – that one snot-crying occasion notwithstanding — a lot about being a good boss. He disliked my referring to myself as his “assistant” because, he said, “people must know they can come to you for an authoritative answer, not an ‘assistant-y’ one.” When he had an invitation for a book party that he couldn't or didn't want to attend, he offered it to me. One Sunday afternoon in London he volunteered me to take an author to see the new Pedro Almodovar movie (the author was Richard Ford). And one July while I was on vacation in New York, he saw to it that I had lunch plans with Roger Straus at his famous table 38 at the Union Square Café. Such are the social manipulations one can get away with when one is a respected and slightly eccentric gent who knows everybody.

His lessons on spelling, grammar and editorial pedantry were invaluable, but so too was the lesson about feeling secure enough in your position to share some of it around. (Such a contrast to the editorial assistant who kept her knowledge and contacts under lock and key.) An accomplished and visible staff reflects well on its leader, and so he treated me like a serious, grown-up publishing person who had business meetings in New York. I was frequently intimidated by the situations into which I was thrown, but I also left them feeling like I was someone taken very seriously in the field I which I wanted to succeed. I was only 23.

There’s a reason I’m reminiscing about all this. Earlier this month, the head count in my own office doubled (to two), and in the same week that someone started to work for me, Hothouse by Boris Kachka — the story of the late Roger Straus — landed on my desk. Reading it reminded me of what it felt like, so early into my career, to be both welcomed and challenged by the world of publishing, and to be backed by someone who wanted to help me progress.

The boss with the basket and I are still friends — he’s one of those publishing figures who, like the legendary Mr. Straus, will probably never retire. I’ve never seen the editorial assistant with a low opinion of her subordinates again, but she’s had a very successful career. Hopefully time and a better title have taught her to be nicer to the people who report to her. Meanwhile, a new crop of publishing grads is entering the world of work this fall. Ten years from now, what stories will they have to share about their first book business bosses?




Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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