December 08, 2024

If I worked at Penguin...

In reading these questionnaires from various staff members at Penguin UK regarding what they actually do, I'm reminded how much I pine for a mythic version of the publisher as lackadaisical tippler, cigar-smoking canoodler, bedder of assistants with a brandy snifter and a wide oak desk brimming with proofs and typescript manuscripts. The closest I've come to it was the boozy lunches and bowties when I worked at a publishing house in London, but I was assigned technical journals on glues and polymers, which didn't quite carry the same romantic punch.

Penguin was my hold-out for a while, though I'm dismayed to read that it's less about ink-stained fingers, egos, and smoking pipes with Graham Greene and more about emails and sales figures. But if I worked at Penguin...

Who are you and what do you do?
Who the hell do you think you are? I am a publiher--lionized and misunderstood. You may dismiss me as a necessary appendage to a Wolfe, a Greene, or a Huxley, but fear me as a despotic deity who, by a simple publishing whim, turn a scribbling busboy from Milwaukee into the toast of Union Square and then just as quickly cut the second-book option, sending him back into the dustheaps. Or, by turning a blind and capricious eye to talent, cause an author to set fire to his home with five hundred pages of the Next Big Thing as kindling.

What's the first thing you do every morning?
Breakfast at Gordon Ramsay's followed by a peruse of the morning's book reviews and calling in lunch for later, reading the Times for the evening's picture shows.

What do you spend most of your time doing?
Mixing brandy with tea, buying Hockney paintings, throwing away advances, expensing out lunches and bunches of flowers.

What's the best thing about your job?
"I can't promise you vast royalties. All I can promise you is immortality."

What's the worst thing about your job?
Thwarting T.S. Eliot's sexual advances, listening to C.S. Lewis go on and on about god and Aslan...They are egos of my own creation.

What's the department like?
Oh it's rather like my rooms at Oxford...chaps coming and going, musty pipe-smoking around the electric kettle, a bit of skirt now and then. From my office I have a view of the merry-go-round of agents and authors spinning down the hall--beautiful wives who have given their rich and unloving husbands overdoses of alcohol and sleeping pills and have now turned to the therapy of memoir, which I am in turn supposed to slap a pretty cover on and sell to book clubs and daytime talkshows like putting lipstick on a pig, drunk poets spending thousands in grant monies 'recording' the everyday sounds of Brooklyn or cataloguing their homosexual encounters in the Tenderloin, or old farts in tweeds still trying to milk the teat of a muse dried up, whose only chance at keeping the Tuscany villa the royalty payments can no longer afford involves endlessly reshuffled Collected Writings and ephemera.

Advice to someone who wants to start in the business?
A publisher is a rogue--a poor god, if I may say so. The publisher himself knows deep down he is generous and daring, a thoughtful financier, a gambler on talent and future whose acumen alone keeps Alexandria from burning but whose in it for the sport and wouldn't quit the game for all the gold in Fort Knox.

y'all fucked it up tonight, minneapolis; shoppers bite back; university presses and print-on-demand; the toc of broken dreams

Posted by jason at December 8, 2024 02:13 AM

So if you were opulently successful, you'd be straight?

Posted by: mike at December 10, 2024 12:32 AM
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