Tags: business trip, the publishing industry, what does an agent do?
The publishing industry is almost exclusively based in Manhattan. There are a few holdouts, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and some smaller independent presses here in Boston, but the big players — Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, etc. — are in New York. As a literary agent, my job is to find great writers, help them develop their manuscripts and/or book proposals into scintillating, compelling pitches, and then to go sell those manuscripts or proposals to editors in New York.
Each major publishing house is divided into imprints. For example, Random House has three major imprints: the Random House Publishing Group, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and the Crown Trade Group. And within each of these three major imprints are lots of sub-imprints, each with their own personality and bureaucracy of editors and marketers. If you are a writer of literary fiction, publishing your novel with the sub-imprint Alfred A. Knopf, a division of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, would be a dream. If you’re writing a book about food and health, the Ballantine imprint under Crown might be your home. And this is just one publishing house. An agent must learn what kind of books the different editors at the different imprints are acquiring and, in doing so, find the right editor and right home for her author.
Are you confused? Yes, me too. It is a bit overwhelming at times, but you do learn by osmosis and immersion. Every time I travel to New York, then, I’m meeting with editors at the various publishing houses. I actually printed out a map of Manhattan and highlighted each of the major publishers, and I keep this homemade map over my desk so that when I plot out my trips I know that it would be impossible to meet with someone at Harmony Books (a Crown imprint at Random House) at 11 a.m. up at Columbus Circle, have lunch with someone at St. Martin’s near the Flatiron Building, and then make a 2 p.m. meeting at Viking (a Penguin imprint) down on Hudson & Houston. Instead, I try to plan a day visiting a number of editors at one house or at most two houses in close proximity, such as Simon & Schuster (Rockefeller Center) and Harper Collins (53rd & Fifth).
These meetings take place either in the editors’ offices or over coffee or lunch or drinks. Editors need to acquire books. They get these books from agents. I may have the next “The Help” in my list. So it is ostensibly worth their while to take me to a nice lunch. In turn, I find out about their preferences. For example, I met with an editor yesterday who used to be a magazine editor at Details and GQ. He acquires only nonfiction, and journalistic, narrative nonfiction at that. So I’d never pitch him a novel. I met with another editor who acquires mostly fiction, specifically what she (wonderfully) describes as “car crash fiction” — a book which, when you read it, is akin to driving past a car crash: you can’t look away and you think, “Wow, I’m glad that wasn’t me. And yet I can’t stop thinking about what happened.” I would never pitch her a Grisham-esque thriller or “chick lit” (but that’s fine, of course, because there are hundreds of other fiction editors who would love such titles).
Then there’s also general networking and client cultivation: I meet with current clients, potential clients (people I’m wooing!), other agents, and other contacts, such as staff and professors at Columbia Journalism School who may be able to refer clients to me.
This is a job for an extrovert. Fortunately, I am one. I’m energized by New York, and I’m energized by speaking with smart people and hearing their ideas and discussing that which I have always loved more than perhaps anything else (inanimate, of course): books. But it’s also a business, and a business at which I very, very much want to be very, very successful. So I’m “on” all day long. I’m lugging a heavy bag around New York in heels (must rethink the bag; definitely would never rethink the heels!), hopping on the subway, using Starbucks restrooms. Some trips are day trips, but if I have to stay overnight I’ll take the train out to New Jersey and stay at the most comfortable hotel around — Chez Mom. Then I’m on a 7 a.m. commuter train back into the city with all the bankers.
Is it glamorous? Certainly more so than tax law. But it’s also work, and when I’m in New York, I work hard.
Tags: I love New York
I grew up in a New Jersey town perched on a ridge of hills overlooking Manhattan. At several points in town you crest a hill and see the skyline spread out before you. (Of course, it was from the crest of one of these hills that dozens and dozens of people gathered to watch lower Manhattan smolder on the evening of September 11, 2001. My familiarity with that skyline is why my breathe catches still when I see the city from across the river, or from a plane overhead, with that deep gap in lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers should be.)
After college, I attended Columbia Journalism School and was thrown out into the city to pound the pavement and report. Were there Metrocards in 1997? I can’t remember. (Certainly there were no cellphones.) I became intimate with the NYC subway system and to this day can get almost anywhere in Manhattan without a map. After Columbia, I lived in the city on and off for the next several years, training for a marathon in Central Park, living it up in champagne bars in Tribeca, watching the Gay Pride parade from a balcony in the West Village, having a drink on my aunt’s terrace on the Upper East Side. I was relieved when I left NYC for good in some ways — trying to have fun in the city on a journalist’s salary is, well, not fun. But it is the city I know best. Even though I have now lived in Boston far longer than I lived in NYC as an adult, I still can’t quite navigate my way through the South End or even the so-called Boston Financial District (and I actually worked there).
One of the many, many upsides to my new role as a literary agent is that the publishing industry is based in NYC, so I have to travel there often. (I’ll save what I actually do when I’m there for another post.) I get on an early morning Acela and by 10 a.m. I’ve popped out of the subway somewhere near one of the publishing houses, feeling like I’m in the midst of a lot of really important things happening all around me. You may be much hipper than I and so thus familiar with the acronym “FOMO” — “Fear Of Missing Out”. (I was introduced to it only relatively recently by a much hipper friend.) When you’re in the publishing industry but not based in NYC, visiting Manhattan stirs up a bit of FOMO — why don’t I live here? What could I accomplish if I did?
Alas, I’m now a Red Sox fan, raising children with Irish surnames in the Irish Riviera that is my husband’s hometown. I’m extraordinarily content. And, yet, when I stride confidently down Broadway, I also feel at home.
In the second grade I wrote a poem called “The City At Night.” It was so catchy that I remember it still:
The city at night is a wonderful sight,
As you walk down the moonlit street;
The smell of the air, the feel of the wind,
And your heart begins to beat.
A stroll down Newbury or Charles Streets just isn’t …. exciting. Boston doesn’t make my heart beat quite the way New York does — as it has always done.
Tags: billable hours, what is your hourly rate?
Were I practicing at a big corporate firm, my hourly rate would be about $500/hour by now. Yes, it would cost you $500 an hour for my legal advice. Which is so absurd because I’m only a fourth year associate and I don’t know anything. (The WSJ, in this article, explores the ridiculousness of junior associate rates and the ensuing corporate pushback.)
Anyway, the reality of BigLaw is, if you emailed me, and I responded to your email in my car while navigating the morning traffic on 93N, I’d bill you a quarter-hour’s time. Yup – $125 for an email illegally typed into my iPhone while watching the break-lights in front of me. Corporate law firms are called corporate law firms for a reason: their clients are exclusively (rich) corporations that can afford expensive legal services. In addition, one of the reasons they are paying someone like me close to $500 an hour is that they expect an immediate response to their emails or calls. They are paying me to email them back in traffic.
I won’t tell you what my new billable rate is, but it is quite a bit less. At the same time, I believe it is a fair rate for my level of expertise and experience and service. The upside is that with a lower billable rate, I can actually help individuals, as opposed to corporations. And these individuals have issues that affect their lives and livelihoods — a book they want to publish needs a libel review, a publishing contract needs to be marked-up in their favor, a movie producer wants to buy an option on their book. It feels good to help them. Guess what – I feel like a lawyer!
Am I going to charge these individuals — individuals with whom I have daily personal contact — a quarter-hour’s time just answer an email? Of course not. It’s much less fraught to bill a corporation than an individual, obviously. But at times I also find it difficult to even charge them for my actual time — valuable time for which they should be paying me. Individual clients, it turns out, read their monthly statements carefully and are not afraid to complain about charges. While you may take some sort of professional development class in law school, the whole client-services part of a legal practice is not something for which a standard corporate experience will prepare you. I’m still navigating this transition with some blunders, and I’m sure that where once I erred on the side of billing everything (adhering to the general BigLaw motto of “bill everything and let the partner mark down your time”), now I likely err on the side of not billing enough. It’s not because I don’t think I’m worth it, but more that I feel sorry for the people on the other end getting their bills. (My time does add up quickly!) Would a male lawyer have these reservations, worry about the feelings of his clients? (This actually is a topic of much debate in law-school professional development classes — the “compassionate lawyer”, etc.)
P.S. For those of you as obsessed with billing as attorneys seem to be, my friend MommyEsq., a former colleague who just went in-house, wrote just last week about why she actually misses the billable hour, here.
Tags: will I make friends in the suburbs
There were approximately 20 children at my house today. There were pigs in blankets, cupcakes, cookies and juice boxes, footballs flying around the house, balloons being popped by rowdy boys, my son grabbing sugar cookies off the counter and eating them in one bite.
For this I blame my friend Melissa. Her daughter is about a month younger than mine; her son about a month younger than Little O. Like me, she moved from the city to the suburbs not long ago. When I saw her at our college reunion this spring, we caught up on our respective suburban lives. I confided that I wasn’t yet sure I loved the ‘burbs. I missed the city and my friends there and that I could stroll to the playground or Starbucks and inevitably run into someone I knew. In the ‘burbs I felt somewhat lonely and, as an extrovert, somewhat adrift in a car-dependent world seemingly dominated by stay-at-home moms.
She was having the opposite experience. “I have never been so busy in my life,” she said. What are you talking about? I said. “I am more social than I ever was in the city,” she replied. Surely, I suggested, this is because you moved back to your hometown; you must know tons of people.
“Nope,” she said. “I hardly knew anyone. But I’m aggressive. Listen, if you meet someone nice at Starbucks or at preschool, get her number and then text her the next day. Get coffee. Or better yet, wine.”
Really? I said. You’re truly that forward?
“I go on dates,” she said. “Basically: You’ve got to stalk.”
We’ve now lived here for two years, and I’m finally feeling like every time I go to the grocery store I run into someone I know. But when I saw my friend again a few weeks ago she asked me about my social progress. “Eh,” I admitted. “I’m a working mom. It’s hard to grab coffee.” She raised an eyebrow, clearly insinuating that I was being lame. So when I got home that night, I bit the bullet: we were going to have a Sunday afternoon Patriots party. I invited some neighbors and some friends we had gotten to know poolside at our little swim/golf club over the summer.
Everyone one could attend, it turns out. So some Barefoot Contessa chicken chili, a seven-layer dip, and Costco artichoke spread later, there were some 12 families, with on average two children each, at our house. I think my kids are going to wake up puking at 2 a.m. from all the sugar, but hopefully they’re too tired to do so.
Oh yes we did. Patriots balloons.
Little Bug impatiently waits for our guests.
Tags: Who makes more money?
As any lawyer-mom will tell you, as stressful as stressing about your billable hours may be, just as stressful are the spousal negotiations that occur along the lines of “whose job is more important?” (This isn’t limited to lawyer-moms, I know — one of my doctor friends has the same negotiations with her doctor-spouse.) Weekends may subtly simmer with resentment — who gets to work on Sunday afternoon? Anecdotal evidence tells me that generally, unless she’s closing a deal, it’s the lawyer mom whose work takes a backseat, and probably this is because she’s on some type of reduced-hours schedule to begin with. So, let’s say because of those reduced hours or just because of the nature of their respective jobs, she’s making less money than her husband. Though I think all of us educated feminists are loathe to admit it, whether consciously or unconsciously, because we earn less money, even though our jobs are just as demanding as our spouses’, we end up losing that endless negotiation.
For me, this was one of the most difficult and stressful aspects of BigLaw. I was a junior associate on reduced hours, and I made rather significantly less money than my husband. He’s not an attorney, and I respect the responsibilities and demands that his executive position brings. But in my profession, I was being evaluated on a wholly objective standard — the billable hour. Whether or not I was on reduced time, if I didn’t bill the hours, I wouldn’t progress or succeed. So if the nanny was sick or there was a doctor’s appointment or I didn’t work on the weekends, this had an immediate effect on my billables. And yet because I was the one working “part-time” those responsibilities fell to me. Don’t get me wrong — I wanted them to. But I also saw myself as the junior wage-earner and thus my job wasn’t as important. The billable hours slipped away, and I felt like a failure.
As you all know, I left BigLaw. I took a massive paycut. The upside of that paycut is an infinitely more flexible working environment — not to mention that I love my job. And yet here’s another upside: there’s no more job-related gamesmanship. My husband now makes much more than I do. In a way, he’s now the primary breadwinner. In addition, I’m not being evaluated solely on billables. So if he calls me at 5 p.m. and says, “Can I work late?” I no longer seethe with ill-concealed resentment. Or if he wants to go into the office on a Saturday, I’m a little bummed to miss out on the family time, but I don’t feel like his working highlights the fact that I’m not working (something which made me feel guilty and awful about my own work performance). If you know me, you know I am a flag-waiving feminist, so this next statement may sound very un-feminist: my husband’s job is more “important” than mine. And that’s OK. It’s our reality for the time being, a new reality and a risk we collectively undertook. Admitting it has taken away what I now realize was a corrosive undercurrent of stress and anxiety in our family life and in my professional life.
At my former BigLaw job, staying home when ill would make me feel worse than hauling myself into work sick as a dog. Oh, the anxiety! I would lie in bed feeling resoundingly guilty, my Blackberry burning up in my hand. I felt the need to reply to every email, every voicemail instantaneously. Mentioning that I was home sick was a sign of weakness, and anyway I was afraid no one would believe me. (What? Why did I think this? I have no idea.)
Yesterday, I emailed my colleagues around 7 a.m. to let them know I’d likely be in late morning — I had been up all night with some sort of stomach bug.
“Please don’t come in and get us all sick,” one pleaded. But I had a few emails that needed to be sent. “I’ll do it for you,” offered another colleague. Granted, this particular piece of business was agency-related, not billable legal work, but to offer to do it for me so I could stay home? Relief.
Later that morning, an email popped in my inbox from a legal client. Could we have a phone call at 11:30 a.m.? I emailed around to let everyone know that I’d call in. Immediately, another email from a colleague: “We don’t need you for this call! Back to bed!”
Is it my BigLaw work ethic or BigLaw fear that makes a legitimate sick day somehow worse than going into the office sick? I think it more likely that it is the latter!
Anyway, it’s fun working with non-lawyers, and even more fun working with lawyers who actually prefer me to stay home when sick.
I had the day off Monday for Columbus Day. Tim had to work, and our nanny had the day off, so it was me and the kids — the first time the three of us have been together all day in a long time. Too long, although as it turns out, a 20-month-old is very exhausting when you’re chasing him around all day.
The weather in New England this holiday weekend was summer-like — 80 degrees and sunny. On Saturday, along with the rest of New England, we went apple-picking. There was a 30-minute wait to find a parking spot, and as you may imagine, it was kind of a disaster — no shade, overpicked trees, lots of bees. But we managed to fill up our $17 plastic bag full of apples. On Sunday, we went down to the Cape and dipped our toes in the water, while the beach parking lots were jammed full and the ocean filled with bathers — we regretted not actually bringing our suits.
Monday, while Little O napped, Little Bug and I made applesauce from the surfeit of apples.
Then we all took a hike up in the Blue Hills and had a picnic. By hike, I mean “hike” (O lasted about 200 vertical feet), and by picnic I mean gummy worms eaten in the grass.
But they were tired and happy. We have a bit of a lovie addiction going on in our house, which at some point I’m going to have to address, but look how cute they are!
It was time to cut off the baby curls. Surprisingly, Tim resisted as much as I did, but finally the hints from our parents and especially our nanny (who kept telling us that people at the playground thought he was a girl. I mean, who really cares, but still…) sunk in. After I took about a million pictures, we hit SuperCuts on Saturday morning. Just like Tom Brady, he went from shaggy to chic. And oh my god he looks like a LITTLE BOY.
A little scared…
Voila! My little guy, at 20 months.