Monday, January 26, 2009

One of 70,000

Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, was one of 70,000 people laid off by corporate America today.

Nelson's most recent editorial, entitled "Change I Believe In," which ran in today's issue begins:

Call me gullible or impressionable, but I'm actually feeling kind of hopeful this week. It's not just the new year or the inauguration (which I loved most for its goofs and gaffes) or even that—please, please—publishing business firings are coming to an end, at least for a while...

Perhaps someone should have listened to her.

I've largely refrained from writing lay-off (or as my polite UK colleague Roger might say, redundancy) stories. There have been so many jobs lost, that it has become a litany of woe. And it is nearly always unexpected. Just two weeks ago, after hearing of another round of lay-offs at Random House, I phoned a high level publicist there with whom I've worked for nearly a decade, just to see if he would pick up the phone. He did, but said that everyone was "extremely nervous." The next day I got an email...from his personal account, as my friend no longer had a desk. He too had been let go.

It's curiouser and curiouser how publishing companies will be able to run with such reduced staff. (I'm getting more publicity pitches that begin "Hi! I'm excited to be joining the campaign for..." as new bodies take over responsibilites for new titles -- and we know what that bodes for a book's success).

Publishing in New York tends to the favor the young -- novelists who are still fresh and dewy like newly sprouted grass, sales, publicity and editorial assistants willing to suffer living in a remote studio apartment in Queens.

The middle aged, are valuable so long as they can retain the contacts and clout to justify their larger salaries.

Publishing can be especially barren for those in their 30s (as am I) and 40s (as I almost am) for this is the period when one often starts to want get a bit more of a life -- be it have kids, get a bigger apartment for yourself/partner/aforementioned kids, or at the very least, start socking away a bit more money for a sense of security.

My casual observation is that publishing folks tend to jump ship around age 29, often to a new career -- editors become agents, lots of publicists I've known have become blushing Wall Street brides (fewer still, grooms), saavy marketing and sales people tend to leave to get an MBA.

Keeping a job in publishing for the long term is a bit of a gamble -- one with increasingly long odds.

So, who do I know who was fired this past month? Well, I'm closely acquainted with a dozen or so people, among them a woman seven months pregnant with her second child, a forty-something editor who couldn't contemplate another career and admitted me "I just don't know how to do anything but edit books," a white-haired senior sales staffer at a prestige publisher who I knew from my days as a bookseller in the late 1980s -- when back then he was a somewhat more spry and darker haired senior sales staffer.

Today, in addition to Sara Nelson, Daisy Maryles, the long serving executive editor who had been with PW for more than 40 years was among a handful of other senior editors let go.

The New York Observer, in reporting on PW's re-org, described Nelson as a kind of "den mother" to the publishing industry -- a statement that, while charitable, drew a snicker or two from the Observer's comments chorus (see Roger's previous post).

A book review editor, and father of three, who works for a newspaper that has shed 20% of its staff in the last year was aghast when I informed him of Nelson's dismissal.

"I all but thought her job was assured," he said, adding "It's starting to feel like we work in a World War I trench, just kind of waiting for the shell to hit."

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