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This morning I was thinking about book publishers in BC, the regional guys, and why they stay so small and exclusive and difficult to work for. Even a big publisher/distributor like Raincoast never posts actual job openings. Their website forbids employment inquiries by email, and no contact name or department is given even if you did call them up. Before I worked for “W” Books, I remember calling up Raincoast to ask about available internship opportunities. They put me through to a mystified-sounding woman who seemed absolutely stunned when I said “I thought you may need extra help when that new Harry Potter book comes out.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Won’t you be having events, promotions, that sort of thing?” I said.
“Yes, well, you can send us your resume and we’ll keep it on file.”
“What’s the address?”
“Just send it to the general email and we’ll get it.”
It took a couple of personal connections just to get a part-time volunteer internship at “W”. I even went part-time at my job at the bookstore. A few months later, there was a personnel shake-up higher on the food chain, and I was hired as a publishing helper monkey/receptionist. Then a little more than a year later, I was laid-off. In between the two events, I witnessed some bizarre cost-and morale-cutting measures that included restricting access to basic office supplies, layoffs of coworkers hired even more recently than I was, demotions of longtime staff, a sudden switch to part-time hours for a 3-month period, and complete and total disdain by the owners. We called them their Highnesses.
When I was given the boot, I could see the two of them through the window, getting in the BMW to go play tennis at the country club. I also learned that He had to be talked out of laying me off while I was away on my honeymoon.
According to former co-workers, the madness has continued – the production/editorial group was ordered to stop having coffee together and everyone has been forbidden to write personal reference letters for others who have left or are leaving the company.
This is might be an extreme example, but then again, I don’t any other publishing companies cropping up on “Best Companies to Work For” lists in BC Business or Macleans. I think one reason for this is that a lot of these companies were started either by optimistic young salesmen or hippies/activists in the late sixties/early seventies era. Book publishing being kind of an archaic pursuit and not a big moneymaker, it attracts iconolastic personalities who either couldn’t or wouldn’t spend time and money on developing management and people skills. The cachet of the book business means they have always had a steady supply of new workers who will live for words first and cash second. I was definitely one of the latter, but haven’t got the energy to go through another internship and shaky employment situation just because I like to read.
The Book Publishers Association of BC doesn’t even post any job openings, and their advice on getting a job in publishing is hopelessly naïve. I’ve gone to the workshops, I’ve networked and interned, but if the jobs are so elusive and ill-paid and the companies managed like fiefdoms, why do I want to try so hard for them?
Working with creative people, putting out good writing, getting free books, and feeling like a part of a community are all wonderful intrinsic payoffs. But I’m not going to work for those baby boomer ass clowns again. I’m going back to school and I’m going to do it for myself.


Update: This post has been changed to remove proper names and direct links to the publishing company I worked for. It was inconsistent with the general policy on this blog to be naming names, but the intent of the post remains. It would be dishonest to delete it altogether. Thanks for reading.

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A team of researchers from Britain recently studied the attribute of territoriality in drivers. They measured how long it took for a driver to vacate a parking space when someone was waiting for it versus when no one was around. On average, if someone was waiting for the space, drivers took an average of 37 seconds to vacate for the next person. If no one was waiting, the average time was 30 seconds. How do I get a job on one of those research teams, anyway?

It’s interesting to me how we think about what spaces we’re entitled to appropriate outside of our own homes. Drivers go mad if someone “cuts them off” or follows so closely that all sorts of ass-related comebacks spring to mind like “If you’re not a hemorrhoid…” because in their own minds, they occupy the road on which they travel. Over on the garlic wagon, it is verboten for passengers to sit too closely together on a near empty bus. On a full bus, how many times does a driver have to shout “Move to the back of the bus!” before someone obediently releases their grip on the handhold and shuffles a couple token steps along the aisle?

Label makers become tools of the devil in the hands of workers who take office supplies seriously. Even a polite “Please return to Bob’s desk” benignly pasted to a stapler is a stapler pissed on and spoken for. One worker I saw went so far as to claim his warehouse cart with a note secured with packing tape. The felt tip message spelled out consequences for anyone who took the dolly without his expressed permission: “Take this cart and Die!!!!”

In a city where real estate is king and buyers are baited with promises of views, we start thinking that the space in front of us belongs to us too. Apartments and houses are touted with such selling points as Magnificent Views! 180 Views! City Views! Mountain Views! Even when it isn’t perfect and you can still see something (anything), it might be promoted as Peekaboo View or Partial View. Buyers of suites in swanky waterfront buildings freak out and call their lawyers when someone else decides to build another tower in front of them – oops, no view for you, suckers. Neighbours sue neighbours when trees are planted or cut down, or when a height extension to a house or new construction threatens the view, and therefore the property values. In my old neighbourhood, residents of one house were so upset by the dramatic heightening of the roofline of house directly in front of them that they sued for mental anguish caused by loss of their views.

I have to admit that I’m looking at a pretty fine view right now – City! Mountains! Sky! – from my little temp’s chair. Its not an extension of me, I don’t own it, I’m just glad to be here. Before long, I’ll be out the door again (from sitting all day in someone’s else’s cubicle, guarding the boss while she’s on vacation) and riding in my little space bubble on transit all the way back to my home, door locked firmly behind me, cursing the neighbours bass.

Beware of anyone carrying a clipboard.

They will inevitably ask you to do something menial.

Your best defence is a pile of large binders with one strategically open next to the computer.

Don’t carry a clipboard.

I suddenly remember that I need more coffee just as they remember something they need to delegate.

Happy New Year, I’m spending January in sensible hibernation.

Its kind of sweet how people at the companies I am temping for ask me “What are you going to do now?” Its almost as if they are worried or concerned about what happens when the temp falls off the face of their earth. They must think this is a very strange way to work, jumping from place to place.

When I got laid off last year, it was a giant kick in the teeth. I never wanted to depend on anyone else for a living. We let kids grow up with the idea that if they work hard, get good grades, and perform well in a job, they will be successful and promoted to do all kinds of exciting things. Sad to say, if you choose the wrong company and the wrong bosses no amount of hard work will mean squat. Especially for chicks, there’s danger in being too good at all those menial things junior office girls do to keep things running smoothly. And god help you if you want to get promotion with a company which is run by 3 or more people with the same last name. (Can you say “oligarchy”?)

So I temp because then I don’t have to care about it. When I love a project or a job, I care to the point of obsession – have fitful dreams about shelving books, do endless mental edits of letters that need writing, or forget to eat because I am determined to beat Pagemaker into submission.

Its no one’s ideal job to sit at someone else’s desk and try to look busy all day. But its a way to work without getting attached. Temps are a blip in the working lives around us. Its sweet of the “perms” to care, to make these inquiries into the rest of my life.

But I’m uncomfortable discussing why I am here in their space and what it is I really do. Next week I am gone anyway.

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