What It Takes

What It Takes

Inside/Outside

By Shawn Coyne | Published: April 19, 2013

On my very first day in book publishing (way back in the typewriter days), I was forced to confront an age old dilemma.

Welcome to Publishing!

Even though I stupidly claimed that Beowulf was my favorite book at my interview, I’d been hired as editorial assistant to the editor in chief of a big mass market paperback publisher. As luck would have it, my first Monday was also “editorial meeting day” at this house. If you want to know what a publishing company is like, go to the editorial meeting. Everything you need to know will happen there. No matter what is discussed, you’ll be able to tell whether the company is doing well or not, who is riding high, who is in trouble, who is a toady, who has the chip on the shoulder, and every other important dynamic. It’s like a mandatory weekly Thanksgiving dinner with a multi-generational dysfunctional family.

As the assistants were en route to the big conference room overlooking Central Park, I made a very big mistake.

I walked into the room first.

As the fresh faced Newbie, I had no understanding of the professional culture or social faux pas. I barely knew where the bathrooms were. But I was playing it cool. Even with damp hands, an arrhythmic heartbeat and a stomach three quarters full of acid contending with an egg and cheese on a roll I’d eaten off the Halal cart on 52nd Street, I acted like Fonzie.

Rule number one for a person entering an alien environment? Don’t call attention to yourself!

The assistant to a senior editor (two steps down from an editor in chief) was tasked with showing the new guy the ropes. She was very nice.  After I found a seat, she excused herself to get a cup of water down the hall.

Then the other assistants came in.  They casually sidled up to the three quarter length windows above the waist high heating/air-conditioning built-ins along the north wall. It really was a spectacular view. I felt like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.

A 9:29:30 a.m., all four of the double doors were breached and an army of tweeded big shots marched through. They dumped dog-eared manuscripts and personalized coffee cups and pulled up pleather knock off Eames chairs to the twenty foot table. It was very exciting.

My assistant friend appeared across the room, empty handed but still had a very sweet smile on her face.

“Hey Kid!”

I swiveled around and looked up at someone who would have been called “a brassy broad” in the 1960s, but in the 1990s she was simply referred to as “The Publisher.”

“Get out of my chair!”

I was once terrified to play in a football game against a man named Bill Fralic, a monster lineman who became a four time NFL All Pro Offensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons and outweighed me by a hundred pounds. Fralic would have crumbled facing this powerhouse.

Now I’m a guy who enjoys a good laugh. But even as I write this, I’m having difficulty not hyperventilating. Twenty two years after the experience, I still remember standing up amidst a din of duped Charlie Brown like laughter. I then saw fifteen editorial assistants sitting on the raised built-in heating/AC units having the time of their lives. Not one of them told me that the conference table and chairs were only for editors…that assistants were supposed to sit on the side and keep their mouths shut until they brought money into the house instead of sucking it out of it.

So what was the timeless dilemma?

The insiders had hazed the outsider. Happens all the time.

But after being the butt of a joke, the outsider can do one of two things. He can define himself right then and there as a rogue, swallow the humiliation and use it to fuel an “I’ll show them!” ambition. He’ll take everything personally.

Or he can retreat into himself, learn the “rules” of rising in that world, and then do what’s necessary politically to become a member of the tribe. He’ll not make waves, he’ll ride them.

I wish I could tell you that I saw clearly enough back then to know that those two choices and that way of looking at the world are complete bullshit.

The truth is that the whole insider/outsider myopic view is just another form of Resistance. The fact that the assistants set me up back then didn’t mean they didn’t like me. In fact, they probably did. I must have given them the impression that I could handle a little ribbing. I wasn’t some fragile wackadoo…and there are plenty of those in book publishing who spend years without uttering a word.

I didn’t freak out on anyone after the joke either. I laughed right along with the publisher and the rest of the company. And guess what, she always said “hello” to me after that. Even though she always called me “Kid,” she learned my name. She asked me questions. One I never did answer well was “Whaddya know?” But she listened to my opinions about projects when we rode the same elevator and when a job opened and I sought it out even though I’d only been there a year, she promoted me. Take that, suckers!

I used to debate in my mind whether she gave me the job because I wasn’t afraid to stand out or because she’d brought me into her inner circle. It took me two decades to understand that she didn’t give me anything. I earned that job.

She didn’t give me a chance because I was an “insider” or because I had the fire of an “outsider.” She gave me a chance because I did the work. When she was in on the weekends, she saw me there too. When she asked me to read something, she got a report on her desk the next day. If she took the time to solicit ideas from the window seats, I spoke up. I made an ass out of myself more times than I’d like to admit but I watched, read, and learned.

While I thought I was doing it back then to “show them!” I really wasn’t. “Showing them!” doesn’t put your ass in a midtown office chair on a Sunday morning reading slush and writing flap copy. I didn’t do that out of spite. I did that because I love book publishing.

Posted in What It Takes

13 Responses to “Inside/Outside”

  1. April 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Whenever I read stories like this one, I feel like I’m the one who wrote them. It’s interesting how someone else can talk about an experience of him, and you unconsciously associate it with something that happened to you.

    Or maybe it’s just me.

  2. April 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I usually don’t comment, but just read along. Lately, I have been trying to be a good girl and comment more. So I will say, I really enjoy reading your posts. They come to my email and you’re one of the few that I take the time to really read and digest. I love how you write, and love the stories you tell. There is always all much to learn from them.

  3. April 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    I’m with A.H Browne. When I’m super busy I’ll just delete everything unessential that comes into my inbox, like I did today. These posts never get deleted. I always find them useful and inspiring.

  4. Smitty
    April 23, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I can truly relate to this story. Even though became a insider over time, you retained you outsider mentally by determination and hard work.

    • Smitty
      April 23, 2013 at 8:54 am

      I can truly relate to this story. Even though you became an insider over time, you retained your outsider mentally by demonstrating determination and hard work. Sorry about the previous post, typing to fast.

  5. Katherine
    April 23, 2013 at 9:18 am

    My husband called and asked what I was doing. “I’m reading about writing.”

    Steven Pressfield says, “Do the work.”

    I’ll be going now.

  6. April 23, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Doing the work is always the most important thing !

  7. GB
    April 24, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I can totally see how this applies to my workcenter. If you’re new, you should keep your mouth shut so you can take in as much as possible and understand your place. Too many newbies think they know it all after being there for 5 minutes and don’t take the time to listen and ask questions. They immediately think that they can take control of the situation before truly learning from someone that’s been there awhile. I’m not saying they don’t have good ideas or can add something to the team, but they should sit back for a bit first.

  8. TS
    April 24, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    I totally agree GB. However, a lot could be said for an old hat to take advice/feedback from a peer. I get that you should shut your mouth when youre new so as to learn as much as you can. To me you need to understand the way the machine works before you try to make adjustments. But as a mature team member you should be able to take correction and feedback no matter what direction its coming from. Just my two cents…

  9. IAcon
    April 24, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I think John Maxwell said it best when he stated “if you’re talking, then you’re not listening and you’re not learning.” Sometimes it’s best to just listen so that you can learn and possibly through that learning process you’ll discover what it takes to be the best at whatever you’re striving for!

  10. DFLO
    April 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I agree that when you’re talking, you’re not listening or learning…totally agree with that. My question when it comes to that though is, at what point do you know to speak up or even let “them” know you have something of value to say or give credible input? If you sit in silence for so long then what does that say about your motivation, your initiative? Is it not a good idea to let them know you are not the “wet behind the ears” newbie that they assume you to be? I definitely agree with silence in order to learn but there is no measuring cup from what I’ve gathered so silence until we’re spoken to…got it…but when will the time ever be right? The measurement cup is different for everyone so the right time for one may not be for another and therefore you will never be “on time.”

  11. Sing
    April 25, 2013 at 8:04 am

    Currently being the “newbie” myself in my organization, I can relate to many aspects of this post and some of the comments made. I am in the mode of taking that step back, overserving, listening. There are waves to be made but I was put in the position to make those waves and I will definitely be one who rides them. I don’t necessarily agree that you should keep our mouth shut because you’re new but you can’t go busting down the door and making changes, or making those waves, until you do “understand the way the machine works” as TS stated above.

  12. MAN
    April 25, 2013 at 8:33 am

    You all have good points. I agree that you should wait and diagnose the situation before speaking up when you are new to an organzation. You want to make sure you understand the place as far as policies and procedures before speaking up about topics discussed. I agree DFLO that each persons ‘wet behind the ears’ as you stated is different, I think you will know when the time is right for you to speak up.