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Wednesday, March 14, 2007


In defence of PAs

I've noticed something in writers talking about rejections from publishers and agents that we might call the Lowly Assistant Complaint. Having sent their manuscript, to, say, the agent who runs the company, they get back a letter from that agent's PA, saying that their work isn't right for the agency. Some people do the right thing, which is deal with it, dust themselves off and carry on applying elsewhere, but some people conclude that, because the rejection came from an assistant, it doesn't count.

This can manifest to different degrees of intensity, depending on the personality of the writer. At its more benign levels, it is expressed as, 'Well, it only came from the assistant. Maybe I should ask again.' At its nastiest levels, it's assumed that some upstart assistant is standing between the writer and their rightful agent - an assumption that's sometimes made when there's been nothing but an anonymous form rejection, as in 'I bet some lowly assistant just binned my work without even looking at it!'

So I'd like to point something out: agents' and editors' assistants are not to be sneered at.

I say this partly because I've met plenty of them and liked them, so it makes me sad to hear them being insulted, but it's also silly. If someone's working at an agency or publisher you consider worth querying, then they will have had to impress the boss to get the job - and trust me, getting a job in publishing is bloody difficult. Fiction is difficult-within-difficult, very hard indeed. Because the work is interesting, it's massively over-subscribed; you can get hundreds of applicants for a good job. As a result, to get even the lowliest of assistant jobs requires being very impressive.

And actually, being an assistant isn't lowly. It's the first step on the ladder; dozens of big-shot agents and editors began that way. You have to start at the bottom and stick around for years, gathering experience and knowledge, making connections, working your way up. The lowly assistant of today may be the managing director of tomorrow. Modern publishing doesn't have secretaries; the notion that because someone opens a letter they're nothing more than a 'letter-opener', to quote a charming phrase I've heard, is ignorant. Even at the entry level, the job requires intelligence and skill; if somebody was just a brainless office drone, qualified for nothing but filing and taking messages, then believe you me, they wouldn't be working at that company.

It is, at base, a snobbish assumption. I've run into it myself when I was younger - I remember encountering one author who practically bit my ear off because I asked him for a fact he hadn't included when leaving a message. He later, in fact, complained to my employer about it, because I'd dared to be less than totally submissive. (My employer was on my side.) Really, all I'd done was ask politely for a clarification, but he was outraged that a mere phone-answerer would presume to question him. Now, he was right that I was answering the phone, but he was wrong in assuming this meant I was nothing more than a nail-painting empty-headed typewriter girl, if such a creature ever actually existed. He had an Oxbridge education, which he concluded meant that he was superior, but actually, so did I. I had a degree from Cambridge. I'd won prizes there, darn it. I'd studied under the Poet Laureate. I had a literary agent. I was, thanks to a supportive boss, doing considerable and varied work in that company. Yes, I'd answered the phone, but that was because it was ringing and somebody had to pick it up. To assume that because I wasn't the boss and had picked up a handset, I must be a negligible person, was simply purblind.

And - here's the thing - I was, despite being so all-fired impressive as I've just made out, much lower-ranking than the PA of a prestigious agent. Those were people I looked up to.

I've met plenty of assistants in the publishing world, and none of them were lowly. They were, in fact, intelligent, able, graceful, ambitious people, who, when I started submitting, were frankly were far more successful in their careers than I was. I meet them in the agency that represents me now, and my admiration of them remains undiminished; truth be told, I still look up to them. They are outstanding people, who it's a privilege to know.

As such, their opinions should be respected. If the agency trusts an assistant enough to let her handle rejections, then that means she's been designated as their chosen representative: she speaks for the company. You'll probably never know how the decision was taken - maybe the assistant did all the reading on your manuscript and made a decision she was authorised to make (especially as she's read the books that the agent has accepted, so will have a good sense of that agent's taste); maybe the top agent read it but passed on the job of answering to the PA - but you have to respect their judgement, because their employers do. If you call the agent or editor and say 'Your stupid assistant turned down my work, but let's talk properly,' the boss is, I guarantee, not going to be on your side. In fact, condemning someone's PA is insulting their judgement, because they're the one who hired her and trusts her with important work.

Objecting because you heard from the PA rather than the managing director, in short, is like objecting because you got served by the waiter rather than the restaurant owner. They're part of the same team.

I can understand why people assume that a lowly letter-monkey must be the one who turned them down. It's consoling to think that a rejection came from someone whose opinion is negligible; rejections are painful, and it's natural to want to minimise them. But if you know how high the quality of skill, commitment and intelligence at the assistant level of publishing is, it's a small consolation in itself. Whoever looked at your work, it was someone respectable; an assistant's letter doesn't mean you weren't taken seriously. It just means the same thing an agent or editor's letter means: sigh, brush yourself down and get back on the road. Pretty much exactly the same thing, in fact, because the assistants are probably just as intelligent as the agents and editors. Given the career ladder, the likeliest difference is that they're just younger.

In any case, don't knock assistants, okay, guys? They're good people. (Not that you would, of course, because you're all too nice.)

I see no reason to treat PA's as anything other than fellow human beings with an equal capacity to be annoying or wonderful, to be right or wrong.

It's weird to me that there are writers out there who have issues with individuals within publishing. I mean I object to the way that the publishing industry works but you can't blame the cogs for the machine.

As far as I can tell PA's can be incredibly useful in terms of getting manuscripts published sometimes and other times they may be a hindrance. I don't know if its apocryphal or not but wasn't harry potter supposedly rejected and then un-rejected when a PA took the manuscript home, read it, and then gave it back to the publisher again?

Anyway to waste too much time getting annoyed about rejection is pointless as you say. And sending an already rejected manuscript back to the same publisher/agent is a waste of both time and money and resources.
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