Tales from the assistant’s desk: It’s not you . . . it’s me

By Sara Cleary, Acquisitions Assistant

Our editorial director, Greg Britton, once told us a story about an editor who gift-wrapped advance book copies before sending them to authors. Since then, I have noticed that I take a little extra care with advances in the mailroom. Perhaps it is only a selfish thing on my part—after all, opening a well-wrapped package containing one’s own book may not be to everybody’s liking—but I can’t help but envision the joy that authors must have when receiving the paper fruition of their efforts. By the same token, the drafting of each rejection letter always inspires a bit of pain on my part.

It is somehow fitting, I suppose, that an editorial assistant is the designated person at the JHU Press to draft the letter of rejection after an editor decides not to pursue a project. Young, ambitious, and full of wide-eyed optimism about the future of publishing, we are probably the most empathetic of employees. After all, we’re not too far from days of rejection ourselves—it isn’t easy to find entry-level jobs in publishing (or in any career path, for that matter). So when I open Microsoft Word with an author’s proposal in hand, I do try to spell their name right, type the title of the book correctly, and make sure there’s a little optimism in there; in short, do something so that they know that the proposal was read and it matters.

That’s not to say, however, that we assistants don’t have our moments of cynicism. The spectrum of book proposals is wide, and I cannot lie: sometimes the proposals on the periphery are the most enjoyable to read. There is one proposal in particular—it came to another assistant’s desk in the form of a postcard with images of wildlife on the front—that I find myself revisiting on rainy days. Sent from someone I can only deduct is an uber-religious conspiracy theorist of sorts, the author was willing to share with the Press a recent discovery concerning the Kennedy assassination. The postcard is signed: “If interested, contact me with what it’s worth to you, and what’s in it for me.” I can’t help but wonder what kind of advance he or she was hoping for . . . .