Perhaps it’s “unbecoming” of me, but it’s time to talk about money. April 15th has already come and gone, exacting its grim reckoning but all these profit-and-loss figures have a bracing way of insinuating themselves into my 4:00 AM nightmares. Having only owned a business for a few years, I find it endlessly interesting–and edifying–to lunch with other agents, to find out what sort of business model works for them. When I have lunch with editors, I talk about children and dogs, HRT and booksbooksbooks. When The Gentle Diva meets with agents, we talk about money: who is selling what and to whom, how much an accountant really has to cost, whether starting a pension plan is absolutely necessary, etc. And of course, we talk about our assistants and what to pay them, how frequently to offer them raises. We noisily wonder aloud if everyone really needs a full month off each calendar year? Our conversations don’t always recommend us; we can get fairly Scrooge-like but we do our best to be fair!
All this preamble brings me to a recent lunch conversation I had with an independent agent. Let’s call him Josh. Josh is a good guy, he’s a fun lunch because he gets so over-exercised when indignant and then I join him in the outrage-fest: before you know it, we’re no longer attacking the bread basket, we’re levitating in apoplexy. So what was pissing him off this time? Josh had just interviewed a young woman for an assistant position. She was radiantly qualified, with three years under her publishing belt, having worked at one of the largest-and most profitable agencies. The reason WHY this candidate was out job-hunting with Josh? Because she was making exactly ten bucks an hour! AFTER THREE YEARS!
“But. But…how can they do that?” I sputtered.
“Look,”Josh said, “if they let her go, they’ve got a line as long as a rock concert of people waiting for that opening.”
“But still, how can they do this?” I insisted.
“BECAUSE THEY CAN!”Josh said.
Wow. Because they can. Just. Wow. “Because they can” is just not an acceptable reason. First of all, it’s niggardly. It’s also penny-wise and pound-foolish—that assistant will eventually leave, with zero loyalty intact and just forget about the long-term costs of training someone afresh!
If you wait long enough, eventually New York Magazine will touch upon your subject. In the April 2nd issue, under the Intelligencer column, they devoted their space to “The Intern’s Burden”, having surveyed 100 of them. Some of their questions were silly and inspired equally silly responses: “What’s the most menial task you’ve been given at your internship?” Answer? “Buying lint rollers” or “Sharpening pencils”. Please, interns, get a grip here, you’re an intern, did you really expect to re-write code on international human rights? One of New York Magazine’s questions, however, was chilling: “Do you receive financial support from your parents?” to which a whopping 84% said, “Yes”. So here’s what’s further wrong about paying a publishing assistant ten bucks an hour: you cannot live on it. You just can’t. Not in Queens with five roommates all fighting over the same refrigerator space. Not on a diet of Ramen Noodles and pinto beans flavored by fatback. And if that assistant needs to move back in with his or her parents, that’s bespeaking a certain income. Suddenly, the kids from the “have’s” parents have become separated from the kids with the “have-not” parents. If your parents cannot subsidize your unspeakably low salary at a literary agency, then you can’t work in publishing. I mean, okay, you could. You could work a couple of extra jobs, I suppose. But wait, don’t most great assistants log in at least 70 hours a week? One generation later, let’s please not wonder aloud whatever became of the richness and tradition of diversity, okay? It got out-sourced by kids of the upper middle class and beyond.
But the main reason why ten bucks an hour is unacceptable is because it’s just wrong! I once had lunch with an editor who was bragging about a first novel he’d just bought. The writer was 76 years old, on a fixed income. This editor was plumped with pleasure because he’d recognized the novel as hugely commercial but had only paid an advance of $5,000 for it. Great news, right? I was starchy even long ago so I told this editor if this $5,000 was coming out of his grandchildren’s tuition trust fund? Was there some good reason why he felt that paying the least possible amount was cause for such self-satisfied jubilee? Isn’t it your job, I opined, to make an offer based upon what you thought the novel was worth, because that was the right thing to do?
So here’s what The Gentle Diva says to her colleagues, and to herself, as well: pay your people the most you possibly can. You’ll be rewarded a thousand-fold in diligence, in loyalty, in faith. Don’t lowball just because you can. Inconvenience yourself, and stop blaming poor behavior on policy or whatever the competition has decided is “fair”. “Fair” is what your conscience tells you—again—at 4:00 AM.