Zachary Pace on the Push and Pull of Working in Publishing as a Writer

From earliest memory, I knew that my aunt worked in book publishing. As an editor of children’s books at a large, corporate publisher, she would send me boxes upon boxes of cast-offs that she’d find around the office. Even before I had learned how to read, I would thumb through these books in my solitude—as the only child of an unhappy couple, left to entertain myself in our house in the woods on a hill, without neighbors or cable television, before video game consoles, computers, and the internet entered the home.

My aunt was one of my first idols. She lived and worked in Manhattan—her apartment and office both crowded by long shelves and tall piles of books: books on every table, books under every table, books beside the bed, books on top of the bed. She’d even written the foreword to a leather-bound, gilt-edged, woodcut-illustrated edition of Wuthering Heights, which takes pride of place on my bookshelf to this day.

Since infancy, I’ve looked to my aunt as the embodiment of urbane sophistication and literary savvy; instinctively, I attempted to emulate her. By the age of ten, I’d decided that someday I’d move to New York City—to edit books and to write my own. My aunt warned me that the path may be harrowing. Precocious and foolhardy, I convinced myself that I could do both.

I moved to Brooklyn in 2008, at the dawn of the so-called Great Recession, which irrevocably strained, among so many aspects of American life, both the vitality of the publishing industry and the cost of New York City housing. For the next ten years, I’d work in entry-level positions at small, independent book publishers, while training in the art of making supplemental income—freelancing on the weekends, teaching English comp at night, selling my books to secondhand bookstores—in fact, when I was let go from a publishing position, I took the cardboard boxes of cast-offs that my aunt had sent to my office (instead of my apartment, where I didn’t have room for them), brought them in a taxi to the Strand, and sold the lot for $600, which was my monthly rent at the time.

I worry that the time and energy I invest in my writing is inadvertently stolen from my employer and their books.

Over these past sixteen years, I’ve moved six times—outpriced from one apartment to the next. Once, when I asked for a salary adjustment to compensate for a rent increase, I was told that raises were awarded for merit, not necessity; I hadn’t contributed enough to the company’s revenue to merit a raise, but if I needed to find more affordable housing, I should look in New Jersey. Going forward, I couldn’t help but view my contributions to a company’s revenue as the most significant indicator of my value.

From the start, I’ve wrestled with a great amount of guilt about cultivating a career as a writer while working for book publishers. I worry that the time and energy I invest in my writing is inadvertently stolen from my employer and their books. In another publishing position, with the capacity to acquire projects, I felt constant pressure to spend my time and energy both inside and outside the office in pursuit of the company’s next bestseller—not an unreasonable expectation, but not an easy one for me to accept. I worried that my writing was a fanciful distraction—and that publishing it was a conflict of interest.

I’ll admit, I have stolen time and diverted my energy intentionally over the years—listening to certain musicians at my desk as I research for the essays about them, taking notes in Microsoft Outlook emails, editing drafts of Word docs with track changes turned on—so I appeared to be on the job while on the clock. Vainly, I sensed some resentment, if not hostility, from my colleagues toward my personal writing and publishing endeavors, though it’s also entirely possible that I projected my insecurity onto my colleagues, as I faced rejection after rejection and feared that I was an imposter. At the same time, I discovered that I didn’t have the knack for the role of acquiring editor and considered quitting the industry altogether.

Then, I realized it was the managing editorial position that was best-suited to my obsessive-compulsive habits of checking, finding, and fixing mistakes—dating back to the second grade, when my classmates would ask me to spell-check their homework. Now, I edit my way through the day with a mental red pencil, catching typesetting errors on all manner of printed material—subway ads, restaurant menus, the labels on household products.

At the end of the workday, for the most part, I’m able to either complete my tasks or leave them at the office for tomorrow. Where the acquiring editorial role requires the editor to stand front and center in the production of the company’s books, the role of managing editor keeps me behind the scenes—alleviating but not eliminating my guilt.

Because, finally, stacks of my first book—a collection of essays about some of my favorite female singers—are beside me, freshly printed finished copies in a cardboard box. And I remain worried that the time and energy I’ll continue to invest in this book will continue to detract from my contributions to my various employers.

Today, I’m a full-time managing editor and an adjunct English professor, with a steady stream of weekend freelancing and a tote bag of unwanted books ready to haul to the Strand. As the publishing industry recovers from the economic fallouts of the COVID pandemic, and as job security in general grows more precarious than ever, I’ve accepted the possibility that, for the foreseeable future, I’ll need to juggle several jobs in order to keep from living paycheck to paycheck.

Having witnessed my aunt’s success in corporate publishing throughout the 90s, and having watched well-paid editors played on films and TV shows, I hadn’t imagined my path toward a substantial income would be such an uphill shuffle—which is nothing if not a labor of immense love. And as for my book, it’s too incredible to believe that it exists; I can hardly bear to hold it in my hands.

Writing these words, I’m sitting in the living room of my childhood home, about five feet from the shelves that long ago contained those hallowed books from my aunt. In this exact spot, even before I had learned how to spell and write, I would scribble on blank paper with Magic Markers and staple the pages together—always, this desire, this drive to make books.

Now, these shelves contain what’s left of my mother’s CD collection, which she has winnowed in preparation to sell the house and move to an apartment after thirty-seven years here. Still there, after all these years: my mother’s Joni Mitchell CDs. Near the bookshelf, next to the couch, a small Bose CD player waits on an end table. I pick up Blue—the very copy that accompanied me through the bluest hours of my youth. I put it on.


I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays about the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am by Zachary Pace is available from Two Dollar Radio.

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