The drowning starts with the conversation you never saw coming, and the conversation comes regardless of how long you've been with the publication or how valuable the publisher once considered you. One morning you get up and you have a job. By the time you get your cup of coffee, you're unemployed.
Or at least that's how it happened to me last year. When a certain national magazine pulled me out of the freelance ocean almost six years ago, slapped me with a name tag and brought me on board the ship, I thought my self-employed days were over. For more than half a decade I basked in the glow of a steady income, a snappy business card and a real title: Media Editor.
Never mind that the title itself was a constant bone of contention between me and my boss. I mean, really, I was the book and resource editor, so why not just call me that and spare me the constant clarifications at every introduction. What's a media editor? It's a book and resource editor. Oh. Insert quizzical expressions here, ad nauseum. (By the way, the answer "because it's too long to fit in the masthead", is not a good reason to keep a title so nondescript.)
Now, the squabble over the title seems silly. The editor with whom I waged this battle was laid off long ago, and now I have been too. The economy is rocky, the fear is on, and fancy titles are being lost every day. One friend took a pay cut to keep her job and title at a major publisher, but many haven't been be that lucky. Companies are battening the hatches, plugging the leaks and tossing "dead weight" -- publicists, writers, and editors -- from the hold. I, myself, was mercifully walked off the plank by a friend who couldn't help but cry. I mean, really, who wants the job of telling someone on their first day back from a medical leave to treat breast cancer that they no longer have a job?
So, post-layoff, I scrambled to update and add pizazz to my resume. (Does kicking cancer in the backside count as a relevant skill?) And, in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but sense that it was a futile effort. Even today, publishers aren't hiring and periodicals are sinking fast.
What makes a writer think they can get freelance work, let alone another job?
Does it matter that I sold a bunch of personal essays in 2003? Do you think perhaps that could get me a book deal? Does it mean anything to anyone that my cover story in 2005 was one of the magazine's best-selling issues?
The answer right now, I believe, is no. None of those things helped me keep my job and none of them got me another. As it has always been in the world of publishing, it's not what you know or what you've accomplished, it's who you know. Know the captain and your ticket is a guarantee; only know the deckhand? You probably won't make it to the galley.
What I didn't know, during those first few months of resumes and cover letters, is that there is a whole new -- and very different -- world of publishing on the internet, where the old "shipping" rules are not as hard and fast. A writer can become part of the right community simply by logging in to the right forum or registering with the right freelancing site. Magic can happen overnight on the internet, publishing can happen overnight on the internet.
Still, I'm digging through the e-mail contacts, looking for the first time at the business cards stuffed in my laptop case (my apologies) and pulling up the cell phone numbers, signaling the shores and hoping against hope that the next time a group of happily employed editors are sitting around a conference table and the subject of a potential freelance gig comes up, my name springs instantly to mind.
Instead of yours.