By Siobhan O’Leary
Some do it for love. Others for adventure. Many just want a simple change of pace. Moving abroad has its clear advantages and can be rife with challenges, but in the past decade, a number of Americans in publishing have been unable to resist the siren song of the expat lifestyle and have moved to Europe — to countries as wide-ranging as Ireland and Estonia. The key to their success: flexibility.
Greg Messina was working in Los Angeles for a film production company when he decided that film was not the right industry for him. After debating between a move home to New York or a career change in LA, he fulfilled what he calls his “10-year-long dream of moving to Paris” in January 2003. After a brief stint back in the US, he made a more permanent move to Paris in September 2004 and has since built a career selling translation rights for Editions Robert Laffont. Publishing was a natural choice for Messina, who had spent a couple of years at Curtis Brown in New York straight out of college. But breaking into the publishing industry in a foreign country is no easy task.
“I specifically looked for work with foreign translation rights, thinking that my English would give me an edge,” said Messina. When he started to apply for jobs, the unemployment rate in France was over 10%. Though he had studied French in high school and college, he enrolled in courses at the Sorbonne to improve his language skills and was eventually hired by Laffont four years ago. Messina can now work and live in France legally because he is the domestic partner of a Frenchman, but otherwise, getting a work visa normally requires a lot of jumping through hoops and can be a chicken-and-egg situation: “You need an employer to sponsor you for that; but oftentimes companies won’t consider you if you don’t have a visa,” he explained.
There are naturally many differences between working at a publishing house in the US and working for one in France, one being that the salaries are lower in France. On the upside, apartments are slightly more affordable to rent and to buy in Paris, though the cost of living in general is on par with that of NYC. Because Laffont has a 39-hour work week (that’s four hours more than the official 35-hour work week in France), employees get an extra two days of vacation per month on top of their annual 25 vacation days (yes, that’s a total of 49 vacation days per year). Messina adds, “Even with all of these days off, there’s still the same amount of work to be done and the same stresses that come along with that. I still work as hard as ever and am just as dedicated.”
One thing Messina learned about quite quickly is the concept of workplace solidarity. When an issue came up that affected his colleagues, he found himself on strike for a whole 59 minutes to show his support.
Despite the occasional challenges, both linguistic and cultural, Messina seems to have found his niche in Paris. “I know now that this is what I want to be doing.”
Bookslut in Berlin
For Jessa Crispin, founder of the online magazine and blog Bookslut, a move to Berlin was not necessarily the culmination of a lifelong dream, but an idea that struck her when she was in the city on vacation in October 2008 and already seriously considering leaving her then home of Chicago. “It was inexpensive and quiet, but also interesting and fun and seemed like a city that would leave you alone if you needed some time to build up a hermitage…It’s a very open city, which I love. I’ve really had no trouble getting assistance or meeting people I’d like to meet.” She made the move in May of last year.
Because her job was already entirely online (in addition to Bookslut, Crispin contributes to NPR.org and TheSmartSet.com), the transition has been relatively smooth. Still, issues have cropped up that were difficult to deal with from thousands of miles away. For one, her managing editor quit unexpectedly, leaving Crispin with the task of hiring a replacement and keeping everything running smoothly from Berlin. Within a few days of that, her computer broke down (a virtual nightmare for someone whose work is entirely Web-based).
Despite these setbacks, Crispin has adjusted well to life in the German capital: “I like the collaborative atmosphere here in Berlin,” she said. “It’s very ‘I have this platform, you have this thing over here, let’s do a project together.’”
Three years ago, Rachel J.K. Grace and her husband were finishing grad school and decided to take the leap across the pond to Europe. They ultimately chose Tallinn, Estonia, as their destination, as they had spent some time there together and her husband had a local job connection. His law firm even handled both of their visas.
Grace, who had a graduate certificate in Publishing and Editing on top of an MA in History and was “completely committed to working in book publishing,” and embraced the daunting task of finding a US-based publishing job that would allow her to work from Tallinn. She came across an opening on bookjobs.com for a marketing assistant with Unbridled Books and jumped at the opportunity.
“Unbridled is a decentralized company, so there is no main office. Everyone works from home,” said Grace. Given the logistical problems of handling mailings from Tallinn, Unbridled did not hire Grace for the marketing position, but instead created the position of Web Marketing Associate, which utilized her web skills. On top of that, she provides English-language editorial services to local companies. “The people here value native English editors,” she added.
Though her day-to-day work for Unbridled is not necessarily any different than what it would be if she were living in the US, Grace does tout some major benefits to living in Tallinn.
“The cost of living is considerably lower here and the quality of life much higher than in New York, for example,” she said.
Johanna Ingalls already had a well-established career at Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books when she and her husband, who is Irish, decided to try out life on the Emerald Isle less than a year ago. She now continues to work for Akashic, but from the rugged landscape of West Cork.
Both Ingalls and Akashic publisher Johnny Temple had been working in the music industry before they published their first book in 1997. At that time, Ingalls was helping out on a part-time basis, primarily with distribution and publicity, but she took on a more full-time role in the spring of 2000. Given the size of the company (there are still only 4 full-time employees), Ingalls continues to fill in wherever she is needed and is primarily involved in editing and marketing (including setting up author tours), as well as handling foreign rights and e-book production.
Despite the thousands of miles separating her from her colleagues, Ingalls still managed to travel to New York three times this year to spend time in the office. In addition, she continues to attend some book fairs and conferences with Temple.
The move to Ireland may not have provided any immediate cost savings (as Ingalls put it, “Ireland is shockingly expensive”), but there are most definitely other benefits to life outside the big city. “My lifestyle in Ireland, so far, is much, much less stressful than New York was, so I think I’m actually a better, less stressed-out worker,” said Ingalls.
What employer could argue with that?
Are you an American working in publishing and living abroad? Are you an expat from Asia, Africa or South America living in America or Europe? A European in New York? Do you know any? Get in touch with us for our ongoing series of profiles of “publishing expats.”