By Chip Rossetti
In the fall of 2004, I was an editor at a New York publishing house, acquiring serious narrative nonfiction and history. I had been working in trade publishing for nine years. I had also, in the wake of 9/11, been studying Arabic in the evenings, going to a teacher’s house in the outer boroughs once a week for lessons over his dining-room table. Learning another language — and a desire to immerse myself in it by moving to the Middle East — was the first step toward what I thought was a change in career.
(Photo: Chip Rossetti, on the right, at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, 2010)
By the end of that year, I had left my job and moved to Egypt. It felt like an odd time in my career to leave the world of New York publishing. I was not quitting (as many others do) as an editorial assistant, frustrated with low pay and the Catch-22 of acquiring books when you have neither a track record nor an expense account. Nor was I a veteran editor with twenty years of bestsellers behind him, being downsized in favor of a 25-year-old whiz kid willing to work for a third of his salary. Instead, I was merely a senior editor with less than a decade in the business.
However, my career change took me back into publishing. I became the senior editor at the American University in Cairo Press. On paper, it was a lateral move, but in reality it was anything but: for one thing, I moved from a trade publisher to a university press. I also shifted gears from a well-established, corporate publishing environment to a region where most publishing houses were still private (often family-run) operations. When I arrived in Cairo, in early 2005, literary agencies were almost unheard-of in Arabic book publishing (although that has since changed). The elaborate system that is the basis of American publishing — royalties, bookstore returns, subsidiary rights departments, auctions — didn’t exist in much of the Arab world, simply because there was often no real money at stake in book publishing and distribution was much more problematic.
Facing an eventual return to the US, I confronted a dilemma: I could return to New York publishing, but it would inevitably mean my hard-earned Arabic language skills would atrophy, and I was reluctant to let them go. Even if I wanted to, I doubted to was possible to simply pick up as an editor where I’d left off — assuming a house would still hire someone who had been out of the US publishing loop for almost three years. Instead, I entered graduate school to do a Ph.D. in modern Arabic literature.
But even while I was telling myself that I was now in academia, and had left my old career behind, I found myself still in publishing, in ways I hadn’t expected. For one thing, I began writing and freelance editing. It was an eye-opening experience to find myself on the other end of the writer/editor relationship: to pitch ideas, to have my words rejiggered, and to wait patiently for a payment (a good karmic experience for any editor — one which I sometimes wish I had undergone when I was still in New York.)
It helped, too, that my chosen field of study was literature. For one thing, I began translating Arabic fiction to English, which meant being on the receiving end of copyediting and reviewing page proofs. On another level, I found that my background gave me a very different perspective from my academic colleagues, none of whom were all that familiar with how publishing worked, either in the US or the Middle East. While everyone in my graduate seminars might be familiar with the novels of current Lebanese, Egyptian, or Iraqi authors, usually I was the only person in the room who had actually met these authors, worked with them (and their translators), and helped publish their books.
Occasionally, I have regrets about leaving my New York career behind, when I could tell people that I worked in book publishing, full stop. It was always a pleasure to champion manuscripts that I thought had potential and to work with their authors, and the expense account for lunches with agents was nice, of course. But I can’t deny how much fun my hybrid career is now, even if it involves a lot more resourcefulness on my part. Although it seems as if publishing has always been in state of flux, we really are living in an age of uncertainty, now that we’re in the middle of both an e-book revolution and a global economic downturn. Whether or not we’re all poets now (as a recent PP article suggested), we’re certainly all entrepreneurs, or maybe CEOs of our own careers. The lesson for me — as it no doubt is for many others in similar positions — is that I should not limit myself to one professional identity, but rather operate on several fronts, from academia to literary translation to journalism, travel-writing and editing. I may not be bidding on the latest hot proposal from my Manhattan office, or politely hounding an author about his long-overdue manuscript, but I’m quite happy to keep at least one foot — and maybe an arm and a leg or two — in the world of publishing.
Chip Rossetti is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written for Saudi Aramco World magazine, most recently on the Abu Dhabi book fair. Earlier this year, he won a PEN American Center translation grant, and is the translator of Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers (AUC Press, 2010) by Bahaa Abdelmeguid. Contact Chip at firstname.lastname@example.org.