When I started working at a publishing house, I found myself re-watching The Office to relieve stress and to glean some kind of knowledge about how to adjust to cubicle life. We spend so much time at work, so why are workplace shows and movies so appealing? Is it because of the possibility that a portrayal will be an affirming reflection of all the dysfunctional idiosyncrasies of the workplace, or is it because of how laughably wrong the portrait will be?
This past year has resulted in many book-world changes. Author readings moved to Zoom, and the “big five” might consolidate into the “big four,” but much remains the same. Year after year, the industry continues to be overwhelmingly white in all respects. It also remains opaque by design—primarily as a gatekeeping tool with a side effect of cultivating a sense of exclusivity, mystery, and glamour—though most assistants at publishing houses would probably agree there isn’t much glamour in making less than thirty thousand dollars a year.
I eventually left my publishing job to go to graduate school. My phone regularly autocorrects “publishing” to “punishing,” but I’ll still watch any show or movie that has anything to do with publishing, relishing each industry joke and every outlandish mis-portrayal. The movies and shows listed here don’t get everything right, but if you’re thinking of working in publishing, here are some tips from the business of books on-screen.
Post Grad (2009)
Ryden Malby has just graduated and has nabbed a coveted interview at “the finest publishing house in all of LA.” During her interview she explains that “books are all I know and everything I love,” and discusses her reading habits at age eleven. She doesn’t get the job, but she does have the right attitude. A love of books is arguably the most important quality you need to work in publishing. The pay is low, and the promise of advancement is sometimes even lower, so you do it out of love, until you don’t.
Frances Ha (2012)
Sophie is a moderate, orderly publishing professional, while Frances is a messy, chaotic, intermittently-employed dancer. The best friends dream of greatness: Sophie will become an “awesomely bitchy publishing mogul” and Frances will become a “famous modern dancer” who will be the subject of a “really expensive book” that Sophie will publish. Focusing on future goals is a necessary coping mechanism to get through the early years of being a publishing assistant—surely, all the hard, boring, underpaid work will pay off eventually, right? When Frances’s flirty roommate Lev asks Sophie, “How is the publishing business?,” she answers, “You know, not good.”
After a nasty divorce, forty-years-Younger (2015-)young Liza Miller needs to go back to work. She can’t get an entry-level job at her age, so she pretends to be twenty-six and is hired as an assistant at Empirical Press. The show’s six seasons are peppered with real publishing-world references, including the PEN America Literary Awards and the Frankfurt Book Fair; playful parody titles like P Is for Pigeon and Crown of Kings; and the utterly unbelievable: extravagant designer wardrobes and a twenty-six-year-old getting her own imprint. Younger’s cotton candy book world is a fun reminder that whether you’re a fictional character lying about your age or a publicist pitching a book you’re only pretending to like, you can fake it till you make it, or at least until you burn out or get a better offer.
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Alice and Charlotte are editorial assistants who type reader’s reports by day and shimmy in Lurex halter dresses by night. They aren’t sure if they really even like each other, but they move into a railroad apartment because that’s all they can afford on their salaries—with help from their parents. When Charlotte asks older colleagues how long it will take to be promoted to associate editor, they say “four years,” but only if you’ve got a best seller. Alice is eventually promoted, while Charlotte loses her job after a merger with Simon & Schuster. In reaction to the merger, Alice says, “God, that’s sad. I love the company.” Her coworker isn’t so sure. “We were exploited,” he says, “but they were nice about it.”
Joe Goldberg is a stalker, serial killer, and bookseller who becomes obsessed with an MFA student. The New York book world serves as a backdrop to Joe’s murders, and the publishing-adjacent references in the first season include the magazine you are currently reading, a power agent, a viral essay turned into a book deal, and a distant cousin of J. D. Salinger’s. In season 2, Joe relocates to Los Angeles to start fresh, changing his name and creating a modest social media presence. He stands on a park bench taking pictures of a few books, but his photos show he is unversed in #bookstagram. He is missing the painted brick wall backgrounds and color-coordinated sidewalk spray paint. He also continues to kill.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
When corporate chain Fox & Sons Books moves into the neighborhood, Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a children’s bookstore on New York’s Upper West Side, is unfazed: Kathleen knows her store provides better service and expertise. Eventually her sales suffer, so she turns to the press for help. People picket Fox & Sons in protest. Dismayed that sales have not improved, Kathleen says, “All this publicity and not one bit of difference?” As any book publicist knows, review coverage doesn’t necessarily translate into sales.
In the Parisian publishing world, Alain, the publisher of Vertheuil Editions, is caught between print and digital publishing. He’s also having an affair with Laure, his house’s new digital strategist. Discussions about ebooks, audiobooks, and algorithms take place over wine and cigarettes. “You publish books to sell them. You want to target your audience,” Laure says to Alain, who replies, “It’s not my approach.” The owner of Vertheuil Editions intends to sell the company to a telecom magnate, though the deal falls through at the end of the movie. In a rapidly consolidating publishing industry, Non-Fiction’s ending is its most unrealistic element.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Before she finds love with dreamy barrister Mark Darcy, Bridget Jones is a thirtysomething publicist at Pemberly Press, launching a book called Kafka’s Motorbike, which is heralded by its publisher as “the greatest book of all time.” Bridget is asked to give an introduction at the launch party, and she bungles it lovably, shouting over the crowd when she can’t figure out how to turn on the mic. After planning hundreds of book launches, I have concluded that the best intro is a short intro. Remember to do a mic check before the event begins, and if the budget allows, always spring for extra wine.
Let Them All Talk (2020)
Famous literary author Alice Hughes’s new agent Karen is hoping Alice’s new manuscript will be a sequel to Alice’s breakout novel. Karen arranges for Alice, her nephew, and her college friends to set sail for England, where Alice is due to accept a prize. Karen is secretly on the ship, too, looking for signs of the manuscript. There’s another famous author onboard, Kelvin Kranz, a blockbuster thriller writer, whom Alice dismisses as an artless hack. By the end of the trip, Karen takes on Kelvin Kranz as a client in what is sure to be a lucrative deal. Over dinner, Alice says, “Karen’s very hopeful about the publishing business, actually. I mean, against all reason, in my opinion.” In my opinion, the hopefulness depends on the day.