Two years ago I was celebrating leaving my job of nearly nine years at a nonprofit publishing house and finally going corporate. I was riding high and making more money at a large, for-profit publishing house, working remotely full-time and generally kicking ass. It was the shit.
Aaaaand then I lost my job.
Kitty dropped the news during our coronavirus article blitz. And I’m honestly glad she did, because it saved me the struggle of deciding to pull the trigger on telling you all. For some reason I’ve been too… ashamed? Embarrassed? Afraid? Feeling hypocritical? Emotionally stunted???
There’s a reason it’s taken me a few months to write this article, even if I don’t yet understand what that reason is. Clearly I have a lot of thoughts and feelings to process about getting laid off. So let’s get with the processing.
Building the bridge you’d rather burn
It’s kind of hard to keep up my normal “lol the world is burning pass the whiskey and keep fiddling” tone with this one. Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism, and while I’m still going to try to make you guys laugh… there wasn’t much laughter when this all went down.
In fact, there were tears.
I was laid off on a Friday, and asked to work for one more week. (Who does this!?) It was a miserable, surreal week to say the least. Two totally different reactions dueled for control of my mind.
One Piggy was determined to take the high road. After all, I’ve dedicated my career and education to the publishing industry! I care about my authors, and I care about the books I work on. The remaining staff were overworked, and I held zero animosity for them. I wanted to soften the blow by handing all my books and projects off as gently as I’d hand off a sleeping newborn baby.
The other Piggy wanted to say “FUCK YOU, MAKE ME” and slam the door on my way out. Being terminated was bad enough; my soon-to-be-ex-employer rubbed big chunks of kosher salt in the wound by running me absolutely ragged. They basically behaved like an evil queen in a fairy tale: scattering a sack of grain in the garden, and commanding me to pick it up before the sun rose. This ill-conceived final week made me live in the agony of my humiliation and disappointment.
It sucked ass. Of course it put me in a Trogdor state of mind.
My profession is my identity
For almost twelve years, book publishing has defined not only my professional life, but a large part of my personal life. There’s a certain caché that comes with announcing “I’m an editor.” The job has a perceived glamour, a prestige, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get off on it.
Which is why it was so fucking heartbreaking to get kicked out. When my coworkers assumed I was leaving because I’d gotten a better job elsewhere, I didn’t correct them.
Not only did I work at a publishing house by day, but I’m a freelance editor by night! Everyone around me knows that this is part of who I am, that I take pride in my work! It’s the only work I’ve ever done in my adult life.
More than that: it’s a competitive industry. Every year I counsel young, aspiring publishing professionals at a nearby university on how to break into the field. I’ve mentored interns and built a side business out of my publishing expertise. It doesn’t pay well… but it sure makes me feel good.
So who the fuck am I if I’m not an editor at a publishing house?
No seriously: this was one of my first thoughts when I got laid off. And I fucking panicked.
I sacrificed too much
In hindsight, I should have seen the writing on the wall. The company—and the publishing industry in general—is in trouble. I’ll spare you the boring lecture on falling book profits and the evils of a certain bajillion dollar corporation (hint: their name rhymes with Shmamazon) and just say that the company I worked for was less successful than some in adjusting to a changing marketplace.
My boss—the woman who hired me—left a year after I got there. She went on maternity leave and basically never came back. With her left her vision, the mission for which she’d hired me. And in her place stepped up a neurotic focus on profit and anxieties about keeping the business afloat.
At the same time, our assistant editor left the company. So we were down two essential staff members and asked to accomplish the same amount of work as a department. I had been hired to do X… and suddenly I was required to also do Y and Z… and then A, B, and C to boot.
We all worked doubly hard. Despite personal promises to the contrary, I found myself working in the evenings. I was stressed, my anxiety went through the roof, and I was ordered to prioritize books based on their profitability, rather than innovation or quality. There was no room for errors, and certainly not for imagination.
Unsurprisingly, keeping up became a logistical improbability. And that just added to the stress.
My biggest regret
In the late fall, my husband and I were literally offered the opportunity of a lifetime: rafting the Grand Canyon.
To raft the Grand Canyon, you must literally win the lottery. A friend had waited twelve years to get a permit, and he could take whoever he wanted. The schedule was nonnegotiable. It would be a three-week-long expedition starting December 31st, and during that time we’d have no connection to the outside world.
As you all know, I am the crunchier Bitch, apt to hug trees and climb big rocks with regularity. Not only are outdoor adventures a big part of my personal life, but it was also literally my job to publish books on outdoor adventure and travel. I didn’t have three weeks of vacation time saved, but surely my employer would make an exception under the circumstances!
I wrote a four-page proposal for how the expedition would benefit my work. I laid out multiple plans for how I could make up the time by working nights or weekends, pitched multiple books that could be made from the trip, identified a dozen existing books I could personally revise at no extra cost to the company, and drew up sample questions for market research I could perform with my fellow rafters.
My proposal was denied.
As was my appeal. And another appeal after that.
I was told I could skip the trip and keep my job… or quit for the adventure of a lifetime.
A rock and a hard place
Writing about it, I still feel like a spoiled child denied an ice cream cone. I was upset. My husband was going one way or another, and the idea of him having this experience without me pained us both.
But I didn’t think I could lose my job. I’m nowhere near as close to financial independence as Kitty is. I was afraid to take the chance, to call their bluff. More than that: I knew how stressed and overworked everyone on my team was. I felt enormous guilt at the idea of leaving them high and dry while I
sailed rafted off into the sunset to see one of the great wonders of the world from a perspective few humans ever experience.
So I stayed home. I chose my job over my passion.
I buried myself in work while my husband and friends savored the kind of adventure that drives my yearning for financial independence.
And I worried that I’d made the wrong choice.
It was the wrong choice
At the end of January, I was laid off anyway. I sacrificed the Grand Canyon for a single month of employment.
And yes. I fucking regret it.
No matter how emotionally invested I was in my work, to a corporate bureaucracy I was merely another cog in the machine. No doubt the same people who denied my proposal, claiming I couldn’t be spared for those three weeks, were the ones who crossed my name off a list when it came time to lay people off. They probably didn’t even remember the connection.
If you take nothing else away from my story, remember this: your employer is not your friend. Your company is not your family.
Your happiness and future are neither their concern nor their priority. You matter to them to the extent that you make them profitable. There is a literal dollar amount defining your worth to the company. And silly things like personal dreams and once-in-a-lifetime adventures matter not one whit to that bottom line, let alone the health and joy of an individual employee.
So banish any guilt about disappointing your employer or letting them down in favor of your personal happiness and well-being. Don’t waste your loyalty on the person or corporate entity signing your paycheck. Lord knows they have no loyalty to you.
Thus endeth the lesson.
The dark night of the
You guys know I struggle with anxiety. And losing my job shoved me into a full-blown panic attack.
I held my shit together for the phone call with my boss, my boss’s boss, and an HR representative. Because I am a bad-ass Bitch who takes no prisoners and who will not display weakness in front of her enemies… and who drinks to excess and cries herself to sleep once she’s alone.
In this, at least, I understand I’m normal. Studies show that job loss can lead to depression, anxiety, a loss of self-worth, anger issues, and overwhelming grief. I checked aaaaaalll them boxes is in the days and weeks following my termination!
Finding immediate freelance work, qualifying for unemployment insurance, and assuring myself that I could still pay the damn mortgage certainly helped with these symptoms… but it wasn’t an instant cure.
The stages of grief exist for a reason: you can’t rush through them. You have to let the process happen over time. And as much as I wish I could’ve dispensed with the grieving, done my hair toss, checked my nails, and felt good as hell… I couldn’t escape my feelings that easily.
I can admit it now, though it wasn’t easy at the time. I was grieving. And it hurt like a motherfucker.
On top of that, I was angry. No, scratch that: I was mad as hell.
I swung back and forth between blinding rage at what I had gone through and utter despondency and feelings of inadequacy. A bubbling volcano about to erupt…
… and a howling cavern filled with a giant ice sculpture of the words “YOU DESERVE THIS.”
Practicing what I preach
And while usually I’m terrible at taking my own advice, this time I actually followed through!
While the fear of leaving a job without another one lined up caused me to make a mistake I’ll regret pretty much forever… it turns out I was much more financially prepared to lose my job than I thought.
Not only did I have a healthy emergency fund, but I had a thriving side gig as a freelancer. I was well connected within the industry and was able to immediately reach out to other publishers for freelance gigs. Sure, the pay comes on an erratic schedule and isn’t nearly as comfortingly stable as working for a full-time salary… but I realized that I was going to be fine for a while.
My husband’s nonprofit allowed me to get on his health insurance plan for a little extra every month. And even though a nonprofit’s health insurance leaves a lot to be desired, it’s still better than no health insurance at all!
On top of all this, my lifestyle is set up to easily absorb a major loss of income. I live extremely frugally. I paid off my student loans and auto loan years ago and militantly avoid racking up consumer debt. I happily bike, walk, or take public transit instead of driving, and live in an area with most of the essentials close by.
We even refinanced our mortgage last fall, lowering our monthly payments significantly. Truly, I am greatly privileged to have such a sturdy job loss safety net. But it’s one I built myself, and I do not take it for granted.
So when once the thought of losing my job had filled me with panic… I realized that through researching for this very blog, I’d placed myself in a position of knowledge and power for not only a temporary job loss, but for a rigorous job search.
So thanks, Past Piggy! You did your girl a favor.
What’s next for me?
No srsly: What the fuck is next for me?
Kitty and I have always said that we want BGR to be our full-time jobs. Now, having a coblogger is almost always load-lighteningly awesome… but it comes with the unfortunate reality that we have to make twice as much money for us to do it on a full-time basis.
Kitty will get there much faster than me. It’s just math: she’s made six figures annually for years. I worked a full-time job, freelanced on the side, and still never came close to that amount. She’s close to hitting major financial goals that would make a pay cut possible. I am not.
So now, without a full-time job, the decision has very suddenly been made for me. Three roads diverge in this shitty wood:
Being my own boss
In addition to my freelance editing work, I’ve kind of fallen into a new business:
I’m sort of a literary agent? Scratch that, I’m definitely a literary agent!
I interned with a literary agency in college. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do on my own. As a sector of the publishing industry, it utilizes all my strengths: building relationships with authors, macro- to micro-level editing of manuscripts, coaching authors through the writing and publishing process, reviewing book proposals, negotiating contracts, and advocating for my clients.
It also has the benefit of being something entirely self-created. I’m not working for anyone else. I’m building a business from the ground up, on my own terms.
But like any small business, it takes a while to get it off the ground and profitable. I have three clients, but there’s a lot of work between us and a paycheck.
In the meantime, I’m editing for other publishers and private authors. And this pay is more immediate and assured. But I’d be lying if I said the idea of being a full-time literary agent, prioritizing the authors I represent and working on my own terms, didn’t appeal to me a whole helluva lot.
Seeking full-time work at another publisher
There’s a certain amount of sense in sticking with what you know. I’ve worked in the acquisitions departments of publishing houses for a dozen years. I’m heckin’ good at it. I’m qualified to do it. I speak the language and I’m well-connected within the industry. My reputation precedes me, if you will.
Since getting laid off I’ve spoken with recruiters and have entered the hiring process at two different publishing houses. Of course, I didn’t anticipate a Black Swan event like the coronavirus putting hiring freezes on so many companies. But it’s nice to know that at least in certain circles, I’m a hot commodity.
Getting a full-time job doing the thing I’ve done before is my easiest path back to financial stability. And yet… I’m approaching this process with surprisingly few fucks to give.
I’m bursting with that BDE (Big Dick Energy) where interviews and offers are concerned. I’ve flat-out told recruiters that they can do their best but I ain’t waiting on them to deliver me an offer on a silver platter. This Bitch has ambitions.
Safe to say I’ve recovered from my crippling identity crisis. I ain’t taking an offer unless it’ll significantly improve my lifestyle above and beyond what I can do working for myself.
Leaving my industry behind
I know now that if I’m going to stay in book publishing, it’s going to be on my own terms. Literally just decided that!
No more working for someone else’s publishing house, scraping low margins from a slow-to-innovate business model. No more making half the income as what I could earn with my skills elsewhere, in more profitable industries.
In short: I don’t want to move backwards. I’m done sacrificing too much and earning too little. I’m done making myself sick with worry while squeezing in a few more hours of work after dinner. My profession can no longer be central to my identity. I can no longer choose a corporation’s profits over my own happiness.
And that’s… really hard, you guys.
I feel like I’m grieving. Not my job, but my identity. My vocation.
Maybe I’m silly to think this way. I loved being a publisher. But the publishing industry clearly doesn’t love me. What do you call a relationship where one partner works long hours for low pay and little approval? You call it abusive. And while that might be a little dramatic when it comes to my career, I think I’m finally willing to admit that I don’t have to put up with that kind of treatment.
If I’m going to work for someone else, it’s going to be for a company that pays competitive salaries, values innovation, and offers a chance for real growth. If I’m going to get a full-time job at a business that’s not my own, it’s highly likely not going to be in the industry I’ve dedicated my entire career to thus far.
If I’m going to work full-time for someone else, it probably means leaving publishing. It means finding a new career path, transitioning out of the field my first education and decade of working trained me for.
It’s scary. But I’m not scared anymore.
In the few weeks between getting laid off and barricading myself in my coronavirus quarantine fortress, I spent a lot of time moodily playing guitar. Because I am just that stereotype of a melodramatic open mic act. Please don’t judge me.
I played angry songs, breakup songs. Lots of Alanis Morissette. Singing about fellatio at the top of your lungs for a live audience is just a super gratifying coping mechanism, y’know?
But lately, my music has changed. It’s mellowed. I’m not using it to cope anymore, just to unwind. The anger and grief have all but dissipated, and in their place is… bemusement.
It’s like I look back at the time immediately following my termination and feel a little silly for my extreme emotions, my desperate reaction. I know my feelings were valid and that I needed to feel them. But I’ve moved passed them to the point of acceptance.
Getting laid off was a thing that happened to me, but it does not define me. It was a step along the journey that is my career. And ultimately, I’ve realized two things:
- My career is not the most important part of my identity.
- This might just be the best worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Hit it, girl.