My first job in book publishing was as the Publicity Assistant for Penguin Books. It had taken me nearly a year of unpaid work experience to get a start. You did internships for a year? That’s crazy! said the girls who had only done a week’s work experience, purely as a formality, because a relative was a well-known literary agent and had got them a job. The girls who used phrases like, You sir, are a turbo legend! in emails rather than just saying Thanks. I understood how it worked though. It was not a birthright for me as it was for them. I preferred it that way. I was now a hero of social mobility, if only in the eyes of my Mum.
She was overjoyed with my new job. Our Joe is working for Penguin. The publishers, she’d tell people. And in London! She maintains that I was always destined for a career in books. You were always reading a book about that kids’ football match, she said to me. Every night before bed you would read that. We had books all over the house that you would just pick up and devour! The former is true, The Big Match was my favourite book. The latter, however, is not true. We didn’t have books all over the house. In fact, our household ‘library’ was just the bottom shelf of the hi-fi rack and contained only the following titles:
The Big Match (see above)
Leicester and Loughborough Street Maps
Collins School Dictionary and Thesaurus
The Best of Times: Growing Up in Britain in the 1950s
150 Letters That Get Results
Understanding Thyroid Disorders
She began sending me all things Penguin themed in the post – a key ring, a mug, a fridge magnet. After a phone call in which I’d told her I’d been so busy I’d skipped three lunch breaks in a row she sent me a t-shirt depicting a Penguin sliding on its belly screaming ‘No brakes!’
I had a bit of a shaky start. In my first week I collected the wrong person from reception for a meeting with my manager, a mistake that temporarily earned me the nickname Guy Goma. She had been scheduled to meet with a booker from a literary festival called Lara, and I brought up Laura, a horribly nervous girl who was there for an entry-level job interview. I had wondered why a CV was trembling in her hand as we made our way up in the lift. The same afternoon, I’d turned J.D. Salinger into a disc jockey by referring to him, in front of an entire meeting room, with his initials reversed. In my peripheral vision I could see my boss frowning. Oh dear, she was thinking, I’ve hired a simpleton.
A big of my job was planning author and publisher events - book signings, festival appearances, launch parties, the majority of my boss’s fortieth - all fell under my remit. It was up to me to find venues, coordinate the guest list, sort photographers, canapés, all that. My first one, a month in, was a ‘women’s fiction’ evening. Its purpose was to showcase the best of Penguin’s contemporary female writers. Publishing is an industry driven by brilliant women, who felt, quite rightly, that the earlier term ‘chick lit’ was patronising to female authors and readers. ‘Women’s fiction’ it seemed, was somehow better.
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It’s around 8pm. The event has been going for about an hour and nearly all the guests have arrived. It is being held at Penguin’s offices on the Strand. The hospitality suite on the tenth floor of the Penguin building offers stunning views over the Thames. You can see Big Ben and Westminster’s gothic spires to the West and all the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the City to the East. It was once the site of the RAF headquarters and because of this, there is a rumour that it was once the office of Winston Churchill, though this has never been substantiated.
I’ve already had three glasses of champagne even though I don’t really like champagne. There’s beer too but nobody else is drinking it, and so I’m worried it might be viewed as uncouth. Everything seems to be going great. The photographer is snapping pictures of authors chatting with journalists and encouraging other elite groupings to pose – all of which I’ll send to the trade press in the morning to show what a magnificent party I can throw. The drinks are flowing, beetroot rosti and arancini canapés are being plucked eagerly off platters, and if I do say so myself, I’ve introduced an identifiable visual aesthetic. An attractive and informative PowerPoint presentation rolls over the screens and each author being showcased has a table of their books decorated with beautiful flower arrangements.
I’m hanging out near the cloakroom, admiring my work. Like literature’s most enigmatic party host, I have a peripheral presence at my parties. I am musing about how the ‘Jay’ in ‘Jay Gatsby’ could easily stand for ‘Joseph Alan Yule’ when one of the lifts in the lobby dings, and opens. Who is this latecomer? Probably heard the festivities from street level and sneaked her way in. She’s a small, rather dowdily dressed woman who I then recognise as the literary editor from a serious broadsheet newspaper. She is one of five names on my manager’s hit list of attendees. She has major influence and must be charmed. She makes eye contact with me as she enters. Bloody hell. I greet her.
Hello, I’m Joe, thank you so much for coming. Lovely evening isn’t it, I am saying. I am nervous. She has a stern presence and I am unpracticed in professional networking of this kind. Not that my lack of social polish is particularly beyond detection now, but at this point I really am tender footed. Don’t get any author names wrong, I am thinking. Catcher In The Rye was not written by a DJ.
Really lovely evening actually, isn’t it? I say again.
Hmm, ‘tis’, she replies, brisk and archaically.
It’s my turn to say something. Can I take your jacket? I ask.
I don’t have a jacket, she replies.
I look. She doesn’t. Oh yes, excuse me! I say. I’m embarrassed but in my head I’m thinking, why have you come out without a coat, you twat? Right, now say something else. I can’t think of anything though. I cannot think of a single appropriate thing to say so I hook a passing waiter by the elbow and grab her a flute of champagne.
No, not for me thank you, she says immediately, looking about the room.
Oh, I say. Well, don’t mind if I do then! This entire encounter is emblematic of something I have come to call ‘netball swag’.
Netball swag (noun) The departure of one’s true personality in the presence of people you are too desperate to impress. Experienced when first meeting a partner’s parents, a celebrity, or at job interviews.
So you’re Joe Pickering? she asks as she looks over my shoulder again; no doubt contemplating escape. Joe Pickering, for your information, is one of the few other men in Penguin’s publicity department. That his name is also Joe is unfortunate for me. He is a publishing poster boy. He has won awards for his PR campaigns. He has the Twitter following of a very minor personality and is known to many only by his Twitter moniker @joethepublicist. I once considered obtaining the handle @joetheotherpublicist but was daunted by the potential fall out, not to mention the lavish use of characters.
No, no. I’m Joe Yule, I say, disappointing even myself. I’m fairly new. I was the RSVP for the event; you probably emailed me.
Ah, okay. Yeah, I think, as if this woman RSVP’d. She is still not looking at me. I don’t think she’s been listening but she is. She’s a pro. Yule… she says. That’s an interesting surname. How is it spelled?
It’s er, Y.U.L.E.’ I reply. Like Christmas.
She smiles and looks into my eyes. I’m with you, she says. Like Yule log?
That’s right, I say, smiling too. Then I do something I have sought to explain to myself ever since. I begin patting my penis through my trousers. Her smile straightens as her eyes move to where I am now purposefully, confidently palming and massaging the arc of my flies. For good measure, I am also grinning and raising my eyebrows suggestively.
She takes half a step back and her nose creases, half revolted, half puzzled. It’s as if there, suspended in front of her face, is a putrid fart and she is trying to identify its different aromatic components. What the fuck am I doing? What the complete and utter fuck am I doing? She is a serious literary journalist who is probably on first names terms with writers like Ewan McIan and J. M. Teacozee and I am suggesting that I’m hung like a festive sponge cake. And why haven’t I stopped? I am looking at her face (more expressive than it has perhaps been in years) telling me she is not liking what I am doing and I am still doing it.
I am now far more horrified than she is. I’ve become a sexual predator! I’m one of those people who gets arousal by exhibiting himself. Before she can make any verbal reaction, a man appears from behind her and rests his head on her shoulder playfully.
Hello darling, I’d hoped you might be here, he says. It’s a friend of hers. He’s a Christopher Biggins lookalike, and equally as flamboyant, who I later discover is a very well-regarded book reviewer from another newspaper. They do the double cheek media kiss thing and the man looks to me momentarily as if she might introduce me. She doesn’t. She turns her back to me and they begin talking. You’ve saved me, Biggins! Though, she might be about to tell him, I think, get out of there. Jump out of a window or something. I move away stealthily, out onto the balcony to join a few of my colleagues smoking.
I remain jittery for the rest of the evening. I shrink behind throngs of guests doing everything I can to stay out of her eye line. Thankfully, her literary clout means she is constantly engaged in conversation. At one point though, it’s for an unbearable ten minutes with my boss in which I’m convinced she’ll ask, who was that pervert knocking about by the coat stand earlier? I try to lip read their conversation from the other side of the room. Nothing happens though, and at around 9pm, she departs accompanied by the Biggins lookalike. She has granted me a reprieve. Why? Whatever the answer, I think during a longed-for swig of beer, I am forever indebted to her for her discretion about this incident. I owe her. I love her.
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The next morning, my manager congratulated me on a job well done. That groundwork will stand us in good stead with the paperback reviewers come summer reading round ups, she said. I think it would be a good idea to send a follow up email. Can I leave you to take care of that?
Ok, I said, and after redrafting for close to an hour, I reached something bland and inoffensive and I was happy with it.
Dear [journalist’s name], on behalf of the Penguin publicity team, just wanted to say a huge thank you for coming along last night, it was great to see you. Hopefully you got to speak to some of our authors and take away some proof copies. If you would like more information on any of our Autumn titles, please do not hesitate to ask me. Many thanks, Joe Yule.
For her, the victim of my perverted showcase, I added brackets after my name. (Like Christmas! Sorry, I was nervous and I’m such an idiot. Hope I haven’t put you off chocolate roulade. Also, it’s surprisingly nippy out there today. Take a jacket).
She never replied.
In fact, nobody did.