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July 11th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Philip Turner's Books & Writing

“The Bus Does Not Go Where the Paychecks Are”

An excellent column by Peter S. Goodman at Huffington Post highlights the fact that in many American municipalities unemployed workers cannot get to jobs simply cannot get to jobs where they might otherwise be able to be working again. He cites the example of 49-year old Lebron Stinson of Chattanooga, TN, who does not own a car and has had to forego several jobs because he can’t get to the workplace every day. I have earlier written on my 2009 layoff and the way that unemployment can descend into the even worse phenomena of ‘disemployment,’ and here a statement by Stinson makes clear the erosion these forces exert on his self-esteem:

“’That’s the thing that hurts me the most, having experience and qualifications, but you can’t get to the destination,’ Stinson says. ‘It’s a painful situation here. I’ll tell you, I’m not one to give up hope, but, man, it makes your self-esteem drop. Your confidence disappears. Sometimes, I just can’t think about it. You get so it’s all that’s in your head. I need a job, but I can’t get there. I just want to feel like I’m back, like I’m part of the world again.’”

Citing statistics that show the low percentage of the population with access to adequate public transportation, Goodman writes,

“On top of the most catastrophic economic downturn since the Great Depression, the continued impact of automation, and the shift of domestic production to lower-wage nations, here is a less dramatic yet no less decisive constraint that limits opportunities for many working-age Americans: The bus does not go where the paychecks are.”

H/t Melanie Hamilton who posted this piece on Facebook where I first saw it.


June 20th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Philip Turner Book Productions; Publishing & Bookselling

If It Must Be Done–A Model for Laying Off People Decently

As a longtime publishing staffer who was let go in a major layoff at Sterling Publishing more than three years ago, when downsizing at publishing houses is announced, I read the notices with a combination of concern and regret for the folks losing their jobs, now colleagues of mine in the forced evacuation from the ranks of corporate publishing. It’s analogous to reading the New York Times obituaries to learn who’s recently died, before looking at any other section of the paper. This is not schadenfreude,* pleasure derived from the suffering of others, but something more its opposite–there ought to be a word for the vicarious experience of misery alloyed with empathy upon learning that still more people will soon be joining the ranks of the unemployed, even the disemployed, and for how long it cannot be known.

Readers of this blog may recall that in an essay entitled Three Years Ago Today I’ve written about the day in 2009 when I was laid off as Editorial Director of Sterling’s Union Square Press. Covertly summoned to the office of the HR director Denise Allen, she and my supervisor Jason Prince were waiting for me with grim faces. After they lowered the boom, they “asked” me to leave the office later that day for the last time. “Asked” was really a euphemism for “demanded.” Any personal items I could not grab that day–and I had a substantial work and reference library in my office–would be boxed up and shipped to me, they said. I returned to my office in shock to find that I had already been denied access to my work email.

I do know why HR professionals claim that this is the safest way to let people go, lest a dismissed employee make the survivors uncomfortable in the now-shadowy presence of a person who an hour earlier was a colleague; deride the company in the presence of remaining staff or make off with company secrets; or go ‘postal’ and harm higher-ups and co-workers. What’s more, Sterling is owned by Barnes & Noble, a publicly traded company, and during my Sterling tenure B&N was hyper-averse to news and publicity they couldn’t control–even denying book editors the ability to trumpet their latest acquisitions in industry newsletters like Publishers Lunch without first having the announcements vetted by corporate PR. During my Sterling tenure, this aversion to unwanted publicity even extended to the fact that B&N declined to name people who lost their jobs in layoffs, nor was the number of people let go ever confirmed. However, much as negative consequences from treating people decently may be feared, I believe that what this behavior does instead is subtract at least a bit of humanity from everyone in the equation. I note ruefully, but again without any satisfaction, that Jason Prince was himself laid off from Sterling earlier this year. I take no pleasure in this turnabout, and wonder if he was himself on the receiving end of such lousy treatment the day he learned of his dismissal.

With the above as personal prologue, I note with regret that HarperCollins yesterday announced a reorganization of their Sales Department that will lead to the elimination of the positions of at least five senior employees. But there was something novel about the press release put out by Harper’s President of Sales Josh Marwell**–the degree to which he names, acknowledges, and even thanks the people who are losing their jobs. The entire text ran in galleycat.com. The mensch-like passage reads:

After 18 years at HarperCollins, Jeff Rogart, VP, Director of Distributor Sales will retire at the end of August. Jeff’s unique combination of deep industry knowledge, direct style and kind charm has earned him the respect and love from colleagues both inside and outside the company. He will be truly missed.  I regret to announce as a result of these changes that Ken Berger, Mike Brennan, Mark Hillesheim, Kathy Smith and Jeanette Zwart, our respected and beloved colleagues will be leaving the company on July 20th. Please join me in thanking them for their hard work, true dedication and warm collegiality in the countless contributions they have made to our company. We wish them only the best in the future.

When you get laid off you invariably, unavoidably, experience a kind of professional death. The process of being shown the door is sort of like getting ferried to the other side, but the process that put me on the boat across my personal River Styx was not as kind or forgiving as the ferryman Charon was with his passengers. And yet, you might say that over the past three and a half years rather than going where the souls of the departed reside, I’ve pretty much managed to be reborn professionally, not buried. That though would be a story for another post. For now, I just want to say I wish Jeff Rogart well in his retirement, and that I feel really bad for Ken Berger, Mike Brennan, Mark Hillesheim, Kathy Smith and Jeanette Zwart, the latter whom I have known personally over the years. I wish them well on their journey into post-corporate life, no matter how brief or long-lived, and assure them that if they ever want to consult with me about my experience of it, I will be glad to share whatever practical advice and insight I can muster. I’m relieved that Josh Marwell and HarperCollins named them, that they were given praise and the professional courtesy they are due, and that under lousy circumstances their dignity was preserved and that their departure will not be so rushed or precipitous as mine. I cannot comment of course on the terms of severance under which they’re leaving the company–I hope they were generous–but as for announcing layoffs, this is a model for how to do it right.

*For an insightful discussion of schadenfreude and related words, I refer you to this excellent blog post by musician and songwriter Zak Claxton.

**Full disclosure: I have known Josh Marwell for more than thirty years, since he was a sales rep to my Cleveland bookstore, Undercover Books, representing St. Martin’s Press. We have not discussed the current matter.



January 14th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner Book Productions; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Three Years Ago Today

On January 14, 2009, I was laid off as Editorial Director of Sterling Publishing’s Union Square Press, an imprint of narrative nonfiction books I had been recruited to run two years earlier. I recall the anxiety I felt upon being summoned to the office of the HR director; the sick-making sensation that shot through my gut upon receiving the news; that my email was shut off by the time I returned to my office; and the way I was instructed to leave Sterling’s offices for the final time, informed that whatever personal effects I couldn’t grab then would be shipped to my home. If you’ve never had this happen to you, I must say it is not something you can prepare yourself for. Even though I was not surprised to get laid off in the middle of the worst financial crisis in eighty years, it nonetheless registered as a deep shock. Later that dark week, I sent an email to all my contacts, headed “Moving on From Sterling,” for that’s what I had already begun to do. There being no prospect for another staff position anywhere soon, in the weeks that followed I incorporated a business in the state of New York, Philip Turner Book Productions LLC, and began cultivating clients for what would be–perforce–my own editorial services business.

Now, thirty-six months to the day from January 14, 2009, looking back across my self-employment I see I’ve written jacket and catalog copy for publishers; guest-taught five straight years at a graduate school seminar for journalism students in a non-fiction book-writing class; given a fresh professional polish to the résumés and cover letters of many job-seekers, not just my own; published a personal essay about my experience working with William Styron; written, co-written, and re-written manuscripts; and brought out one book as publisher under my own name in an eponymous imprint. I find I’ve also edited a bevy of terrific manuscripts, including a generational novel about the son of a third-generation Italian-American family returning to his family’s historic village; an ambitious novel of ideas about the American presidency in 2025; a true crime thriller about a marijuana dealer marooned in a Cambodian prison; a treatise on why religious believers and atheists both miss the point about the nature of existence; and co-agented the sale to a publisher of a large-hearted examination of how America’s firefighters, cops, emergency service providers, and veterans can heal from the trauma they experience while keeping the rest of us safe and secure.

While I’ve been operating and growing my business amid publishing’s lurching transition from a model exclusively reliant on the printed book to the burgeoning ebook model, I’ve continued to feel the tug of being back inside a publishing house where books are being excitedly sized up and acquired and published with energy and focus. As a result, I’ve put my oar in for more than twenty editorial positions at publishing houses, though the penny has not yet dropped for me on any of these. Recently, I’ve been applying for open positions at political and news websites, an area–given my passion for politics, news, and media–that I’ve long been interested in pursuing. With the skills I’ve gained curating, writing, and building out this website, I feel especially well-suited to a job like that now.

I was reminded of all this early in the past week, when I wrote this post about a New York Times deliveryman in the Bay Area who’d lost his job during the holidays last month. There was also the news that Barnes & Noble, which owns Sterling Publishing, has put the company up for sale. These events have put me in mind of the time I was laid off, reminding me that in April 2009 I was interviewed for this segment on the public radio program “The Takeaway,” about the different ways that people leave jobs. For “Last Letters and Parting Shots: How to Say Goodbye at Work” a correspondent with the charming name of Femi Oke and a musical voice that went along with it, asked me to read from “Moving on From Sterling” for her story. While my part in the eight-minute segment begins at around 5:56, it’s all interesting three years after it first aired.

As I listened to it again today, I realized that in Spring 2009 my lay-off was only a few months old, and  the recession–which I date from the mid-September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers amid the final catastrophic months of the Bush presidency–was only four months older than that. I might have been somewhat fortunate in losing my staff job relatively early in the collapse, though it’s not as if this somehow enabled me to regain a staff job more rapidly. I hadn’t yet begun to really glimpse “the long, strange trip” I was embarked upon, nor that of the rest of the country and the wider world. An uncountable number of my fellow human beings have lost their job since mine went away. Accompanying the chorus of The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” I just invoked, my inner musical ear is also hearing the chorus to Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Although I did my best to feel optimistic then, I am more hopeful now than I was then, while chastened by the whole experience.

For a blog essay like this, I would normally have quoted from my email “Moving on From Sterling.” However, in a way that seems oddly apt, my email address was hijacked last March, and I lost all my archived email prior to that date. It caused me a lot of grief at the time, but looking back on it now in regard to this anniversary, I’m not sorry about it. In fact, it seems in keeping with the line I read on “The Takeaway” about leaving the job being a kind of “liberation.” Still, the flip side of that liberation is being “at liberty”–a euphemism for being out of work. The biggest challenge of the past three years has not so much been the unemployment, but more precisely, dueling with the demons of ‘disemployment,’ a word used less frequently, but one that much more viscerally describes the specter of purposelessness, the absence of meaningful work, the loss of collegiality, and the fear of invisibility that laps like the tide at the edges of one’s sense of self.

January 15 update: Since I posted this essay yesterday I’ve gained some additional perspective, seeing now that one of the notable developments of the past three years has been finding my own self as a writer. After so many years of handling other people’s words, it was time I found my own voice. This website and blog are in aid of that. 
April Update: The website Over Fifty and Out of Work has republished this essay on their website under the title Warding off the Demons of Disemployment. A condensed version of the essay has been published in hard copy in a print magazine called NY Underscore.