Law in Contemporary Society
I come from a family full of lawyers. Both my parents went to law school (my dad dropped out), and of my ten aunts and uncles, five are legal professionals. My mother went to law school to learn a trade, and after graduation she got a job at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development. Over 35 years later, she still works there. My uncle, her brother went to law school to become rich and powerful. He is now a partner at a big law firm and spends the majority of his time defending big tobacco companies.

Until recently, I somewhat unconsciously saw those as my two choices. And I thought I'd found a middle ground—working at firm for a few years for training and credentials, moving in-house to some sort of media company, getting a nice stable job with nice easy hours doing work that wouldn't be terribly stressful. I worked in publishing for a while, I'm interning in-house at the New York PBS station this summer, and I could easily float down that path.

My old idea of a potential career trajectory doesn't necessarily need to be scrapped completely, but taking that well-worn path to be in-house counsel leaves me pretty vulnerable to shifts in the media industry. Most of the various outlets that make up the media and art worlds have been changing rapidly and radically (and those that haven't been changing are at risk of death and/or near-irrelevance). So accepting change and uncertainty is more or less a given.

But given the choice between accepting change or charting my own course, which would I choose? Before, I had unconsciously chosen the former option and focused my plans on what would be easiest. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that taking control of my destiny is the only way to go. The lifestyle aspects, while important, only come into play after I figure out what I want to accomplish in the world. So the question becomes, what do I want my destiny to be, and why?

I care about books. A lot. For most of elementary school, I feared the company of other children and spent all of my time reading everything I could get my hands on. In college, I thought I meant I should work in book publishing. So I tried out internships at Penguin Books and at a literary agency. I grew depressed by the overly clunky system that seemed designed to keep new, untested writers out, while giving coffee-table-book deals to any blogger with a cutesy concept and a decent existing readership. My frustrations made me decide to wash my hands of the industry altogether and take on a completely different career. But I’ve begun to realize there’s hope for a better landscape for writers, and I want to make sure that while the industry undergoes a revolution, writers get the power rather than Amazon and Google.

Thanks to e-book publishing, the huge media conglomerates are increasingly not necessary to perform their distribution role. And with the big companies increasingly picking up work after the writer has already developed and gained a following, the old school publishers and agents aren't even playing the role of developing talent, editing, publicizing, or filtering through all the work produced so that the highest-quality and most salient work rises to the top. Yet somehow, the big publishers and booksellers are taking a greater share of the profits away from the content creators than they traditionally took, despite the fact that publishers do far less work to get the books out than they used to. [1]

50 Shades of Gray was the most recent smash hit in the book world. When industry vanguard Publishers Weekly named its author Publishing Person of the Year, there was an outcry from the publishing establishment ("Civilization Ends" was my favorite headline). [2] While the book really was sloppily, lazily, terribly written, the industry’s problems with the book went deeper than that to the unconventional path of its success. It started out as Twilight fanfiction, was kicked off the fanfiction site for being too racy, moved to its own blog, and was picked up by a tiny Australian publisher and turned into an e-book. It was already very popular before Vintage picked it up and proceeded to rake in money without doing any legwork – even the publicity had already been set in motion. [3]

The lesson of 50 Shades is that there is a market for books, to the contrary of popular wisdom. People will read books if you publish something they want to read. If people have shitty taste, so be it – the people get the books they deserve. But editors bemoan the fact that the MFA drivel they seem to love isn't more popular and publish books people want to read very reluctantly. They catch on to trends among real people two steps late and then churn out repetitions of that trend ad nauseum without any deeper understanding of why it sells, until they kill it.

Simon & Schuster recently gave one of my favorite columnists, Cat Marnell of VICE magazine, a $500,000 advance for a memoir. [4] She is a good writer with a big following and a lot of publicity buzz. But her book proposal was terrible. And every major writing and editing position she's had in the last five years, she's been sent to rehab or mental hospitals multiple times before finally quitting. VICE allowed her to stop writing her column, "Amphetamine Logic," after her latest stint in rehab. She lasted much longer as a beauty editor at, where she had deadlines, short and specific assignments, and a supervisor who understood her. Cat is a personal essayist – her attention span is short and her insights too fractured for long-form writing. Someone clearly thought she'd write the next Prozac Nation without understanding a thing about the best shape for Cat's writing. And anyway, Elizabeth Wurtzel just turned 40. Would it kill these people to get a new idea?

Book deals are the dreams of most bloggers and magazine columnists, because of the bigger payouts and the stamp of insider approval those deals bring. Right now, agencies and publishing houses are little more than middlemen who get far too much money for far too little work, and this needs to change drastically. I think there's still a place for editors and agents, because every writer needs a good editor and could often benefit from solid business management/PR representation. Also, however irrationally, authors tend to want credentials and insider recognition (Ryan O'Connell, editor and writer at thoughtcatalog, considers his Simon & Shuster book deal important enough for his 160-character Twitter bio). [5] More rationally, they desire advances so they can eat while their books are being shaped. And from reading the slush pile at an agency for a summer, I learned that most people are talentless with illusions of grandeur, and I wouldn't mind seals of quality (though they should not be the prerequisites for hard-copy distribution that they currently are, in any event).

How am I going to do this? I'm not sure. But I plan on spending the rest of my time in law school (and beyond) finding out as much as I can. I learn best by doing and watching things in action, and my past internships were great at showing me how the industry works from the inside. So my first step is to get as many internships as possible in legal departments of media companies (PBS for now, Marvel and more for later) and at the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts so I can get a better sense of what I want to do and how to best accomplish it. The future is still full of uncertainty, but now I'll be making my own way through it rather than waiting to see where it takes me.

Footnote links:

Why should your links be footnotes? Why can't they just be links?






Improved in every way, as the thinking happened. Well done. Another edit would tighten up, remove the feeling of Publisher's Weekly business gossip, get a little closer to the issues and further away from the names.


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r5 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:15:33 - IanSullivan
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