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Posts Tagged ‘Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail’

If one more privileged white woman tells me to be confident…

In behavior, books, business, culture, life, women, work on April 16, 2014 at 4:10 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you noticed the recent spate of wealthy, white, powerful women — Arianna Huffington (who refuses to pay writers at HuffPost), Sheryl Sandberg and now Katty Kay (BBC anchor) and Claire Shipman — selling books telling the rest of us to, you know, man up already?

Katty Kay, BBC presenter and author

Katty Kay, BBC presenter and author

Great post from Amanda Hess at Slate:

The Confidence Code is a kind of Lean In: Redux, and like Sandberg’s book, its mission is to vault America’s most ambitious women into even higher echelons of power. Also catering to this set: The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women, a new collection of testimonies from powerful gals, and the just-released Thrive, in which Arianna Huffington advises readers to focus on the “third metric” of success, well-being. (This one’s for women who have already read about securing the first two metrics—money and power, obviously). The Atlantic also took time this month to ask why female CEOS are holding themselves back in comparison to their male peers. (Can you believe Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles made only $403,857 in 2012? Sounds like somebody needs to “lean in.”)

Why is this genre enjoying such a moment right now? A few years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, the think piece du jour centered on how overconfident men were a danger to themselves and their country. Now, women are being told to ape these poisonous personality quirks for feminist life lessons. Buy these books and you, too, can become a successful blowhard.

Now it’s a cover story in The Atlantic:

We know the feeling firsthand. Comparing notes about confidence over dinner one night last year, despite how well we knew each other, was a revelation. Katty got a degree from a top university, speaks several languages, and yet had spent her life convinced that she just wasn’t intelligent enough to compete for the most-prestigious jobs in journalism. She still entertained the notion that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth.

Claire found that implausible, laughable really, and yet she had a habit of telling people she was “just lucky”—in the right place at the right time—when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s. And she, too, for years, routinely deferred to the alpha-male journalists around her, assuming that because they were so much louder, so much more certain, they just knew more. She subconsciously believed that they had a right to talk more on television. But were they really more competent? Or just more self-assured?

This is simply too rich.

The majority of women living in poverty, working and in old age, never made a decent wage and/or took time off to raise children. Many of the millions of low-wage workers in retail and food-service earn crap money for exhausting work. I worked low-wage retail for 2.5 years and wrote a book about it.

I confidently asked my bosses for a promotion — from $11/hour to $45,000 a year as assistant manager — but never even got the courtesy of an interview, despite a track record of consistently high sales and praise from my customers.

They hired a 25-year-old man from another company instead.

 Many women don’t lack confidence.

They lack income. They lack opportunity. They lack internal support. They lack the fuck-you savings fund that allows us to walk away quickly from a toxic boss or environment to find a place that will reward and value us.

Here’s a breakdown of what American women are earning, from Catalyst, a source I trust — the average American woman working full-time makes $37,791 — compared to a man’s $49, 398.

I don’t buy the argument that discrimination alone makes the difference, nor self-confidence. Skills, education, access to networks of people who are ready to hire, manage, promote? Yes.

I’ve met plenty of women — like the 75-year-old designer I interviewed this week — who don’t lack a scintilla of self-confidence.

It’s a difficult path for women to navigate, that between annoying asshole and demure doormat. Yet we all know who walks away with the best assignments, income, awards and promotions.

I judged some journalism awards last year, with two men 20 years my junior. One, driving a shiny new SUV, made sure to tell us he had two $8,000 assignments in hand.

Excuse me?

I’ve yet to win an $8,000 assignment. Not for lack of confidence, that’s for sure. But maybe because (?) I don’t yelp out my income to a stranger.

I reality-checked this guy with a few former female colleagues who rolled their eyes. Good to know.

My favorite book on this subject is not a new one, but a useful and practical one — Women Don’t Ask – because it addresses not some faux foot-shuffling but the very real nasty pushback women often get, often from other pissed-off women, when we do assert ourselves with very real confidence.

How dare you?

Do you struggle with feeling confident?

How do you address it?

 

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on April 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

malled cover HIGH

But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

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Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

Shelfies!

In behavior, books, culture, domestic life, education, entertainment, journalism, life on December 22, 2013 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this idea, from The Guardian — photos of readers’ bookshelves.

No FOMO here. Just a peek into others’ habits and interests.

So — intellectual striptease! — here are some close-ups of my bookshelves, unedited!

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I haven’t yet read the top book; Jose did, and loved it. The thin book below is one of my journals. The Sea is a gorgeous book of photos. Gibson’s book is on my “to read” list. Jones’ book is amazing! I picked this one off the table at Posman’s, one of my fave indie NYC bookstores. I won’t give any of it away but it’s a quirky tale and wonderful. I rarely read fiction, so this was a great surprise.

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I’m old-school enough to relish owning reference books I can dip into — pre-Internet behavior! — when I want a visual treat or need to better understand something. I’m a fan of the Secessionists, of which Klimt was possibly the most famous, but also a huge fan of Egon Schiele and Kokoschka. Cliff’s photo/story book, “Home,” is one of my absolute favorites, one I love re-reading over and over. It includes homes belonging to a wide range of people, including British runner Sebastian Coe. In true British fashion, it’s more interested in coziness or individuality than wealth or fashionable choices. Decorating With Paint is an oldie, possibly from the 1980s even, but offers great practical tips for sponging, dragging and other faux finishes. Perfect English is truly delicious, most of it shot in natural light, of weathered interiors, as it the book next to it, both offering patina-ed surfaces of all sorts.

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More reference books! I have a whole sub-section (sigh, unread, guilty!) on Islam and Islamic thought. The little green book on the end is a personal finance book, a subject that interests me and one I write about from time to time. Jose works in the business section of The New York Times, which receives a positive Niagara Falls of new business books every day. He brings a few home and some of them even get read!

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This mix is fairly typical. I treated myself to the top book as I love Paris and have lived there and visited often. (Not yet read!) The Chinese book below it is the translation of my book “Malled” — re-named “The Greatest Saleswoman in the World” (so not true!), and given a wholly new cover treatment when it was published in July 2013 there by Citic Press. Since I castigate Foxconn and Apple for abusive labor practices in Chinese factories, I suspect the manuscript has been censored, which I will only know after a friend reads it for me in Mandarin and compares it to my original. The Viesturs book was sent to me as a review copy. (Unread so far.) The Fergusons’ book is pretty funny — and helpful to my American husband when we visit my home and native land. The Swan book is a novel both weird and dark and…dark. I bought it on a recent visit to Toronto. I enjoyed it, I think, but it’s not an easy read. Have no idea what Inside is. The Johns book is a new book about abortion by a San Francisco friend, Fran Johns. The bottom book? No idea.

What you’ll find lots of on my shelves:

Reference, photo books, natural history, European history (18th-20th century), Canadian and American history, economics, music history, art, travel, cookbooks, a few self-help books, feminist thought, women’s history, biography and autobiography, memoir, criminal justice and criminology, some business, some classics (Moby Dick, Lawrence Durrell, Virginia Woolf.)

What you won’t find:

Chick lit, beach reads, romance, mystery, sci-fi. fantasy, graphic novels, true-crime, politics, sports. Not much fiction.

Want to share a shelfie with us?

Or recommend your favorite book of 2013?

Scrooge city! Employers hotly defend poverty-level wages

In business, life, Money, news, politics, urban life, US, work on December 17, 2013 at 3:22 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

‘Tis the season!

Check out the 300 comments — and climbing (including a long one from me) — at the Harvard Business Review blog where a Wharton professor, Peter Capelli, (gasp, competing B-school!) posted the following argument in favor of actually paying workers a living wage:

Jobs paying $15 per hour are not the concern, though. Those are routinely seen as good jobs now. The concern is those jobs paying at or around the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or only $1160 per month for a
full-time job. About 1.6 million workers in the U.S. are paid at that level, and a surprising 2 million are actually paid less than that under various exemptions. If you are an employer paying the minimum wage or close to it, the Government has determined that your employees need help to pay for food, housing, and healthcare even if they have no family and no one to look after but themselves.  As we’ve been reminded this season, many of those workers also need help from families and coworkers to get by.

No doubt the reason low-wage companies continue to pay low wages is because there are plenty of workers willing to take jobs at those wages, and the need to pay more to avoid the risk of being unionized is
largely gone. But “can” and “ought” are not the same thing.  Nothing about the minimum wage implies that it is morally ok as long as you pay at least that much. It simply says that the government will prosecute you if try to pay less than that level.

A longstanding principle in all developed countries including the U.S. is that labor is not like a commodity where taking advantage of the market to squeeze down prices is a fact of life. Employees have human rights that do not disappear when they enter the workplace. Even in business law, principles like the “mechanic’s lien” say that employees should be paid before other creditors because they are more vulnerable than businesses and do not get profits to compensate them for risks.

We’re at an inflection point in the U.S., where some low-wage workers, unprecedented in decades, have actually begun to stage walk-outs, strikes and protests in recent weeks.

In Germany — where 9,000 workers are employed by Amazon — employees have just gone on strike.

Wage list

Wage list (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have — as we say here in sports-metaphor-obsessed-America — skin in this particular game.

I worked 2.5 years making $11/hour (the federal minimum is still $7.25/hour) selling costly outdoor clothing at an upscale mall, the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

No matter how insanely productive we were — one of us sold $16,000 worth of merch one holiday Saturday — we never got more hours or  serious raise (mine was 30 cents/hour) or a boost into a low-management position with a (barely) liveable salary.

The endless argument in favor paying crap is that low-wage workers are all teens, seniors and/or have no skills.

False! A recent survey of 436 New York City retail workers found that two-thirds of them are supporting another family member on their wages. Their average age? 24.

I also pay my assistants $15/hour, albeit part-time, about 10 hours a month. This year I paid out $1,5000 in wages to one worker, a significant amount for a one-person shop — me — and a healthy sum to a person new to my line of work, in effect, someone essentially entry-level I was training and paying.

I am appalled, disgusted and fed up with corporate greed, corporate welfare and the right-wing outrage that all low-wage jobs are low-skilled. They’re not.

Every single job adds profit to an employer’s bottom line or — in union-free America — it’s swiftly cut, with no severance or warning.

Walmart and MacDonalds workers suck up my tax dollars in Medicaid and food stamps because their greedhead CEOs think this is moral, equitable and justifiable way to treat workers.

I disagree.

How about you?

Why editors still matter

In books, business, culture, journalism, work on December 16, 2013 at 12:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Publishers Weekly, (a must-read publication for any truly ambitious author), by a career editor:

A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not
crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.

As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.

The dirty secret of contemporary publishing — any author quickly learns — is that the verb “to edit” may not mean what you thought or hoped it would.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” was acquired by a very young and hungry editor who handed me back barely a page and half of notes on my final manuscript. I rocked! (Or did I?)

It quickly became clear to me that any editor was very short on time. There would be no long lunches (or even short ones) to discuss the world of letters. We maybe spoke to one another four or five times from acquisition to publication date — a span of more than two years.

The one time we did hang out — bizarre but true — was when I took her shooting in New Jersey and we spent the afternoon firing handguns at a local gun range. She wanted (which I really appreciated) to better understand the subject of my book. Our book.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” came back to me with a suggestion that Chapters 1-10 more closely resemble the final two. Holy shit!I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it.

That editor, whose strong ideas about structure and tone were invaluable (if daunting) had previously worked for NASA — maybe great editing was rocket science!

I’m working on yet another book proposal right now and, if this one sells, (no guarantee, as ever), I sure hope I find a terrific editor. I owe Courtney, my editor for “Malled”, a deep debt of thanks for her willingness to push me as hard as she did, even making final edits as the book went into production in September 2010.

A great editor will save you. We all need them!

Yet it’s very odd when you find a publisher for a non-fiction book — essentially an intellectual blind date.

Whoever chooses to publish you assigns an editor you have likely never met and know nothing of. Yet you’re bound, (maybe more an arranged marriage?) for the next few years to one another’s taste, personality and schedules. It requires a great deal of mutual trust between strangers whose careers can be enhanced or seriously damaged if the book soars or tanks.

I’m dying to read this new book, “My Mistake”, by editor Daniel Menaker whose career included The New Yorker and Random House  — if only for its spectacular conflagration [ba-boom!] of an editorial bridge most New Yorkers still genuflect to — legendary power couple Tina Brown [ex-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Daily Beast, among others] and her husband Harold Evans.

The review in the Times is by Meryl Gordon (who kindly blurbed my last book) and whose own next biography comes out next spring.

Journalism and publishing — certainly in New York City — is still a hothouse of interlocking egos, power and (artfully disguised) terror.

Helping writers in financial crisis: please donate to WEAF!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Money, US, work on December 6, 2013 at 3:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, many journalists now work full-time freelance. Some do so by choice, while many have been shut out of an industry going through almost daily re-invention; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and many of us did not find another.

Add to that a difficult economy in the U.S., and some writers — even the most talented and productive throughout a long career — can find themselves in a terrifying financial crisis, with no alternate source of income and few savings if your anchor client shuts down or a few reliable editors suddenly leave and/or you get a bad medical diagnosis and you’re too busy getting surgery and treatment to keep working.

Typically, it’s a medical emergency, theirs and/or that of a loved one, and its out-of-pocket costs that shove a writer into fiscal desperation — in the U.S. (a sad and ugly truth), most bankruptcies are the result of overwhelming medical bills.

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

I serve on a volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund. Since 1982, we’ve given out more than $400,000 to help qualified, deserving non-fiction writers through tough times. Our board is made up of veteran writers and editors, current and former, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Caputo and novelist Betsy Carter.

Books behind the bed

Books behind the bed (Photo credit: zimpenfish)

Unlike most charities, there are no administrative costs, so every penny you give goes only to the writers who seek our help.

When a needy writer asks for a grant we quickly read their application and — within a week — send them what we agree is a fair amount, usually the maximum, up to $4,000.

The money you give us is also tax-deductible, as WEAF is a registered charity.

I’m proud to help others in my profession. I hope you’ll do so as well this year. Writers — whether we’re producing unpaid blog posts or paid books, articles, scripts or other media — enrich our shared culture, explain the world and help us all see things a little more clearly.

Here’s a New York Times story I wrote about funds like ours, including WEAF.

I hope you’ll consider giving even a small amount.

For every $50 donation to WEAF — and please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com to let me know you’ve made the donation, with your name and mailing address — I’ll snail mail you a signed copy of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, my most recent book. USA Today called it “a bargain at any price” and Entertainment Weekly described it as “an excellent memoir.”

I’m happy to sign it to you, or to someone else for a holiday gift.

Thank you!

It’s Black Friday, and retail workers deserve more

In behavior, books, business, culture, life, Money, Uncategorized, US, work on November 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Today, thousands of Americans rush out to start their holiday shopping. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the beginning of the season that pushes retailers into the black — i.e. profitability.

While shoppers clamor for more product, more discounts and even more hours in which to spend their money, please pause to remember the hard-working people who serve them, since 70 percent of the American economy is created by consumer spending.

Retail workers also deserve more:

– More money (most earn minimum wage)

– More respect (until you’ve served them, it’s hard to believe how rude and nasty some shoppers can be)

– More hours (store managers scrimp on paid hours because every other cost is already spent)

– More opportunities for raises, bonuses and promotions into a decent wage. (No worker adding profits to the bottom line should be so fiscally punished)

Here’s my op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, America’s sixth-largest newspaper and the last newsroom in which I worked as a reporter.

An excerpt:

In a time of growing income inequality, no one should assume that retail staff are uneducated or have no higher ambition than folding T-shirts for hours. RAP also found that more than 50% of them either have a college degree or are working toward one.

Some, like our store manager Joe, who fought with U.S. Special Forces in Mogadishu, have served their country overseas. And some enjoy retail work and consider it a meaningful career choice.

For others, it’s a stopgap, a place to earn a wage while awaiting a better-paid opportunity. One multi-lingual young lawyer I know recently made the move from folding T-shirts at the Gap to working at a major investment house, the fortunate culmination of a lengthy and frustrating job search.

These workers deserve and demand more respect and better economic treatment.

Walmart

Walmart (Photo credit: matteson.norman)

As some of you may know, a frenzied crowd of shoppers trampled a 34-year-old Walmart associate. Jdimytai Damour — in his first week on the job on Long Island, NY — to death in 2008.

Walmart has yet to pay the $7,000 fine levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Sitting on appeal with a review commission, the case of Jdimytai Damour’s death highlights how corporations can choose to fend off modest penalties over workplace dangers for years on end, according to occupational health experts.

For a company with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year, the $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration represents little more than a single store’s rounding error. Walmart would have vastly outspent that sum simply in legal fees devoted to fighting the penalty. But the world’s largest retailer is less concerned with the monetary fine than with the broader implications of the case. A negative ruling could compel Walmart and other retail companies like it to take additional safety precautions for workers or face new liabilities.

“It’s not about the penalty,” said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA analyst who’s now a lecturer at George Washington University. “It’s this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision.”

I’m aware that for some people — including readers here — Walmart offers low prices and may be the only shopping choice in their area. I will never ever shop there.

I worked part-time, from 2007 to 2009, at an upscale mall near my home in suburban New York selling for The North Face, costly outdoor clothing manufactured — as most apparel now is — in low-wage nations across the globe, from Peru to China. I earned $11/hour, with no commission, for a job that demanded devoted attention to 14 simultaneous tasks, from spotting shoplifters (no store security staff) to scrubbing the toilets. We were given daily sales goals. The lowest was $400, the highest — during the holidays — $6,000.

malled cover LOW

It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it. I’ve never seen the world the same way since then.

It showed me a sort of corporate brutality I could never (naively) have imagined had I not stepped behind the cash wrap. Shoppers assumed we were stupid, uneducated, unable to get or keep any other sort of work, when many of us had lost much better-paid jobs in the recession. Or we were going to college, and/or supporting a family.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” details my experience, as well as that of hundreds of others nationwide.

Yet the word most industry experts use to describe these workers?

Disposable.

Retail work is the largest source of new jobs in the U.S., yet most of them  — part-time, with very few hours and no benefits — pay such low wages that workers end up using food stamps to supplement their meager incomes. Enough already with corporate welfare!

LAST CHANCE TO SIGN UP FOR THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — “CRAFTING THE PERSONAL ESSAY”. CLASS SIZE IS SMALL, SO EVERY STUDENT RECEIVES INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION.

THERE’S PRE-CLASS READING FOR THIS ONE, SO IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, DON’T DELAY!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

Rising costs, falling income, and waving at the Rockefeller helicopter

In aging, behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, Money, urban life, US, work on April 25, 2013 at 11:02 am
Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s an honest, powerful and deeply depressing blog post about what American life when your income is falling and costs going through the roof:

Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car.  He drives around 150 miles per day for his job.  And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg.  But it’s not working out like we planned.  With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.

While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her.  “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work.  I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home.  Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.

The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.

I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.

She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.

Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?

For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.

Here’s a powerful recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how work, even for the most highly educated, is changing for the worse:

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.

The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.

Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.

I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.

Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.

Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.

Money - Black and White Money

Money – Black and White Money (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

Stagnant and falling wages for most of us are simply killing our desire, and ability, to get ahead of our monthly basic costs– to save for short or long-term needs, whether retirement, car repair, education, medical bills or (imagine), a vacation.

I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.

So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.

I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.

We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.

And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.

How’s things with you these days financially?

Are you as worried as I am?

Related articles

Here’s how to sell your writing (and stay sane in the process)

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, US, work on April 4, 2013 at 1:45 am

Here’s an interesting post, recently featured on Freshly Pressed, about the importance of luck to a writer’s success:

I don’t mean to sound defeatist or to say it’s all about chance. This isn’t sour grapes (I don’t have a bestseller because I never got lucky, etc.). No, talent and marketing and skill and savvy all help put the writer in a position where the odds are better. But it really does seem to me that, at least in some cases, luck is as much a factor as talent.

And in some cases, more.

No one seems to talk about it, though. Maybe because it’s something that can’t be taught–or sold–on a website.

I’ve been writing for a living — my sole income — since my second year of university. I was an undergrad studying English literature at the University of Toronto and all I wanted to do was become a journalist. I decided not to study journalism because I knew I needed a broader education and wanted that instead. (I’ve never formally studied journalism or writing.)

Victoria University at University of Toronto

Victoria University at University of Toronto (Photo credit: MKImagery (Toronto))

Here are some of the ways, since 1978, that I have found editors and agents to whom I’ve sold my work, and/or gotten staff writing jobs:

— While at college I worked at the weekly college newspaper. I wrote long, complex features so I would have clips (samples) to show to paying editors of what I could produce. Moral: What’s your goal? Start accumulating the skills you need and the visible proof you have them.

— I cold-called editors at every major magazine and asked for meetings. I got them. Moral: Be bold! No one is going to hand you your success.

– When I had the meeting, I went in with a multi-page list of story ideas and would not leave the office until I had sold one of them and had a firm, paid assignment. Moral: Be prepared. Be way over-prepared.

— After I had amassed a larger pile of clips, I began aiming higher, for more prestigious or better-paying markets. Moral: Never stop moving. What’s your next step and what will get you there?

— I talked myself into a meeting with the editor of a local weekly section of our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I got a column to write about shopping, for anything, that paid me, then, $125 a week, $600 a month. (My annual tuition was $660. No, that’s not missing a zero.) Moral: Try for a regular gig.

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France,...

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1900 (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

— I won a journalism fellowship, at 25, for eight months in Europe, based in Paris, traveling on four 10-day reporting trips alone. It changed me, and my work, forever. Moral: Aim high. Start applying for rocket-boosting opportunities once you have the skills and resume to compete for them.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. It looked a little different by the time I worked there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I got my job at the Globe and Mail six months after returning from the fellowship. Moral: strike while the iron is hot and you have a significant point of difference from your many competitors.

— I got my job there after hearing that the sports editor was soon to become the managing editor; i.e. he was the one to impress, now. I knew nothing about sports! He sent me to cover several huge, high-profile sports stories, knowing that. I rocked it. Moral: Follow your targets closely to know when an opportunity exists. Then impress the hell out of the person with the budget and authority to hire you.

— I got my job at the Montreal Gazette when a Globe colleague who once worked there tipped them off I might be looking for a new opportunity. Moral: Find and make allies.

— I fell in love with an American who was moving to (!) a small, remote town in New Hampshire for the next four years. Because I had been stringing for Time for a few years already, while working in full-time jobs, I asked my Time editor if he knew of any jobs there. I got a well-paid contract job there — which is insanely improbable — through one of his former New York magazine colleagues. Moral: If you don’t ask for help, you never know what might happen.

— I found every agent I’ve had through personal contacts. The first came to me through one of my NYU journalism students, who knew someone at William Morris who knew three new agents hungry for clients. Moral: Put the word out and take the chance.

— I started writing for The New York Times in 1990 after I called someone from my Paris fellowship (eight years earlier), living in New Orleans. I called an editor at the Times Book Review who began giving me 300-word reviews to produce on topics that were really difficult and often boring. I did them, gratefully. It gave me a Times byline. Moral: Start wherever you have to. But be strategic.

The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I won a National Magazine Award in Canada, for humor, for an essay about surviving my divorce. It’s a topic many would avoid writing about: painful, private, cliched. Instead, I turned it into something (darkly) funny. I tried to sell it to an American women’s magazine who quickly rejected it. I sold it to a Canadian women’s magazine, who submitted it for the award. Moral: Rejection is normal. Get over it! Move on. Find another market. Or ten.

— Once you find an editor who likes your work, hang on tight! Repeat business will save you a ton of wasted time and energy. Moral: Remember the 80/20 rule of business; 80 percent of your business likely comes from 20 percent of your clients.

– But, think like Caesar and keep on conquering. Never rest on your laurels, as editors can lose a job with scary speed and you can very quickly lose a nice little sinecure. Moral: ABC, Always Be Closing (i.e. making sales.)

– Last week I got an email from someone I have never met, a man who lives in Beirut, who is married to an NPR correspondent. He and I were both bloggers for True/Slant, in 2009. He asked me for a valuable editorial contact — while offering me one of his. Win-win! Moral: If you’re going to ask for help, offer something of value upfront in return. No one likes a taker.

– Remember that publishing remains a team sport. If you’re selling to print publications, think about the art or photos to go with your story. If you’re working on books, be polite and kind to everyone as no one is likely getting rich and most of them love this work as much as you do. Moral: If you plan to stay in this game, keep your nose clean.

Selling your writing is hard!

It’s tiring.

It can take a much longer time to “succeed” than you thought possible.

You may have to re-define what “success” looks like: Tons of money? Huge readership? A TV show or movie based on your work? Or…some appreciative readers and some people who will pay for your skills?

Sell, Sell, Sell

Sell, Sell, Sell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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