Encounters in Publishing #6: Behold the Village Idiot Syndrome, by Maria Gagliano

My first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant at a major cookbook publisher. It was…how do I say this? It was a high-stress situation. Most of the books were on a crash schedule, meaning they had to be transformed from a vapor of an idea to a fully-designed, finished book with hundreds of recipes and double that amount of photos in a few short months. The authors were usually celebrity chefs, which meant they had other responsibilities aside from their books. Most things got accomplished via a chain of he-said-she-said exchanges among trembling assistants.

When problems came up, they were always our problem (as in, the assistants’). It was our job to just figure it out so the editors and authors could carry on with their job of making beautiful books. The catch was, the problems always hit hard, fast, and when you least expected them. You’d just be sitting there, innocently toiling away at your 400-piece art log, or daydreaming about what ingredients you’d put in your lunch salad, when someone would either bust into your cubicle in a rage or blast you on the phone.

Maybe an author calls to check on that 500-copy book order they swear they placed with you for their book party tomorrow—the one that you have no record of.

Or your boss’s boss wants those sales sheets rightnowrightnowrightnow, complete with the new subtitles that still need to be brainstormed, and the competitive analysis you’ve been waiting to talk to your boss about if she ever gets out of that meeting.

Maybe your boss’s lunch date calls from the restaurant they’re supposed to meet because he’s been waiting at the table for her for 20 minutes. You check your boss’s calendar and see that the lunch is scheduled for tomorrow.

Or an author calls to check on the status of the copyedited manuscript she was supposed to receive yesterday. FedEx tracking says it was delivered. It’s nowhere to be found. It was the only copy, complete with original handwritten edits.

These surprise crises happened so often that my fellow assistants and I coined a phrase for the phenomenon: The Village Idiot Syndrome.

The Village Idiot Syndrome is the thing that hits just when you think you’re having a good day. You got in to work on time. You hit your big deadline. Your boss approved that copy you wrote without any changes. The mean celebrity chef even picked the title you’d suggested among all others. Your day is clicking along beautifully. So much so, that you think you’ve finally got this whole editorial assistant thing figured out. It’s a mighty fine day indeed. Until…

Your phone rings. Or you turn around, and someone’s vein is about to burst all over your cubicle rug. It’s not good. Maybe it’s your fault—or it isn’t. Either way, it’s your problem. And you should have known! Just when you were bumbling along, thinking everything was going so well.

The two assistants with whom I’d coined the Village Idiot Syndrome phenomenon are still my very dear friends. You can say we’re old war buddies. And even now, eight years after working that first job together, one of us will regularly start a conversation by saying, “I had such a bad case of Village Idiot Syndrome today…”


Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and co-publisher of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, Salon, and, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at