Thursday, June 12, 2008

laid off by Richard Vargas

laid off

they hold their heads high
say they saw it coming
(they did) and knew
how to take it in stride
(they didn't)
all week whispered conversations
about unemployment benefits
and maybe going back to school
then the planning out loud for all to hear
about meeting at a local bar Friday after work
to get blasted and let it all hang out

if you were one of the lucky ones
you'll pass because after the 3rd round
weird looks will begin to come your way
the comic book bubbles over their
heads where you can read their thoughts
will say the same thing:
"why not him?"

then you'll blink an eye and see it
reflected back at you in their faces
the shotgun someone will clean tomorrow
and come Monday you're sitting at your
desk taking a phone call
whipping around to see what made
the loud metallic click behind you

you'll blink again
now you're back in the bar
Hank Williams is on the jukebox
they're all lifting their glasses
in your direction

you read someone's lips
as he/she says:
"watch out man,
you could be next."
--Richard Vargas

I found this poem in the Writer's Almanac archive. It really captures the feeling of dislocation we had after the news, and many of the specific events (Peter even ended up at a bar with his laid off friends that night -- though he wasn't drinking).

Okay, so now we're on to the really big, scary, exciting, daunting news about Peter's job. On Tuesday morning I was just sitting down to write a tribute to Traci and cry a lot when Peter called and said something like, "I thought I ought to tell you -- They laid off thirty nine people this morning -- including me." He said it was effective immediately and that he'd be coming home as soon as he cleaned out his desk.

Hanging up the phone, I was kind of in shock. I wrote that paragraph I posted yesterday and couldn't think of anything else to say. I figured I had about an hour and a half before Peter got home (ha ha -- they all ended up going over to the IHOP to decompress, so I had to be alone a LOT longer), so I thought I'd just call Mom. Well, she was in the middle of travelling home from Texas (visiting Heather and her new baby) and couldn't answer the phone on the plane. I ended up talking to Heather and Daddy (who kindly, but prematurely offered us a place to stay) but those phone calls lasted about ten minutes each, and I needed a LOT more than that.

After puttering around the house for a bit -- I ate something, I might have taken a shower, I probably fed the baby -- I saw that it was long past when Peter ought to have been home, so I walked over to a friend's house just to be with someone. Peter's mom, Kathey, called while I was walking, and sounded even more upset than I was, and I began to realize I was handling the news pretty well.

I've never really trusted TOKYOPOP as an employer. They strung Peter along as a 39 1/2 hour a week part time employee for far too long. On top of that, there were several incidents where people were fired seemingly at random -- because the company had a bad quarter and they needed to even up the profit and loss sheet by hiring somebody with less experience who would not need as big of a salary. The turnover in editorial also seemed unnaturally high. This really worried me a couple of years ago, especially after I quit my job and got pregnant. I finally decided that I had to accept the fact that one day Peter would go to work, and with no warning find out that he didn't have a job anymore (and that's exactly what happened). I know that if we need the money, I can go to a temp agency and get a job any day of the week because of my experience and skills. I also have old employers who would be happy to take me back. It wasn't an ideal plan, but it let me sit back and enjoy riding the TOKYOPOP train as long as it lasted.

Peter had also expressed some dissatisfaction lately. He was having trouble with office politics and the fact that he wanted the books he edited to be much higher quality than the company was willing to give him resources for, and since his vision of what he could let slide was never exactly the same as the people in charge, he found himself fighting the powers that be over changes in almost every single book. On the other hand, he loved working in publishing, he loved working with manga, and the idea of actually finding another job was daunting to say the least. So anyway, with his morale so low, we had been praying in the last few weeks for Peter's job situation to improve. Tuesday morning I wondered whether this was a case of "be careful what you wish for."

When Peter did finally get home I began to realize the magnitude of the layoff. Previous firings had been of five or ten people at a time. With 39 people being let go out of about 100 total, that's nearly half of the workforce. It's crazy! Peter got online and started reading reactions and posting in some forums and I, looking over his shoulder, saw just how shoddy their treatment of the employees was. Here's a sample:
Comments from somebody's blog
dude looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 9:06 am
Hey guys, love reading your opinions and thoughts on this. I was one of the 40 they tossed. And yes, their PR machine did a fantastic job with the press release. Right after which they also laid off their PR person (of 4 years)… Think of it like this, a sinking ship, the small rats got thrown overboard by the bigger rats who are clinging on to the debris trying to survive.

gia Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 9:14 am
@dude: Tough luck! Having been one of the small rats before, I can commiserate. How much notice did they give you?

also looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 11:14 am
They didn’t give us any notice at all. I was told to go the one of the conference rooms the moment I stepped out of the elevator yesterday morning, and that’s when I found out.

dude looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 4:49 pm
yes, there was no notice. they actually smiled, played nice, and acted as if everything was normal the day before. The graphic design team didn’t even get a chance to get samples of their work for their portfolios (before everyone was locked out of their computers).

another chick who's looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 5:53 pm
I’m another of those let go by TP. We literally got to work the morning of and were told that we had a meeting in a conference room where we were quickly told we had been laid off so they could move on to the next unsuspecting employee standing outside of the room, confused. Then, we had a few minutes to clean out our desks (but they had the servers, etc. shut down so we couldn’t retrieve computer data) and they handed us a folder and sent us out. We couldn’t even access e-mail, etc. I left an iPod charger and a mug in my stunned shock, but one of our unemployed peers reports that he was treated with almost stunning disrespect when he returned for something he left. Good riddance, I suppose.

And from another blog
I was one of the 39 laid off, to say the least, it was one of the most unprofessional and downright humiliating things I have ever seen a corporation do in my lifetime. Tokyopop has no sense of professional responsibility, fiscal responsibility, or ethics whatsoever. They gave no warning and no support to any of the employees laid off, just a goodbye and good luck, and in some cases after years of dedicated service. Totally unprofessional, knowing the way the company is run I can only imagine that they won't be around for much longer, too bad for all their fans who hold them in such high esteem. Even worse for all of us who had hoped they had more compassion for their employees than they showed us yesterday.
As for why it happened, here is the press release, and here is another blog with some excellent analysis. Essentially, there are three main reasons it happened.

  1. There's just too much manga out there. There isn't enough space on the shelves for all the books that are being published, and with the economy slowing down, kids have less money to spend on manga, so if they're buying one book, they're not buying another. In this respect, cutting back on the number of titles released makes sense because if you choose the right titles, you can sell the same number of books for a lower production cost (if you're not wasting time on the books that don't sell).
  2. TOKYOPOP wasn't publishing the most popular titles. There are three major publishers of manga in Japan, and each has a deal with a US publisher other than TOKYOPOP. At least one of the US publishers is a subsidiary of the Japanese publisher, and poor business practices alienated at least one other Japanese publisher. That means that if TOKYOPOP has access to their titles at all, it's only after the best ones have already been licensed by somebody else.
  3. The head of the company didn't want to be a publisher. He wanted to be at the head of a new trend in pop culture. A few years ago, that meant publishing manga, but now he thinks that the real fun is in making movies and animation. He tends to throw a lot of money at a big new idea, and then not follow through. A few years ago, TOKYOPOP had a major marketing campaign to launch their free "Takuhai" magazine with lots of sample chapters and bonus content. After ONE issue, they changed the name to Manga Magazine, and then only published two or three other issues before letting it peter out. Then there was the whole manga on cellphones or in newspapers thing, and the website that want so much to be a facebook type community, it's nearly impossible to find a simple list of what books are available in each series.
In the week since Peter was laid off, he's made a lot of progress. He applied for unemployment insurance benefits so we'll still have some money coming in. He sent out resumes to at least six companies (maybe more). He's been networking with friends in the publishing industry, and they've been giving him good advice and putting in a good word for him at various places. Somebody arranged for him to do some freelance work this week, which will bring in some more money and also give him a taste for copy editing non fiction so he can see if that's a direction he wants to pursue. He's going to Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in August, where he's on a couple of panels, so he should be able to do some more networking there. His resume is in a lot better shape than it was when he was first trying to get a job in New York several years ago -- he has experience in the field, and a record of being promoted. We really think he'll be able to find work someplace, and that it'll probably be a good move for our family.

But of course the "move" part is another can of worms. Where will we be living in six months? Will he find a job in LA (unlikely)? If we move will we be able to sell our mobile home for what we paid for it? Will we be able to even break even on the deal and write off all the payments we've made so far as rent? Will we be able to sell the mobile home at all??? Should we put it on the market now to give ourselves plenty of time to try for a high price and then lower it if we have to? What if it sells quickly -- before Peter has another job? Where do we move in the meantime? There are family members who have offered to take us in, but the cost of moving all our stuff is a factor -- we don't want to do it more than once. If we're going a long way, it probably isn't worth even taking most of our furniture, but we do have some nice stuff that would need to be stored someplace.

So yeah. We've been on an emotional roller coaster. Feeling strangely liberated from a company that was heading in a different direction than our family needed, yet cast adrift into the chancy world of finding a job in a highly competitive field in the middle of a recession.


  1. It's interesting to get more details. Thanks.

    Good luck! I hate that adrift feeling.

  2. I am so sorry. Get a job out this way. We are putting our home up for could live here!

    And believe it or not, even tho Robert has a job, I am in the same quandry for all different reasons, and all the same.

    and don't these events play such games with your head/heart? Makes me physically ill...and we are nearing the end of Robert's employment years. I'm sorry.....but Cleveland publishes as well as Rocks...I hear, anyway

  3. I'm sorry about the loss of Peter's job and your emotional roller coaster, but as you say it might be exactly what was meant to be. Your name is now on the temple roll, altho it probably has already been put there. You're in my prayers.


  4. Good choice of poem-- I could just picture the whole scene laid out as a manga. Peter should be sure to put his technical problem solving skills on his resume, or talk about them in interviews.

  5. glad my poem could be used to give expression to being a victim of the corporate shock and awe process of shrinking the work force. this illustrates how poetry is a common thread, dealing with subject matter that concerns all of us, regardless of where we live, how much money we make, what color we are, etc. hope he finds a job soon. good luck, rvargas

  6. People always hate to talk about when they are laid off. But as it has become every day's news headline since Yahoo started it with cutting 1500 of its task force last year, now a need of platform has been in demand where people can express their selves in words how they are feeling about their company, whey the got laid off was that justified or not.
    And every thing they want to tell anonymously.And is providing you that platform.