The One About Working in Publishing

Okay, so. Did you know that you can ask me questions on my Tumblr? (Now you do!)  It's another direct way of getting your question answered if you don't want to wait for me to get to my GoodReads messages every six months or don't want to feel constrained by the 140 character limit on Twitter.

One question I keep getting over and over again is (seriously, there are currently 20 different versions of it sitting in my inbox on Tumblr): What advice do you have for someone who wants to work in publishing?/How do you get a job in publishing?  I've answered this same exact question another 20 times, but Tumblr doesn't let you tag Ask replies, so you can't search for them.  I'm going to go ahead and answer over here to keep it in a permanent place.

So you want to work in publishing, eh?  Brave soul!  I'm going to go ahead and start with some very basic advice, aimed at both high school and college students--but mostly the latter.

GENERAL ADVICE

1. Educate yourself as much as you can about the publishing industry.  By this I mean, sign up for Publishers Weekly newsletters that reflect your general interest.  For instance, if you want to work in children's books, I recommend PW's Children's Bookshelf, which is now a twice-a-week newsletter that send out with industry news, the most recent deals, articles about marketing campaigns, etc.  If you see articles about the industry in newspapers or magazines, READ them. Know that there are other departments aside from Editorial (more on this later).

2. Read as widely as you can in the field you'd like to enter.  Know which books are being buzzed about or hit the NYT Bestsellers list.  Read quiet books, bestselling books, books for different age ranges (picture books, MG, YA).

3.  Try to volunteer, work, or intern in a creative field.

4. Create a compelling resume and cover letter.  I highly recommend the book Can I Wear my Nose Ring to the Interview? for everyone starting in on the job search. The resume tips are especially great.

5. Be willing to be flexible in getting your foot in the door.  The Children's side of the industry is smaller than the Adult side--if you can get a job working for an Adult imprint, you'll still be gaining valuable experience you can later use to transfer either within the company or to another company. I've had a number of friends switch between departments (Sales to Editorial and vice versa.  I went from Editorial to School & Library Marketing. The list goes on and on.), but it isn't impossible to switch between divisions.  Always take a paying job over waiting for a job that doesn't exist or may never open up.  Base your acceptance of a job over the chemistry you have with your future supervisor and corporate culture.

6. Know that this can be a really tough industry to break into, and you will not be living a dazzling NYC lifestyle--AKA make sure your expectations are realistic.  There aren't many houses and there aren't many jobs available.  Someone I respect once told me that you should only choose to work in publishing if there is absolutely nothing else you can do with yourself.  This is an industry where assistant salaries start as low as $28,000 (the highest is $35,250, I believe).  You might be saying to yourself, well!  I can live on $30,000 a year!  And yes, you can.  But trust me when I say that New York City is EXPENSIVE.  It is CRAZY EXPENSIVE.  Rent costs keep going up, outpacing cost-of-living raises.  You should expect to pay between $800-$1200 for small apartments with tiny bedrooms and kitchens--and that's your share of an apartment you live in with two or three other people.  There is a chance that if the job hunt doesn't kill you, the search for an apartment will (and the cost of moving will officially bury you).  In addition to rent, you are also paying both city and state taxes, which are ridiculous.  Unless you can walk to work, you'll also need to buy a monthly subway card, which is currently at $104 and is expected to rise up toward $120 next year.  You will have to ride that subway every day, twice a day, and it will probably kill your soul just a little bit.  And if that's not enough to scare you, food costs more here, too.  My favorite Chipotle burrito bowl is $5.50 in Arizona.  It is $8.50 here.  Restaurants have to account for the higher rent costs, too.

It's not a comfortable lifestyle.  You will have no savings, but hey.  You get free books every once in a while.

If you're still nodding saying, yes, okay, I'm ready for that, then read on...

INTERNSHIPS

Internships are in no way required to work in publishing, but they definitely help get your foot in the door.  Here's the sad truth--a lot of internships are the result of who-you-know and straight up nepotism.  They are crazy competitive in the Big Six publishing houses.  Publishing has always been a bit of an Old Boys network, but you have to try to work the system as best as you can.  Contact your career services department at your school to investigate if there are any alums (especially recent ones) that work in publishing, and contact them to see if they'll be willing to pass along your resume straight to HR or if they'll be willing to meet or call you for an information interview.  Always remember to be polite and professional--people never have as much free time as you expect them to, and you're not entitled to it.  Luckily, most publishing people are passionate people, and they're happy to spread the love.  It is always worth it to ask! Don't forget that you can request informational interviews with HR departments, too.

(I should stop here and warn you all that job websites/online submission forms are black holes.  I remember an HR person telling me that she received over 1500 applications for one job position over the course of a WEEK. It is ALWAYS better to find a friend or friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend to pass along your resume and cover letter.)

If you can't get an internship with the Big Six, consider interning with a literary agency.  There are SO many literary agencies in comparison to publishing houses, and they always need unpaid interns for reading and filing.  Many of the skills you'd pick up in an agency are transferable to life in a publishing house, especially if you want to work in Editorial. What people want to see are demonstrative examples you can read and think critically and that you're knowledgeable about the market.  This also gives you an insider's view to one leg of the publishing triangle of author-agent-publisher and the dynamic between them.

Here's a secret: I never interned in publishing before I started working at a publishing house.  Many people I know didn't intern, though a good number of them did.  I applied to a few, but stopped myself because I felt, personally, that I couldn't ask my parents to pay for three month's expensive rent and food in NYC.  I did, however, intern in my college's Office of University Relations--basically, their PR/publicity department.  Guess what?  Any kind of marketing, publicity, editorial, and writing experience is GREAT!  Really.  Even better is if you participate leadership activities on campus.  Even BETTER than that is if you are knowledgeable about social media, which the majority of you are since you were born after 1990.

Here is another important thing to remember if you're feeling insecure about this: publishing is what's considered an apprenticeship business.  That means that while it's nice to come into a job with extensive background knowledge and practical skills, you will be taught everything you need to know by your supervisors. You think a History/English double major like me knew ANYTHING about marketing before I started at my current job?  Nope.

THE ACTUAL JOBS

I would say that 80% of people who say they want to work in publishing really mean that they want to be an Editor.  Again, an unwelcome reality check: these are the most competitive jobs in the business.  Not only that, but going into Editorial is really more of a lifestyle choice than a job--you do a lot of work on nights and weekends because there is almost ZERO editing done in the office, and no time to read the five submissions you have waiting for you, either.  I started as an Editorial Assistant in children's books, and while there were aspects of the job I liked, I knew I didn't want to stick with it because the work-life balance was such that it interfered with my writing time.  I also knew it wasn't a natural fit for my personality.  What you do actually do as an Editorial Assistant largely depends on who your boss is.  I did a lot of administrative work, read manuscripts and offered comments on them, routed author contracts (and requested them), routed passes to Managing Editorial, and wrote A LOT of copy.  A LOT OF COPY.  Sales presentations, Launch presentations, Pre-Sales presentations, titlesheets, bound galley copy, jacket copy... it's insane.

One other thing a lot of people don't realize is how long it takes for you to be an Editor. Here's the Editorial hierarchy:

Editorial Assistant (two years)

Assistant Editor (two-three years)

Associate Editor (one-three years)

Editor

Senior Editor

Executive Editor

Editorial Director

So... it generally takes between 5-7 years for you to earn the title "Editor," though a lot of your upward mobility depends on the success of the titles you acquire and the environment of the publishing house.

There are SO many other departments within the publishing industry aside from Editorial:

  • Publicity
  • Marketing (Trade, Brand, School & Library, Digital--all are separate departments**)
  • Subsidiary Rights
  • Managing Editorial
  • Production
  • Sales
  • Finance
  • Design (Book design and Marketing Design)
  • Corporate Communications

I was going to describe what each department does, but HarperCollins has a great brief description of each.

** Someone asked me to clarify what the difference is between each department.  It's really all in the projects and books you work on. We create marketing materials for many different markets--wide commercial audiences, teachers, librarians, teens, parents with babies, etc.  For instance, Trade Marketing handles our commercial fiction titles; they place ads in magazines and newspapers, as well as creates posters, kits, and materials for fiction titles going out to a wide commercial audience. Brand Marketing focuses on what we call "brand titles"--those being books that we produce for companies like Disney, Nickelodeon, and Pixar that tie into movies, TV shows, or pre-existing properties. If you see a coloring book for BRAVE or CARS, or a sticker book for DORA THE EXPLORER, Brand Marketing has handled creating ads and promotional materials for it.

Digital Media creates online banner ads, runs our series and main sites, commissions companies to work on book trailers, etc. Depending on the company, some run the social media accounts (Publicity runs them where I work) and develop apps (Digital Publishing at my company, a separate entity).

School & Library Marketing focuses on developing materials for educators and librarians to encourage them to bring books into their classrooms and libraries. These include things like reading group and educator guides, book marks, kits educators can use to teach a book to their class.  On the kidlit side, S&L also submits to all of the ALA awards, like the Newbery and Printz, as well as to state awards. It's an interesting blend of marketing and publicity, because it involves going to several conferences over the course of the year and managing the authors who come for panels and signings, as well as running the company's booth.  It's really, really fun--but S&L tends to be small, and jobs don't come up all that often.

SUMMER PUBLISHING COURSES

Because I didn't have an internship and I am an overachiever, I applied for the three summer publishing courses: The Columbia Publishing Course, the NYU Publishing Course, the Denver Publishing Course.I attended the Columbia Course and loved it.  I would recommend Columbia if you're interested in book publishing and NYU if you're more interested in magazines.  I know plenty of people who have enjoyed the Denver course and got a lot out of it, but, if you can, attend one of the NYC courses.  It will make your job search MUCH easier.

These course are not free--in fact, they're actually on the pricier side, and they've become very competitive to get into.  I could only attend because I had sold my first book and got a scholarship that paid for half of it from my college. (Again, talk to your career services people--there might be scholarship money you can apply to the courses.) They usually run a little longer than a month and serve as publishing bootcamp--different people from the industry (high profile people in senior positions AND lower level people) come in and give lectures on the business and what they do.

The Columbia Course also an intensive week called Book Workshop, where you form fake publishing houses  and you're assigned a position (editor, publicist, designers, etc.). The team has to develop book ideas that could actually sell, create marketing plans, publicity plans, run profit and loss statements, and design covers.  It's incredibly stressful but SO fun.

The biggest benefits you get from this course are the alumni network and the access to jobs.  Again, I can only really talk about the Columbia course, but Lindy Hess--who has run the program for years--is basically the godmother of publishing.  She calls in favors, creates jobs that aren't there, goes to bat for students when they're interviewing, hooks current students up for interviews with past students.  The courses are respected and well-known within the industry.  They do NOT always lead to a job.  I have to stress that.  But after you "graduate" you're placed on a listserv where new jobs are constantly sent out your first year out of the course, and they continue to come two, three years after for higher-level positions.  There is a huge career fair at the end of the course with all of the big houses and many large agencies represented.

Remember how I said this is the kind of industry where you really need to know someone to get your foot in the door?  These courses introduce you to A LOT of people.  You can connect with the different workshop leaders and lecturers after the course, and you come away with dozens of contacts in the form of your fellow graduates.  Because it's a relatively small industry, it's easy to keep in touch and pass along resumes for each other.

RELATED INDUSTRIES

There are a number of creative industries that have some kind of relationship or tie to publishing.  For instance, film studios use book scouts to find manuscripts or books they might want to option. There are publishing imprints that focus on video game strategy books.  You can work for a literary estate like Dr. Seuss Enterprises, or a book packaging firm like Alloy. Even museums need editors to create their books and materials!

WHERE TO FIND JOB POSTINGS

You can check each publisher's individual site, but there are other, easier-to-navigate boards available:

I hope this helps you guys.  If you have any specific questions, please leave them in the comments!