Castles in the air need solid foundations. Every year graduates of MFA programs, returning Peace Corps Volunteers, and people changing careers decide that publishing is for them! They love books and magazines and want to have a line of work that matches their love of literature and language. They just want to sit around and read all day and get paid for it, or so they hope.
Getting a job in publishing can be a problem because most of them lack “publishingese,” the insider’s special blend of vocabulary, knowledge, skills, and manner of doing business that conveys a cosmopolitan, confident, can-do attitude worthy of an entry-level position. Aspiring publishers also lack information about the range of opportunities available. Most of all, they don’t realize how many jobs and careers there are in publishing. Here’s a quick course on working in publishing. It is about how to find a job. It might be the shortest graduate course you’ll ever take.
Jobs in Book Publishing
Most book publishing companies are broken down into several departments; editorial, publicity and promotion, and marketing and production. No matter which of these words your first job designation begins with, it is likely to end with the word “assistant.”
Common to all assistants everywhere, regardless of department, are certain inescapable duties that define the position: “assisting” superiors; handling correspondence, answering phones, writing memos, and generally carrying out whatever administrative duties are needed. There are ways, however, in which the assistant position differs from department to department.
An editorial assistant, in addition to performing the universal assistant-duties mentioned above, might be called upon to review incoming manuscripts and provide reports to his/her boss; to go through the “slush” pile of unsolicited queries from hopeful authors, and bring anything worth a look to the editor’s attention; and to work with agents and authors to ensure that contracts are handled and processed correctly.
Editorial assistants often go on to become assistant or associate editors, and then senior editors. Each position brings with it more direct responsibility for the overall concept behind, and presentation of, a new book. The pinnacle of any editor’s career is to have his or her own “imprint” — a line of books to be determined completely by the editor’s own tastes.
A publicity assistant sends out galleys (early bound and typeset copies of a book) to select book reviewers at newspapers and magazines, maintains and updates lists of reviewers who should receive free copies of the published book once it’s out, works with his/her boss to arrange radio, print, and television interviews for authors, and may work to organize book release parties and signings at bookstores. Publicity assistants go on to become publicity directors — and because good publicity is so important to book sales, the best publicists sometimes move on to corporate marketing and executive publishing levels.
A production assistant will work with copy editors, typographers, binders, and designers to help with the actual construction of a book. As more and more publishers realize that an unusual design or arresting cover art can help sell books, this area of publishing is getting more fun and inventive. Of course, good copy editors have always been and will always be essential to publishing of any sort.
Jobs in Magazine Publishing
Magazine staff are usually broken down into two divisions: editorial and advertising.
Editorial staff are usually subdivided departmentally, depending on the focus and structure of the magazine. Again, the duties of the entry-level editorial assistant are largely administrative and/or clerical — but in addition to these, the assistant may also review manuscripts, give opinions on story proposals, line edit copy, generate story ideas, and even write for the magazine itself, in some cases. Production cycles are much shorter in magazine publishing than they are in book publishing, since most magazines publish monthly or even weekly. Thus, the world of magazines can at times seem much more frenzied than the world of books, which moves at a slower and more deliberate pace.
Advertising assistants at magazines help their bosses sell advertising space — and having done that, work very hard to maintain good relationships with advertisers so they’ll continue to buy space. In addition to basic clerical duties, ad assistants will work on presentations; write reports on circulation, demographic distributions, and reader purchasing patterns; coordinate promotional functions and activities (breakfasts, parties, etc.); and perform a variety of other duties designed to woo buyers and to keep them happy once they’ve been wooed.
Be A Literary Agent
It has been said that you must be short to be an agent. Not true. If you love books, have a comfortable shoulder on which writers can cry, and you like to be taken out to expensive luncheons paid for by editors, then you might want to think about being an agent. Again, you have to start at the bottom of the food chain as an assistant.
The Trident Media Group in New York City represents my novels and non-fiction, and my agent’s young assistant, Katherine Faw Morris, is a typical example of how someone gets into the business. She attended New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and took courses in Creative Writing and English. While studying at NYU, she had an internship at W.W. Norton. She worked at the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency so she had “job experience.” When she graduated in January 2005, she applied for the Trident Media job that she had read about on mediabistro.com.
Her job today is to read and evaluate manuscripts; submit manuscripts to publishers; handle contracts, checks, and royalty statements; write permission and pitch letters; and handle her boss’ schedule, phone, and expenses.
On top of all that, she also writes for magazines. She is a restaurant critic for Blackbook magazine’s website blog, Eat This, and also edits the New York edition of the annual nighlife guide, Blackbook List. She has her own monthly pop culture newsletter, Swallow, which is circulated around downtown clubs and stores.
A busy woman making it in the New York Literary world.
Another role for writers who want to work in publishing is that of a movie scout. It might lead to glamour, fame, and perhaps even a date with Paris Hilton (once she gets out of jail). Here you are a “junior,” not an “assistant.”
This is how Dave Cowen, a 2006 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, got his job.
“I studied English at Penn focusing on 20th Century (literature) and creative writing and took classes in creative nonfiction, fiction, and screenwriting. I moved to New York right after school and took an unpaid internship at a boutique literary agency.”
The agency David worked for specialized in literary fiction, which made for an easy transition from college English classes. The agency also shared an office with another agency, and when their assistant quit, Dave got a second, paid—albeit temporary—job. By the time he was able to interview for a junior scout position at Maria Campbell Associates, he had sufficient experience for the job.
Literary scouting is a niche industry. David looks for books before they are published, and recommends them to their clients who decide whether to buy their rights for translation or film adaptation.
While it sounds glamorous at dinner parties to say that he reads books for a living, the fact is that he answers the phones and does office work during the day and reads at night and on weekends. “Scouting,” Dave says, “is about time and information—how fast you can get information on books to your clients so that they can make an educated decision. Senior scouts call and meet with literary agents, American editors, and rights managers to gather information and material on future books. I process this information and send it on to our clients…but at least I’m reading books that are being published. I’m not reading the slush mail.”
The Job Hunt
Begin with the Internet. The job of finding what is available in publishing has been made much easier with the Internet. Most PCVs start looking for work via these three major links:
Mercilessly exploit any and all personal contacts that you have in the publishing industry. Take your buddy’s ex-girlfriend — the one you don’t know too well, but heard got a good job at Simon & Schuster — out to lunch, and hit her up for information. Write a letter to the magazine editor who visited your college class years before and ask him if you can meet him, very briefly, when you come to New York City for your interviews. This is the way it works—this is how many people get jobs in the media. If you think you don’t have any contacts, think harder. If you don’t know anybody in publishing, somebody you do know probably does. It’s not considered impolite to call or write someone as a friend-of-a-friend and make contact that way.
Plan the Job Hunt
Give yourself a reasonable window of time to interview and find a job. A week isn’t enough. Two or three weeks might not be enough. If you’re not from the city, and if you don’t have family living in the immediate area, prearrange your living situation by asking a series of friends to let you stay on their couches or futons for a few nights at a time.
If you don’t have a lot of friends in the city, it can be very tough — but it can be done. Save up some money, and get a room in a reputable hotel that books rooms by the week (check tourist guidebooks for a list). Many of these places cater to foreign travelers and transient job-seekers, and aren’t too expensive ($400–$500 a week). The YMCA on the West Side of Manhattan is a good, reasonably priced place to stay. It is safe and close to the major publishing and magazine offices.
It is fine to send cold resumes to personnel departments — but don’t fully expect to find your job that way. Few ever do. Budget your time and energy wisely by devoting less time to scouring the newspaper, and more time to either capitalizing on, or making, personal contacts.
Unpaid Editorial Jobs
What is more likely to happen is that you will find an unpaid job. Here’s a tale that is typical of “getting into publishing.” Alison Stuart graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina in 2003 with a degree in English. Wanting to get into publishing, she attended the Columbia Publishing Course over the summer of 2004. “It was a way to get my foot in the door and give my resume some street credibility.” Starting her search on Craig’s List, she found a job as an unpaid editorial assistant. “Pretending that I had a trust fund, I applied and I was in the right place at the right time.” It turned out that the only paid position was the Editor-in-Chief’s assistant, who had just been fired, and Alison got her job.
Prepare for the Interview
Know the background of the company to which you’re applying: How old are they? Who are their “heavy hitters”? Are they publicly or privately held? What are their modi operandi in terms of hiring, acquiring assets, etc.? What books or articles did they publish in the last year that were particularly profitable or notable? It’s not necessary — in fact, it’s probably not a good idea — to volunteer this information apropos of nothing during the interview, but a well-timed, well-executed reference or extremely subtle name-drop can show that you’re that much savvier than the glassy-eyed recent college grads going after the same job.
Assume that everyone being considered for a given position is Harvard-educated, fluent in four languages, the former editor-in-chief of their school paper or literary magazine, and possessor of a savage, rapier wit that makes perfect strangers admire them instantly upon being introduced. Then assume that the only way to distinguish yourself from the pack is to bring out, within the context of the interview, whatever quality it is that you know you have that they do not. All the candidates are going to be smart and affable and capable. But they’re not all going to have read the same books you’ve read, or subscribe to the same journals and magazines you do, or hold the same opinions you hold. Don’t be afraid to speak up about a matter or issue that’s not directly related to the job, as long as it comes up naturally in the course of conversation.
Remember that in publishing, unlike in many other professions, your intelligence and general ability to think independently will usually work for you, not against you. Books and magazine articles are ultimately conceived and shaped by people who exhibit these characteristics, not simply the ability to say “yes” or to toe a company line.
If you’re interviewing for any kind of publishing job, you’re going to be asked: What do you read? Have a solid, respectable list of titles and authors, some classic, some contemporary, ready to go. Don’t struggle with this question; it makes you look dull. And don’t just answer with “Your books!” or “Your magazine!” That’s not what they’re fishing around for.
You know this already, but it must be said: Dress well (which usually means conservatively, even if the place seems casual and informal); smile and look into people’s eyes; keep talking, no matter what. And of course, send a thank-you note. Immediately. I mean mail it that day. For once, do what you mother always told you to do.
A Summer School Program
Unless you have had previous experience in publishing, you need to take a summer graduate course in publishing. This course is important for several reasons. 1) You’ll meet working editors; 2) You will get up to date information on publishing today; 3) It will appear on your resume and show editors that you are serious about working in publishing.
These programs are “hands on,” and students do projects while in class. For example, one project is to create a new magazine, defining its audience, frequency, editorial slant, and artistic feel, while addressing how it differs from the competition. For book publishing, students have to review actual manuscripts and prepare them for publication, including designing the book jacket.
As you might expect, English majors abound in publishing, but the breadth of the industry accommodates those with backgrounds in other humanities, journalism, business, arts, social sciences, and even the hard sciences. All of them have one thing in common: they love the printed word and the process that brings it to the page and world. If you are that person, then publishing has a place for you.