How to Get a Job in Publishing

by Margaret on March 7, 2010

Update, 2012: Hi there. Thanks for reading. While the information below is probably still valid, you should know that I’m no longer in publishing (I left in 2011 to embark on a new and entirely unrelated career). I’m leaving my blog up in case others find it useful, but I’m no longer able to give any sort of publishing advice. Good luck!

Thank you notesA couple years ago, when I was still an editorial assistant at W. W. Norton & Company, after being asked over and over again how I got my job, I put together this guide to breaking into the business.  Book publishing can seem impenetrable; while the rest of the world posts their jobs on Monster (or even craigslist), most entry level editorial jobs are still gained by word of mouth.  Given that editors’ careers are based on the relationships they build (with agents, with authors, with booksellers, with colleagues), it’s not surprising that they reach out to that network when they need to find a new assistant.  But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you haven’t yet figured out how to use those relationships to your advantage.

This guide is intended to take away some of the unnecessary obfuscation surrounding the job-finding process in book publishing. Posting this guide online is actually a large part of why I wanted to write this blog in the first place: it doesn’t do very much to make the process more transparent if the only people who see it are job seekers I know personally.

How to Get a Job in Publishing
or
“Why is this business so damned hard
to break into, anyway?”


This guide is in two parts. The first part talks about internships, which are a tried and true way to get one’s foot in the door in publishing (it’s how I got my start, actually), and the second part concerns itself with how one actually gets a job (one that pays). Feel free to skip ahead to the getting a job part, if you feel an internship’s not your thing, but know that some of the internship advice is helpful for jobseekers, too.

Internships

Would you recommend an internship with a big company or with a small independent publisher?

As with anything, it depends what you’re looking for. Which kind of company do you eventually want to work with? If you know the answer to that question, use that as your guide. If you don’t, what kind of internship do you want? Would you rather be exposed very deeply to a small, not necessarily representative portion of publishing? Or would you rather gain broad knowledge but have less responsibility with a larger company? Whichever kind of publisher you choose, be certain that you select one that creates the kinds of books you like to read—each area of publishing is highly eccentric, and working with illustrated books (for example, a book of the art of Vermeer—not to be confused with picture books, which are for children) won’t be very good preparation for working with trade fiction (novels that you buy in a general interest bookstore like Barnes & Noble).

Remember, too, that publishing houses aren’t the only part of publishing. You should look at literary agencies as well.

Is there anything else I should know while applying for internships?

This is a bit like asking a mountain-top hermit the secret of life: every hermit has a different answer. Here are a few things you should know:

  • most internships are unpaid or paid so little ($10/day) that they might as well be (plan accordingly)
  • even more so than college, an internship is what you make of it: you need to be proactive to get real experience. Otherwise, you’ll end up just copying and filing (which you’ll do no matter what, but if you’re proactive, you’ll do less of it, and more of truly interesting things)
  • Research the company you’re applying to, and make it clear through your application (and in your interview, if you get one) that you know what kind of books the company publishes. (I am truly astonished by the number of people who seem not to do this. Don’t talk about science fiction if the company publishes history and biography. And if you’re excited about SF, why are you applying to a publisher of history in the first place?)
  • Grammar, spelling, and relentless vigilance for typos is of paramount importance when you’re writing an internship application letter. That letter (and your resume, for which the same things apply) is our only inkling of what you’re like. We want interns who can write, spell, and avoid typos.

Getting Your First Job in Publishing

Just how does one break into publishing?

Assuming you want to be in editorial (which is really just a slice of the whole great big publishing pie), you become an editorial assistant, which is, in effect, being an apprentice editor. Now, how do you do that?

You’re going to groan when I say this. You’re going to rend your garments and think, I thought I only had to do this if I sold out and became a consultant. But here it is, the slimy, sticky, unhappy truth: you do it by networking. (Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

But “networking” isn’t as horrible as it sounds. It’s just getting in touch with people and being smart and charming (which you undoubtedly are already) so that they want to talk with you (or, at the very least, don’t mind doing so).

How To Network:

i. Find someone you want to meet, who may be a useful connection (e.g., at this stage, practically anyone in the publishing industry) and to whom you are connected in some way (do you know anyone in publishing? If not, your most useful connection to begin with is probably the college one, also known as “the old boys network.” Does your college have a database of alumni who want to mentor students and recent graduates? Check with your school’s office of career services. Another route is to look in the Acknowledgments section of books you like and see who edited them—then you can tell them that you read and enjoyed their work). N.B.: Often, people in marketing, publicity, sales, subrights, etc. are just as useful for this sort of thing as editors are—not only do they expose you to more parts of the industry, but they may have contacts that you wouldn’t reach just going through editorial channels.

ii. Write that person a letter (not an email, unless you know that is the way that they prefer to be contacted or the only contact information you have). [Edit: Some of my colleagues encourage the opposite, the idea being that a letter is just one more piece of paper. So, caveat scriptor, I suppose.] Don’t call—you probably won’t get through, and you’ll be intruding on their workday if you do. In the letter, tell them who you are (and how you are connected to them, or what books of theirs you’ve enjoyed, etc.), and that you’re looking to start a career in publishing (and why you’re interested in the business). Finally, ask them for an informational interview, either by phone or in person (in person is best for you, but by phone may be best for them).

iii. Use your interview to learn more about publishing. Be prepared with questions specific to each person. These informational interviews aren’t job interviews—though they will, over time, lead to that kind of interview (which is why it’s important to make it clear that you are looking for a job). Unlike a job interview, in an informational interview, you’re the one doing the interviewing. The most important thing you can do with an informational interview is ask for more contacts. “Who else do you think I should speak with? Who else would be able to help me find out more about starting out in YA fiction [if, indeed, YA fiction is what you long to work on]?” And this, of course, brings us back to the first step.

iii(b). Write thank you notes immediately to anyone you speak with. Thank You notesHappiness and fortune smile upon those who write thank you notes (real thank you notes, not just an email). Handwritten (cursive, if you’re comfortable with it), and with some substance. People love thank you notes. They eat them up like cookies because so few people write them—do not be one of those woe-begotten non-note-writers.

This process may take anywhere from three weeks to six months, and these days, probably something closer to the latter. Unlike some other industries, there is no season for hiring in publishing—entry level editorial openings are created when editorial assistants leave, and editorial assistants are a particularly unpredictable bunch. (One former assistant that I worked with decided to move to Syria, packed up, and left within a week.) If you haven’t landed any job interviews a couple months into the process, send a follow up email to the folks you spoke with at the beginning: remind them who you are and that you’re still looking for a job, see if they have any new leads (and above all, thank them again for interviewing you).

How Not to Do It

You’ll notice that I have completely neglected actually applying to editorial assistant positions. In my experience, I got not a single response to any of my job applications. Both of my job interviews (I was extremely lucky and had two simultaneously) came from informational interviews with colleagues of the people looking for assistants.

Resources, and One More Question

What helped you get your foot in the door?

Sticking it in when the door was open.

By which I mean I looked for openings and opportunities. When I was offered an internship (from a person to whom I had written asking for an interview), I took it. When I found out my brother-in-law’s cousin was a novelist, I asked the novelist to introduce me to his editor. I read as many books about publishing that I could get my hands on, including these four very helpful ones:

Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing by Coser, Kadushin, and Powell

A great overview of the whole industry. Though it was written twenty years ago, the essentials haven’t changed (one major difference: publishing was still a boys’ club to an extent when Books was written, and now it is dominated by women).

At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf

Cerf (one of the founders of Random House, which is today the Bertelsmann Behemoth of Broadway) sprinkles nuggets of publishing wisdom throughout this memoir, and they’re damned useful. One of my favorites is this: “Every publisher worth his salt has to publish poetry, even some that he knows he’s going to lose money on.” A publisher who does poetry is in it for art and culture, and not just to make a buck.

Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing by Sharpe, Gunther, and Marek

A guide to the different kinds of editing, and how they are done.

Editors on Editing edited by Gerald C. Gross

If you read nothing else in this collection of essays, read Gerry Howard’s landmark piece “Mistah Perkins, He Dead.”

Bookmaking by Marshall Lee

How books are made—this bible of publishing covers editing, design, and production. I love this book. It takes you from words to bound object, and leaves no stone unturned in between.

You may also find helpful these descriptions of getting a job as an editorial assistant:

So you want to be an editor.

Help me get paid to be a book nerd.

The key to whether you stick it out will not be whether your first job is fun. It almost certainly won’t be. It’s whether your boss’ job still looks like one that you want to have after seeing her do it for a while.

I hope that all of this will help you on your way. As you go through the process, if you find out any other things you’d wish you’d known when you started looking, or if you have questions that aren’t answered here, let me know. I’d like to keep this guide as up to date as possible.

Cheers, and best of luck.

{ 14 comments }

geameade March 7, 2010 at 1:55 pm

I might add that if you’re looking to get into graphic design in publishing, and want to show a portfolio, but you haven’t had any experience designing books: design some anyway!

Research what kind of books your imprint makes, how they look, and what demographic they’re aimed at. Make up some hypothetical book titles by fake people and design a few fake book covers that you think would fit in with the imprint’s aesthetic. This shows you taking the initiative to show off your skills and will be a really useful addition to your portfolio!

I might also add that you should consider Literary Agencies as places to apply to get your foot in the door. If you find a nice one, it’s great because it allows you to network and it trains you in many different aspects of publishing besides editing — money, subrights, publicity, merchandising, etc. And your literary agent will be really knowledgeable about how publishing works, different companies work, etc.

The job market now is miles away from what it used to be when I graduated in 07. I wonder if anyone has any input about what the pros and cons of those publishing programs are?

Margaret March 7, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Regarding publishing courses, and particularly the one at Columbia: anecdotally, at least, graduates of the Columbia Publishing Course have been looking for internships and jobs much longer than they have in previous years. Usually, they’re snatched up right away, but this year, when I was selecting an intern in October (and when some of my colleagues were looking for one a month or two later) there were still several folks who’d completed the course and still looking for positions.

It’s a really good program, but I’m just not convinced it’s worth the expense when landing an internship on your own will get you the same results.

Colleen Lindsay March 7, 2010 at 8:23 pm

You left out one important way to get your foot in the door: Work in a bookstore. Many publishing sales, marketing & publicity people come right out of working in a bookstore. (Like me!) It’s the best experience you can get; I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Margaret March 7, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Good point! My guide is (so far) necessarily based on my own experience, so I don’t know much about that route. Could you tell me more about how working in a bookstore launched your career, so I can add the relevant info to the guide?

Rachel Bailey March 8, 2010 at 10:09 am

What would you recommend for those of us who live in the Kansas City area. It seems there are not very many publishing agencies here. Are companies on the east coast now starting to go virtual? Is this now a possibility for editorial assistants?

Margaret March 8, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Well, I wrote a nice long response to your comment, Rachel, and it seems to have completely disappeared. Forgive the lack of links and specific information:

Short answer: you can’t do editorial assisting long distance.
But don’t despair! There are publishers near you, too.
Also: there are jobs for the big New York publishers outside the editorial department (particularly in sales) that don’t require you to be in New York.

You should also see if there are any reputable literary agents in your area; while they, too, tend to gravitate toward the coasts, agents live all over the country, and they need assistants, too.

Are you still in college or recently graduated, Rachel? My guide is geared primarily toward people who are (as those are the people who tend to want this kind of job).

Farin March 8, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thank you so much for writing this! Like so many, I’m desperate to break into the publishing arena (specifically editorial), but I’m at an even greater disadvantage because I didn’t go to school for English or Journalism! Now I know how to give myself a better edge.

Margaret March 8, 2010 at 1:47 pm

You don’t have to have an English degree to be in publishing! My degree was in linguistics, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is being able to write well, to understand what makes a book work or not work for its market, and to be passionate about books. As long as you can demonstrate that you have those capabilities, it doesn’t matter if your degree was in astrophysics or in basket weaving, you can still be an editor.

Melissa March 11, 2010 at 10:16 pm

If you mention privilege, I missed it, and it is central to an honest appraisal of major publishing. How does someone without a degree from the Ivies and/or the familial wealth to take an unpaid internship get into this business? Generally, they don’t. At least, they don’t anymore without extraordinary luck.

Margaret March 12, 2010 at 8:58 am

This is a really good point, and part of the reason I posted this in the first place (though not one I made explicit in my post). Another problem is how overwhelmingly white most publishing houses are. These are things that have bothered me since I was navigating this process myself. But I’m not sure how to change things (at least from my position). The problem won’t go away unless several different big changes happen (in particular, it won’t go away until publishing starts paying more, but I don’t foresee that happening soon—though I sure would like it).

I can, at least, describe the process as it currently exists, though, so while it may still be inaccessible to many people, at least it won’t be invisible.

Madeleine March 13, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I have a question: if I don’t have internship experience in book publishing, but have done two summer internships (one was a full-time fellowship; the other was part-time/unpaid) at respected literary journals, how can I use this background to my advantage? I’d like to go straight into networking/applying when I graduate in May (probably after a few months of living at home and saving money), but I’m worried that these internships won’t “translate,” even though they involved very applicable tasks–lots of paperwork, emailing, correspondence with authors, writing press releases, etc. Any advice would be appreciated…

Kristie Keller April 1, 2010 at 5:50 pm

I would love to make a career transition into publishing, but I have no internship or experience. What advice would you give?

Margaret April 1, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Well, Kristie, it depends on what experience you do have. What do you do now? How far along are you in your career? What aspect of publishing are you most interested in? Editorial? Sales? Publicity? Production? I’m not sure how much advice I can give (after all, I only have experience with the entry level, myself), but answers to those questions would certainly help.

Kristie April 4, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Thanks a lot for your post. I have really enjoyed your articles. I’m most interested in editorial, but I think subsidiary rights is also very fascinating. We all have to start somewhere so I know I would be looking at entry level positions. To give you a little background, for almost 10 years I have worked for a major retail department store. I started as the receptionist/switchboard operator, but after that position was dissolved I was a sales associate in women’s apprel for about 2 years until a position opened up on the pricing and signing team. I set new sales each week along with special events. I use computers and a handheld scanner every day to do my job. I have to match signs to new merchandise. Sometimes I have to edit and create new signs especially when our home office sends signs with errors. I started as a part-time employee and graduated up to full time and am a vital member of an important team. However, books are something I have always loved and I see myself working with. Any advice is most appreciated. Thanks.

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