Finding one’s way into book publishing
They are known infamously as “gate keepers.” The men and women who throughout the long history of publishing make the decision on whether a book gets published. These mysterious editors who control the fate of every would-be writer hide away mostly in New York skyscrapers and decide what is worthy of publication. Or at least that is what most would-be novelists think.
Perhaps the most famous editor of all book editors was Maxwell Perkins.
Perkins published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. They were his first famous writers but he would go onto publish a wide range of novelists, from J.P. Marquand to Erskine Caldwell to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, as well as, late in his editorial career, convince James Jones not to pen an autobiographical novel but write instead From Here to Eternity.
You might ask: how did these editors become ‘gate keepers’? Well, they start in the publishing world as someone’s assistant.
Adrian Zackheim, Publisher/President of Portfolio-Penguin, says an editorial assistant, “is the first job everyone gets in publishing. Assistants work in one of these departments: editorial, marketing, subsidiary rights, sales, or contracts. We begin in internships, at either pro bono or a bit above minimum wage. Once a job is secured, and assistant editor can expect to earn a starting salary of between $30,000 and $40,000 and begin their publishing career.”
What editors are looking to hire are people who love to read.
Sara Nelson Vice President, Executive Editor and Special Advisor to the publisher at Harper Collins says she seeks “assistants who read enormously and are passionate about it — even if they like different kinds of books than the ones I favor. I also need someone who is resourceful and can gather information, handle production and interact with writers and agents.”
Here are examples of how four people found jobs in book publishing.
Merry Sun went to Columbia University and double majored in English and history, graduating in 2015. “I didn’t always want to work in publishing, though I’d always loved books,” says Merry. “I’d been interested in science and medicine, and up until my sophomore year of college, I’d been sure that I’d go to medical school or pursue a Ph.D. in biology. Kind humanities professors intervened to show me that careers that involved reading a lot of books and working with writers existed and were viable options. So while at Columbia, I had internships at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Basic Books, and W.W. Norton. After graduating, I applied blindly through HR at Portfolio, Penguin Random House’s biggest business, and economics imprint not really knowing much about Portfolio or the editors there. The interview process was interesting; not only did I interview with the HR recruiter and the editors I’d be working for, but I also interviewed with the publisher and associate publisher and all of the editorial assistants.” In September 2015 she started work at Portfolio as an editorial assistant. In January 2017 she was promoted to assistant editor. In addition to the general tasks of being an assistant—managing production schedules, handling administrative tasks, liaising with other departments such as contracts, managing editorial, and art, Merry also works with Portfolio’s publisher, Adrian Zackheim, in editing some of Portfolio’s biggest authors and books. They include Simon Sinek and his latest book Find Your Why. Merry is now also acquiring her own books. Recently she bought the memoir of Ed Levine, founder of Serious Eats, and Quartz journalist Chase Purdy’s book about the race to produce lab-grown meat.
Undergraduates and MFA students also prepare for publishing positions by enrolling in publishing certificate programs while in school or after graduation. Daniel Vazquez, an Assistant Editor at Harper Collins, enrolled in the certificate program while he was getting his B.A. in English Literature at City College of New York. It was his introduction to the book world.
Since graduating in 2015 Daniel has had two internships; the first at Sterling Publishing—the publishing arm of Barnes & Noble—and the second at Spiegel & Grau, an imprint at Random House. He got his first full-time job in publishing at Taylor & Francis through connections he made at the Publishing Certificate Program. His next position, as a publicity assistant at The New Press, was the result of a bit of networking through an organization he helps organize called Latinx in Publishing. (Daniel also helps organize another group called People of Color in Publishing).
In his current job as Assistant Editor at Harper Collins, he is responsible for a host of duties related to the acquisition and publication of the titles of the two editors whom he assists. Additionally, he acquires titles for the Harper and Harper Perennial lists.
Asked what a typical day in publishing is like, Daniel explained, “Most jobs are not defined by a specific task, but a multitude of concerns and they are almost always organized via email. As an Assistant Editor, those concerns revolve around the books of the editors you work for, the backlist titles from editors that have left the company that have been assigned to you, and the frontlist titles that you hope to acquire and edit. Aside from all of the administrative work, there is also much writing involved. There are two types of writing that an editor is typically responsible for: the submission stage writing that expresses the editor’s interest in acquiring a book to the publisher, and post-acquisition stage writing, like descriptive copy, that is used by sales and marketing to pitch the book to booksellers.
“As a new Assistant Editor, I don’t yet have any titles of my own. So, most of my day-to-day work consists of reading submissions, writing thoughtful analyses of the material, and managing acquired titles through the various stages of development for other editors. Backlist titles bring their own range of up keeping tasks, from preparing reprint corrections to updating covers and interiors for new editions, to managing author/agent relations.
“The most exciting part of the job, of course, is acquiring and editing new work. To that end, I will occasionally have meetings with agents wherein I share my literary interests and establish a relationship whereby they bring me work that they think will interest me and that they believe I will be able to successfully usher into publication. The exciting work of editing books, unfortunately, is just not what most editors days look like—that work is typically reserved for after the routine workday.”
Joshua Bianchi, also a graduate of the City College of New York with a bachelor’s in creative writing and a certificate from the Publishing Certificate Program, interned during his final semester in the trade editorial department at W. W. Norton. While an intern, he mostly did administrative tasks such as mailing galleys for review and compiling notes for memos, but he also did copyediting and assisted with the extensive revision process each manuscript must undergo before it can be sent to production.
After graduating from CCNY he moved to Washington, D.C. and took a job with National Geographic Learning, a part of educational publisher Cengage Learning, and worked as an Operations Coordinator. His daily responsibilities, he said, included connecting the marketing and editorial teams at the publisher with contacts at The National Geographic Society, as well as introducing Nat Geo Explorers and photographers to their products and incorporating their content into the K-12, English Language Teaching (ELT), and college-level learning programs. “While the position was quite removed from editorial, my area of study,” says Josh, “I was glad to gain the experience of working with a multitude of teams and learning more about the needs of the local and global markets we created content for.”
A little over a year later, Josh returned to New York to work in the College Department at W. W. Norton as a Media Editorial Assistant. “My position,” he says, “was created to help produce and maintain the digital materials that accompany our literature and economics textbooks. My editorial colleagues and I regularly communicate with the design, production, and IT departments to make sure we’re creating learning platforms and content that produce positive results for students. While we still produce paper textbooks, both educational publishers I’ve worked for have made great strides in adapting to the emerging digital landscape.”
This market, Josh says today, “will continue its rapid expansion.” He advised those seeking publishing position to “keep on the lookout for media positions while searching for employment.”
Be a Literary Agent
On the other side of the writer’s desk, so to speak, is the literary agent who is representing writers and presenting their work to editors. Here, too, one’s career begins as an ‘assistant.’
John Silbersack, an agent with the Bent Agency in New York, says that in today’s literary agency the most common entry-level job is as an agent’s assistant. This is a full-service job entailing typing, answering phones, tracking documents, compiling reports, making reservations, etc. Also, it involves a good deal of screening of queries, reading at night, some accounting, contract review, etc. The assistant to an agent at a large agency will probably be involved in a wider range of publishing pursuits than an editorial assistant at a publishing house but this wider perspective will be more outside/looking in than an employee at a large house. Agent’s assistant, usually find their way into a job through an internship and earn between $30,000 to $34,000 to start.
One such agent assistant is Caitlin Meuser at Trident Media.
“My plan to enter the field of publishing started when I was a precocious 12-year-old,” Caitlin says today. “I loved words, loved to escape every weekend into the pages of a new library book and stay up past two in the morning developing a short story.
“And so I made a plan. All through high school, I entered and won national writing contests, interned at my local county newspaper, and edited online teen literary magazines.
“My literary awards and writing credits helped me get into Brown University, my dream school, where I was able to study Literary Arts under amazing writers and mentors and participate in the school’s literary publications. Every summer during college, I pursued a new editorial internship. I moved from a local quarterly publication to reading manuscripts for a New York literary agency until I scored an editorial internship at a publishing house after my junior year. This internship cemented my vision of the future. I had to be an editor. I could see no other path for myself.
“After debating whether or not to take a paid editorial internship or to attend a publishing course after graduating from Brown in 2016, I chose the internship route before quickly landing at a New York literary agency as an assistant to an agent.
“In this position, I correspond daily with authors, review query letters, recommend edits on developing manuscripts, and assist with submitting pitch letters and manuscripts to editors. I also help to review both domestic and foreign contracts, process money, and perform other administrative duties.
“This position has taught me the ins and outs of the agency side of publishing, from forming a client list to deciding if a query is saleable. As an agent assistant, I get to be a part of identifying talent and ensuring that these authors have the initial framework for a successful writing career.”
To find one’s way into a career in publishing after a Peace Corps tour, here are four short paths to gain the skills and hands-on experience you’ll need.
College Book Publishing Programs
Columbia Publishing Course
Since its inception (as the Radcliffe Publishing Course) in 1949, the Columbia Publishing Course has been recognized as the premier training ground for publishing. This 6-week certificate program at the Columbia University School of Journalism concentrates during the first weeks on book publishing, from manuscript to bound book, from bookstore sale to movie deal. Students study every element of the process: manuscript evaluation, agenting, editing, design, production, publicity, sales, and marketing. Students also learn about different types of publishing houses, publishing strategies, and career paths. The class then divides into small groups for a seven-day book workshop.
Magazine and web professionals lecture on every facet of magazine and website publication, from planning, writing and design to marketing, promotion and distribution. Through lectures and regular assignments, students learn what it takes to publish a successful magazine and launch a profitable website. In the magazine/digital workshop, students work in small groups to develop proposals for new magazines or websites.
During the course, every effort is made to prepare students for entry into the job market. Resume workshops are held throughout the course, giving students the opportunity to work one-on-one with professionals to develop their resumes. Human resources professionals talk to students about interviewing and the process of finding a job. The course ends in a job fair where students can meet representatives from the publishing industry and begin their job searches.
Columbia University School of Journalism
Publishing Certificate Program at City College of New York
The Publishing Certificate Program at CCNY was established in 1997 on the initiative of best-selling author and CCNY graduate Walter Mosley. The program offers undergraduates and non-matriculating students a variety of courses and seminars that will provide them with the knowledge, professional skills and contacts necessary to enter the publishing industry. Book professionals who are leaders in their fields teach the core curriculum.
A special concern of the Program is the issue of diversity in the book publishing industry and its impact on cultural production. Drawing on CCNY’s racial, ethnic and class diversity, and its proximity to the national center of the book industry, the PCP is uniquely situated to address this industry-wide concern. Professional training, meaningful employment and job retention are of key interest to the program faculty and administration.
Publishing Certificate Program at CCNY
NYU Summer Publishing Institute
The NYU Summer Publishing Institute is taught by faculty members who are top professionals in the industry, including CEOs, publishers, editors, digital strategists, literary agents, video producers, designers, marketers, and publicists. Classroom learning includes lectures, workshops, and hands-on strategy sessions in subjects like cover design, video shooting and editing, app development, manuscript editing, social media marketing, creating effective websites, and content creation. In addition, learning outside the classroom takes place during visits to major book publishing houses, magazine media companies, and digital content companies across New York City.
NYU Summer Publishing Institute
Denver Publishing Institute
The Denver Publishing Institute of the University of Denver four-week summer certificate program in book publishing provides an educational foundation and an opportunity to network for subsequent job searches. The Institute is taught by industry professionals who work at trade, university, textbook, and small independent publishers throughout the country and New York City. Recent graduates work at HarperCollins; Penguin Group; Oxford University Press; Chicago Review Press; Sourcebooks, Inc; Pearson; McGraw-Hill and other publishing houses. The program is geared for: college graduates seeking their first job in publishing; career-changers interested in opportunities in the field; those presently working in publishing who seek other opportunities; librarians interested in knowing more about the industry; students from overseas seeking knowledge of how publishing is handled in the United States.
Publishing Institute University of Denver
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Commercial publishers do not have many assistant editors these days and the chances of having a manuscript salvaged from the slush pile are like lightening striking. For any novice writer who just wants to complete the Third Goal in print, self-publication is a much less frustrating route.
In 1984 my wife, sister-in-law and I made a pilgrimage to New York City where I had a verbal ok for an appointment with an assistant editor. It was quite the lesson. I wrote it all down in Americruise, a humorous road book.
I attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now at Columbia) after the Peace Corps. It was six-week summer schmooze fest and definitely helped me land my first job in publishing. But after about two years, I left the field to attend grad school because I could not afford to work full-time at poverty-level wages–my entry level salary was 18K. Unlike me, most people I met seemed to have parents, husbands or trust-funds to support them while starting out in New York. A few lucky and hard-working editors manage to break through, but most, like me, wash out in the early years. The sciences are a better bet for people who need to support themselves. Sigh.
Back in the 1970’s (a half century ago), a typical American engineering firm with 60 employees depended upon 30 draftsmen (and women) to supply their maps and plans. The information would have been supplied by 3 survey crews, each with 3 employees. By 1993, that same firm did it with 5 employees and computers. Today, a survey crew is a single person using computer aides. His or her data is taken back to the office on a thumb drive, plugged in and viola! A computer generated map and/or plan.
Editors are facing the same reality. Today books titles are chosen based upon key search words. Before a book even exists, companies can estimate sales based upon internet data bought or stolen on which to base algorithms. Likewise, covers are machine-designed to appeal to that target audience. In the not so distant future, most commercial books will be totally produced (even written) by machines. The company owning these machines will copyright the material using pseudonyms (chosen by a machine).
We are already a semi-literate society. I have not counseled my own sons to pursue either drafting or editing.
Larry where did you read or see this: “Today books titles are chosen based upon key search words. Before a book even exists, companies can estimate sales based upon internet data bought or stolen on which to base algorithms.”?
I asked a friend who runs a business imprint at Penquin and he said, “Not impossible, but not in our lifetime.” Of course, this is New York publishing and we might be behind California.
Also, the book publishing world still has assistants. My son graduated from UPenn several years ago and worked for two years as one before starting another career. Also I am working now with my agent’s assistant who is arranging audio sales of my books (that’s new) as a company is buying the rights to ‘republish’ my novels for audio. And my new collection of stories, out next month, already has sold to a separate company as an audio book. And all of this was handled by my agent’s assistant.
Thanks for asking, John. There are YouTube videos on how to sell books on-line as well as books. They all begin with the most important element being choosing a title based upon key search words. This is already taking place, big time. In our niche, the keywords are “Peace Corps” which should be somewhere in the title.
I certainly understand your point that there are editor assistants. I am saying that 1) this is not necessarily a great career with growing potential for youngsters and 2) a RPCV who wishes to publish his or her PC memoir will probably find the commercial book market very frustrating. More than ninety percent of all PC memoirs are self-published for a reason. After reading and reviewing more than four dozen, I do not believe they cannot find a publisher due to poor writing and editing but rather the commercial market can make more money on a diet book, or a sales manual, or even the memoir of a president’s dog (Millie in the WH- George H. Bush’s dog). Although there at examples of PC memoirs which were placed with commercial companies, I am amazed how many of the authors had family or friends with connections in that industry.
In your particular case, you have a very long and successful track record which is great. This is not true for the vast majority of RPCVs, including me. My own pilgrimage to NY to meet with an editor-lady was hilarious in retrospect due to my own innocence (see Americruise). I still respect many companies both in NY and SF but am trying to be honest with the novice!
It is true,Larry, that by the late ’60s there had been so many memoirs by RPCVs that no New York editor would look at a Peace Corps book. When I was working on one of my education books in that period with a young assistant editor at E. P. Dutton I asked her out and she said, “Okay, I’ll have dinner with you, but I won’t read your Peace Corps book.” Well,we have been married since ’79 and she STILL HASN’T READ IT!
That said, First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life written by Eve Brown-Waite (Ecuador 1988) generated a publisher’s bidding war and an advance of six-figures for the RPCV writer. So, she did okay, right?
We’re lucky to have self-publishing today so RPCVs can publish their books, no matter how badly written, edited or designed. At least there will be a record of the experience for scholars to study in the distance future when the whole Peace Corps idea will have long been forgotten.
I can’t remember if Eve Brown and I exchanged e-mails or if I heard this on a YouTube interview done with her. She explained that a family member hooked her up with an agent. I’ve been that route too. It ain’t that easy! Again, my comments are directed towards the novice writer who wants to share. I did want to add one thing. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of being in contact with dozens of RPCV groups across the nation. You and I are book nuts but there are certainly many other ways to share; a dance, a play, a music recital, a museum display, art or even sampling cooking from around the world. All sharing bespeaks the Third Goal. I applaud anyone who take the time to come home and share. And by the way, what ab out Marian’s efforts to help youngsters and oldesters with book editing? That’s quite the feat. Thanks.