How do I break into publishing?
September 4, 2008 12:37 PM   Subscribe

How do I break into one of the larger publishing houses?

So I have spent the past year and a half thinking really hard about what I want to do careerwise. My tentative conclusion is that I should pursue my interests in a position where I will learn a lot. From there, opportunities will follow. Well I think I want to be in publishing. I love books. I am obsessed with books. And if I could have my druthers I would be in science fiction publishing. Just my luck I picked an obscure, unpopular niche in a tepid (dying?) industry.

For reference, I received a BA in Economics undergrad and I have been working for nearly a year and a half for a Big Four accounting/consulting firm doing financial advisory. I do not have any tangible experience in the publishing business from extracurriculars such as editing the school paper. I do not work in New York, but I imagine that a career transition of this nature will necessitate my moving there.

So how can I make this switch?
posted by prunes to Work & Money (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Obscure, unpopular, and incredibly low-paying job. You left out the "incredibly low-paying" part.

But if you still want to do it, the best way in is to take the Columbia Publishing Course.

Then move to New York, get a job working for a financial services firm, and work your Columbia Publishing contacts until a publishing gig opens up.

You might think of getting into literary agenting instead of publishing: the pay can be better, and it will probably make you hate books less than working in publishing does.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:49 PM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you want to keep doing financial stuff, you'll have a much easier time getting a job than if you're looking to do editorial work. You might be well suited for Subsidiary Rights, the division of a publishing company that negotiates the translation of books into other languages, plus things like tie-ins and movie deals. For job ads, check the publishers' websites as well as You can probably also find a lot of good advice on Teresa Nielsen Hayden's blog, Making Light. And yes, if you want to work for a sci-fi publisher, the jobs are probably all in NYC. I had to move there and search for a month or two before I found a gig at Penguin back in the day. Read all you can about what the job will be like. You'll be taking a significant pay cut and moving to the most expensive city in the country. I only lasted a year and a half, and I knew what I was getting into, having worked for book publishers during college.
posted by MsMolly at 12:51 PM on September 4, 2008

The traditional way to break into publishing (if you want to be an editor) is to start as an editorial assistant. The pay is generally low, the hours may be long, and the competition for positions is fierce.

In what way do you want to "be in publishing"? As an editor? In sales & marketing?

(BTW, I wouldn't write off the industry just yet - its death has been hailed pretty much every year for the last 20 years at least - and it keeps chugging along. Also, "unpopular niche"? SF? Not really, no. Sneered at in certain circles, yes, but unpopular? Not from the real estate I see it occupying at bookstores.)
posted by rtha at 12:54 PM on September 4, 2008

Previously. The question is applied to someone looking for a grad publishing program, but a lot of that still applies to your question.
posted by greenland at 12:55 PM on September 4, 2008

First, I would say that you have to refine what you want to do besides "books." Do you want to be in acquisitions? Editing? Design? Production? Marketing? All of these are specialized niches within publishing, and require different skills, experience, and background.

If it turns out that you're interested in editing, the traditional way in is as an editorial assistant -- positions that are as extraordinarily competitive as they are poorly paid. (However, that's definitely not the only way into the biz -- I'm a book editor in a publications dept. at a museum, and I worked my way in with a more eclectic editing/writing/proofreading/research background, after having first tried and failed to break into editing in NY straight out of college -- and with an English degree from a top university to boot.)

New York is certainly the center of book publishing in the U.S., but it's not the only place where you can get into publishing books; there are academic presses all over the U.S., for example (MIT, Yale, University of California, Northwestern, Duke, etc.), museum publishing programs (like mine), and textbook publishers (which are often based in NY, but have large satellite publishing offices elsewhere in the country).

I love being a book editor, but it took me many years to get where I am, and the pay has only been decent in the past few years (I'm pushing 40). Publishing can be a maddening, competitive, cutthroat industry. Your love of books will be sorely tested by difficult authors, crazy deadlines, heavy workloads, and shitty pay. You don't say where you're based, but I would say your first step should be to see if any local community colleges or continuing ed programs might have some short editing or publishing courses, so that you can get a feel for at least some of the nuts and bolts of the field, and so that you can consider what kind of training you'll need to pursue if you're to have any chance getting your foot in the door with the thousands of other applicants for the relative handful of entry-level jobs.
posted by scody at 1:02 PM on September 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments so far. I would want to be in the editorial department, searching for talent and saleable novels and then working with the authors to bring their works to the marketplace. I think I want to transition from the finance aspect of things.
posted by prunes at 1:06 PM on September 4, 2008

If you're in a city with any publishing houses at all, and you can afford to take a day or two a week (unpaid) to be an intern, I strongly recommend that route. That will allow you to get a sense of what is involved in the various publishing roles and whether the work is something that you enjoy, and it will also give you some experience to put on your resume.

You should definitely try to think some more about what "being in publishing" means to you -- it's possible that an area like Contracts or Sub Rights, as Ms Molly suggested, might make better use of your skills than something like Editorial or Design.

In terms of finding specific jobs, you can keep an eye on the Publishers Lunch job board, but don't forget to check out individual publishers' websites, too. For example, I just saw that Tor is currently hiring an editorial assistant, but I haven't seen that listed anywhere but on Macmillan's site.

Incidentally, I don't know if fantasy is as interesting to you as sf, but I believe Wizards of the Coast (or maybe just Mirrorstone?) is located in Seattle, if you're closer to the west coast.
posted by cider at 1:06 PM on September 4, 2008

Oops... didn't see your response before I posted; please ignore what I wrote about the different areas of publishing.
posted by cider at 1:24 PM on September 4, 2008

You should definitely take a listen to this:

Act Three. Snatch the Pebble from My Hand, Grasshopper, and Then You Can Leave.

Nicole Graev, an assistant to the editor at a publishing house, needs to know if her job as an assistant is actually an educational career step or a waste of time. The things she's been doing as an assistant ā€” answering phones, faxing ā€” is entirely different than the skills she needs for the job she really wants: her boss's. She talks to several people who've held the job before her to see if they can help her figure out where she is on the map of her life. (16 minutes)

(Note: Ignore the part where the former editor talks about having babies and the inevitability of that...she got lucky in her career trajectory. A lot of people leave when they don't make it.)

I second the publishing course at Columbia University, but I think you should also work on your charisma, if you aren't a naturally charismatic person. Publishing is one of those industries where you have to look the part and act the part. You will definitely need people to help you along the way, people who think you're special somehow (and it won't be the quality of your work that will convince them of this).

I don't know how someone cultivates charisma, but there's a big chance that no matter how much you want to work in publishing (as every English major out there becomes your competition), you'll get stuck in a low-level position and not be able to work your way up, no matter what a great talent you are.

But good luck! I'm sure it will, at the least, be a learning experience.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:40 PM on September 4, 2008

I would want to be in the editorial department, searching for talent and saleable novels and then working with the authors to bring their works to the marketplace.

Again, think of literary agenting--that sounds like a much better fit for what you want out of this career.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:53 PM on September 4, 2008

Publishing is indeed a tough business to break into--I had numerous extracurriculars related to publishing, writing awards, a publishing internship, and an English degree from a top liberal arts college, and it still took me years after graduation to get my first "big break" (as a editorial assistant). I'd encourage you to see if you can find a way to bypass this traditional path while building up your credentials to do what you really want to do--say, look for an accounting job at a publishing house while volunteering for an online sci-fi fiction zine and taking a few publishing classes.
posted by carrienation at 1:57 PM on September 4, 2008

Response by poster: What are my options like if instead I go the alternate route and pursue my MBA in a year or two from a top school and then try to get into publishing thereafter? Surely not everyone who is in publishing or working as a literary agent began faxing and photocopying for $25,000 per year.
posted by prunes at 2:54 PM on September 4, 2008

I think an MBA could serve you well, especially if you still take some publishing/editing courses on the side. It could be enough to get you qualified to apply for assistant editor positions (which is a step above editorial assistant). Be careful with taking on student loans for a graduate degree, though -- assistant editor salaries are higher than editorial assistants, but not necessarily much higher. That shouldn't necessarily be a vote against getting your MBA, but it's something you'll want to keep in mind.

Also, on the question of salaries, starting out somewhere other than one of the big houses in New York might actually work to your benefit. We just hired an editorial assistant in my dept., and the salary was comfortably higher than the average editorial assistant salary in New York.
posted by scody at 3:31 PM on September 4, 2008

What are my options like if instead I go the alternate route and pursue my MBA in a year or two from a top school and then try to get into publishing thereafter? Surely not everyone who is in publishing or working as a literary agent began faxing and photocopying for $25,000 per year.

From what I know, everyone does. The attitude in the industry is that you need to put in those ~5 years at 25,000 to prove that you really want it. Or something.

(There's a reason I didn't go into publishing!)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:34 PM on September 4, 2008

I would think your MBA would help if you want to go into sub rights or contracts or some related area, but if you want to be an editor, only editing experience will do. Definitely consider the other divisions of a publishing house. They're all easier to get into than editorial and may be more satisfying. (Are they really paying the kids a whole $25K now? Why back only 10 years ago I was getting paid $19K and making more than some of my friends.)
posted by MsMolly at 3:42 PM on September 4, 2008

Response by poster: I am seeing a lot of suggestions to join a literary agency. Would you be so kind as to comment on how one becomes a literary agent?
posted by prunes at 5:36 PM on September 4, 2008

Surely not everyone who is in publishing or working as a literary agent began faxing and photocopying for $25,000 per year.

Everyone who is in the editorial department of a publishing house began faxing and photocopying for $25,000 a year. Or less. Many began working there for free as "interns".

On the literary agency side, you start as an assistant (which involves some faxing and photocopying, but also sorting through submissions for promising manuscripts) and move up to being an associate agent, and then to being an agent. But it generally pays better at every stage, apples-to-apples (as in, working at William Morris as an assistant pays better than working at Random House as an assistant and so on).

Quite a few literary agents have JD or MBA degrees, but you still have to serve your time as an assistant/associate. One agent who has a JD, and who is an extremely nice man who might well offer you some free advice if you email him and ask him, is Jonathan Lyons.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:51 PM on September 4, 2008

"Surely not everyone who is in publishing or working as a literary agent began faxing and photocopying for $25,000 per year."

Oh my, that's funny. Yes, yes they did. At least in editorial. and actually often for much much much less than that.

For what it's worth, I'm an editor at a NYC publishing house, and have been in publishing in editorial for 11 years. It's an apprenticeship-style industry--you learn from your bosses, and you start at the bottom. Beware that most respectable literary agencies also have you start low, but for someone who's got good sales skills, a good eye for talent, and is a quick learner, you can really move up quickly.

Personally, I find the post-grad publishing programs to be a waste of time and money, but I know many people swear by the skills they learned there. I started at a smaller house, where editorial assistants did EVERYTHING, and learned all the same things in less than 3 months, and got paid to do so. If you have the money and time to spend, it's not a bad idea, but they're not cheap. They say they're great for making contacts in the industry, but so are internships, and nearly everyone I know got their job through ads in the NYTimes, or Publisher's Lunch.

Honestly, I think an MBA--especially from a top school---would be useful in the publishing industry only if you were a) already in the publishing industry for several years, b) in the financial or operations side of things, and c) the powers that be thought you had a rocket tied to your ass and were on your way to the top.

If I were hiring for an editorial position, and I saw a resume with an MBA on it, I would seriously question the candidate's knowledge of the industry, and would be automatically disinclined to hire them without some hardcore assurance that they know what they're getting into, and don't expect promotions and opportunities delivered to them on a silver platter. I mean, there's no way you could pay back the loans alone on an assistant (or, hell, even an editor's) salary! Being an editorial assitant is hard work, and not always the most rewarding work, and a lot of people can't handle the workload in combination with the shitty pay, especially the ones who think publishing is so glamourous and book parties and they'll be reading all day, and won't that be lovely?

(I also disagree that editors need to be charismatic. Have y'all met editors? Some are charming, sure, but for the most part, we're all freaky mole-people who hide in offices and have wierd social skills, if we have them at all. I have never seen a group of people who as a whole have worse public speaking skills. Designers are charistmatic and eccentric. Editors are creative nerds with bad eyesight who stammer a lot.)

Agenting does sound more suited to your skill set, and believe me, there's a LOT of editing going on with agents. Some may argue more than goes on within publishing itself. Publisher's Lunch should be your new favorite website. Subscribe, and look at the deal memos to see what agency is selling what kind of scifi/fantasy. Then do your research and see if they have openings available.

Also, it's worth it to do some research in reading industry blogs, so you get a better picture of what people actually do. Pub Rants, Lyon's Literary blog, Sarah Weinman's blog, Nathan Bransford's blog, and though it's geared more toward children's and YA, editorial anon is good too.
posted by kumquatmay at 8:52 AM on September 5, 2008 [5 favorites]

kumquatmay, I meant that you have to have that certain something that makes other people want to help you. I just call it charisma because I have no idea what else to call it. Not necessarily being charming, but giving that feeling of inspiration to people or just being extremely likeable to whatever group you're in.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:54 PM on September 5, 2008

May not seem like much of a consolation, but the starting salaries for entry level jobs at most major book publishers have broken the $30K mark by now. And it's worth noting that most editorial assistants do (and learn) much more than faxing and making copies.

Only a year and a half experience in the business world would hardly qualify you to skip from editorial assistant even to assistant editor and that's if that experience were editorial. You can transition, sure, and it's a good time to do it, too. (You're still young but not super green--good combo for people looking for assistants). But you'd have no idea how to do the job of an editor above assistant level, and there's no way to learn how to do it except by being an assistant. That's just how the job works. People with many times your years of experience in more closely related fields start at assistant level for editorial.

As a literary assistant at an agency, you may actually make less money at first. But you can move up much more quickly if you're ambitious. There is also such a thing as a book scout, which is something I've found some aspiring agents in the adult world sometimes do as a stepping stone.

If you want to work at a major publisher or a well-known small publisher, networking helps a lot. Editorial assistant positions are highly coveted and it really helps to get someone in-house to refer you when you see an opening. If you know someone (or someone who knows someone), it's not that hard to get them to do it. You just ask. It's just a matter of meeting someone.

I don't usually recommend the publishing courses, because it's like paying for something you should be getting paid (or at least school credit) to learn. But it does get you to New York and within contact with publishing houses and agencies. And the course plus your experience might look better to publishers than just the experience, because it's evidence that you're serious about making the switch.

And that's the other thing--if you have a high salary now, you're going to have to convince interviewers that you really do want to take a huge pay cut for at least several years just out of your unabashed love of books and desire to learn how to edit them. I think that'll be the tough part for you. Because it kind of seems like you don't. Most people, when they start the job, they'd do it for free. They'd pay you to do it. That lasts...oh, a few months, tops. But still, it's that old chestnut "a million girls would kill to be in your place." It's not something you do for the money.

Keep an eye on the job boards (publisher's marketplace and mediabistro and the company websites). You're looking for Editorial Assistant, Literary Assistant, or perhaps Book Scout.
posted by lampoil at 5:53 PM on September 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

kumquatmay, I meant that you have to have that certain something that makes other people want to help you. I just call it charisma because I have no idea what else to call it. Not necessarily being charming, but giving that feeling of inspiration to people or just being extremely likeable to whatever group you're in.

That makes a little more sense to me, but I still disagree. There are a few editorial folks who are amazing and inspiring and likeable, but frankly most of us are cranky and pissy hermits with no social skills who really don't like other people (including authors) and much prefer the company of words.

that's why we're fun!
posted by kumquatmay at 2:01 PM on September 9, 2008

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