Transitioning to a Career in Editing/Publishing?
January 22, 2016 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I recently graduated with a Ph.D. in English (with a focus on a national literature in a specific time period), and am considering transitioning from an academic career to one in publishing/editing. Should I? If so, how?

Basically, like most humanities Ph.D.s, my first year on the academic job market has not been going very well. Despite working with a well-known placement professional, I didn't get a single MLA interview. At this point, I'm starting to consider other options. I've spend some time looking at Versatile Ph.D. and those types of websites, and it seems that a position in publishing/editing might be a good fit for me and my skills.

I've held a couple of positions with scholarly journals, and have really enjoyed identifying pieces that should be published as well as working with authors to help them clarify their ideas. I am excellent at analyzing texts, have good communication skills, am very organized, and enjoy working both independently and collaboratively. This makes me think that I would enjoy working as a managing or acquistions editor. I believe that I have the necessary soft skills, but am not sure what hard skills are needed. Where should I look to learn more about exactly what these jobs entail? How do I know if this new field is right for me?

Also, how would I go about getting an editorial position? What types of entry level jobs should I be applying for? What types of skills should I be highlighting in my cover letter and resume? I've looked at some general websites for information regarding resumes and such, but I need more field-specific advice.

And, on that note, where can I go to learn more about this field? Where do professionals in the field spend time online?

Thanks for the information, and please be gentle. The job search has been full of enough rejection and discouragement.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A managing or acquisitions editor is a very *very* difficult gig to get these days. Harder than a tenure-track humanities faculty job possibly.

Editing/publishing might be a good fit for you, but is is extremely competitive and the entry level jobs that are available are poorly-paid.

I would suggest narrowing your focus a little -- what *kind* of publication/publishing house do you want to work for -- and spend some time getting to know that field more specifically. Good advice on "how to get started" will vary quite a bit based on those specifics. You can then decide if it's worth that challenge.

Informational interviews might serve you well.
posted by pantarei70 at 12:03 PM on January 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Further afield than what you're looking at now, but one of my better (and quite financially successful) bosses had a Masters in midevil lit, but worked doing proposal management, which was about 3/4 professional writing and 1/4 cat wrangling (employees and subcontractors).

It wasn't his passion, but it enabled him to pursue what he loved on the side without having to worry about the future. Publishing in general is not terribly healthy at this time (note the fuss on metatalk about the Washington Post charging readers after 10 articles) so while it's worth looking at, I'd also encourage you to think of ways your skills are useful in day to day business.
posted by Candleman at 12:11 PM on January 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Managing editor here. Agreed that a publishing career is not an easy path right now, but it's not impossible, either, and I'd encourage you to give it a go if it still sounds good to you after your research!

The entry-level position you want is editorial assistant. (Many/most folks start as unpaid interns, but with what you wrote about your journal experience, I'd be hopeful that you have a chance of bypassing that. An internship would definitely help your chances, but I understand not everyone has that luxury.) To your current skills, I'd add knowledge of Chicago style. This is essential for a managing editorial track, less so for acquisitions, but when you work your way up from the bottom you generally get your foot in the door with editorial skills and learn the other stuff on the job. If you don't know Chicago, get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and study it! The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn is a great resource for making sense of CMOS without actually reading the whole thing cover to cover. I also enjoyed The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller, which gives you some sense of what a working managing editor/copyeditor's day-to-day work life is like. Read the publishing newsletters - Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, Shelf Awareness which is more geared toward booksellers but still interesting. These won't always be useful (lots of business-oriented stories and stuff about bestsellers that won't necessarily give you much of an idea what it's like to work in the field), but sometimes you'll see interviews with editors or other publishing professionals about their work, which I loved reading when I was getting started. Young to Publishing is also good, even more so if you can get to one of their events in New York or the Bay Area, which reminds me - jobs are much more limited outside NYC, so be aware of that.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:34 PM on January 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

Ah - I was about to memail you, but I see you're anonymous! A colleague of mine wrote a great blog post about getting started in publishing (geared towards children's lit, but still pretty generally helpful), but it's on my workplace's blog and I'm not sure I want it linked to my username, heh. Happy to send you the link if you memail me, and/or answer any other questions you may have!

I'll also say that you may want to consider other jobs in publishing - marketing, publicity, production, subrights - which can be less competitive than editorial, although from your experience it sounds like they may not be as much of a fit. Something to think about, though!
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:39 PM on January 22, 2016

Publishing professional here. Sunset's advice is spot on. I'd add that studying Chicago on your own can be daunting, so if you have any money you can invest into this career change, you might look into either individual courses or the full certificate program from the University of Chicago.
posted by timestep at 3:30 PM on January 22, 2016

Hire a PhD career coach.
posted by k8t at 4:59 PM on January 22, 2016

In my opinion, PhD career coaches and placement consultants are useless, as the OP has already discovered. I've been in the academic humanities business over 20 years, hired many people, been on the market myself, and placed most of my own advisees in good jobs. I have literally *never* seen a hiring where a coach or a consultant played any role at all. And if someone really knew anything useful, they'd have a good job and not need a side business as a consultant. I see most of those people as parasites at worst, opportunists at best. If you are the product of a good PhD program, your faculty members are your coaches and their connections are how you get noticed on the job market.

If you're not, god/dess/FSM/whatever help you.

Now for some really bad new. I've also been involved with academic publishing for a long time. Just a month ago, the senior acquisitions editor in my field for a major (arguably the major) university press in the field (and many others) just told me that book sales for their catalog are off 30% in the last 3 years and falling fast. They are cutting, consolidating, streamlining, and being even pickier than they ever were (which was just damn picky) about new books. There is an air of desperation at the book exhibit, to be frank.

Academic publishing, at least, is at least as tough a field as the professoriate.

Look to the area where all the money is flowing as it flows out of hiring faculty or publishing books (and this is not good, just the reality): academic administration. If you have a PhD in a humanities field and even if it's from a top-level program and you cannot find tenure track employment within about 3 years, your odds start to decline sharply. But don't give up after one year. It often take two or three. Apply for everything you could possibly consider taking, be creative about positioning yourself for jobs out of your direct area, and keep working on business skills (especially databases, web development, and financial administration). Network among academic administrators you know. Look at the admin job listings. See if your current graduate school or alma mater offer any sort of internships in ac admin (many now do, although if you're post-PhD you might be too late for it). Start reading the Chronicle for the articles (if you don't already) and be aware of the big issues -- diversity, sexual violence, STEM expansion, distance education -- animating university administrations these days.

I am friends with many acquisition and managing editors in the academic world. They are to a one both as smart and as ambitious and motivated as anyone I know in the professoriate, with an added degree of business sense. Being good at books -- editing, spotting, coaching -- is part of the business. Understanding business and numbers and the real constraints of the market (and knowing something about what the market is transitioning to, as it has in many other media industries) is crucial.

But anyone who hangs a shingle and tells you they can help you find a job as a PhD? Ask them why they aren't a professor (or a senior administrator or a senior editor) somewhere. It's 90% racket.
posted by spitbull at 5:58 PM on January 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm have a PhD in the humanities and work as an acquisitions editor for a major scholarly press. I agree with Spitbull--look for jobs in academic administration. It's hard to convey what a tiny field scholarly publishing is. Much, much smaller than academia, and even more competitive. The number of good jobs is countable on one hand in my field, and everyone is keenly aware of when folks are due to retire thus opening up a rare job.

There is one and only one way in, and that's working your way up from intern or assistant in an "apprenticeship" model (just like the professoriate). The best time to start this process is as a 22-year-old, when you can survive on barely any wages and the indignities of doing someone else's grunt work are somewhat more bearable. It is during this period of assistantship that you learn the actual business of publishing, which is the most important skill of all. Many young folks start on this path but very few make it to editor because there aren't many jobs that open up. You do NOT want to start this process in your late 20s or 30s and with a PhD in hand--it's tough to take at that stage in your life and your peers will be kids who were your students last month. Plus, to be honest, there's a general bias against hiring PhDs in assistant jobs because they are perceived to be lacking in real world work skills and business sense.

Aside from all this, the pay is low, publishing is a shrinking field, and the skills you will learn in this career are not easily transferable elsewhere. My colleagues spend a lot of time brainstorming alternate careers and we generally come up empty handed. People I know who have left the profession in recent years (many!) have mostly gone into unrelated fields and have had to retrain entirely.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it's really important to consider this career path realistically. I know that a lot of scholarly associations promote editorial careers as a viable option for PhDs, but I think it comes from a place of wishful thinking, if not ignorance.
posted by agent99 at 6:24 PM on January 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Copy editor here. Publishing can be very hard to get into, especially as it's often a second choice for refugees from the academic job market. Copy editor or assistant copy editor can sometimes be an entry-level position (though moving up from that might turn out to be impossible). While a lot of publishing jobs are in New York, there are also a lot of people there who want those jobs. You might have better luck with university presses or small scholarly journals, which are all over the country. The pay will be low. I don't think I'd invest a huge amount of time in trying to learn the Chicago Manual of Style, except for the basics of punctuation and grammar, when you don't know what field you'll be working in. Places where I've worked have used style guides from the American Medical Association and the Council of Science Editors - and there are others.
Just refreshed - I think agent99 is totally on the money. I will add one other reason it's hard for a PhD to get hired: the perception that you will leave for something better as soon as you get a chance.
posted by FencingGal at 6:37 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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