Help me get paid to be a book nerd.
October 18, 2006 9:24 AM   Subscribe

PublishingJobsFilter: I am trying to land a job in the book publishing industry in New York, and it's been a fairly daunting process so far. Please hold my hand.

I recently graduated with a degree in English/Modern Literature from a good university. My background is fairly typical of a type A Lit major: I graduated with honors, published a lot fiction and non-fiction, participated in student-run journals and magazines. I have solid internship experience at professional newspapers and magazines. No, I wasn't the editor-in-chief of the Crimson, and I haven't written any great American novels, but I've worked hard at producing and publishing literature.

My dream job would be to work in the book publishing industry. In terms of applying for jobs, I have visited every publishing-related website, going so far as to open all my novels and visit their publishers' websites to see if they were advertising for job openings. I then lovingly individualized all the cover letters to said publishing houses and lit agencies, tweaked my resume to perfection, and crossed my fingers. Nevertheless, nothing fantastically promising has surfaced.

People have been warning me that the publishing industry is incredibly competitive, and maybe I was naive in thinking my college and internship experience sufficiently prepared me for being some lit agent's xerox bitch, but l'm getting nervous. My move from DC to Brooklyn is slated for next Thursday, and I'd like to have my crappy entry-level job lined up before I crash on a friend's couch, if only to avoid feeling completely adrift.

To clarify: my resume says I already live in Brooklyn, since I'm willing to take the Chinatown bus to NYC should someone call me up at a moment's notice for an interview, so no one's passing me over because I don't live there. I know about mediabistro, publisherslunch, publishersmarketplace, journalismjobs, and of course, NYtimes and craigslist.

I am looking specifically for advice on how other people got themselves noticed in this industry. I realize social networking is everything in New York, but what else can I do to get an edge over the mob of English and journalism majors who all want the same job I do?
posted by zoomorphic to Work & Money (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You probably (sorry) need to do an internship (unpaid) to get into the smaller imprints and indie publishers. Nobody get's hired sight unseen. Then you need to bust you ass. If you can figure out a way to get a paying job (nights/weekends) and do as much internship time as possible to show you are game and committed then the people you intern for will look at you when a job comes up or reach out to others when you've put in enough time (six months to a year, usually). This is not the only way to do it but it is the way that I have seen consistently work. Find some publishers you like and call them and offer your services.

For the big corporate houses you can probably just keep doing what you are doing but the jobs are going to suck and have nothing to do with what you want to do. Good luck, publishing is fun and pays crap.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:35 AM on October 18, 2006

I know networking isn't what you want to hear, but it's by far the best way. And by networking I don't just mean chatting people up when you meet them. I mean you need to find a way to get your foot in the door and actually meet the people who work in publishing. Do an unpaid internship for a semester, go to informational interviews, etc. Here's my experience as shared in a previous thread about someone who wanted to get into publishing. I had the good luck of knowing someone who could get me directly to an informational interview with an editor and let me skip the HR step that I was going through at the other publishers. I don't think it's a coincidence that that's the company that hired me.
posted by MsMolly at 9:44 AM on October 18, 2006

When I moved to New York I got an unpaid internship almost immediately at Seven Stories Press. While I definitely had an ace in landing the internship (a referral from one of their authors), they took on several other interns during the year I was there.

So my advice is to think small. New York is home to tons of small publishers, and they are the ones who need the most help and have the least amount of money to hand out. Also they are less formal and you're more likely to actually get to talk to the people you'd be working for.

Internships often lead to job offers. Mine did, though I chose to take the experience in a different direction. One way that you can help yourself in the meantime is by looking for work as a freelance proofreader or copy editor. With your degree it shouldn't be hard to land a few gigs. This sort of work will show prospective publishing employers that you are taking steps in the right direction. But get used to the idea that you may wind up spending a lot of an internship preparing mailings and attacking projects no one has time for, like sorting books and ordering unpacking boxes.

As for searching, craigslist is great but most places won't even write you back. Sure, there's always that one in a hundred, but not worth holding your breath for. Considering the size of many of these publishers, simply placing a call to their Human Resources department is not out of line; just call and ask whom you can email or fax a resume and cover letter to. And if you need work right away, I would say that begin applying to temp agencies RIGHT NOW. When they talk to you, you can explain your background and ask for placement in publishing jobs. This is a tough time of year, job-wise, and you may have to temp it for a while until the right opportunity comes.

Also, there are similar internships and possibilities in the world of magazines and other print media. I currently work for a magazine and enjoy the faster turnover of work that comes from a monthly release. The Village Voice and other local papers are often hiring too.

Lastly, welcome to NYC! Where in Brooklyn are you moving to? If it's all about connections, then you can't do much better than to move here as a mefite. My email is in my profile if you want to commiserate.
posted by hermitosis at 9:45 AM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

People have been warning me that the publishing industry is incredibly competitive, and maybe I was naive in thinking my college and internship experience sufficiently prepared me for being some lit agent's xerox bitch.


For the big corporate houses you can probably just keep doing what you are doing but the jobs are going to suck and have nothing to do with what you want to do.


My advice is to NOT move to NYC. You will be one among thousands vying for the same shitty job. Try another city with a lot of publishing (Philadelphia etc). No it's not the big names and it's not mass market publishing. But it IS publishing experience, which is what will eventually get you the publishing job you want in NYC.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:45 AM on October 18, 2006

I would disagree strongly with misanthropicsarah. Publishing is all about who you know and it is a small world. It's worth it to be in NYC: all the people you compete against and then struggle with are the people who will be hiring you in ten years.
posted by dame at 9:56 AM on October 18, 2006

At the entry level in the big houses, it's all about getting past the HR screen. An internship would probably do it, but I disagree that it's essential. Check with your university's alumni office for alums in the industry and contact them for informational interviews. There are always assistant-level jobs available, but I've rarely seen advertisments for them -- just send in your resume and they'll keep it on file. If you're still looking in a month or two, send it in again.

I'm sure you know that the salaries are punishing. Unless your parents are supporting you, stay away from Penguin and Farrar Strauss. Random, S&S, and Harper will be more livable (with roommates, in the boroughs).

Make sure your letter doesn't come off as a literary snob -- there are a lot more jobs in commercial publishing than the rarified prizewinning kind. If you want to do acquisitions, only go for positions with the title "editorial assistant" (or something with an agent). Marketing and production jobs may tempt you with a few more bucks, but you will never get back on the acquisitions track. I know whereof I speak.

I spent about 8 years working in several well-known trade houses, but I left NY several years ago so my contacts are a little stale. My email's in my profile if I can help.
posted by libraryhead at 9:58 AM on October 18, 2006

I'm going to repeat the "you don't want to hear it, but networking is what you have to do" line. Make it easier on yourself by networking through your university's alumni or other organizations that can connect you back to the publishing industry where you want to be.

Going through people you already know or have something in common with increases their willingness to vouch for you and (usually) their commitment to helping you out. You will be surprised at how much more accessible decision-makers are to you through this path, especially if you're willing to do an unpaid/low-paying internship to get in with them.
posted by whatzit at 10:07 AM on October 18, 2006

zoomorphic I have sent you a private email to your gmail account.
posted by spicynuts at 10:39 AM on October 18, 2006

Do you know what part of publishing you're interested in? Editorial is kind of the go-to for freshly graduated English majors, but it's also the most competetive and a tiny fraction of the possibilities for someone with your background.

Random House and S&S both have associates programs, for which you would be perfect, especially if you've never interned for a book publisher and are interested in learning about the different departments. It's kind of like a floater temp--you get paid, and you essentially get first dibs on interviewing for entry-level jobs that open up while you're there.

Otherwise, yes, you need to come to New York ASAP and get an internship. Many places only offer internships in the summer, and some others only pay in the summer and offer credit during the school year. If you can't find a paying job in publishing, waiting tables can be fun, lucrative, involves free food and booze, and doesn't interfere with interning/interviewing hours.

Networking IS key. Absolutely. Meet someone who works inside and ask them to pass your resume (you know, not when you first meet them, but after you're acquainted). People are generally willing to do this because at the big houses anyway, they'll get a bonus if you're hired. And it makes all the difference in the world. The chances of getting an interview via HR are slim. When I was looking, I got interviews through all sorts of channels, so definitely try everything. But I wouldn't have the job I have now if it hadn't been for a personal referral by my internship supervisor's own mentor (at a different company). That's why interning or doing an associates program makes for much better networking than through social or school channels. The person recommending you knows you can do the work, AND they know people at the other houses.

Two smaller points:
-Don't worry about the pay. It's low, but if you're good with money, it's definitely enough for a twenty-something. The people who say it's not are bad with money or work for magazines for 22K or somesuch.
-Being good at writing is a plus. Being an aspiring writer is not. So don't worry that you haven't written that novel.
posted by lampoil at 10:58 AM on October 18, 2006

Don't give up after one try. That is, apply for every job each publisher posts (although I would be surprised if they publicly post the jobs you'd like), and then some. Don't be irritating (where is that line? I don't know), but make your name known a little. Perhaps you'll be passed up the first 20 times, but the 21st time they'll say "oh, this zoomorphic. I've seen him/her before -- perhaps we should see what he/she is about..."

That's what I did, and it worked.

Also, the foot-in-the-door, not-really-what-you-want-to-do-but-at-least-it's-in-the-building jobs are a great way to get those coveted connections... And in less of a stalker-ish style.
posted by penchant at 11:06 AM on October 18, 2006

I was afraid of how necessary an unpaid internship would be. I do have experience as an editorial intern (re: xeroxer) for a political news journal in DC, but I realize it's not quite the same as xeroxing for a lit agency in NYC. But I can do an 80 hour work week while getting a part-time pay check if it means I get to work with books.

This is probably an inane question, but a certain lack of social skills comes with the book worm territory: how exactly do you build social connections? My friend got his sweet job as a sound engineer after randomly getting stuck in an elevator for an hour with the VP of SubPop. While that's an adorable story of random luck, I lack the technical skills required to orchestrate a non-fatal elevator malfunction necessary to corner some Random House higher-ups into talking to me.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:07 AM on October 18, 2006

From what I've heard (but take this for what it's worth, my knowledge is ten years old) the Columbia Publishing Course, formerly known as the Radcliffe Publishing Course, is an unparalleled opportunity to network with publishing folks, and leads to entry-level jobs for some impressive proportion of the participants.
posted by escabeche at 12:06 PM on October 18, 2006

Have you thought about going outside the literary publishing world? I used to work for a medical publisher in Philly, and just browsing their website, I saw several editing jobs in NY. Try medical publishers and other technical or specialized publishers. If you can't get in the door as an editor, I'd suggest trying to get a paying job at a publisher in some capacity. I got a BA in creative writing, and before I went to law school, I made my living as a project manager. I came in contact with folks from all over the medical publishing company, including editors. I know literary publishers are a world unto themselves, but other publishers are just regular corporations. They're much more likely to hire you if someone on the inside can vouch for you.
posted by gokart4xmas at 12:06 PM on October 18, 2006

I meant, they're much more likely to hire you as an editor if someone on the inside can vouch for you because of your work in another capacity.
posted by gokart4xmas at 12:11 PM on October 18, 2006

ed2010 is another mediabistro type site might be worth looking at.

I started out in educational publishing and moved into instructional design/online content, after deciding print wasn't for me. Personally, I got lucky with monster and 3+ thank-you letters, and getting along with all the my interviewees.
Some people I know started off with temp/contract work in publishing.
posted by ejaned8 at 12:52 PM on October 18, 2006

I've worked in book publishing for years now, and getting a foot in the door through networking is key. That said, over half of my editorial department was hired through an ad in the Times, myself included.

I don't think an unpaid internship or an expensive publishing course is neccessary to get hired. I never had an internship or took the course and did just fine. And also, most of the fall internship programs have already been filled for several months now. And to me it's silly to pay a few grand to take a publishing course that'll teach you the same things you'll learn the first week on the job. At least in my experience, working for both small publishers and major houses, people don't expect you to know everyhting about publishing the day you get there. And sometimes it's a lot harder to break the bad/inaccurate habits folks have picked up.

Where are you looking for ads for jobs? I'm surprised no one has mentioned either Publisher's Lunch or MediaBistro. Craigslist is hit or miss--usually miss. Look on the NYT website, look on the publisher's website, Publisher's Lunch joblistings, Publishers Weekly, and sign up for MediaBistro. MediaBistro is also key for networking in general.

What position are you looking for? If you're fresh out of college and looking for anything but an editorial assistant position (or an equal sales/marketing/publicity/managing editorial position), you're barking up the wrong tree. Publishing is still an apprenticeship industry, where you are expected to pay your dues and work your way up the ladder.

I'd also reccomend both narrowing your scope and widening it.

As such, narrowing: You mention slaving away as a xerox slave for a literary agent. Which is it? Agenting or editorial? Another aspect of publishing?

Widening: There is nothing wrong with wanting to be literary, and an aspiring novelist. However, there is nothing more annoying than interviewing a candidate for an editorial assistant position and listening to her talk about how she always wanted to be a writer. You're interviewing for an editorial postion, not a writing position. Yes, you can make the leap--at some point, hopefully after you've honed editorial skills. Also, to a similar point, the literary imprints are wee and don't hire folks often. Don't be snooty. Look at every single imprint that's hiring, apply for everything at big publishers and at smaller ones. You are far more likely to get hired at a mass market or trade imprint or a smaller house, and frankly, you will learn a whole lot more about publishing in general than you would elsewhere.
posted by kumquatmay at 12:56 PM on October 18, 2006

Networking doesn't mean the higher-ups. You won't do much talking to them even if you do get hired. Meet people your own age in publishing. There are different kinds of meet-ups, readings, events, happy hours. This is another area where an internship can just ask the junior staff about it. Junior staff at the different publishers and agencies do know each other, to a certain extent. It's a small industry.

(I know, it's such a cruel joke that we bookish nerds are also expected to be charming and just have to do your best).

Your most recent comment mentions lit agencies. If you're interested in that, you might find it easier to find a job or internship. It's still competetive, but it's not quite the same. Your DC experience might look better to an agency than to a publisher (that's a gut feeling, not a guarantee). But know that it's really a different track from publishing. They're related, and it's relevant experience to one another, but they're different.

Re: Columbia/NYU/X publishing course...I highly recommend internships over doing a publishing course. But if, come summer, you still don't have any experience and you've got the cash/time to devote, it can't hurt.
posted by lampoil at 1:04 PM on October 18, 2006

I should also say that one's initial social connection usually doesn't come from strong-arming your way into publishing meetups, but from some more organic progression...someone you meet out, a friend-of-a-friend's roommate, your moms know each other, something like that. Several of my friends from college went into different types of publishing. It just seems like a lot of folks our age in this city are in the media industry.

But I still say the best way to network is to do an internship and make friends with the people you meet there.

Also, when I waitressed, I met authors (and actors and dancers and figure skaters and chefs...etc).
posted by lampoil at 1:18 PM on October 18, 2006

My move from DC to Brooklyn is slated for next Thursday, and I'd like to have my crappy entry-level job lined up before I crash on a friend's couch, if only to avoid feeling completely adrift.

I don't know anything about publishing, but I just wanted to comment that you shouldn't expect to get a job in a week! When I was job hunting for my first out-of-college job in NY in a much less competitive field, it took me at least two months to land something. In the mean time I did temp work.
posted by footnote at 1:59 PM on October 18, 2006

I'm an art book editor at a museum in Los Angeles, and after a brief stint in the NY publishing world straight-outta-college (with the obligatory English major, natch) in the early '90s, came into my present position in a very roundabout, unconventional way. Basically, I wound up doing a lot of business editing in Chicago after grad school and did a lot of arts-centered freelancing on the side (plus worked for a photography studio and for a time at my parents art gallery in Santa Fe), then came to L.A. and got a freelance gig at the museum that eventually morphed into fulltime work.

I'm not necessarily suggesting that my route should be your career plan, but it does illustrate that there are definitely ways into the editing world besides the most well-traveled path -- there are also museums with publishing programs, university presses, business and medical publishers, etc.
posted by scody at 2:09 PM on October 18, 2006

Thanks so much for everyone's help. To address some particular points:

-While it's nigh impossible to write a resume about producing lit journals without sounding like a pretentious ass, I made a serious effort to not sound smug and conceited. Hopefully I didn't come off as such in this post, and if I did, I apologize. After weeks of talking about myself in cover letters and the like, I can't tell what's simply informative and what sounds self-obsessed.

-I've been applying off and on for a few weeks. I've had several calls about unpaid internships, which I will be interviewing for as soon as I move to the city, but it's almost scarier to not only be jobless but also to have committed myself to several days of unpaid labor a week. If that's what it takes, then so be it, but I'm not giving up on the possibility of getting a job that pays poorly rather than one that doesn't pay at all.

-I am more interested in publishing houses than lit agencies, but I'm obviously flexible.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:27 PM on October 18, 2006

Also: I know better than to talk to anyone in the publishing industry about my secret plans to be a world-famous writer/poet/romance novelist/whathaveyou.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:29 PM on October 18, 2006

oh, on the topic of resumes: I probably don't have to tell you this, but -- just in case -- please please please keep your resume to 1 page (and your cover letter to a few paragraphs). I've been sorting through resumes and cover letters for a possible job opening in our department, and I am absolutely stunned by the recent college grads who send in 2-, 3-, and even 4-page (!!) resumes and 2-page biographies for their cover letters. They do certainly stand out, but not in the way their submitters had hoped.

Anyway, just wanted to make sure you're not making the same mistake.
posted by scody at 4:07 PM on October 18, 2006

haha! i work with kumquatmay.

i have a page all about being an editor here, because i get asked this question a lot.

signed, got my job through an ad in the new york times
posted by sdn at 5:01 PM on October 18, 2006

You need a side job, even if you don't do an unpaid internship. Even if you have an interview your first day here, and that's the job you get (unlikely), that process could easily take a month to six weeks before you even start, then a week or two before getting paid. I've been hired more quickly, but not for a permanent, paying job in publishing.

If you want to know my (scary) specs, I had 1.5 years of internships in my specific field (children's books, editorial) under my belt, a glowing rec from my most recent internship supervisor, and pretty much her rolodex at my disposal, as well as an English degree. I temped in my field briefly after graduation, then waitressed. I went on dozens of interviews. I got a permanent job 11 months after graduation. I'd say that's not typical...more typical is probably 3-6 months. It's just timing and chemistry, really, once you get the interview. January is a good time to be looking for publishing jobs. Way more stuff available during the beginning of the year.
posted by lampoil at 7:52 AM on October 19, 2006

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