What do you do next with a B.A. in English?
February 26, 2008 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Post-collegefilter: I'm trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, and have decided I want to try to break into the publishing industry. Are certificate programs the way to go?

I graduated with a B.A. in English this past December, and I think that what I want to do next is to try to get a job in the publishing industry. The catch is that I have next to nothing on my resume in terms of editing or publishing experience. My research had led me to conclude that getting a master's in publishing is basically a waste of money, so I've been looking at certificate programs to get some experience. I'm especially interested in the programs offered by Columbia and NYU. I think that I'd have a better chance at landing a job if I were already in NYC, since right now, I'm in the Midwest.

So my question is: would these certificate programs, if I get into one, be my best bet at getting a job? What other options do I have, and how can I prepare? What research and preparation should I be doing on my own that I am not yet doing? I've read up on all the publishing-related AskMes I could find, but I still feel like I could use some direction.

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by andeles to Work & Money (16 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You must have seen this question, which is ostensibly about MA programs but also addresses certificates.

A shortened version of my answer from that question: Having a certificate won't hurt, but in my experience, you get to be an editor by being an editor. Helpful, right?

Me: Editor for 15ish years, no certificate, fell into it with only very minor amounts of experience. College history major, so lots and lots of reading and writing time under my belt.

Volunteer to edit stuff - term papers, nonprofit newsletters, etc. Get familiar with both the Chicago and AP manuals of style - Chicago has some very helpful stuff about the publishing process (for books), how to properly mark a manuscript, etc.

And I'll put this right out there: editing can be really boring! If you have to edit something that you have no interest in....well, it's doable, but I wouldn't say it's fun. And there's a lot of work out there like that.
posted by rtha at 4:10 PM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know a woman who works in publishing. She got in the door by luck, and kept getting promotions by being a hard worker. As far as getting the job in the first place is concerned, it's not *only* who you know, but you do need to know somebody.

The other option is go to law school. With a law degree, you can work in nearly any industry you choose. "In house" jobs are much less stress than law firm jobs. The work is different, but the environment will be close.
posted by yesno at 4:53 PM on February 26, 2008

Best answer: There are also internships available if you're able to live cheaply, both at large publishers in the city and smaller publishers and book "packagers," where the publishers send work. Do you want to stay in the Midwest, or would you move to one of the coasts?

Study the Chicago Manual of Style -- there are a couple of chapters on preparing manuscripts in the beginning of the book. (As rtha says.) I crammed with these chapters the weekend before getting my first job in publishing. Knowing the markup symbols from their charts helped me get the job as much as anything else. Getting your foot in the door is hard, but then you've got that job on your resume and off you go. I also agree that lots of reading and writing can make up for lack of a certificate -- don't know if they even had such a thing when I started, but I sort of fell into it rather than made a big decision.

One thing to decide in the next couple of years is whether you want to concentrate on the editorial department, which involves working with authors and their manuscripts in the writing process and just afterwards, or the production department, which includes proofreading and typesetting and sometimes copyediting. Just by having an idea about which you prefer should help you get your first job. Most of the people I have interviewed for entry-level jobs didn't know what the difference between the two is -- which is fine, but it's a plus to know such things during an interview.

I don't find it boring, but I agree that some projects are less fun than others (math books, I'm looking at you).

Good luck! I hope you do well and you like it!
posted by theredpen at 5:16 PM on February 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I worked in publishing for a few years after my BA - while you might pursue the certificate, it won't hurt to actually try and find an entry level job w just your B.A. - I had an extremely mediocre GPA from a respectable state school and an interesting resume (although with no publishing/editing experience) and got a job as an editorial assistant at a major book publisher in NYC. These positions have little to do with editing, so I doubt they care if you've actually edited anything. You're an editor's assistant and do mundane assistant crap while supposedly learning the ropes. Where I worked, most of these assistants ended up moving up or to another publisher for a better position. So, look for an entry level job. I found mine (I think - it was 1996) on Monster or some similar job website.

I got my job not living in NYC, but many other opportunities opened up once I was there, so I think your instinct is right. You might consider moving there first, if you can stomach doing so without a job, but I think it'll make your time easier. Not impossible, but easier.

Also, for those talking about 'editing' - my impression is that there's really not that much editing to do in 'big publishing' - copyediting, yes, but not actual editing. While not universally true, anymore the publishing industry is about publishing, not working with authors to craft a manuscript before it gets made into a book. You might consider trying to find an entry level job at a literary agency, where I think much of this works takes place - where authors used to work with editors to prepare their manuscripts for publication, now this has become the role of the literary agent. So the agent finds promising material and works with authors to work it into something saleable. Publishers are more interested in finished, ready-to-go manuscripts.

Have you considered trying to get an internship?

I hated working in publishing - I worked for a magazine before switching careers and felt at home there, but while in big book publishing I felt like I should have been surrounded by people who love books but at the end of the day it was more about business of printing and selling books (contracts, schedules, rights, etc.) - which makes sense to me now, but at the time I didn't really feel like publishing was a great place for a 'book' person. That said, most entry level jobs are extremely low paying and often involve working for jerks, so it could take some time to move into a position where you're actually doing the interesting work of selecting manuscripts for publication, etc. These positions seemed far and few between though, and there was a LOT of competition for them among the editorial assistants as they tried to move up.
posted by drobot at 5:35 PM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

As an alternative to one of the certificate courses, consider getting an internship for the summer. While you probably won't be paid, you won't be paying for it either. Internships are easier to come by without experience than entry-level jobs. Plus you'll make lots of contacts and (hopefully) get preference for any entry-level positions at that company that come open while you are interning. Certificate programs are good for making contacts/getting your foot in the door (obviously very important in this field), but in my experience aren't really that much more of a plus on your resume than the experience you get from a good internship.
posted by c lion at 5:50 PM on February 26, 2008

Columbia and NYU's programs are highly respected in the industry. Either would get you a great job in publishing. And I'm also a big advocate of publishing internships. I run one for a mid-sized university press and the folks who've gone through it report it helps a great deal landing a job. Most of my ex-interns earn way more than me.

Both NYU's and Columbia's programs have components that will put you in a NY publisher's offices. That will be your greatest asset after the certificate. Experience and connections will make a bigger difference on your resume than a graduate degree. Unless you want to go into the business of publishing or into acquiring/editing technical publications, a certificate from one of the above two programs will get you a lot farther.

Frankly, I'd recommend an internship before the certificate program, but I may not be objective about the order of the process.

Metamail me if you'd like to continue the conversation.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:55 PM on February 26, 2008

I would just like to second every single word of The World Famous's post.
posted by Enroute at 6:00 PM on February 26, 2008

Datapoint: My sister did the Columbia post-grad certificate in, err, something to do with publishing and got the job she wanted at a NYC agency. (I wasn't paying a huge amount of attention there, sorry.)

She was a Classics major at an Ivy for her undergrad so I don't know how relevant that is. Also, we come from a publishing family and her last name might have been recognised by her employer when she was applying, but neither the interview nor the position was a setup.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:29 PM on February 26, 2008

Honestly, right now your best bet at getting a job in the publishing industry is applying for some. Are you qualified to be an administrative assistant? Then you're qualified for entry-level in the publishing industry. The rest you'll learn while you're there.

NYU and Columbia's certificate programs do give you a slight leg up in that publishers and literary agencies regularly pull interns from them. (Personally I know that Folio Literary Agency regularly pulls interns from NYU's certificate program.) The programs also regularly keep you apprised of job openings in the houses and agencies in the city.

Moving to NYC is something you'll want to seriously consider even if you don't enroll in a certificate program, as the North American publishing industry is absolutely centered here. I had nothing more than a high school degree and within a month of my own move here I was nestled in an amazing internship at a literary agency which taught me as much, if not more, than the certificate program would have.

Start haunting job listings at the major publishers. Macmillan, Random House, and others post their openings on their own sites. BookJobs is also a good resource; both for internships and jobs openings.

Give some serious thought as to why you want to be in publishing, as well. Editorial is a lot of work (work that doesn't stay at work) for a surprisingly low pay scale. Agenting, marketing, publicity, legal, production...there's lots more in the publishing industry than solely editorial.
posted by greenland at 6:43 PM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

My friend Sharyn is a YA book editor who is also on MeFi (but may not see this post) wrote a little page on her website about how to become an editor.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 PM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of great advice here, but let me throw in my $.02.

I have worked in publishing for nearly 10 years and absolutely love love love it. I have a BA in International Politics and a Post-Bac (en route to Masters) in Fine Arts. I clearly have neither certificate, nor a degree in publishing but at this point have worked at three major publishing houses. I know very few people who do - or even have a degree outside of Business or English (editors only - which you will need for being an editor). Sometimes people do go back for a Masters degree after they get in, but not usually before. Most people I know basically just have a love of books and start where we all do: as interns or assistants.

That is I hope to give you hope.

Here's my advice: move to a center of publishing such as New York, Boston or other major city with a few houses and start with a summer internship or assistant. You happen to be in Michigan? Fantastic! Ann Arbor is the home of Borders Group Inc, so seek out an assistant to a book buyer position there if you can't move right away. You might not be *in* the creation of books now but you will be in the market with solid experience and will be more desirable should you want to make a BIG move. You'll have to schedule meetings and run numbers like the rest of us, but this is a solid foundation to the business of this business. Having a hand in the selling of books is practical experience on what books work in the industry and you may find that a sales position (a very powerful position in publishing) might be more tailored to your personality... Or marketing / publicity or you may find that you want to go with the oceanic flow of editing prose. Either way, it's a nice location if you can get your foot in the door in the industry.

You will have to decide what general field you're interested in: editorial, marketing / publicity, sales or distribution planning and get on that within the first few years. But while you're working on that, you'll be sitting in the market getting well earned experience that will make the move into the book making industry easier. Ultimately, if you want to be at a publishing house, you will have to relocate to where the pub houses are. Caveat: unless you decide to go into sales, in which case there are many field selling positions nationwide.

Keep in mind that at the bottom and even for those in the upper echelon you will never make a lot of money in a comparative sense. Most of us work for love and make half what our counterparts would make in other industries (say financial).

Regularly check the specific publishing job boards such as:

… and even the big boards like monster or careerbuilder/headhunter.

Keep at it, don't be daunted. Publishing is a tight knit community but getting your foot in the door and getting a few people on your side is the key. This industry is very incestuous, we (the community) always find that your current coworkers will be future coworkers at other publishing houses. An assistant today could very well be your boss in five years and having a full house of friends in the industry will keep you moving up the corporate ladder or landing you that plum position you desire to grow old at.


Good luck!
posted by eatdonuts at 8:55 PM on February 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Er, I just want to say that my experience pertains only to the book publishing industry. As I understand it, the magazine industry is vastly different from us.

Also, I don't agree at all with comments above about there being no real editorial work for editors. I have very many friends who spend their days pouring over optioned manuscripts helping new and market-tested authors create engaging prose and seeking out new works. One very notable friend started at the exact same time as myself in sales and is now an Associate Editor at one of the largest publishing houses in the country. She got that job by working hard, being diligent and having a very prominent Publisher notice her and her interest in moving departments. I myself have also moved on from an assistant in sales into the creation of works (non-editorial) by impressing my bosses, making solid connections and expressing my desire to move departments.

Getting your foot in the door, being industrious and vocal always seems to work in my experience to getting that position that suits you.
posted by eatdonuts at 9:10 PM on February 26, 2008

Best answer: Timely question--I just came back from a class in which we discussed this very question in my own certificate program in editing. What my instructor recommended most was "hang around." Find a way to be nearby people who are involved in the industry. Just be there, and they'll notice you, and you'll get pulled along with them. Go with whatever option gets you in the same room as people who do what you want to do. Whether you do this by internship or by certificate program and then internship or whatever likely doesn't make a difference, as long as you're physically there.

A friend took an MPub and found it less practical than he wanted, so, without having yet read that other question, I think you're right to steer toward certificate programs. I like my program because it is so practical. After having done some editing on a freelance basis, I sent out resumes to publishers, but either got no response from them or received suggestions that I should enroll in a publishing program, as entry level positions are most often filled through these. Now that I'm in such a program, I'm not learning raw skills I didn't have before, but I am getting a lot of insider hints from instructors who have spent years in the business and I feel my experience is becoming formalized because of it. Prospective employers will know that my copy editing marks are the same as their copy editing marks, for example, and while that seems obvious, it does lend a measure of professionalism to my application. People may say they've done editing before when what they really mean is that they used to read over their friends' term papers in university. You want to stand out and show you have experience beyond that kind of informal, low-level work.

As one instructor said, instructors also use these courses to watch out for who's "coming up." That, to me, is much of the value of my program: I get to "hang around" with those who do what I want to do. The upshot of this is that I'm going to ask soon about volunteering at the publication of one of my instructors. I could, obviously, have asked without taking this program. But it's through the program that my instructor knows me in person, so that's why I feel I have an edge. If you don't have previous experience or previous contacts, I'd think that the certificate program would be an excellent way to gain some. If you can skip it and go straight to the internship, lucky you, but if that doesn't pan out, you can probably count on the certificate program to lead you in.

Boy, what a industry, though. Good luck to you. We need all the help we can get.
posted by roombythelake at 11:49 PM on February 26, 2008

Best answer: I’m an editor in New York. I work at a small, educational publishing house, so most of what I know from the inside is different from what you might imagine of Random House or HarperCollins. But, I have tried to get jobs at these places, so I know what the job hunt is like, at least.

In my opinion, since you have no experience, you pretty much should do NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute or Columbia’s Publishing Course. The main reason for this is the connections you’ll make, and the job fairs. Publishing houses actively recruit people from these programs. There is little to no training provided by publishing houses, but they still want people who know something about the industry, so these programs are good places to find people who have paid for their own training and are young enough to work for little pay. In my experience, you must have connections (and these programs do help you make some) to get a job in publishing. And even with them, it’s tough. It’s likely that (even with the certificate programs) you’ll start with a low-paying internship before you get a real job, but this is just part of the game. You’ll have to make sacrifices to get started.

To work at a major publishing house, you should be in New York. Yes, there are some outposts of the major publishers in big cities, and small publishers elsewhere, but nowhere else do you find the density of positions available here. But be prepared: as an editorial assistant (assuming you want to go into editorial), you will earn $35,000 or less per year. You’ll have to share an apartment with a roommate, and you’ll live in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens (not that these are bad, and the big houses are all close to major subway intersections so your commute won’t be awful).

Publishing is not the best business to be in right now. You have to really want it.
Feel free to MeMail me for more.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:19 AM on February 27, 2008

Oh, and a few links:
Young to Publishing Group (from the Association of American Publishers)--I'm not super impressed by them, but you should join if you do end up moving to New York.

Nathan Bransford's blog for an agent's perspective.

MediaBistro for their job board and classes. If you can swing it, take the "Breaking into Book Publishing" course that they offer from time to time. That will help you get a much better sense of how the industry works.

GalleyCat--in my opinion, the best industry blog out there.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:23 AM on February 27, 2008

In regards to CiaMeia's post, I agree on the fact that you have to start with internships at publishing companies and they are low paying, but once you complete one or two, you can get a job. I myself am looking for a full time job in publishing. Right now, I'm interning for a publishing company in NYC so i guess I have my toes in the door. And seriously it's only my toes, you need to take it a bit at a time and get yourself noticed. That's based on what someone told me. My guess is you'll like publishing. I do, it's the business I want to be in, the only one actually. As of now I'm patiently letting my internship take its course. It's a 6 month long one, but it's a leg up. And I am an expert when it comes to people saying "boy what an industry" (roombythelake's post), "it's a hell of a business" (rejection letter from a company whom i applied for a position at), and my all time favorite "publishing is the hardest market to get into". Again, agreeing with CiaMeia's post in the fact that you really do have to want a job in publishing. I hate to admit I am a bookworm who loves books and wants to be in the book business. I'm having a hard time though, so good luck to you.
posted by beedoos at 3:48 PM on March 1, 2008

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