5 Tips for Getting a Job in Book Publishing

You’ve always loved books. Maybe you’re the word nerd of your friend group, or maybe you’re an evangelist for your favorite sci-fi series—whatever the angle, you’ve decided you want to turn that love into a career, but you’re not sure know how to get your foot in the door. The usual career advice like setting up informational interviews and finding local networking groups is just as applicable to publishing as it is to most other industries, but here are a few pub-specific tips from someone who’s been working as an editor both in-house and as a freelancer for the last six years.

A desk at a publishing company

Life in book publishing. Madeleine Vasaly

1. Keep Up with Industry News

The Publishers Lunch, Shelf Awareness, and PW Daily email newsletters are three of the most read and useful sources of publishing news out there. They report on book deals, staffing changes at publishing companies, author and publisher news, and more—sometimes days or weeks before it hits the mainstream news sites. (As an added benefit, they also include job listings.) The first one is targeted at publishing people, the second at bookstore people, and the third sort of a mix.

It can be information overload for some people to subscribe to all three—plus there’s some overlap in the news stories—so you could start by subscribing to just one, in which case I’d recommend Publishers Lunch. Or, if you don’t want to clutter up your inbox at all, you can always read them online. People in publishing also tend to be heavy Twitter users, so following publishers, editors, agents, and authors is another really useful way to go.

2. Get an Education

There’s no specific degree that’s required to work in publishing (believe it or not, we’re not all English majors), but you need more than a love of books to get most jobs in the industry. You might have a reputation as a grammar-obsessed nitpicker, but a publisher will want to know that you have experience with their preferred style guide and that you know the difference between copyediting, developmental editing, and proofreading. You might love spreading the word to everyone you meet about your new favorite author, but there are specific useful marketing skills to develop.

For aspiring editors who are still in college, try a copyediting course or look into joining your school’s literary journal. For graduates, there are summer certificate programs in publishing—I attended the Denver Publishing Institute, which I can’t recommend highly enough, and there are similar programs at NYU and Columbia. Not only do these programs provide valuable training, but just as valuable, they give you an instant huge network of connections who work in publishing and access to a mailing list for job leads. There are also master’s programs, which may or may not be a good investment depending on whom you ask and what your ultimate job goal is, and remote training courses on sites like Copyediting.com.

For would-be marketers, working at a bookstore can be a great way to start. Most bookseller jobs don’t require previous experience, and learning about what does and doesn’t work when it comes to handselling books to customers or seeing the ways stores partner with publishers can translate well to a book-marketing job. Bonus: if a publishing house you’re applying to is full of industry veterans, having worked on the “other side” for a bit can set you apart in the hiring process.

And of course, whether you’re a student or a recent graduate, internships are always a classic way to get some hands-on experience. These can be tricky financially, because most either don’t pay at all or only pay a small stipend, but assistance is sometimes available, and they can definitely be a way to a job—whether it’s at the press you intern for or somewhere else. Similarly, there are volunteer opportunities (like editing for Twin Cities Geek!) that can help you get around the old “need experience to get experience” catch-22.

If you’re not sure which of these might be right for you, try talking to people who have done them. Schools are usually happy to put you in touch with alumni, and publishers may be able to connect you with someone who’s completed their internship program.

3. Don’t Feel Like You Have to Do Everything

When I first started out, I felt like I had to be in the know about absolutely everything—I felt pressured to read all of the latest bestsellers, keep on top of everything that was going on at every major publisher, and know who all the big names were. But I realized pretty quickly that staying current with all of that would almost be a full-time job by itself.

It’s important to be informed (see #1), but you don’t have to be all-knowing. You don’t have to memorize everything you see in Publishers Lunch. You don’t have to read all of the books on the New York Times bestsellers list—though it’s good to read one or two from the genre or publisher you’re interested in working in. Don’t run yourself ragged trying to keep up.

4. Think outside the Box

When you’re just starting out, it can help to think about potential jobs that aren’t in the book industry but could be a steppingstone, especially if your area doesn’t have a lot of openings. All kinds of businesses need writing, editing, proofreading, and marketing—you may be able to start out proofing ad copy for a tech company and use that experience to apply for a job at your favorite publisher.

5. Keep Reading

Whether it’s the latest megahit or just something you felt like picking up, reading keeps your brain thinking about books. (But see #3 about feeling obligated to read everything.) Plus, if you’re interviewing for a job at a book publisher, you can be pretty sure that one of the questions will be, “What was the last thing you read?”

If you’re looking to network in the Twin Cities publishing scene, check out the joint happy-hour events from the Minnesota Book Publishers’ Roundtable and Minnesota Publishing Tweet Up or the panel discussions put on by the Minneapolis Professional Editors Network. MBPR also holds regular lunch-hour presentations on publishing topics as well as an annual internship fair, and a list of local internships is available on their website.

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