Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How to Get a Job in Publishing, 2012 Edition

Today was the twelfth anniversary of my first day at Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic (as yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of my arrival in New York City), and as such, it seems like a good day to knock out one of the questions I was asked at the beginning of this month of blogging:

How does one get his/her foot in the door at a publishing house? Any tips on how to make oneself stand out when applying for internships or assistant positions?

It is a tough time to be an aspiring editorial assistant, I have to say, as publishers receive literally hundreds of applications for every slot. Here are six things I highly recommend for anyone who wants to get a job at a big publisher these days. (All of these are my opinion based on what I see; none of them are Scholastic HR-department approved, so I could be completely off base; and I'm sure there are also exceptions to every one.) My 2006 post "How do I become a book editor?" is the preliminary reading here.

1. Live in the publisher's area (which means in practice for most jobs: live in New York). There are so many applicants for every slot that HR departments and editors have little incentive to try to interview anyone who lives far outside the publisher's region. . . . After all, why should they require you to go to all the trouble and expense of flying here for an interview when another fifty candidates can come in tomorrow? 

2. Do what you can to meet people who already work in the industry. As publishing is an intensely personal business, a lot of jobs happen through personal connections. Many positions get filled by former interns or current employees in other departments. The good news is that you can meet publishing people these days not just through long-established methods like informational interviews and the publishing institutes, but at writer's conferences, if you can find an unpressured time to talk, and in various forums online. I connected with one of my favorite-ever interns through a listserv I belong to, which showed me her enthusiasm for children's literature was genuine and that she was a good writer (even though she didn't live near New York at the time), so when she later asked if we could do an informational interview, I was happy to oblige.

3. Study and practice editing and publishing where you are. Read books about writing. Take a copyediting or proofreading course. Be a beta editor for fan fiction, or even hang your shingle out as a dissertation doctor or freelance editor. Write and submit a little fiction yourself so you know what authors experience. Learn e-book formatting and help a friend self-publish something (or even self-publish your own work to know what that's like). All of these things would be useful experience that would give you valuable practical knowledge long-term, especially in a changing industry; it will diversify the number of jobs you can apply for within said industry, and practice before you get in; and it will help give you a running start when you get a job at last.

Also, if you wouldn't edit something for free, simply out of love of editing and helping a written project become better, you might want to think about going into a different industry. Because if you become an editor, you will spend many nights and weekends on the work of reading, thinking about, and editing books -- which really means you have to love the job enough that you do it even on time that you aren't actively paid for it. If you don't feel that passionate about it, consider another department in publishing, or a more lucrative line of business altogether.

4. Be massively prepared for any contacts or interviews you might have, and try to make connections with editors, not just HR people. Stay up on what's popular in children's literature, and read lots of recently published books in the field. If you are going to meet an editor for an interview of some kind, read at least one of the books he or she has published and have intelligent things to say about it or questions to ask. Try to get an overview of the editor's list as a whole, then think about the qualities he or she values in books, and the place those books hold within the output of the larger publishing house. If you're sending an application cover letter, demonstrate that same sort of knowledge. Have a list ready in your head of your favorite books of all time, the books you've read most recently, and the kind of books you would most want to work on if you could.

5. Be genuine, passionate, and energetic but not obnoxious. When I do informational interviews, I'm most impressed by the people who clearly love books and know their stuff; who are engaged with the world and do things for the love of it, and who are eager to transfer that make-things-happen energy into the publishing industry; who write well, as that's essential in this business; and who have good, calm, non-obsequious manners and a good self-presentation. Don't laugh too much, especially in agreeing with your interviewer, and don't suck up. Be someone I can respect as a possible editorial colleague, with well-thought-through opinions of your own. 

6. Do everything right. Of course this is impossible, but in general:  Write the very best you can. Proofread the hell out of anything you turn in. Turn it in on time, or before on time. Tailor your work to the publisher (or even better the editor) to whom you're applying. Wear nice interview clothes and send a thank-you note afterward. Do all the basic professional things right, and then go above and beyond in your smarts, insight, and passion for books.


  1. If you want to work in small publishing, learn to get people who will not be your employees onto your team.

  2. I would also add, if I may, two other things:

    Don't be afraid of other departments. There are a lot of jobs in publishing outside of editorial, and all of them feed into one another. Besides, if you still want to end up as the next Cheryl, you'll have all kinds of good experience within publishing, and you can take that marketing or sales or contracts knowledge with you. Plus, you'll spend all of that time building connections and trust with the people you want to work for.

    And patience and perseverance. It took me almost a year and a half to find my first paying job in publishing, despite having a super duper mentor who had my back, and a lot of interviewing opportunities. Which of course goes back to what you mention about there not being a lot of editors. I mean, if you think about how hard it is to be a published writer and how few people accomplish that- but there are even fewer editors working with those authors.

  3. Thanks for posting! I know it is difficult to find jobs in the northeast, especially in this job market. I have various friends and relatives who can't find any New Jersey jobs or jobs in New York. This will be quite helpful to some people who are looking for this kind of help! Great information.

  4. Thanks so much for this! I will be incorporating ALL of this in my job search- the most difficult being moving to NYC before I have a job there, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.
    Thanks again!