So You Want to Work in Publishing
First off… don’t. It’s hard. And terrible.
Just kidding. I actually hate it when people are like “don’t work in this industry, kid!” and then justify it by being all “well if they are that easily discouraged, then they weren’t going to cut it.” Because here’s the thing. Marginalized folks face so many barriers to entry that lack of encouragement just is one more straw on the enormous pile they carry. And what is the point of this? What is the point of dismissing someone’s desire, ambition, and curiosity about your own industry?
I want you to work in my industry. It’s a great life. It’s hard, full of challenges, crushing disappointments, incredible highs, and shit pay. It is rife with terrible days, overwork, and is seemingly designed to produce anxiety in anyone who dabbles in it. It also means you get to help bring incredible stories into the world. You meet some of the most brilliant, kind, funny, and empathetic people in the world. The work is good and worth it. You get to make the world better in some small, specific way.
So, now that you’re convinced this is a good idea, here’s what I tell the youths who come to me, stars in their eyes, a spring in their step, and a blissful ignorance of what the inside of an affordable share of a New York apartment looks like.
[important caveat: all advice is inherently flawed! It won’t work for everyone or even necessarily most people. I offer the below in the spirit of this has been true for my experience and hopefully it will be useful to some of you. Even a “oh fuck that, I’m not doing that” can be hugely useful. So if you hate what I have to say here, then that will tell you a lot about the path ahead of you.]
Getting a job is about who you know. That sounds bad. And, it is bad because it creates barriers that are structural and about privilege and training. It isn’t so much that your daddy’s best friend’s cousin also went to Yale so they’ll just give you an internship. It’s more about finding opportunities to meet people and make a connection that can lead to opportunities. And those social skills are absolutely rooted in class expectations, in life experience, and in explicit training.
Small talk is a skill. Knowing how to interact with new people who have wealth and power and aren’t afraid to show it is a learned skill. Managing your nerves. Knowing how to be funny without crossing a line. These are all things that come from experience, from observation, and from training.
I know because I was raised to know these things. I was raised with a lot of privilege by a pair of successful professionals and entrepreneurs. I was raised with an immigrant assimilationist mindset. I’m so keenly aware of how much of an advantage I was handed by this when it came to leanring how to meet the right people and convince them to give me the opportunities I wanted.
The good news is that these are all skills. They’re learnable and trainable even if you didn’t come up with them from the start. And, as with learning any skill, you’re going to be bad at it sometimes. But being bad at something is a gift because that’s how you learn to get good at it. Embrace the awkward failures. Obsess over that thing you said to that famous editor, because of course you will, but don’t let that stop you from trying again.
Networking is about building a connection. I like to say networking is just making friends and that’s true in a lot of ways. But it’s more accurate to say that networking is about making a personal connection. Even a brief, tenuous one. Find a way to have a human moment with the person you’re talking to. Without crossing boundaries. While being a professional and polite.
You’re going to be bad at this. But you’ll get better if you try. And you should try because this can be a path to building the life you want for yourself.
So: Go to readings. Go to book events. Tell everyone you know you want to work in the business. Send emails asking for informational interviews. Do all the things you can to meet people and make a connection. And above all — practice.
Build a Cohort
It’s easy to think networking is about finding a powerful mentor or decision maker and getting them to bless you with attention, connections, and employment. And, well, some of it is. But I don’t think that’s the most important part. The thing that’s carried me through my career, that’s saved me time and time again, are the people in the cohort I stumbled into, got invited to, and have been bouyed by over the years.
My friends from back when I was a baby assistant at a major agency have been important to me from the jump. The whole assistant staff cycled in under six months meaning there was a whole new class of us confused, excited, and deeply stupid children. We got drunk together. We beat our heads against this business together. We commiserated on the bad days. We threw paperclips at each other and ate lunch in the conference room and gchatted all the office gossip. And about half of us are still in the business. Some are agents, some are editors, some are in the US, some are overseas. Few of us do the same things, even though there’s some overlap (leading to my main professional nemesis *shakes fist at sky*).
Over and over again I can think about friends I made when I was an editor. Other agents, other editors, other writers I met along the way and who I helped out at various times and they helped me out in turn. It's not a tit-for-tat exchange. It's a network of support and encouragement and opportunity.
I started out thinking I needed to meet famous editors, publishers, and heads of houses. Now, I look for people at my level. Junior staff that could use a hand up. For the kinds of friends who will stick with me and that I can support over the length of our careers. I want to find the people who will help me build the industry I want to work in. I have always found this to be more effective, more rewarding, and a more joyful way to work.
This was the hardest thing for me to learn and in so many ways I still haven’t learned it. I was always taught coming up that confidence is important. Confidence is key to making people listen to you, to respect you. Which unfortunately I incorrectly interpreted as a deep terror of being wrong or looking stupid.
Spoiler alert: I’m wrong a lot and look stupid a lot. There’s no way to avoid it! It’s impossible to know all the things about your job, about your industry. You’re going to make wrong calls. You’re going to say the wrong thing sometimes.
So, I’m learning to ask more questions. I wish I had done this more back when I worked at a big five publisher. I wish I had taken someone from every single department I had contact with and made them get lunch with me or a coffee or just sit in their office for five minutes. I wished I’d asked them about what their job was. What was the hardest part? What was the best part? What were the things I wasn’t thinking about every time I interacted with them? How could I help them do their jobs?
Confidence is being comfortable saying “I don’t know” when people are looking to you for an answer. Because “I don’t know” can easily turn into “let me go find out.” So learn to ask questions. Learn that when you run into a road block to find someone who can help you figure it out.
When you’re struggling with figuring out how to meet people and connect with other folks in your industry, remember that there’s a very simple thing that connects all of us: we like books. You can always talk to other book people about books they’ve read and at any book event someone will inevitably fill a lull in the conversation with: “so what are you reading?”
Here’s a trick — this is an opportunity to say something about yourself. You can take this piece of smalltalk and build a comp title list for yourself. Write these down ahead of time. If you want to get a job in kidlit then name something you read and loved that was published recently, make it something specific that says something about your interest or tastes. Don’t only name the big bestseller of the season, but pull something from the catalog that really speaks to you specifically. If you’re going to cite a classic, then make sure you’re framing it as a nostalgia pick and pair it with something recent.
All the rules for picking comp titles for a book work here. Think about your audience. Think about who you want to be. And use this as an opportunity to make an argument. Say something about who you are.
Of course, we are more than the sum total of the media we consume. But like any branding exercise this is about paring back the complexity of being a person to give a snapshot, a sillhouette, that your audience can understand and connect with. Use our mutual love of books to your advantage. Use them to say “I’m a person, not just a potential hire. I’m someone who has clear likes and wants in the world. I will bring perspective, knowledge, and a point of view to your team.”
Anyhow. Comp titles are great. Learn to love them.
These tips certainly aren’t some magic bullet and these are the kinds of behaviors I endeavor to continue to develop as my career progresses. It took me a long time to learn to do these things and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not good at them out of the gate. It takes time to get good at these elements, but if you start working on them now they’re tools that will help you build your career for years to come.
And, once you’re in the door, remember to hold it open for the person coming behind you. Break the locks. Prop the doors wide. Send the elevators back down. The only way we get better books is if we build a better industry.