Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Alternate Careers, cont.: Commerical or Academic Publishing

Let me be straight with you. When I finished my Ph.D. a few years ago, my first thought (other than "oh, crap, now what? I've got to pay back my student loans . . .") was the following: "If I can't find a tenure-track job, or decide I'd prefer to do something else with my overly specialized humanities degree, the first alternate career I'm going to explore is the world of commercial or academic publishing."

I am a total bibliophile: I love reading, I love amassing books, I love stroking books (esp. old books), I love writing, and I love editing and proofreading the work of others. What a perfect job, right?

So I read as much as I could online and even bought a few books including How to Get a Job in Publishing by Alison Baverstock and Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future by Jason Epstein, as well as a thorough textbook introduction to the publishing world, the title of which I can no longer remember (sorry.)

I discovered quite quickly that the publishing world was undergoing a process of major transition due to the increasing importance and popularity of digital technology. Whether a job candidate was interested in working in editorial, marketing, production or sales, without a basic knowledge of e-publishing and other current trends, and an awareness of some of the larger crises facing publishers today, he/she would have little hope of either getting an interview or landing a job, even at the entry level.

Since I'm a historian and basically a speed reader, I read the textbook first and absorbed the history of publishing and the major world-wide players in the industry in about 48 hrs. So far so good. Then I moved on to reading about publishing as a business, learning how the four main departments (see above) function differently, and yet work together constantly, to achieve the final result. It became clear to me that I was most interested in the editorial side of things: working with authors, acquiring and editing manuscripts, writing copy, focusing on all the little details, etc. Reading How to Get a Job in Publishing, in which the duties of each department are discussed in detail, only confirmed my assumptions. Editorial should be my home department, assuming I could find a job in publishing in the first place. And this was going to be pretty tricky, considering the fact that I lived a FAR distance from any publishing centers. Like an academic position, a publishing job would require a move.

The first few resumes and cover letters that I sent out resulted in silence. Nothing happened; zilch. But I kept applying. The next thing I knew I had two interviews lined up, one with a major commercial press, another with a company that produces mainly textbooks. Both interviews were for entry-level editorial positions working with reference works. Not my #1 choice but at least I could get my foot in the door as an editorial assistant. And Baverstock and other industry insiders swear that just finding a job in the department you would like to work in for the long term, in my case editorial, is a great way to begin. Most people change jobs and/or positions relatively frequently in publishing anyway.

Needless to say the first interview didn't go as well as I had anticipated. First there was the editorial test, then there were all these touchy feely personal/professional questions, then there was the awkward and brutal salary disclosure, and finally, I discovered that I'd have to return for a 2nd round interview if I made it onto the short list. (You can read about my experience at the first publishing house, "Botching the Interview," here: I wasn't very poker-facey at this interview, and I did a poor job, I think, of hiding my disappointment about the low, low salary and need for another interview. I had already paid out of pocket to fly to said distant city, stay in a hotel, and take a taxi to the publishers. Having to do it again didn't bode well for my pocketbook, esp. considering the salary and lack of moving assistance. They also wanted someone who could start right away.

Another thing that bothered me was the spatial layout of the place and the gender dynamic. The publishing "house" actually looked like a bleak newsroom, with desks manned by women placed close together in the middle of a large, central room surrounded on the left and right by larger enclosed offices, nearly all of which contained important looking men. The lack of women in key positions made me feel slightly icky.

After some soul searching, I withdrew my name from the search and cancelled my upcoming interview with the 2nd publisher, who had already emailed me to ask if a max salary of $22,000-$24,000 was going to be too low for me. As a 30 yr old with a Ph.D., tons of debt, a need to relocate asap, and a partner based elsewhere, too low it most certainly was.

Disappointment set in immediately. I knew I would like the job, and the industry, even if being an editorial assistant seemed super easy and meant more for a 22 yr old with a B.A. But if I had lived nearby and not needed to make a professional level salary due to my poor life choices, I would have accepted the position regardless just to get a feel for the publishing world. There is nothing better than real experience to confirm your assumptions. Instead I walked away, remained in the academic world, and am still looking for a meaningful career with a decent salary. I don't regret my decision or my experience but do wish things might have worked out better. And I really wish editors received higher salaries.  

Moral of the story: Know what you are getting into; do research; read about the publishing industry and know what department you'd most like to join. Spend a lot of time looking at job ads and exploring company websites.

Useful sites:

*There are, I'm sure, lots of fantastic entry-level publishing jobs out there that no doubt pay better starting salaries (like $35,000). However, being independently wealthy can't hurt; for this reason working in publishing feels dangerously close to working in academe.


Anonymous said...

I am in exactly the same situation as you were when you wrote this. I've had one interview with a publishing company who basically told me that I was overqualified for the entry-level positions but not experienced enough for higher level roles. So, yeah, not sure how possible this career is for me either.

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Anonymous said...

I just wanted to provide a positive story. I was in the same situation a few years ago. Feeling really confused without a career in academia and not sure where to go next, I did (miraculously!) manage to babble my way into a career in academic journals with one of the leading publishers. It was entry-level, but I worked hard and with a foot in the door, I managed to get a managing editor role within 7 months. Anyone with a PhD are in a good position for a career in academic publishing, particularly in editorial. Those with a PhD understand the needs of academic editors and this is invaluable. I guess my advice to anyone who is feeling as lost and disheartened as I was, is to frown at the entry level pay, but take it anyway (if you can afford it). Once in the door, it becomes very apparent that you have the dedication and skill to move quickly to higher roles.

I do want to note however, that like this author, I was too saddened to see an open plan of woman workers typing endlessly, as Male directors sat in their glass-door offices.

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