(titled with apologies to Karen Elizabeth Gordon)
Spring: that magical time of year when a young graduate’s mind turns to gainful employment. And if you’re of a bookish bent, that means hustling hard to become an entry-level cog in the publishing machine.
Now, because I’m an adult—somehow??—I find myself in the position of getting a flood of requests for informational interviews come April/May-ish, and while I sincerely wish I could take every last starry-eyed hopeful out for a cappuccino and a hearty dose of advice, the fact is that if I did that for everyone I’d die of caffeine-related palpitations in, like, two days.
So instead I am putting together this guide of best practices, FAQs, and other Hot Tipz on How To Begin To Live The Dream. Please bear in mind that I have gotten exactly one (1) job in publishing myself, and that your mileage may vary, one size does not fit all, and no two publishers are alike. Anyway, onward.
Ignore most or all of what your college career center told you because everyone there was FULL OF LIES. I’m sure “I am writing to express my sincere interest in obtaining a position at your company” might fly if you want to work for Worldwide Widgets Incorporated, but in publishing, we want you to sound like a human being, please.
If you are taken on as an assistant, your job will involve writing. Catalog copy, pitch letters, blog posts, whatever: you’ll write it. A lot of it. Your cover letter is your first chance to show that you understand how to sound snappy, succinct, and smart, so don’t squander it. No verbiage. No corp-speak. No posturing. Just write like you talk when you’re sounding your sharpest.
(How do you write good copy? The rule of threes. Also alliteration. Occasionally and unexpectedly breaking out with a multisyllabic turn of phrase. It can’t be taught, or if it can, I can’t teach you; I’m still learning, anyway. Just know that you oughta sound good. The end.)
Also, I personally don’t mind if the cover letter is in the body of the email. I DO mind if you attach it in some weird format, like a Pages document or an RTF file. (Might as well be a WTF file, amirite?! Tip your waitresses!!)
It’s Not About You
In your cover letter, I do not want to hear what a great opportunity this is FOR YOU. I know that; it’s an entry-level job in publishing! Those things are harder to get than solid-gold Hamilton tickets! What a publisher wants to know is: what are YOU, O well-read greenhorn, going to do FOR US? Why is hiring YOU AND YOU IN PARTICULAR a great opportunity FOR THIS PUBLISHER? Chew on that, then spit out a good answer.
A good editor, like a good writer, must avoid cliché. Therefore I counsel you, O nascent book person, to avoid remarking on your “passion” for reading/books/libraries/cuneiform tablets/ancient papyrus scrolls/however the kids are getting their stories today. It truly goes without saying that you love books. We all love books; that’s why we do this wacky thing we call publishing. Furthermore, loving books does not make you stand out as an applicant. Bookishness is not a unique qualification for the job; it’s a sine qua non.
If you must, must, must work your passion for books in there somewhere, at least find a new and different way to do it. “I love books so much I am legally married to a First Folio of the Plays of William Shakespeare” or “I once stabbed a man in the neck because he cut the line at the library.”
Show That You Know
(That RHYMES. I’m on a roll.) Whether applying to an imprint, agency, indie publisher, or big corporate whoever, show that you know know what kind of books they publish. Better yet, show that you understand them. Look, I know that you are fervently desperate to break into this industry and would happily take a job at any publisher that would take you, and that is A-OK. But they’re only going to give that chance to people who get THEIR SPECIFIC BRAND. So mention their books. Not just the A-list titles, but the backlist. What makes them different in this big ol’ sea of titles? Talk about that, briefly.
The Usual Politeness Stuff
Let me channel my dad for a moment: be on time, answer promptly, and if you’re fortunate enough to get an interview, send a thank-you note (handwritten preferred). I don’t care if it’s old fashioned or if you don’t even own stationery! GO BUY SOME!
Also, proofread, proofread, proofread. You do not want any typos in there; you DEFINITELY do not want the name of the position (or—heaven forfend—of the PUBLISHER) to be incorrect. Emailing yourself a test application and re-reading it is not too crazy.
Your major doesn’t matter. Kind of. I mean, if you majored in physics or computer science, you have no business applying to a publishing job because you can make orders of magnitude more money coding up some softwares (I believe that’s the technical term. Hush.). An English degree is fine. But so is a degree in History or Political Science or Psychology or—horresco referens—Medieval Studies. Did you make up your own major? Cool! Went to one of those weird schools where they make you read Plato and clean out chicken coops? Whatever! What matters more is: can you write? Can you read intelligently and with discernment? Bingo.
Subquestion: do you need to get a degree in publishing after your undergrad work? No. I’m not even sure what they teach there (Cardigan-Wearing 101?), but no entry-level position requires an advanced degree. You’ll learn on the job! School of Life and Hard Knocks and Occasional Papercuts! There are a few short-duration publishing courses (usually over the summer) that will give you a shortcut to a network of people who are hiring, but those are also wholly optional (and expensive), so don’t feel bad if you can’t do one.
The end (or is it? I might have to update this when I remember I know more stuff than I think I do). Good luck and don’t worry; you’re all going to be fine.
This is great advice except when you write that “your major doesn’t matter.” It depends on the publishing company. I’m a medical writer and editor. If I didbn’t have majors in biology/ biochemistry it would be difficult to do my job. Degrees that include writing and editing such as journalism or technical communication add value as well. I look for these things when I am hiring others.
A good point. I’m totally preaching from my (fiction) trade publishing pulpit. Obviously there is need for specialized degrees elsewhere! As a congenital hypochondriac, I definitely want well-informed folks editing the textbooks that educate tomorrow’s doctors.