Book Publishing: An Alternative to Academe?

Hugh Howard | February 1980

So you've thought about trying to get into book publishing. You think it might allow you to remain close to the Written Word, yet pay your rent and bar bills. You expect your graduate degree in lit will be of some worth in a profession where, it would seem, there's a premium on literacy. You anticipate meeting and mingling with writers. Perhaps you even hope to get an opportunity to do some writing yourself.

Well, all these things can happen. A career in publishing (be it of long or short duration) can be very exciting and satisfying, and a quite sensible alternative to life in the Ivory Tower. But go in with your eyes open.

To begin with, and don't be insulted by this since many well-educated people seem blithely unaware of it, publishers are not printers. Publishers are middlemen. They buy product. (Sound crass? Get used to it.) They package it. They promote it. If they are very, very lucky: they actually sell enough copies to earn back what they've spent.

Within the last decade or so, publishing has entered the modern era. Conglomerates own virtually all the major trade publishers (purveyors of "trade" books sell volumes of general interest, as opposed to textbooks). They operate on the principle of buy big and sell big. Satisfying as the discovery of a literary novelist who gets good reviews may be, it doesn't talk the language that is spoken by the denizens of Bottom Line Land.

Such broad generalizations aside, let's confront some other realities. For one thing, publishing is not generally a lucrative endeavor. Unlike Wall Street lawyers, the starting salary is not $30,000, but more like a third of that sum. The top people in the business can and do make respectable salaries, but for the most part the remuneration is low. Go work for Exxon if you want the big dollars. Publishing is a business, a trade, and the skills peculiar to it have to be learned, so don't expect to start at anything other than an entry-level position. Extolling the virtues of great literature stands rather low in the hierarchy of necessary talents, far below such diverse abilities as copywriting; an instinct for what's going to be a hot subject (remember, lead time for a book can often be several years, and that's a noseful of prognostication); a knack for convincing people something will sell; even knowing how to make people think you're smart (not demonstrating how much you know, mind you, but by thinking quickly on your feet).

You'll do well to forget whatever classroom airs you've acquired, and abandon the impressive sequence of letters that you sometimes let follow your name. Publishing still has about it the aura of a medieval guild, in that an "editorial assistant" tacitly accepts the notion that he must serve an apprenticeship. (Editorial assistant translates as secretary.) Apprenticeship means a term that can be as short as a few months, or as long as years.

Is it a disadvantage to be a PhD? Or a writer? Or to have illusions about forwarding the cause of literature? Let me phrase it this way: would you wear your varsity letter sweater to an interview? A graduate degree in Japanese literature is just about as relevant. Mention your accomplishments on your resume, but don't expect anyone to be awed by them.

While it is not true that publishers want only wide-eyed twenty-two year olds, even the most adventurous employers are not interested in hiring someone who will grow instantly dissatisfied. They want someone with a certain youthful energy. Someone who will work long hours without thinking overtime pay is in order (it's been discouraged every place I have worked). They want, at one and the same time, someone they can mold, yet someone who can genuinely help them. They want the most sophisticated of secretaries but someone who, finally, really wants the boss's job.

Can you type? If the answer is no you'd better learn or take that job with Fuller Brush.

Do you really want to be an editor? Or would you enjoy being in publicity or even sales? I can hear the tsk-tsk-ing now, but wait a minute. An editor's life is not devoted solely to editing The World According to Garp, you know. Most of it is mysteriously consumed with details. At other sorts of jobs there's a greater emphasis on dealing with people and with numbers. Both can be fun.

On to some pragmatic considerations- like the how, where, and when of getting a publishing job.

Come to New York. I don't have the figures in hand, but a fair estimate would seem to be that better than 75% of the publishing dollars and personnel are to be found in New York. You don't necessarily have to stay here for your entire career, but it is the best and easiest place to start.

The how, once you get here, is: use your contacts. If your Uncle Lou once mentioned a college friend who had an affair with some publishing person, trace the connection down. A lead is a lead and any kind of personal contact you can establish is to your advantage. The business is small. It is closely knit. Nothing really significant happens without most everyone knowing. A lot of little things get around, too. So talk to that old flame or lover - he or she may just remember your name at just the right moment and you may fall into a job. The turnover is rapid, so the opportunities are frequent, although there are lots of candidates for them.

Will a publishing course help? Yes and no. They cost money. Can you spare it? They can teach you the language of publishing: "galleys," "subsidiary rights," and the like. They can introduce you to a circle of people, both in and trying to get into publishing. But, as the cliche runs, there is no substitute for experience.

Avoid personnel departments if you can. They are necessary in many cases - and don't ever be dismissive to a personnel person - but you ideally want to get right to the fount, to the people for whom you will be working. All the better if you can get there directly.

One way is to mail a resume to a specific person (especially someone you've met or a friend of a friend), then follow up with a phone call. This is particularly effective if you are not a name totally out of the blue. Sometimes it will work even if you don't know the person in question. At the worst, he or she will throw your resume away. At best, an appointment will result.

Be familiar with the basic tools of the business: Publishers Weekly (PW) and the Literary Market Place (LMP) in particular. They will be useful. PW is the trade magazine with current news and information, even book reviews. The LMP is a reference work with names and addresses and a wealth of other general information.

Do you know what's on the best seller list? It never hurts to be able to talk intelligently about what is selling. At the very least, be able to tell an interviewer what you read last week and why you liked it (or didn't). One other hint: if the last author you read was Proust, keep it to yourself.

So you're a literate, energetic, attractive individual willing to work for a pittance. You're pragmatic, yet idealistic. Publishing may be for you. At the very worst, you may come to know some like-thinking people who share your enthusiasm for books.


Hugh Howard, former fiction editor for Putnam's now works for Time-Life Books.

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