Working in Publishing

Hope Smith | November 2001


“Publication is to thinking as childbirth is to the first kiss.”
—Friedrich Von Schlegel

It seems natural that writers play a part in publishing. Without writers, publishing wouldn’t exist & without publishers, how would we reach our readers? In many ways, publishing is the perfect place for us. We take great pleasure in the use of language & the process of telling; we are connoisseurs of sound & style, we know who reads & what they’re reading, & we have been trained to think carefully about books. & let’s face it, how many writers can survive solely by publishing their work? By working in publishing, we can profit from our expertise & get the basics (food, shelter, clothes) so that we can pursue our own writing.

“The fact that we are writers,” says Sarah Gorham, President/Editor-in-Chief of Sarab&e Books, “makes for better proofreading, editing, & composing of marketing materials & grant applications. We know books, we know the kind of people who read them, & we know what kinds of books will catch the eyes of potential readers. Many of us (writers, that is) are already a part of the greater world of publishing: We judge contests, submit our work, run our own websites that showcase writing talent, & work at literary journals, among other things. But these are the things many of us do after work. So, how do we turn any of these into a career? What are our options? What are we committing ourselves to? Most of my experience has been in academic publishing (journals & books). What follows is what I’ve learned since I first began to work in the business of publishing.

When I first applied for an internship with the Indiana University Press as a college senior, I didn’t think I’d be in this for the long haul. But as a poet, I find that working in publishing keeps me grounded; I know what to expect when I’m published, & I know that getting published is as much about business as it is about my work. Since that internship, I have worked for an academic journal, edited a literary magazine, worked for a book publisher, & worked in various offices as editor, writer, & proofreader. Publishing can be a very stimulating & rewarding field with many opportunities, especially for a writer.

When you work at a publishing house, whether for books or periodicals, expect a dynamic workplace. All publishing operations rely strictly on a publication schedule that is dependent upon how often a book or magazine is published. Most book publishers have two or three seasons. All the work is interwoven: the production manager depends on the marketing department to produce cover copy; the marketing manager depends on the acquisitions editor to establish the importance of the book & who the audience is, so that the book finds its way to the right readers; & so on. All work must be completed on time or there can be severe consequences. At best, the publication will be delayed; at worst, printers can fine a publication thous&s of dollars for a rush job or for violating the agreed upon dates in a contract. But in between hectic times, there are usually short lulls. & summer at an academic journal can be downright boring.

Don’t expect to get rich in publishing. Most of us make an honest living. If you’re in it for the bucks, New York City, where most trade book publishers are located, is the place to be. However, I’ve heard that breaking into publishing in that town is difficult. You might want to get some basic experience elsewhere & then look for a job there. As with most industries, trade publishers usually pay the best. But that doesn’t mean they are the best places to work. Scholarly presses, small magazines, & independent publishers often publish work that is important & interesting but that larger presses cannot “justify” financially. There are many different subfields within publishing & each has its own salary ranges, many of which are dependent upon the usual things—the area you live in, the market, & so on. Look for local organizations of publishers or publishing for some guidance & to find out more about the publishing climate in your area.

One of the most rewarding things about working in publishing, whether you work with books or journals or magazines, is that you work with people who read, people who appreciate good writing. My colleagues have shelves full of books at home. They appreciate the art of making a beautiful book. What could be more stimulating for a writer than to be surrounded by books & people who appreciate them? As a poet, I find it invigorating to be surrounded by all kinds of words—ones I wouldn’t come across in my own reading. Because I read manuscripts & proofs in areas as varied as bioethics & linguistics every day, I am exposed to new words & ideas. They make their way into my work or stimulate me to work on a new piece.

Writers are most often on the other side of the desk, sending work off into what feels like the great abyss. One advantage of working in publishing is that you know the system. “I know what to expect & what not to expect from my own publisher in terms of pricing, schedules, marketing, & so on,” says Chris Quigley, author of four nonfiction books about death, & Business Manager at Georgetown University Press. You know that when your editor or the production manager reminds you that those proofs are due back on Monday, she’s not harassing you; she’s just doing her job. Another advantage is that you know how much work goes into making your book. “Working for a publisher grounded me into the realities of the business & prevented me from having wild expectations that new authors sometimes do (for instance, about having copies of their books on the shelves of all local bookstores),” says Quigley. In fact, you learn how to look at a book to see how well-crafted it is.

University Presses

Book publishers can be divided into several categories: trade—corporate for-profit houses that publish books for all kinds of people, usually on a wide variety of subjects; academic or scholarly—nonprofit houses that publish books for scholars, researchers, & university educators, along with regional titles & the occasional trade book; textbook—houses that publish only textbooks; & specialty—houses that publish one or two kinds of books, say, poetry or computer manuals. These days most book publishing (& all media, really) is owned by a select few. This is unfortunate & a reason why finding a small independent book publisher or working for an academic press is important to many people—including me.

It’s easy to imagine that working at a university press might be similar to working on Saturday Night Live’s version of NPR. But, like NPR, in the last ten years the university press world has changed. Aside from the larger presses (such as University of California Press or Johns Hopkins University Press), university presses primarily publish scholarly monographs (i.e., dense, specialized studies), journals, & regional titles. However, those larger presses have added some less scholarly (though no less smart) books to their lists to widen their audience. Says Temple University Press’s Editor-in-Chief/Assistant Director Janet M. Francendese:

Unlike some university press editors, I feel no nostalgia for the days when we published primarily for academic libraries & sales were predictable. Today’s market is more volatile, but in doing text & trade titles, we now reach many more readers. & we get an unprecedented number of spirited responses from diverse audiences & reviewers.

For most of my career I have worked at university presses. They are interesting & exciting places to work. Since most university presses focus on academic books, the books are smart & the authors knowledgeable. The difference between academic presses/other nonprofit publishers & large publishing houses is apparent when you are in a major bookstore, perhaps any bookstore at all. Large companies have more resources to market books & produce splashy four-color covers. However university presses publish books of great merit that commercial publishers would often not consider. Left to the commercial world, many books that have become essential to scholarship in different fields, as well as books of poetry & literature, may not have been published. As writers living & working in a culture that emphasizes the bottom line, this should concern us.

Since most university presses are located on university campuses & press employees are considered employees of the university, university press employees can take advantage of campus life—take books out of the university library, participate in campus activities, & the like. For writers, library privileges at a university library is particularly useful; with access to books a public library would not own, research can be much more thorough.

Up to this point, I have mainly talked about book publishing. Although it is the most visible sector of publishing, it is only a fraction of the publishing world. Corporate & nonprofit sectors have publishing opportunities for newsletters, trade magazines, popular magazines, academic or specialized journals, textbooks (itself a specialization), websites, books, specialty publications, & more—something new pops up all the time. At each of those organizations there are dozens of different kinds of jobs available. When looking for a job, the most important thing is to be flexible. Most skills transfer fairly easily between organizations, so if you don’t end up where you want, you can build up enough experience to win them over the next time you apply.

Breaking In

Nearly everyone I’ve talked to, from my bosses to the directors of university presses, began work in publishing at the very bottom of the totem pole. These positions are often followed by the word “assistant” & can range from mostly administrative work to some administrative work alongside more important responsibilities. Don’t let this deter you, however. The time I’ve spent at the bottom of the totem pole has let me observe a lot about the business that I may not have been able to do otherwise.

Publishing is a profession that requires specific skills & knowledge. Without specific previous experience, it’s difficult to jump right into acquiring book manuscripts, copyediting, doing layout, or designing book jackets. A job that maybe isn’t as glamorous as working for Knopf would be—say, working on the layout of a four-color magazine for the National Orthotics & Prosthetics Association—will, nevertheless, give you the skills necessary to design four-color book jackets at Knopf. If you would like to gain skills quickly, look into publishing courses offered by universities & small companies, usually in copyediting or design. These courses are helpful, & it may be worth your time to take one or two. But keep in mind that most publishers, especially when it comes to editing & design, will want you to have some experience in addition to the courses.

Career Options

To begin with, you might find it easier to find a job in an office that is not a publishing house. Here, you could work on company newsletters, help write advertising copy, layout various publications, proofread their website, or more. This kind of a job will give you the skills to move into book publishing or to a literary review. How do you know what kind of publishing is right for you? I’d say, try a couple of places until you find the right fit. In general, popular magazines & periodicals that come out monthly or more often will be the most bustling places to work. For-profit magazines are driven almost entirely by advertising revenue, so this can be a stressful environment if the revenue is not high. Book publishing is driven by season—usually fall & spring, sometimes summer or winter as well—& is generally busy in waves with some lulls in between. Scholarly journals are busier during the academic year or for shorter periods of time, as are literary magazines. With all this in mind, explore the various ways in which you might contribute to publishing.


If you work for a periodical, your office depends on the nature of the publication—whether it is a popular magazine, academic journal, or literary magazine; whether it features advertising or not; & whether the periodical is four-color, all text, or somewhere in-between. Here is a list of the different possible jobs, what you might do in each position, & what kinds of periodicals would offer these positions.

  • Marketing & Advertising: For any for-profit periodical, advertising is key. Look at the masthead of any major magazine & you will notice that the number of people working to secure advertisements is at least equal to those in any other department, if not larger. If you like to sell, this is the place for you. For limited-audience or specialty publications (e.g., academic journals or trade magazines), not a lot of resources are invested in marketing, especially if no ads are run in the publication.
  • Copyediting: These days, few copyeditors work in-house at periodicals; instead, many periodicals use freelancers. They work on the language of an article to make sure there are no mistakes (grammatical or factual), make it consistent, & ensure that it conforms to the magazine’s editorial style.
  • Design: Designers can make or break a publication in the for-profit world. Next time you’re at a newsst&, look at the differences between Architectural Digest & Publisher’s Weekly. Designers work with marketers to create the look that marketers think will attract buyers. Many designers have art degrees & training in computer design/graphics.
  • Production: People who work in the production department monitor & determine the physical results of the magazine/journal. They work with the typesetters & designers to layout the text & images, & they work with printers directly to ensure high-quality work. Those who work in production often also monitor the editorial aspect of the manuscript—copyediting, formatting, & contacting authors.


Book publishing requires the skills of marketers, designers, production managers, editors, those who run the day-to-day business, & others, to make sure that the book is available to readers. In most publishing houses, there are a few key departments. Note, however, that not every company will use the same term for the same job.

  • Acquisitions: The job of acquisitions editors is to seek out books to publish in assigned fields. Usually they are given a set number of books that they must acquire per year. They consider a book from all angles: Is it well-written? Will it sell? Will the author be able to complete the book on time? Can we afford the author’s usual advance? They may also direct developmental editing, should their press use this process. Many editors also have assistants, especially at larger publishing houses.
  • Editorial & Production: The goal of this group of people is to produce the physical book. They include copyeditors, proofreaders, designers, & typesetters. Each of these specialists works with the other to create the product that the marketing & acquisitions have decided will sell, conducting quality control at every stage. Production receives the manuscript & works with it until there is a book in their h&s, which can take from six months (for camera-ready books, books that need no copyediting or layout) to over a year (for books that need to go through the full process).
  • Copyeditors & Proofreaders: It takes very specific skills to copyedit. You must know the rules of the style manual you’ve been asked to follow (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Style) & be able to follow them; know the rules of English grammar; be able to thoroughly underst& the subject (e.g., if you worked at JAMA, you would have to know about medicine); & have patience, among many other things. The best copyeditors do not alter the writer’s meaning or style. Instead they make the piece clearer & ensure that it conforms to the house style. Proofreaders are checkers. They compare the proofs of the manuscript with the clean edited copy to make sure that no text is missing & that everything is correct. The more electronic publishing becomes, the more proofreaders become necessary.
  • Marketing: Their job begins after the book is manufactured. To work in marketing, experience in a bookstore can be as important as an editing class. Any kind of selling requires ingenuity. People in marketing are constantly wracking their brains trying to figure out who would read a given book & how to reach the market for it. They also try to catch the media’s attention at all times. From publicists to exhibit managers & envelope-stuffers, marketing is full of action.

The publishing business welcomes writers, & they should. We have a lot to offer a business that profits from good writing. Likewise, we can learn a lot by being a part of that world—which is about writing itself & the business of writing. But like writing, working in publishing requires skill & practice. Master the skills that are required in your field to give yourself as many opportunities as possible.


From the November 2001 issue of AWP Job List. © 2004 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.

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