How to Prep Yourself Now for a Book Publishing Job

by Brian O'Connor

Signs you were made to work in publishing: your love life revolves around your TBR pile, you read about correlation theories at the beach, and you've literally inked your passion for the written word on your skin permanently. When people say "do what you love," as cliché as it might be, your mind conjures up the pleasure of working on the long-awaited release from your favorite author, or finding a way to make the scent of a used book into a candle. You're destined.

For many, though, working in books seems like a pipe dream. Publishing can be a tough field to break into — but before you play the sad trombone, wait: it's far from impossible. With any in-demand field, the difference between making it and breaking in is all in the approach. There are many career tracks within publishing that are always on the hunt for talent; editorial, production, publicity, and marketing are just a few paths. A love for the written word, a healthy dose of ambition, and a small amount of good fortune can help the soon-to-be graduate and the entry-level bookworm pursue a career in books.

All you need to do is know the right steps to get you from voracious reader to publishing titan, and here's what you can start doing while you're still in school:

Decide on a path: Trade or Academic?

The first thing to learn about the publishing industry is the difference between trade versus academic. This is the split from which all other topics emerge, so, to start, you'll want to figure whether you're most interested in trade (books you usually read for fun — literary fiction, gripping non-fiction) or academic (the books you cite in papers, during masters theses, or within doctoral dissertations).

Both fields come with their own barriers to entry: trade can be a notoriously difficult field to break into due to its popularity, whereas academic requires keen scholarly know-how and a passion for education. These two disciplines can also be markedly different in how they work with material, how projects are brought in, and the overall trajectory your career takes past the entry-level stage. Here's a bit more on that.

Working in Trade

When people normally think of job in publishing, they think trade: books you see at Barnes and Noble, with authors who appear on The Daily Show , and who get blockbuster contracts. Trade publishing is decidedly commercial, where an editor is part wordsmith, part salesperson. Books are contracted (or "bought") based on their ability to sell copies, grab attention in the media, and get mass adoption. Sometimes even the best-written trade projects won't get attention unless they have the full package of marketability and sales potential. To render out the best parts of an author's platform and writing ability, trade houses employ staff who can develop and craft manuscripts hand-in-hand with their authors, in addition to publishing books with the intent for them to be big-sellers.

Trade publishing is super-hands-on: it involves intimate interactions with authors to improve their ideas and strengthen their writing. Sometimes, it even means changing a book to fit in with a flash-in-the-pan trend to bolster sales (vampires, anyone?). Trade publishing can also require a certain amount of business-savvy; contract bidding can be very intense between agents and other publishing houses. Promotion and upward mobility can also be a challenge within trade, as few upper editorial jobs open frequently. Ultimately, however, trade publishing comes with the bragging rights most people expect a book job to provide.

Plus, you get free books. All. Of. The. Time. Think I'm kidding? Google "Advance Reader's Copy." Seriously, they give them away.

Working in Academic

Did you love college? Kinda bummed it's (nearly) over not because of the parties, but the classes? Hello, academic publishing. Here, book-lovers can work on titles that speak to their esoteric passions — bringing them together with big-deal academics and general geniuses to publish insightful titles filled with original research and breakthrough ideas. Like their trade colleagues, academic publishers work closely with authors to craft insightful books. In academic, however, there is the added consideration of whether or not a book will make a significant impact on its field of study: if a new economic theory will have a place within the scholarly community, or if a new study of election law is scientifically sound. These publishing experts work with professors at universities around the world to bring research to life, publishing books for specific audiences that make waves in self-selecting circles of intellectual thought.

While perhaps not as glamorous as trade publishing (it's OK, guys!), academic publishing provides a home for intelligent lovers of the written word to continue learning daily, working directly with groundbreaking research and scholars. The educational component of the position also allows for a different criteria of publishability: not every work must be a mandated global success, so the importance of ideas take center stage over financial domination. Plus, the field is great for anyone looking to continue working within a field of study without necessarily going down a teaching or researching track (and is a great alternative for Masters or Doctoral students facing declining job opportunities in academia).

Where to land: editorial, production, sales, publicity, and marketing

A talented author and a gifted editor have a huge team behind them to make a book happen: There are small armies of production, sales, publicity, and marketing staffers all working together on tight deadlines so that books get published, publicized, and sold. So although editorial gets all the glory (and a hefty, hefty amount of résumés per opening), there are plenty of other departments to work in throughout the industry:


Editorial, admittedly, gets the lion's share of attention in the book world. Who wouldn't want to be an editor, swilling drinks with high-profile authors and discussing goings-on of the literati? There's lots more to it than that, though. Starting as an editorial assistant calls for a passion for paperwork (OK, that doesn't exist, but there's a lot of paperwork), diligent record-keeping, mastery of spreadsheets, and a knack for diplomacy. Assistants are at the front-lines of author care, diffusing tense situations as they arise while working with authors to submit clean, blemish-free manuscripts. The outlook gets rosier as you advance, though, working your way through the ranks as an editor until the bulk of your day is spent chatting with authors, agents, and talking about concepts and ideas in detail with people whose work you respect and want a hand in crafting. The best editors need a keen sense of time-management, multitasking, conflict resolution, negotiating skills, and a teflon shield against critique.


Those with a keen sense of style, design, and layout make great production editors. Aside from editorial, production departments have a strong working relationship with authors, working diligently to not only make their books publish, but to publish them on time (and make them look good, too!). Production editors are responsible for ensuring that manuscripts are edited, designed, proofread, and printed on schedule with minimal delays. Their work is vital to the book publication process, as they give life to the ideas posited by authors and their editors. Production is a great field for anyone who loves the actual printing and design behind books — critical thinkers and problem-solvers also thrive in this field as they manage multiple projects at once under intense deadlines.


Your book recommendations are impeccable. When people ask you for a suggestion, you can size up their tastes in a matter of seconds, pitching them the perfect read under any circumstance. You, my friend, are made for sales. Working within sales allows for the fun of securing new deals, travel, and is wonderful for anyone who wants to be an expert on a variety of book titles at once. The position calls for close communication with editorial, marketing, and publicity as you make books a success; sales jobs are highly collaborative and communicative. Plus, editors will always be nice to you, because you're the one that makes their projects successful in the long run!

Marketing and Publicity

Alongside editorial, book marketing and publicity jobs are a hot commodity. Publicists get to work directly with authors and agencies, pitching books to relevant outlets and building ties with review websites, media outlets, and the literary scene at-large. Publicists and marketers also get to show off their writing prowess through press releases, media kits, and catalogues — writing copy that highlights the strengths of an author, a book, or a publishing program within a press. Marketers typically attend subject- or genre-specific conferences to talk about a press' publications in the general sense, promoting their company as a home for excellent titles in whatever fields they publish. Publicists, however, attend industry conferences (such as BookExpo America) to highlight a season's hottest titles. Publicists also enjoy schmoozing with media outlets and prominent book reviewers. Both can be grueling jobs, as they manage the expectations of editorial and its authors, but can be a great outlet for personable, outgoing bibliophiles.


Since I'm just talking about jobs inside the walls of houses, there are two other paths in publishing I haven't mentioned: agenting and scouting (see, I told you there are ways to get into this industry). They're insanely important, and many books don't get made without them. I'll leave other experts to describe them to you at the links above, but learn about them and what they do, too, since they're also ways you can make books a career.

Get an Internship

Want to make it in this business? Put in some grunt work. Publishing needs bright go-getters who, above all else, won't say no to crappy assignments. You'll learn how many papercuts you can get from handling an unbound manuscript (hint: many), know the intimate nooks and crannies of a printer when it jams in spots you're pretty sure paper can't even fit into, and how to make the coffee (hint: strong, dark, and often). Internships are super-important, as this industry expects its editorial assistants to already have a sense of how the job is done before they start. This goes double for who're at schools in or near New York, Boston, or San Francisco.

The best internships (and the best interns) will find a way to get face-time with their bosses and other employees, learning the ins and outs of each department to determine what might interest them most about the business. Most major presses offer internship programs, while other, smaller presses may offer bespoke internship opportunities. Don't be afraid to check out BookJobs, MediaBistro, or Ed2010 for more information, as well as individual publishers' webpages. Hell, if you know your stuff, don't be afraid to reach out to editors unsolicited, either — just be sure you know books the press publishes and what they specialize in (and for the love of God, check for typos!).

Stay in School (No, Seriously)

Although internships are a great way to break into publishing, they're not the only way in. If you went to school outside a major city and didn't score an internship, or didn't initially consider a job in books and feel unprepared, you can gain industry experience by attending a Masters or certificate-level course in publishing. A few to look into: NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Pace University's Graduate Publishing Program, Columbia Publishing Course, and the University of Denver's Publishing Institute.

These programs offer hands-on, immersive intros to magazine, digital, and book publishing from all angles — and they'll get you face-to-face with experts. With flexible schedules and plenty of summer courses available, they're great options for students who might not otherwise have a chance to intern at a press. They also offer a temporary address in a major city — a crucial element for finding an entry-level job.

Follow your Dreams (to Another City)

Truth: the book world is in the Eastern U.S. With every Big Five publisher having HQs in New York (and a smattering having satellite offices on Boston and San Francisco), you're going to want to live in NYC. Although small presses do exist elsewhere, your options will be limited not only for entry-level positions, but for opportunities at other presses down the line, too. The nature of the industry is one of change — people switch presses often, move between companies, and pursue promotion by leaving for opportunities outside their own houses. You'll want to be here if you want to climb the ladder.

If moving sounds meh to you, investigate your options at nearby universities. Many schools have small to mid-size university presses that publish academic, nonfiction, and occasional fiction works. The scale of publishing at these presses will be far smaller than that of a bigger house, but who knows — maybe it's your ideal fit.

Network, Network, Network

The move issue is settled, the internship is in the books, and the publishing course has been completed. Now it's time to be social, flex your schmoozing muscles, and work on your connections. The book world is deceptively small, and knowing people within its walls is invaluable. Although book jobs are posted constantly, word within the industry always travels faster than these positions are made public, and like any industry, having personal referrals will always help your chances.

One of the best places to start your life as a networking ninja is Young to Publishing, an organization that connects like-minded people at the beginning of their publishing careers through reading events, cocktail parties, and other social gatherings. You don't have to be young to join — just young in your career. This is a great place to make a few connections, have a few drinks, and get to know other hungry young publishing professionals.

Don't be afraid to take an unconventional path

Careers, as in life, are not always straightforward. You might want a career as a fiction editor, but find yourself working on biology textbooks. But sometimes, all you need to do is find that one publishing opportunity to get you in the door, and make your own path from there. Even if you're not in your ideal spot right away, take the hand you're dealt, and figure things out along the way; where you begin in this industry is rarely where you end up, so don't be afraid to take risks so long as you work with a goal in sight.

One skill that trumps all: adaptability. Whether you find yourself working within a discipline or field that suits your liking or not, the same skills translate throughout all facets of the industry. An editor in trade non-fiction could easily apply her skills to a position in academic science, and vice-versa. The demands of the profession share more similarities than one might think, so it's often best to take what you can to begin your career, and stay flexible. But most of all, stay hungry.

Image: Giphy