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 scientifcally 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
Marketing and Publicity
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)
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.