Ask Daphne! About College & The Publishing Industry

June 17th, 2013 • Kate

booksbooksbooksI’ll admit, I got this question some time ago, but it’s somewhat timeless, I hope. Callie writes:

I’m a junior in high school who is quickly moving towards senior year, college, and beyond. I’ve been interested in publishing and the industry as a whole since grade school. You’re basically my idol in the world of publishing, and I was wondering if you might be able to help me by answering some questions that I’ve had for a while.

What did you study in college (and what did you intend on doing with your degree once out of college)? Do you feel that what you studied is relevant to what you do on a daily basis? What do you think would be the most prudent thing to study before going into the publishing industry (English, Business, Underwater Basket Weaving, etc.)? I know that being an English (or Creative Writing) major is a dangerous thing to do without any clear goals of what to do after college. Did you always want to be the amazing shoe-collecting agent that you are, or did you hop around before settling in the publishing industry and then as an agent (and how did you get interested/into the publishing industry in the first place)?

If you can answer any (or all! or even one!) of my questions, I will be thankful to the moon and back. My entire knowledge of the publishing industry comes from the novel The School Story by Andrew Clements, everything I’ve ever read from your blog (which is a wealth of knowledge unto itself), and the various things that are found around the internet. I’m trying to get a feel for the industry, and you are the most knowledgeable entity that I know of in publishing.

First of all, Callie, thanks! I’m blushing! I’ve talked about this a few times before, but rather than just posting links, I figured I’d excerpt some of my previous answers.

From an old post back when KT Literary was barely a month old, I was asked if I have any advice for recent college grads wanting to break into the publishing industry, and I replied:

Way back in the world before email and the internets (or so it seems), I returned from several months abroad in London with a commitment to get a job in publishing. Over the next few months, I polished my resume and sent it off to every entry level publishing position posted in the New York Times Classified. I didn’t know WHAT I wanted to do in publishing, but I knew that was where I wanted to be. I interviewed for jobs as a publicity assistant, a marketing assistant, an editorial assistant, and many more, before finally landing what turned out to be an ideal position as a rights assistant.

Now, the world has changed, but there’s still job listings out there. Check the Times, of course, but also scour MediaBistro and Publishers Marketplace, both of which routinely list job openings.

[..Y]ou should also be willing to start at the very bottom of the totem pole. You may think your … experience might bump you up to Editorial Associate, but don’t count on that. Your experience should put your resume on the top of a pile of other hopefuls, and then you still have to wow them in an interview.

And remember to be flexible. I had no idea what subsidiary rights were before I interviewed for a job in a rights department, but I found it to be a fantastic opportunity to work with every aspect of a publishing company. If you’re willing, try branching out — editorial assistant jobs are the most sought after, but if you have skills that can be brought to bear to work in sales, marketing, or production, go for it! At most big publishing houses, once you’re in, you’ll have access to interior job postings before they get listed externally, so you may have a better shot at that editorial assistant position that opens up a year after you’ve been there.

A little more recently, (but still four years ago!) someone asked about what classes to take, and specifically “1. Is it necessary for me to have taken a business class in high school? and 2. What courses would be beneficial to me in college, besides English?” My response:

English is hugely helpful, of course, but so would be any classes you can find in critical thinking. If you ever think you may end up on your own, business classes would help, as would accounting classes. But the best basis for agenting is really just experience. Take whatever classes interest you in college, and after you graduate, seek out a publishing house or agency where you can start at the bottom and learn everything you can. Consider it an apprenticeship.

New York may be the epicenter of the publishing industry, but times are changing, and there are more centers of literary-minded folk now than ever before. You might try San Francisco, Denver, or even Austin! Keep your mind open, keep reading, and keep thinking about what you read.

Then, of course, on the more general topic of majors, and college courses of study, I once said this:

I’ve had a couple of questions lately about education and career paths, and what to study or do to make your way into publishing, and, specifically, towards being a literary agent. Now, knowing that I’m not an officially licensed guidance counselor, here’s a few thoughts.

The first thing to do is read everything you can get your hands on, but that’s just good advice for everybody. Yes, I was an English major in college (a double major, actually, along with history), but I know people from every course of study who’ve found their way into publishing. It helps to be able to read critically, but business majors will always be needed to actually RUN the publishing house — same with marketing majors, who can get the books into readers’ attention, sales people to get the books into readers’ hands, and designers and artists to make the book pretty.

Basically, there’s no one course towards working in publishing. Yes, there are a lot of English majors, but if you polled a bunch of people at most major corporations, I think you’d find a good number of English majors there, too. We’re everywhere! Look, under that hydrangea bush! It’s another English major!

One reader asked me to help her decide between an English degree and social work, but you can read any course of study for “social work.” You have to go where your drive is, and if your drive leads you towards helping people — hoorah! The world needs more people like you. Books will always be there for you.

Also, here’s a secret about the working world after college: you can change your mind. You HAVE to pick a major to get through college, but if you study a range of subjects towards that one major, you’ll graduate a well-rounded individual with lots of possibilities in front of you. Try social work for a few years, or sales, and if that’s not where your passion is, keep searching. Lots of people come to publishing from different works of life.

Ad for being a literary agent, once you’ve decided publishing is the business for you, (and you’re still reading critically), try interning, or do what I did, and answer every ad in the classifieds that leads you towards agentry. Just know that it’s not always a straight shot.

We agents — we like to meander.

And for the most part, I still agree with this years-old posts! Times have changed, certainly, and if you’re still four or more years away from graduating and getting into publishing, I’m sure they’ll continue to change, but I hope this helps you get off on the right foot. Let me know how it goes, and maybe we’ll work together on a book someday!

For my readers — any other advice you’d give Callie?

Photo above by Flickr user andhong09. Used under a Creative Commons license.
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2 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About College & The Publishing Industry”

  1. Kelsey Says:

    As a recent college graduate who always knew I wanted to go into publishing I would emphasize not necessarily any particular course of study, but rather internships and practical experience in the industry, as well as really reading what's out there and popular in the field you want to go into. I've had a focus on YA, and middle grade titles, and so I read widely in each category. If literary fiction is your thing, know the authors, know the editors, know the agents. Be aware of how the industry works, or work hard to learn how it works. Also passion helps.

    I also think an English or Creative Writing major might be good -to hone critical reading and writing skills, and if you think you'd actually enjoy them- but ultimately the major isn't super important. Having the skills and knowledge you need for the position is important.

    Also at my school I was able to take night courses taught by publishing professionals that helped give me contacts and more business-y skills.

    Good luck!!

  2. Mara Rae Says:

    Kelsey and Daphne already said it, but INTERNSHIPS! I was an Anthropology major in college and have a Masters in Cultural and Critical Studies, but it wasn't until I went to a writer's conference, walked up to one of the agents, and asked if he needed a reader that I really got to know the industry (I was already working in book distribution, but since I was no longer in school, it was too late for me to be an intern). So since you already know what you want to do, get the internships now, while you can, and start making those connections! It doesn't matter what your degree is in if you have experience. 🙂