One of the biggest underlying publishing assumptions is that you have to be a ‘certain’ type of person to make a career in the industry - bookish, introverted, creative.
I’m here to tell you that’s not true.
Firstly, there isn’t one way to be any of those things, and while a love of books and reading is a pretty obvious and important interest, we all manifest our interests differently; we have different tastes and different ways of expressing our love. Secondly, there are all types of people working in the industry (yes, even really extroverted ones!). It took me years to figure this out and, to an extent, I’m still learning that there is no such thing as one homogenised “publishing person”, particularly in the increasingly fluid 21st-century book trade.
Consider the increase in non-mainstream imprints like Heartdrum by HarperCollins Children’s or Rick Riordan Presents from Disney-Hyperion; independent publishers like Europa Editions or Knights Of; small presses like Black Lawrence Press or Tin House books. Consider how the barriers between books and other entertainment sectors seem to be eroding with the rise of celebrity-led imprints like #Merky Books (Stormzy) or SJP by Hogarth (Sarah Jessica Parker). The modern publishing landscape is expanding and if it is to find its bearings and identity in a rapidly evolving world, it needs an equally diverse workforce that can bring new perspectives and experiences. Having a non-traditional background and interests is a huge asset in these circumstances.
I’m an extroverted introvert who loves her bookish solitude but equally loves being packed in a pub at odd times of the day to support the football team that has occupied so much of her existence for the past 17 years and spawned an unexpected side-path as a football writer and editor. I read widely and indiscriminately - a sucker for any good story - and can’t pick a preferred genre.
Whether during my time at Edge Hill University for my BA (Creative Writing and Media Studies) and MA (Creative Writing) or my more recent MA (Publishing and Writing) at Emerson College in Boston, or the time in between when I freelanced back home in Mumbai or lived and taught in Spain, I have always struggled with describing this multifaceted identity; describing, in short, where I fit in, because it feels like I have these tiny roots of belonging in multiple places and with multiple people, and the more I try to explain, the more complicated it feels.
I was always told that specificity is what would help me break into publishing, and while part of it is certainly true (particularly for editorial or as a literary agent), I’ve landed internships and jobs because I could showcase a passion for the company’s publishing mission and link that to specific titles they published. This isn’t to say that specificity or having a set path is a bad thing - just that whether you have it or not isn’t the only thing that determines if you’re a good fit to work in publishing.
During my publicity and marketing internship at Candlewick Press, I was with my department at one of the “coffee chats” they organise when each of my colleagues talked about their publishing journey. Apart from a shared love for books and wanting to work in publishing, their stories were varied, their journeys unique. It was probably the first time I really considered that there are many paths into and within publishing, and stopped worrying about whether the industry would have a place for me with my unconventional, multi-pronged path and experiences - which brings me to my next two points.
Today, it is not uncommon to outsource a large proportion of what was previously managed in-house to publishing companies and independent freelancers, whether in editorial (particularly copyediting and proofreading), production, design, or even publicity. It is also not uncommon for many full-time roles to be at least partially remote. It means that your publishing “journey” doesn’t necessarily “start” with your first in-house publishing job - there are many different ways to work in publishing now (this includes the full-time in-house roles, if that is what you want, but also remote, freelance, and contract positions) and new roles (social media, for example) that cater to more diverse perspectives, as well as other positions you don’t really hear about where being different is an advantage (metadata, rights and permissions, communications).
When I wrote my statement of purpose for Emerson’s application, I framed my freelance work experience as a step to that coveted future full-time position. I didn’t realise then that I already had many of the skills I would need, even if not all the knowledge I sought. Yes, you need specialised expertise and experience for whatever position you occupy, but much of the core publishing skillset is common - transferable qualities like good, clear writing skills, diplomatic communication, organisation, a certain creativity, attention to detail, awareness of the often-times unwieldy publishing chain, the ability to adapt and think on your feet - and no publishing professional has the luxury of just one, narrow responsibility (say, an editor just editing), especially at a smaller or mid-sized independent publisher.
I discovered this advantage of versatility during my David Godine internship. I was involved in a permissions project for one of their upcoming titles (with guidance from the publisher), and after the internship, they hired me as a freelancer to complete it. Working on that project, with no prior experience of rights, taught me a lot about the number of hats a publisher has to wear, but it also dispelled any lingering doubts I had about experience. Sometimes, coming from a non-traditional background has you better prepared for adapting to an often shifting environment. Like right now, when I’m working from home in a publishing job only a few weeks old in the midst of the pandemic, meaning that I immediately started working virtually with my colleagues, and have been challenged and tested in a variety of ways nobody had expected.
Today, you also need a strong foundation of basic digital skills and knowledge to survive in publishing, whether knowing your way around the backend of a website or blog, a working knowledge of applications like InDesign and Photoshop, platforms like Netgalley and Scribd, or newer consumption channels like Instagram Live, Snapchat and TikTok. These are some of the biggest and most important transferable skills of them all. I started a “Bookstagram” account a few years ago as a place to collect my thoughts about books and writing, but even something as casual or simple as that has taught me more about audience and content than I would have expected and I’ve been able to successfully apply that to promo outreach I’ve done for titles.
Even though print is here to stay, the packaging and production of it, the marketing of it, has undergone huge changes. Digital, audio, and multimedia storytelling are fast becoming their own formats, with new distribution and consumption channels, and you need an ability to think beyond the page. You need an awareness of the global market, about consumer trends and patterns, as well as the ability to make the most of the opportunities this changed world opens up, such as demands for more variety in content and voices, more hybrid forms of art. This calls for diversity, whether in skills, background, culture, experiences, or perspective, in a way it never did before; this calls for people who might not consider themselves “publishing people” but are actually the perfect fit.
It’s still hard to break into the industry. There are still systems making it too easy to feel like an outsider. But things are changing. There is a sense of possibility to modern-day publishing that is both freeing and a little scary, but mostly exciting - and versatility, a unique point of view, is much more welcome (and essential) than you think. So, go ahead and apply to that job. You might be surprised at just how much of a “publishing person” you really are.