What Working in Publishing Is Like: the Inside Look
Working in publishing is often listed as a dream job: what’s not to like about helping authors realize their vision and share their stories with the world? But what’s it actually like to have a publishing career? How do you get your foot in the door of this industry, and what new horizons are there for you to explore as you progress?
To try and answer these questions, we’ve sat down with some top industry professionals on Reedsy and put all the insights they shared into this post right here. Read on for an inside look at working in the publishing sphere, from entrance to progression, complete with some sweet tips for planning a solid career for yourself!
What does it mean to work in publishing?
Let’s begin first by looking at some roles that are unique to publishing that you might go into.
Job types: editorial, design, and marketing
Broadly speaking, publishing work can be divided into three branches: editorial, design, and marketing. Within each branch, there are several roles with varying responsibilities:
There are also specialized publishing professionals like ghostwriters, translators, and audiobook narrators who work on projects that require them. Outside of publishing houses, you have literary agents, who represent authors and connect them with acquiring editors.
A professional can also wear multiple hats throughout their career — freelancing is quite common in the publishing industry. Many editors, for instance, work on different types of editing within and without their in-house work. Ghostwriters often offer book coaching on the side, while many illustrators are open to interior and book cover design as well as illustrating.
Workplace: Big 5, small press, and freelance
Since we mentioned freelancing, we might as well take a deeper look into the types of workplace or employer you might have in publishing. You can work at Big 5 publishers, independent publishers, or you can freelance. Many professionals will have experience with all three through their career. Some differences between them are listed below.
What qualifications do you need to work in publishing?
So if you’re just starting out in publishing, what qualifications must be on your CV for you to get your foot in the door? Well, big publishing houses often favor those with at least a bachelor’s degree in relevant areas. (Note that the list below is not exhaustive.)
Now that we’ve given you an overview of possible paths, let’s get into the juicy stuff: what it’s really like to work as a publishing professional, as told by industry experts themselves. We’ll start out talking about traditional publishers, and then let you in on some secrets from the world of freelancing later in the post.
Starting out: the early years
Like many professions, publishing careers are known for their challenging beginnings — long hours and endless to-do lists for salaries that just about cover living costs are common as you start out. Here’s what a few professionals on Reedsy have to say about the difficulties of this early stage.
Getting your foot in the door
Being offered an entry-level position like an editorial assistant role is a challenge in and of itself, ghostwriter Alice Sullivan’s experience shows. At the beginning of her career, she worked hard to build CV in order to get her first editorial job:
“I sent out between 50-80 resumes after graduating college and got a few part-time jobs: I worked the night shift at the sports desk at the local paper, got a six-week gig at a children's publishing company, and wrote for a few home and garden magazines. Then, I was finally hired by a local publishing house as a freelancer; they brought me on as a full-time editorial assistant a few months later.”
Graduates wanting to go into designing and marketing may have an equally hard time, since demonstration of ability (e.g. graphic design skills, social media management) is a particularly important criterion. Being flexible about what job you go for, building a relevant resume, and persevering constitutes an essential strategy for those who are starting out.
But the hard work doesn’t stop there: getting that entry-level job doesn’t mean you’ll get to dive into your preferred line of work right away. Thriller and historical fiction editor Alyssa Matesic says that admin work will be your primary responsibility at first, and any work experience beyond that comes with active effort:
“You may have to be proactive and ask editors you work with if you can take a look at their submissions or at their in-progress manuscripts. Editors generally love having second sets of eyes and ears, so they’ll likely be happy to share and get your opinions. Make it part of your job to find time to read and discuss your colleagues' manuscripts.”
In designing and marketing paths, junior workers often get delegated smaller tasks, while senior employers lead brainstorming sessions and creative meetings. Again, it pays to put yourself out there by suggesting ideas or taking on new responsibilities.
Unfortunately, all this means working overtime is usually expected — and it doesn’t just apply to newcomers. Many professionals are encouraging more open discourse about the disparity between workload and remuneration, but changes won’t happen overnight. It’s still safer to be prepared for packed schedules.
Diversity in publishing
The publishing industry still lacks diversity, especially when it comes to staffing. The low average starting wage has made entering the industry difficult for many aspiring professionals, especially those from less-privileged backgrounds who don’t have a financial safety net.
This reality was one of the reasons why copy editor Nancy Tan decided to go full-time freelance: “My reason for leaving a nine-to-five in 2011 to freelance was partly financial and partly the fact that middle management was populated with women, and anything higher by men.” The chances for more inclusive projects and career advancement seemed limited at the time.
“Things have changed in the last decade: I’ve received a lot more projects from the big publishing houses in the past year by Black and AAPI authors,” she says, “but I fear a lot of it is cosmetic.”
Looking on the bright side, this can still be regarded as a starting point for meaningful systemic change to the industry. Organizations like People of Color in Publishing, Lambda Literary, and Disability Visibility Project are always sharing opportunities and initiatives with professionals old and new. You can support them as well as do your bit by checking out these resources as you work:
- Diversity in Publishing: What Can You Do as an Editor? (blog post)
- Conscious Style Guide (content hub)
- We Need Diverse Books Programs (content hub)
Doors opening up: developing your career
After several years of working in publishing, you’ll probably want to move on to a more exciting senior position. We talked to some editors and designers who have been there, done that (at Big 5 publishers, no less) about what their duties entailed, and what their tips are for those looking to advance.
Editorial positions: senior and executive editors
If you’re on the editing route, there are roughly two levels of seniority: you’ll first become a production, acquisition, or commissioning editor; then, you may go on to an executive or managing position.
According to editor Dominic Wakeford, “a commissioning editor is a project manager who oversees all aspects of the publishing process, collaborating with other departments (e.g. sales, marketing, publicity) to bring an author’s work to the widest and most engaged readership possible.”
As senior editor at HarperCollins, Dominic managed multiple book projects by existing and new authors alike. He also collaborated with executive editors to “identify gaps in the imprint’s publishing programme and commission in specific areas to address that gap.”
On even more senior positions, former Harlequin executive editor Mary-Theresa Hussey says: “Executive editors often work with important authors for the imprint while also digging deeper into overall publishing goals. They look at the direction of the imprint.” As such, executives have to regularly answer questions like:
- How many top/best-selling authors were there this month?
- Is there room for a debut author?
- Are the books (and their plots/covers/themes) coming up this quarter too similar?
- Will they be printed on time?
So how can you get these senior roles? The chances usually come with time, but here are a couple of things that you can do to move your career upwards and onwards.
Tip #1: Look out for authors to acquire early on 🔍
Once you get the hang of editorial tasks of a junior editor, you can begin branching out to acquisition. Mary-Theresa advises you to “pay attention to what is being pitched in editorial meetings, what makes it through, what doesn't, and which authors are consistent sellers. Keep an eye out on Twitter and blogs to find authors of your own — authors who fit the house’s criteria but also offer something new, fresh, and fun!”
On Twitter there are constant pitching events where authors tweet an elevator pitch of their book to attract agents and editors. It’s worth following any that interest you to find authors and agents to connect with.
Tip #2: Be pragmatic about new jobs 🎯
The thing about the publishing industry is that there are only so many managing roles in a house or imprint, so you’ll often have to wait for someone to leave to get your chance.
As such, Dominic recommends being open to opportunities elsewhere, both in terms of your workplace, and in terms of your specialty. “If a more senior job that isn’t your dream role comes up (for instance, it’s a commercial fiction job when your passion is literary), but there’s a good opportunity to learn the ropes and build some connections, then go for it! Very few editors end up working solely on books they might read for pleasure — but that’s not to say they don’t love collaborating with their authors.”
Designing positions: senior designer and art director
For designing, if you work in commercial fiction, you may be promoted to senior designer, someone who overlooks the house’s overall aesthetic and style. You’ll work on administrative tasks like hiring designers and typesetters for each project alongside brainstorming new book covers with the team.
For image-based titles, like cookbooks and children’s books, you can advance to art directing. Marie O’Shepherd, a former cookbook art director for Bloomsbury Absolute, says her usual process goes:
- Meet the commissioned author to get to know their work.
- Create a moodboard of visuals for the creative meeting with the publishing team.
- Work with the editor, publisher, and author to commission a photographer and stylist(s).
- Organize and direct the photoshoot for the book and promotional material (8-10 days for 100-recipe book).
- Design sample interiors for the book and get approval from the team.
- Place the photography/illustrations and polish the design and typesetting of the text.
- Work with the team to design a book cover.
- After the proofread is complete, run final design checks and prepare files for print.
- Check plotter-proofs from printer and give printer the final sign-off.
Marie usually manages several of projects at once, averaging at 10 or more books a year. She says: “Art directing includes supporting the author or stylist with their planning, prop-sourcing, and styling — essentially letting the creative team be their talented selves while ensuring the overall look and feel of the book matches the outlined vision. I pride myself in fostering creativity as opposed to forcing it, and this starts with forging great and genuine creative relationships.”
Tip: Gain creative and leadership experience ⚖
To become a senior designer or art director, you need both artistic abilities and leadership skills. This combo often allows for more flexibility when it comes to career progression.
Marie, whose background wasn’t actually in book designing, shares: “I had a lot of experience in other fields before coming to design. I was a teacher for many years, and it gave me such strong leadership experience that becoming an art director felt quite natural. I got a postgraduate diploma in Graphic Design and started from the bottom at 29, but with all my prior experience, I rose quickly.”
Marketing positions: marketing manager, marketing director
We have a separate post discussing the responsibilities of book marketers (senior roles included) if you’re looking for a deep dive. But essentially, while a regular employee focuses on a specific area like metadata or social media, a manager or director overlooks multiple strategies for multiple books, all at the same time. They lead the planning, manage the budget, and work closely with authors on long-term strategies.
Marketing is similar to design in that it’s not too difficult to move from other industries into publishing, since skills in this craft are relatively transferable. You might have to start from junior positions again, but progression won’t be far off if you’re experienced!
Freelancing: finding balance
Traditional publishing is not the only way to grow as a professional — in fact, some find it more rewarding to work independently. Let’s hear from freelancers why that’s the case.
Earn a stable income through freelancing
A common concern about freelancing is that it won’t pay the bills. We won’t deny that there can be dry spells, but as the 3,000 industry experts on Reedsy will tell you, the job pool isn’t shallow (especially if you have a strong profile and a good network).
Alice Sullivan took a chance with her move to independent work, and it paid off: “After six years working in-house, I decided I was burned out and needed a change. So I saved my money, let my connections know I was making the jump to freelancing, and quit a very lucrative salaried position.
“Since then, I've revamped my website twice, made even more connections, and been able to specialize in what I truly love — ghostwriting memoir and personal development. I've also more than quadrupled my ‘very lucrative corporate salary.’”
And Alice is not alone. In 2019, we conducted a survey of 200 editors and designers on Reedsy and found that 53% of professionals were able to earn at least as much or more through freelancing. Many of those who didn’t earn as much were freelancing part-time.
Freelancing has a bad rap when it comes to fees — having to undercut your rate is a common concern. But if you list on reputable publishing marketplaces you won’t have to worry much about it. You can negotiate with authors, and most become more understanding when you share with them resources about industry averages.
Freelance to be in control of your work
Moving to independent work is also a great way to gain autonomy over your projects, rates, schedule, living and working space, and vacation time.
Alyssa tells us that her favorite part about freelancing is connecting with writers. When you work for a publishing company, you ultimately are obliged to follow their agenda regarding brand image and sales numbers. When you’re a freelancer, your client is the writer alone — their vision is the primary goal to achieve.
Additionally, a freelancer gets more time to focus on the creative aspects of their career. Book designer Andy Meaden recalls his decision to go freelance: “I no longer enjoyed the in-house position. I became a Design Manager and was doing less design and more bureaucratic work.”
If you’re considering a move toward independent work, we recommend starting with part-time freelancing. Take it as a chance to build a safety fund, set up a website, and gain some clients before you make the leap! Below are some resources — created with the help of plenty other wonderful professionals — you might find helpful.
- How to Start a Freelance Editing Business
- 20 Simple and Powerful Tips for Successful Freelancing
- How Reedsy Opened New Doors for Me as A Freelance Editor
Starting as a freelancer?
All that said, starting your publishing career as a freelancer is not altogether impossible. Rebecca Heyman’s impressive editing career, which started out with freelancing in 2009, is proof that it’s an option.
With her background in English and American Literature, Rebecca got her first editing gigs on Elance (Upwork’s predecessor). She quickly became the top professional in the editing category and was able to focus on fiction books while also expanding her reach. Social media and networking was key, she says: “The online world was smaller back in the early aughts, so Twitter was an easier place to navigate. I found and interacted with writers there, worked with some of them, and word-of-mouth took care of the rest.”
But talking about the situation in 2021, Rebecca is more cautious: “Freelancers today are at a disadvantage: the competitive gig economy means establishing work steady enough to sustain even a modest lifestyle can be difficult. On the flip side, there’s a huge number of resources available to up-and-coming freelancers today that makes starting your own business more accessible than ever.”
Whatever route you choose to pursue, remember that your profile and network are very important in this industry.
We hope this article has given you a good overview and some nice insight to help you out on your journey, whether it is to enter this industry or advance to the next rung on the publishing ladder, and that you’d find a good place for yourself in this exciting field. Happy hustling!