Working in Publishing: An Insider’s Guide
Working in publishing is the dream job for many: what’s not to like about helping authors realize their vision and share their stories with the world? It’s a creative and exciting industry filled with passion. But what is it actually like to have a publishing career?
We’ve talked to some top industry professionals currently working on Reedsy, and, in this post, we’ll be sharing with you their experiences working in publishing. Read on for an inside look at publishing careers from entrance to progression, complete with some sweet tips on how you can thrive in this industry!
Preparing for a career in publishing
No prerequisites exist for entering the world of publishing, but depending on which field you want to go in (editing, designing, or marketing), there are a couple of qualifications and prior experiences that might give you an edge.
What qualifications do you need to work in publishing?
Even though they say they have no specific qualifications in job postings, big publishing houses often favor applicants with at least a bachelor’s degree in relevant areas. (Note that the list below is not exhaustive.)
Which prior experience is useful?
As with every job application, some relevant experiences will always add points to your resumé. For example, those who previously were booksellers, review bloggers, or librarians are familiar with the latest titles, book trends, and reader preferences. This knowledge strengthens their cover letter and performance in job interviews, thereby giving them a slight boost.
Of course, even without these experiences, you can do some research on the industry yourself. After all, you are reading this post, so you’re on the right track!
Getting your foot in the door
With your CV, experiences, and research ready you can start looking for jobs. Broadly speaking, there are two paths you can take: you can find a job at a publishing house, or start working freelance.
Finding in-house positions
Within this route, you get a couple more options. The most well-known employers are Big 5 publishers who usually have openings for intern and editorial assistant jobs throughout the year. Go for these and you get a chance to work on high-profile projects in big cities like NYC or London. On the flip side, you’ll be running up against a lot of competition. Alternatively, you can apply to entry positions at independent publishers. They operate in more tight-knit teams, so there are often fewer vacancies, but the experience is just as rewarding.
We recommend keeping an eye out for job opportunities at all kinds of publishers because there’s no guarantee that your application will get accepted. On the journey to getting her first official publishing job, editor-turned-ghostwriter Alice Sullivan says:
“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 a local paper, got a six-week gig at a children's publishing company, and wrote for a few home and gardening 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 evidence of your 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 constitute an essential strategy for those who are starting out.
Be prepared for grunt-work
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 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 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.” For 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 any new responsibilities that arise.
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.
Starting as a freelancer
Another option for beginning your publishing career is to work for yourself. Rebecca Heyman, whose impressive editing career started with freelancing in 2009, proves that success can be found outside the system.
With her degree in English and American Literature, Rebecca got her first editing gigs on Elance (Upwork’s predecessor). She quickly became their top professional in the editing category and was able to focus on fiction books while also expanding her reach. For her, social media and networking were key.
“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.”
As you can see, this relies a lot on self-marketing and networking. Rebecca acknowledges that “there's a huge number of resources available today that makes starting your own business more accessible than ever.” But with a lot more noise on the internet nowadays, you will have to be proactive, creative, and persistent to start from scratch as a freelancer.
Progressing your career in a traditional press
After a few years of working at a publisher, you’ll probably want to move on to a more exciting senior position. For those who wish to climb the publishing career ladder, here are some tips from editors and designers who have been there, and done that.
Getting to senior editorial positions
For editors, 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 former HarperCollins 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.”
The more experience you have, the more projects you manage. You can also begin to “identify gaps in the imprint’s publishing programme and commission in specific areas to address that gap.”
Regarding 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? Opportunities 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 plenty of pitching events where authors tweet an elevator pitch of their book to attract agents and editors. It’s worth following any that interests 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.”
Moving up as a designer
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 genres, like cookbooks and children’s books, you can advance to art directing. In this role, you create briefs for projects, contract photographers and stylists, coordinate creative production, and play the main role in assembling the final product.
As a cookbook art director for Bloomsbury Absolute, Marie O’Shepherd managed several book projects at once, averaging 10 or more 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 skills 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.”
For those who are interested, we have another post focused book marketing jobs and senior responsibilities associated with them.
Moving between in-house and freelance
To be fair, in-house and freelance work in the publishing sector aren’t clearly separated as one might think. There are plenty of tasks the presses outsource to freelancers to keep production “lean.” Common freelance gigs that publishers dole out include copy editing, proofreading, certain designing projects like photography or book covers, and marketing tasks like web designing. Even while you’re working in house, you can (and many publishing professionals do) pick up freelance work on the side.
With the growth of the gig economy, freelancing full-time is competitive, to say the least. That said, professionals do make the leap from employment to self-employment, especially later in their careers. Let’s find out why.
Freelancing can offer a return to creative work
In-house employment includes plenty of administrative work which takes away time from creative work. Higher up the chain of command, you’d be in charge of a whole team and the company's growth, so you’d have much less time for tasks that might’ve been your passion in the first place.
On the other hand, a freelancer usually 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.”
Greater opportunities for development
For some, freelancing is a better alternative for their publishing career than staying in house. Such was the case with copy editor Nancy Tan: “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.” Through self-employment, a professional has more freedom to choose their projects, collaborate with authors from more diverse backgrounds, and focus on developing skills in their preferred niche.
Freelancers can provide a good, steady income
It’s a common concern that freelancing 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 than in-house employment through freelancing. Many of those who didn’t earn as much were only freelancing part-time.
The key is to set rates that reflect your expertise and list your services on reputable publishing marketplaces — that way, you’ll be in contact with serious authors who understand the importance of working with the right publishing professionals.
At the end of the day, working in publishing is all about pitching in to produce books that resonate with your readers as much as they did with you. As long as you keep an open mind and actively work towards that goal, you will find your place in this industry.