We asked industry folks for some words of wisdom they’d pass along to their just-starting-out-in-publishing selves. Here’s what they told us.
Barbara Marcus, Random House
Get to know people on the same level in every department, and understand what they do. This will jumpstart your understanding of the inner workings of your entire division. Read as many books as you can from your competitors so you have a broader knowledge of the industry. Hang out in bookstores—and take note of how books are designed, positioned and promoted. Find a mentor and learn as much as you can.
Moira Kerrigan, Chronicle Books
There is so much more you can do in publishing outside of working as an editor. Try exploring a few different options—you may discover you have a natural talent for sales, marketing, publicity, or even HR! All parts of publishing are important and essential, from negotiating author contracts to getting books in the hands of buyers and customers. I love working in sales because I get to work directly with the people who love and support our publishing.
Joy Peskin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
When I began work as an editorial assistant in 1996, I thought publishing might be my starter career. After college, I had wanted to either go into publishing or to get a master’s of social work degree and work with at-risk children. My parents thought publishing would be a better fit for me, and they were willing to pay for the Radcliffe Publishing Course, but not for the MSW. So, publishing it was. I thought I’d give it a go and then get that MSW at some point down the line. After I moved to New York City (on my 23rd birthday) and began work at Puffin, I started volunteering at the East Harlem Tutorial Program, and I was matched with a girl who I met, incidentally, on her eighth birthday. This October will mark the 17th year of our relationship. Over the years, I have also volunteered teaching a therapeutic writing program to homeless youth, to incarcerated women, and most recently, to teenage girls in juvenile detention. My interests outside of work have informed my acquisitions, and now as the editorial director of FSG BYR, I am drawn to stories about teens striving to overcome life’s challenges.
So here’s my advice for me, circa 1996: You don’t have to choose between your two passions. You can find a way for them to fit together, and for them to inform each other. Publishing is a unique field in that, if you manage your workload effectively, you can have time left over for other pursuits. The work you do out of the office can make you even better at the work you do inside the office.
Elizabeth Bewley, Little, Brown/Poppy
There’s always another great project around the bend. When I first started to acquire for St. Martin’s Press, I lost a novel that I loved to another house. I remember feeling very upset and talking about it with an older, wiser editor. She told me to remember that there are many talented authors out there and that another worthy book would come my way soon enough. She was right. A few months later, I acquired Alyson Noël’s debut novel, Faking 19, a project that sparked my love affair with young adult literature.
Seale Ballenger, Disney Publishing Worldwide
After 25+ years of publicizing books, I would tell my younger self to stop and smell the roses, don’t forget to laugh, and eat the cake.
Anne G. Zafian, Simon & Schuster
To my “just-starting-out-in-the-industry self”: my advice is for anyone at entry level in publishing, where starting salaries remain historically low. If your company has a 401(k) plan, start participating in it at the earliest possible moment it is available to you, even if you can’t imagine that you have the money to spare. Get in the habit as soon as you’re eligible, and set aside even 1% or 2% of your salary, because the company match percentage is the best rate of return you can get on savings, anywhere. As you advance in your career and make more money, increase the percentage you contribute. You won’t regret it.
Erica Barmash, Bloomsbury/Walker
The most important advice I can give to anyone starting out in publishing is to pay attention. Pay attention in every meeting you’re allowed to attend. Pay attention to every e-mail you receive. And don’t forget to pay attention during the most mindless, mundane tasks you do as an intern and assistant. When I interviewed for my first full-time job in publishing as a publicity assistant at Abrams, I was given 15 minutes to select a book from the most recent catalogue and write a press release for it. Later, after I was hired, my boss told me that I was the only applicant who had written something even remotely resembling a press release. And the reason I knew something about how to write a press release, even though I had never written one before, is that I thoroughly read the hundreds of press releases I had photocopied as an intern earlier that year. There are many, many lessons to be learned in the grunt work!
Chris Satterlund, Scholastic
My comment/advice to my starting-out self would be to find your passion and try to pursue it with excellence. Be mindful that getting paid for your passion is a wonderful and for most of us, a fundamental thing, but if you let that govern your choice you will miss out. We all need to pay the bills but we sacrifice much when that is our only driver.
Every day is going to be interesting and sometimes challenging but at the end of each day you will feel good about what you do. You will be sharing one of the basics that connect us humans—sharing stories.
Angus Killick, Macmillan Children's
To quote Johnny Mercer: “Accentuate the positive.” It will stand you in good stead in almost every situation. The more positivity you project, the better you will be perceived by your colleagues. Even when you have disagreements or things don’t go your way, saying something positive will pay you back many times over where a negative comment will not. I don’t believe I was very good at this in my early career, but it’s something I’ve come to value highly and overall I am much less cynical than I used to be.
One other piece of advice, which is somewhat related: strive to be creative at solving problems and know, even when you feel your last option has run out, there is always—always—more than one solution to affect the outcome for the better. You just have to put your mind to it and believe you can come up with creative solutions.
Kristen Pettit, HarperCollins
Move to Brooklyn sooner. You’re going to need the money you’ll save in rent.
Lara Starr, Chronicle Books
It will be a constant challenge to separate yourself as a reader from your tasks as a publisher, especially when you have kids of your own. It’s easy to use yourself or your child as a focus group of one. “Kids are obsessed with vacuum cleaners! Why are there not more picture books about vacuum cleaners?” Umm, no. Kids aren’t obsessed with vacuum cleaners; your kid (or sister, or niece, or you when you were a kid) is obsessed with vacuum cleaners. You’ll also have to take steps back from books you really love, and ask yourself, “Who is the reader?” Can you imagine the kid that will light up when a parent, teacher, or librarian puts this book in their hand? Spend as much time as you can around people who read books with actual kids—that’s where the rubber hits the road. Teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers, authors, and illustrators do a lot of reading with kids and have a lot to say about what works, what doesn’t, and what makes kids’ eyes light up.
Samantha Hagerbaumer, HarperCollins
Ask a ton of questions, read as much as you can, tell editors when you love their books, and work your butt off.
David Gale, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Here’s some simple advice that has served me well. You need to be able to describe each of your books in one sentence, in a paragraph, and at length. That way, when someone asks you about your books, you can give them the abbreviated version, holding the expanded version for those titles in which they show interest. This will particularly come in handy when you are in your company’s booth at a conference. I picked this up when I worked at School Library Journal, and it has benefited me—and those who ask about my books—ever since.
Denise DeGennaro, Random House
Publishing is a team sport. Always be proactive and volunteer to lend a hand with projects, even if it is for something you don’t have experience doing. The colleague you are helping might just be your boss someday.
Lisa Cheng, Running Kids Press
Try to remember that everyone’s job always encompasses more than you think and to appreciate the time that a job may take. As an editor, my job is comprised of more than just acquiring and editing books. I also write tip-sheet, flap, and sales copy; review sales materials; speak at conferences; hire copy editors and proofreaders; process contract paperwork; and do countless other tasks. Our designers not only design the interiors and covers for new books, but also handle reprint files and corrections, certain sales materials, and eight million other things. The same could be said for any other person in any department. All of these things take time, and the overwhelmed feeling you may have at times is likely shared by all.
Also, always share praise that your colleagues receive, particularly with their managers. If you don’t share the compliments that the designer, copy editor, or publicist receives from your author or illustrator (particularly if you are the liaison between the two parties), often no one else would ever know. And how sad would that be?
Betsy Groban, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
A piece of advice I would give my much-younger self is to enjoy and appreciate every damn minute of it! We are so fortunate to be doing this creative and ennobling work with such awesome, talented colleagues, authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, and educators. Having watched many friends and colleagues vanish into more lucrative but often soul-destroying jobs over the years, I thank my lucky stars every day that I am an English major who landed in this wonderful industry and stayed with it.
Got any publishing advice for your younger self? Add it below.