Industry veterans tell us about the surprising twists that led them to publishing, from a failed CIA test to chance advice at a midnight bowling party.
Literary agent, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
I came to New York six months after I graduated from Colby College with a BA in English and art history. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, although I did dream that one day I would step out of a taxi in Midtown while wearing a suit. That was as far as my imagination took me. I only had $150 in my bank account to last me until I found my career, so I called an employment agent. Her name was Glad, and by the time I had made the rounds to the many insurance agencies to which she sent me, I found myself at a pay phone at Macy’s, calling my sister in tears, convinced I would never find a job.
The next day, my roommate’s sister’s roommate told me, “You’re a publishing type. You should be in publishing.” She had just left a publishing job for a position as an investment banker, and so she gave me three names to call. For a week, I was too scared to call any of them. When at last I called Basic Books—part of Harper & Row at the time—they asked me to come in. They needed a “warm body” to type and file. I walked into Harper and thought: This is where I should be. This is what I should do.
I ended up getting a job at Basic. My pay was in the high four figures. I adored publishing, but I wasn’t cut out for nonfiction social sciences. After a year at Basic, typing, filing, and taking dictation, I saw a listing on the job board (literally a bulletin board in the bathroom) that read, “Reader needed, Harper Junior Books.” I went down to the kids’ book floor, and suddenly it all made sense. That was the job I was meant to do. I read three manuscripts for Nina Ignatowicz, got the job, increased my compensation by $500 a year, and have never left kids’ books. I’ve even achieved my ambition of getting out of a taxi in Midtown, though I don’t wear suits much anymore.
Associate publisher, Charlesbridge Publishing
It was May 1995, and I had just finished an intense year-long application process to work with the CIA. I had been flown down to Langley for all kinds of physical and mental tests, including being strapped into a reclining chair while hooked up to electrodes for a polygraph. After months of waiting for a job offer, I finally got a slim envelope in the mail, in which a woman who identified herself only as Crystal unceremoniously told me that my application had been denied. I was crushed. Only a few weeks out from graduation, I began a desperate search for employment.
A lifelong bookworm with a forthcoming degree in Russian language and literature, I figured, “What the heck, I may as well try publishing.” Working my way alphabetically through a library copy of Literary Market Place, I struck gold at Charlesbridge, where I was told the publisher was looking for an assistant. It turned out his daughter was my age, had attended my college, and had studied Russian as well. Despite my utter lack of publishing experience, I got the job. Twenty-three years later, I’m now associate publisher and a strong believer that fate puts you where you’re meant to be. (Either that or I’m in deep cover. You decide.)
V-p, publisher, and editorial director, Scholastic
I ended up in children’s publishing because within the long, long row of loose-leaf binders in my college’s career library—meant to steer students towards careers in finance, finance, science, and finance—there was a single three-hole-punched sheet detailing an internship at Scholastic. I applied, got the gig, and then fortuitously asked if I could come in over my spring break to talk to HR about the job. To my horror, the HR person cheerfully told me I’d been assigned to a classroom magazine focusing on fifth grade science. My distress must have been quite visible, because she asked me how I felt about that, and I carefully explained to her that I’d chosen my college in part so I’d never have to take a science class again, and that I wasn’t sure my proficiency in science was something that the magazine-reading fifth graders of America should be forced to rely upon. She said she’d get back to me, made some phone calls, and switched me over to the editorial department in the book division, where, come June, I found myself working on the Baby-sitters Club—something I could understand much better than photosynthesis. That was 1992; I’m still here.
President and publisher of Beginner Books, Random House Children’s Books
I graduated from college with a degree in anthropology, which was very interesting—I spent a summer on an archeological expedition in Greece—but did not give me many job options. I moved back in with my parents and began graduate studies in package design at Pratt Institute while working part-time in my father’s architecture office. Shortly thereafter, one of my college roommates moved to New York City. She had a degree in English and was a recent graduate of the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures program. She quickly landed a job at Random House as an editorial assistant. We were sharing an apartment in the city, which made working for my father in Westchester inconvenient. My roommate, Susan, said that I should apply for a job at Random House, too. After all, she said, “You like books.” I asked her what kind of job I should apply for, and she said I could work in the design department. I had no idea there even was such a thing as a book designer. So I applied and got a job as a design assistant in the art department for the children’s books published by Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon.
That was 46 years ago. With the exception of a two-year break early on, I’ve been in children’s publishing the whole time. I guess you can say I owe my career to Susan Bolotin.
Editor and publisher, Algonquin Young Readers
After graduating from journalism school in the recession-stricken 1980s, I was working as a writer’s researcher. That writer landed a contract to do some practical nonfiction books for a packager: Computers for Doctors, ...Lawyers, ...Real Estate Agents, etc. (These were machines with two floppy disk drives that each held about 256KB of data, networking with modems that connected via a telephone cradle and a bing bong.)
When that assignment ended, I arrived in New York with a job at packager Cloverdale Press, where I was to be owner Dan Weiss’s assistant. It was the height of Cloverdale’s Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High bestseller-dom, and as someone with a vivid recollection of a childhood and adolescence that had barely ended, soon I was working almost exclusively on the kids’ side, cranking out series proposals at a rapid clip: Sleepover Friends, Couples, Sorority Sisters, and Fifteen were some in the earliest days, Thoroughbred and Vampire Diaries later... and many that never sold (Mall Rats, anyone?). The necessity of editing books for unmissable monthly publication, and the ability to work with virtually every paperback publisher in town under Dan Weiss’s supportive and generous watch, was the best training I could have wished for.
Associate publisher, Scholastic
My entry into children’s books was both unexpected and inevitable: my mom was a children’s librarian and I grew up a reader. I think she pushed a little too hard, because I dropped out of AP English in high school and avoided all literature classes in college. I majored in religion and minored in geology, managing to underperform in both areas of study and squeak out with a diploma and no idea what I wanted to do with myself. An acquaintance had been a publicity assistant in adult publishing, and she said, “You should get into publishing!” I was so lacking in direction that it was enough! I had a plan! I carefully cut out the teeny tiny ads in the New York Times jobs section and mailed my resume and cover letters off. During the first interview I went for, Elise Howard asked me if I liked series books. I misheard her, and thought she said “serious” books. Uck, no! Despite that, she hired me. I left with armloads of Avon Romances and a new direction. My mom was so pleased. And a little bit smug.
Susan Van Metre
Executive editorial director, Walker Books U.S.
I was sitting in my college library late one night, pondering if I would finish my paper before I fell asleep, and what I could possibly do for a living armed only with modesty, persistence, and a love of books. I looked over at a display case where Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rumpelstiltskin sat with a shiny medal sticker on its cover. It had recently won a Caldecott Honor. Looking at that bewitching cover, I dreamily thought for the first time: someone helps authors (and illustrators) make books—maybe I could be that someone? And, as if by magic spell, my winding path led me from the library to graduation to the Radcliffe Publishing course to a dozen job interviews, and finally to Dutton Children’s Books, publishers of Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rumpelstiltskin.
Senior editor, Clarion Books
I was a junior in college studying psychology and not really excited about becoming a therapist or a researcher. I went to a cocktail party at a cabin down the dirt road from my own family’s cabin, in Maine. I had been close with Suzy, a daughter of the neighbors, but I hadn’t seen her in a few years. As kids, we’d spent countless summer days together swimming, waterskiing, playing in the woods, having sleepovers—as well as reading. Lots of reading. At the party, my mom called me over and said, “Did Suzy tell you what she’s doing for work?” It turned out she was an editorial assistant at Dutton. I had never lost my love for children’s books, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that such a job existed. I decided then that a job as a children’s book editor would be the perfect job for me, too. And thank you to Suzy—my dear friend Susan Van Metre—for the inspiration!
Hilary Van Dusen
Executive editor, Candlewick Press
I was a typical college kid back in the ’80s. I came home for the summer with a vague plan of getting an internship or job or something. At that point, I was vastly inexperienced in the art of getting an internship, and I wasn’t really even sure what I wanted to do—something in journalism, maybe? My mother gently suggested I contact Stephanie Loer, who was, at that time, the children’s book reviewer for the Boston Globe and had been one of my childhood playgroup mothers. I hadn’t spoken to her since I was about five years old and pressing leaves into wax paper in her kitchen. It just so happened that Stephanie was friends with Anita Silvey, who was just starting her new job as editor-in-chief of the Horn Book. One internship at the Horn Book led to a second, as well as my first job out of college, and the rest is history.
V-p and copublisher, Balzer + Bray, HarperCollins Children’s Books
After graduation, I lived and worked in France for a few months while I thought about my next move. I’d had jobs in television during college but could not see myself working in that field. Student loans were coming due, though, so I had to figure it out quickly. One night after moving back to the States, I went to a midnight bowling party with friends, and a guy who’d graduated a couple years before me (and whose name I can’t remember) casually suggested I look into publishing. Despite being an English major, it had never occurred to me that there might be a whole industry dedicated to the creation of books, and that I might even be qualified to work in it! In the end, I got two interviews and two job offers: one in adult publicity, the other in children’s marketing. The latter paid a whopping thousand dollars a year more, so it was no contest: I was going into children’s books.
Editor-at-large and former publisher, Clarion Books
Being a children’s book editor was the furthest thing from my mind until I actually was one.
I did graduate work in English—assuming, of course, that my future would be in academia. During college and graduate school, I worked part-time at the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, where I was responsible for cleaning up the scholarly papers of the Assyriology and Sumerology professors, almost none of whom were native English speakers. This task was referred to as Englishing.
Contemplating my unwritten doctoral dissertation, I let go of my academic goal. I had to get a full-time job. A friend of my parents told me about an opening for a copy editor at J.B. Lippincott Books for Young Readers. In preparation for my interview, I read up on copy editing and discovered that it was pretty much the same as Englishing. I liked the idea of working with books. I got the job.
Gradually my focus shifted from copy editing to editorial work, and I was promoted up the ladder to editor. But I didn’t want to be a children’s book editor. I wanted to edit books for adults. On some level, I was waiting for my real future to begin.
I can’t remember exactly when the scales fell from my eyes, only that I was a children’s book editor for years before I understood that I was on a career path, not merely the path of least resistance. Nor do I understand why it took me so long to own my profession. Maybe my infection with the “adult books are real books” virus was deeply rooted. But I can safely say I was cured in time to become absolutely committed to who and what I was. And, after 46 years in the industry, I still am.
V-p and publisher of Godwin Books, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group
I was bartending at a nightclub in Bensonhurst and working as a receptionist at the Population Council, answering the phone which rang sometimes as often as three times a day, when a fellow worker told me about a job at Harper and Row, where they were looking for someone to read unsolicited manuscripts. It sounded like a hoax, being paid to read children’s books, but I went over there anyway and the next thing I knew I found myself being interviewed for an assistant’s position in the editorial department. This was late March. I remember because my hands were so cold that I almost failed the typing test. I muddled my way through the interview and left feeling reasonably good about my prospects.
But as April came and went and the summer loomed I realized I had been rather hasty in giving up my day job (fortunately I had kept the night one). So I accepted a position with an agent who hired me to answer her phone as she sat across from me mouthing “Who is it tell them I’m not in,” no matter who it was. I was ensconced in this role as fibber-in-chief when in November I got a call saying, “This is the Harper & Row Department of Human Resources calling to offer you the job as editorial secretary level one.” I accepted on the spot, stifling the urge to point out that it had been well over six months since my interview and were they sure they’d got the right person? I was fairly certain they hadn’t but why draw attention to it? And I didn’t give up my night job for another two and a half years, just in case.
Children’s publishing director, Chronicle Books
It was always about New York. I’d been in love with the city since I was a teenager and was determined to make my adult life there. Much to my Korean Tiger Mother’s dismay, I did not graduate from my Ivy League alma mater as a pre-med or pre-law candidate, but with that most impractical of degrees, a B.A. in English. Now I had to find a job that paid a living wage, in what was then and always will be one of the most expensive cities in the world. Of course, I thought of publishing, but in 1985 an editorial assistant at a major publishing house made $12,000 a year, which I decided was impossibly low. Advertising, at $15,000 a year, seemed more doable, so I took a job as a secretary at a midsize agency in midtown. According to the employment agency that placed me and many other overqualified young women, this was the only way to break into the advertising business. My ambitious immigrant parents, who had survived two wars, the Japanese occupation, and a harrowing flight from North to South Korea to make a successful life for themselves and their children in the United States, thought I had lost my mind.
I have no doubt that I was a terrible secretary, at least at first. About the only thing I could do was type 65–70 words a minute accurately—this was in the era just before computers, when people actually tested you on an electric typewriter and if you made a mistake you had to either start all over or be very clever with whiteout. But I must have made a decent impression because after a while I was promoted to an assistant account executive and got to share a secretary, as well as work on several accounts. And truly, it was hell. The screaming! The smoking! The drugs! The sexism! This was the 80s, and pretty much everything you’ve read about what went on around then was true. The hours were crazy and the stress was extreme—you had to keep the client happy at all costs because if they left, everyone on your account was fired. All of this would have been exciting if I had loved the work. But I was working on accounts for toilet paper (which we were supposed to call bathroom tissue) and paper towels and cough medicine and high-end dog food and I couldn’t be thrilled about any of it.
After an especially bad month during which many people were fired, I decided perhaps publishing wasn’t so impossible after all. I got a job doing newsletter marketing for an academic press—somehow I convinced them that my advertising background translated to this work—and then applied for and won a publishing fellowship established by Oscar Dystel, who had set it up to attract promising young people into the business. The fellowship involved a position at one of the participating companies on Oscar’s board (usually Bantam, the company he had founded) as well as an M.A. in publishing at NYU. As an Oscar Dystel Fellow at Bantam, I got to circulate through all the different departments of the company, and it was an incredible education. I’ll never forget my stint in sales—as a special project, Bantam actually sent me out on the road for a week with its reps to sell in New Jersey, Ohio, and Kentucky. I visited truck stops and wholesalers, small indies and local chains, and I was stunned by how many books we had to pitch in so little time. The last stop in my fellowship year was in the children’s books department at Bantam, and somehow that was it: I knew it was where I wanted to stay. At the time Bantam was known for its mass market series: Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Dreams romances, Choose Your Own Adventure, Saddle Club—and despite my incredibly snobby literary tendencies I loved them all. I do think there’s nothing like working on a series, especially a popular series, to make an editor really think about the mechanics of storytelling and language, as well as the practical requirements of publishing.
When I was starting out as a young editor I was a bit jealous of the people I met who always knew in their bones, from the time they could decide these things, that they were going to be in children’s books. That was definitely not my path and I would sometimes wonder if falling into children’s books the way I did somehow made me a less legitimate professional. But the thing is, I’d always loved reading children’s books. During especially bad times at the ad agency I would soothe myself before bed by reading Ellen Raskin or Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy series or Anne of Green Gables. And I’d actually written my college senior thesis on Maurice Sendak and Frances Hodgson Burnett. So I think in retrospect the idea of working in children’s books must always have been lurking in my subconscious, and I was really meant to be in the business all along. And I’m forever grateful for my stint in advertising, too—it taught me to be tough, and to be sane and rational no matter how crazy things got, and to drop the f-bomb like nobody’s business.
Senior v-p and publisher, Delacorte Press
Does anyone remember writing letters? I was a big letter writer as a kid, and a huge reader. In high school I worked on the school newspaper and would try to think of articles that were bigger than just school news. My parents got Saturday Review magazine, and I used to read it too. A columnist once wrote a riotous article about high school, and I sent the journalist a letter asking him if we could use part of it in our school newspaper. He actually wrote back to me! I nearly fell over—and he invited me to visit him at the Saturday Review office. Wow! I was thrilled. I did go and meet him, and he told me about the magazine business—and also about book publishing because his editor had just finished working on his book. That is the moment it clicked in my little brain—book publishing was what I wanted to do. And not just any part of the business, but editing.
Life continued and I kept reading. I went off to college and was lucky to have an involved dean. One autumn day, I mentioned my interest in book publishing. She said she had a friend who worked in New York City as an editor. She suggested I contact her and ask for an informational interview. I wrote another letter and waited for an answer, which I didn’t think would ever come. But I did get a letter back from the editor, and she said I could be the editorial winter assistant during my month off from school in January. Wow again! I was so naive that when I called my parents to tell them my good news, I said, “I’m sorry, but I think there is a fee for me to do this, and I never asked how much it will be.” My mother said, “Don’t worry—take the position! How much could the publisher charge for four weeks?” Of course, I later learned they were going to pay me!
I worked for the adult editorial department and read romances and historical and nonfiction submissions, until an author surprised his editor with a story about his crazy childhood. The novel was really funny, and they decided to publish the book for teens, even though they didn’t publish books for kids. The editor gave me the manuscript and said, “Here, you’re the youngest person in the office—work on it!” I loved every minute and decided right then that I wanted to work on books for young people. That one cold month so many years ago laid the groundwork for my career publishing books for kids and teens. And I admit, snail mail still has great meaning for me!
Editorial director, Abrams
I grew up in the basement of the Strand, the famed bookstore at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway in New York City. My uncle was Burt Britton, a larger-than-life figure in retail during the ’70s and ’80s who eventually opened Books & Company on Madison Avenue.
As far back as I could remember, Burt groomed me to be an editor. He plied me with books I simply had to read, quizzed me on their contents and covers, and encouraged me to recommend books to him that I discovered, sharing a mutual love of contemporary American fiction, comics, art, children’s books, and autobiography.
In my uncle’s domain in the basement of the Strand, new releases and used books came in and out swiftly, making their way onto their proper shelves so they could be discovered by just the right customer. Books were piled in every area of his office, stacked higher than me, and organized in a system only he understood.
There was an empty shelf above his desk, and I remember one time thinking I was doing him a favor clearing a path to the bookcase by taking a stack of books and placing them alphabetically by author and chronologically on the shelf. “What are you doing?” he admonished me. “That shelf must always remain empty.” He explained, “It represents all of the books that have yet to be published.”
The most invaluable advice came to me one day when we were shelving the remainder section. My uncle pulled out every third volume on one shelf, leaving spaces between the books. “Your job as an editor: to fill in those empty spaces,” he explained. “Figure out what’s missing, what hasn’t been published in those spaces, and create the books that need to exist. That’s what will make you an editor. The ability to see what others don’t. To make books that you alone can envision, and then help others see what you see.”
I started working in publishing in 1985. For the past 33 years I have been following my Uncle Burt’s advice, figuring out what books are missing from our list, then creating them.
V-p and publisher, global licensing, brands and media, Scholastic
If you give a girl a job, you never know what she might do with it….
It was 1989, five years after I’d graduated from NYU, and I was still trying to find my career (and myself). After a few marketing jobs at small companies, I decided teaching was my calling —I always loved being around kids. I enrolled at NYU again, this time to get my master’s in education.
After a few classes and some student-teaching, I was looking for part-time work when my cousin, Barbara Marcus, who was president of Scholastic’s trade group, books clubs, and book fairs at the time, invited me to “temp” for the book clubs. I always had a great work ethic (my philosophy was and is work hard/play hard), and after a few short months I was offered a full-time position! I remember Barbara telling Cynthia Maloney, then the book clubs’ marketing director: “I take no responsibility, enter at your own risk!”
I ended up staying at Scholastic for 12 years until Doug Whiteman, then president of the Penguin Young Readers Group, took a chance and hired me as president and publisher of Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan, where I happily worked for seven years. During all those years at Penguin, I always kept in touch with Ellie Berger, president of the trade group at Scholastic. About 10 years ago, she hired me back, and so here I am, back home. You never know!
Executive editorial director and associate publisher, Candlewick Press
How did I get into children’s publishing? Completely by accident. Having studied languages at university and thinking I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, I got a job in London at a political reference book company. The job itself was good, but what really sold me on publishing was the idiosyncratic group of people who worked there. I had that delicious feeling of finding my tribe. Moving to the States in 1984, I first obtained work reading manuscripts for a literary agent, and then got a green card and my first trade publishing job, at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, in 1986. Assisting on books by Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Anaïs Nin, and others was exhilarating, but I also found myself drawn to many of the backlist children’s titles—The Hundred Dresses, Half Magic, The Children of Green Knowe, Ginger Pye, The Rootabaga Stories—which, because they reprinted so frequently, came across my lowly desk for checking.
I read them all. And I fell in love with American children’s literature. Six years later, I was a trembling children’s book editor with my own first acquisition. Four years later, in 1992, I joined Candlewick Press, where I have been lucky enough to work for 21 years, publishing Jon Klassen, Lauren Child, Carole Boston Weatherford, M.T. Anderson, and so many more talented, unique, original voices.
Executive director of school and library marketing, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
My favorite books as a child were All the President’s Men and The 13 Clocks. All the President’s Men riveted me and determined my reading trajectories for many years. To this day, I prefer reading nonfiction, and Thurber rendered me suspicious of adult emotions inside child bodies. But I didn’t read children’s books. At least not any that I remember.
Many years and a Ph.D dissertation staring me in the face (“Trees and Death in the Ancient Near East”), I realized that while I loved reading books and talking about books, I did not want to write books. Or articles. Or teach. Which was kind of a problem. A friend of mine needed someone to work at a small book packager and I jumped at the chance to be a general dogsbody in the office doing a little bit of everything. That job introduced me to friends and led me to my next job at S&S Children’s.
I had no idea what I was really getting in to, but I discovered that no matter what I’m doing during any particular day, my job is making friends of folks who might not otherwise meet: “Kara, age 10, please meet my pal Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World. Ivy, I think you might have something good to share with Kara.” And who knows what Kara will end up doing now that she’s met Ivy? Which is genius and magical.
Mary Lee Donovan
Editorial director and director of editorial operations, Candlewick Press
Not really how I got into publishing, but a funny first-job-in-publishing story: I applied to be a promotion secretary for the children’s division of Houghton Mifflin, reporting to Anita Silvey and Laurel Burr. I’d never had a real “office” job before. I was thrilled (and a little amazed) to have landed the job, then mortified that I had possibly hoodwinked them. I had no secretarial skills, other than a high-school typing course, and no idea how many WPM I could type. I didn’t know shorthand, I didn’t know how to make coffee, I didn’t know how to put calls on hold. In the gap between accepting the offer and starting the job, I began a panicked investigation pf secretarial schools and wondered if I should enroll at Katherine Gibbs. Was there a two-week crash course I could take? But I was already paying for grad school, so I couldn’t imagine how I’d swing that. Instead, I went to the library and checked out books about secretarial skills, and practiced my typing at every opportunity. One handbook explained that it was a secretary’s job to edit and smooth the scratchings of the boss as they went from written draft to typed final. So that’s what I did. I “improved” Anita Silvey’s correspondence! At least for a day or two. Anita very kindly and quietly pointed out that the letters I was giving her to sign were not the letters she had written and to try again. Amazingly, I kept my job. And, of course, I learned that being a secretary in publishing was simply a title for a liberal arts major who was beginning an apprenticeship in the field!
Coordinator, desktop projects, managing editorial, HarperCollins
I got a job in the comic book industry right after I graduated from Parsons, and I worked there for most of the ’90s. When I was offered a job in advertising, I jumped at it, but quickly realized how much I missed working on books and stories meant for a young audience. I spent a lot of the following years trying to get back into either comic books or children’s book publishing, and on the way, I worked at various points as a horse trainer, cake decorator, ice cream truck driver, chicken wrangler, embroidery designer, illustrator, silversmith, and math tutor. Finally, a couple of years ago, I managed to land here at HarperCollins and I was overjoyed to be back in an industry I love! Definitely more fulfilling than wrangling chickens.
Executive editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books
I had a year-long internship at a hedge fund (ironically located just across the street from HarperCollins’s current downtown offices—I can see the building just outside our conference room windows) and could have slid right into a very lucrative position there. But I realized I was doing spreadsheets on the computer, while writing poetry on my lap where no one could see. So I got another internship. This one at Parachute Publishing, a children’s book packager. During my first week, I was filing in a conference room and at the other end of the long conference table two editors were having a passionate debate about the rules governing the monster in a book they were working on. Raised voices! Hands waving! Over this made-up creature and world. That was the moment I realized I was home. I have been in children’s publishing ever since.