In every informational interview I’ve participated in, students and interns begin in the same way—what they most want me to know about them, even before the school they’re going to (or in one case, even their name): They love to read. When I hear this my heart sinks. I don’t want to put these applications in the “no” pile, but I know I have to. In declaring that they should be hired for a job in publishing because they love to read, they betray that they have no actual idea what an assistant job in publishing entails.
To be clear, I do not fault anyone for writing cover letters like this. I wrote some truly heinous cover letters that spent more time waxing poetic about learning to read the Berenstain Bears on the subway than they did actually clarifying any of my qualifications or skills. This oft-repeated mistake seems to be more a product of the shroud of elitism that publishing as an industry hides behind than it is of the people who most want to work within it. There is lots of speculation as to how to get your foot in the publishing door. In the course of four years applying and reapplying to assistant jobs, I’ve read lots of advice. Like anything else, some of it is good and some of it is, well, less good.
As an assistant for four years, my two cents are this: Do not focus, in your cover letter, on your love of reading, your passion for the power of storytelling, or your favorite books on an editor’s list. Instead, you should be focusing on the unsexy parts—your office skills, your ability to communicate, your willingness to learn, and your resourcefulness. Hiring managers or editors or head publicists are not necessarily looking for great literary minds; they are looking for someone who will competently check and respond to emails, write marketing copy, read slush, answer phones, mail books, wrangle contracts and forms from authors, negotiate text and image permissions, walk the director’s dog, or literally any other task the hirers don’t feel like doing. Optimistically, you will spend about 2% of your time reading things that are not emails, and those stolen hours will feel like a blessing.
You might be wondering, “If I’m doing all of this administrative work, how do entry-level jobs in publishing differ from any other entry-level job in any other industry?” My answer is: they don’t. Despite its mysterious allure, publishing is basically venture capitalism for books. There are perks of being an assistant, for sure: the galleys stacked 30-high around my apartment are proof of that. There have to be some perks; it certainly isn’t the pay, the hours, the job security, or a sense of work-life balance that keeps any of us in the industry.
None of this is to say that you should renounce your love of literature or books, nor do I agree that “paying one’s dues” necessitates being mistreated in a job. Being aware of what’s on the market and what different writers are doing will inevitably make your job as an assistant easier—I would say about 50% of the work I did as an editorial assistant was comparing books to other books (it’s like X book meets Y book, but in outer space, etc.). That would be really damn hard to do if you don’t read! Caring about the final product of what you’re working on will inevitably make the parts that feel like a slog a little less miserable—the endless lists of book sales to search on BookScan, compiling the marketing mailing lists, the data entry, emailing authors to say that as much as you enjoy the photo of them they sent holding a rooster like a hawk on their arm, you cannot use it as an author photo because you cannot see their face behind the bird’s wing.
I want more people who truly, truly love reading to be in publishing. There are a lot of avid readers looking to get into publishing who aren’t white, cis, straight, or neurotypical, who have a lot to offer the industry in the ways they solve problems, think about storytelling, and look at the world. To get past gatekeepers looking to maintain the status quo, people who not only love reading but have the potential to give this industry a much-needed kick in the pants have to leverage what they can: their cover letters, their first impressions, and whatever other ways they can show that they understand what is to come and are interested in changing it.
Ayla Zuraw-Friedland has worked as an editorial assistant and assistant editor at Beacon Press and Oxford University Press, and is now an agency assistant at David Black Literary Agency.