Peace Corps Writers
  Getting a Job in Publishing
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)
    CASTLES IN THE AIR need solid foundations. Every year Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) come home thinking that — after having spent two years reading every book and magazine they could find written in English — they’d like to start a career in publishing. However, most of them lack “publishingese,” the insider’s special blend of vocabulary, knowledge, skills, and manner of doing business that conveys a cosmopolitan, confident, can-do attitude worthy of an entry-level position. Most PCVs lack information about the range of opportunities available. And most of all, they don’t realize how many jobs and careers there are in publishing. Here’s a quick course on publishing both books and magazines, And how to find a job. It’s the shortest graduate course you’ll ever take.

Jobs in Book Publishing
Most book publishing companies are broken down into several departments: editorial, publicity and promotion, marketing and production. No matter which of these words your first job designation begins with, it is likely to end with the word “assistant.”
     Common to all assistants everywhere, regardless of their department, are certain inescapable duties that define the position: “assisting” superiors; handling their correspondence, answering the phones, writing their memos and generally carrying out whatever administrative duties are needed. There are ways, however, in which the assistant position differs from department to department.

    Editorial Assistant
    An editorial assistant, in addition to performing the universal assistant-duties mentioned above, might be called upon to review incoming manuscripts and provide reports to his/her boss; to go through the “slush” pile of unsolicited queries from hopeful authors, and bring anything worth a look to the editor’s attention; and to work with agents and authors to ensure that contracts are handled and processed correctly. Editorial assistants go on to become assistant or associate editors; then senior editors; each position brings with it more direct responsibility for the overall concept behind, and presentation of, a new book. The pinnacle of any editor’s career is to have his or her own “imprint” — a line of books to be determined completely by the editor’s own tastes.

    Publicity Assistant
    A publicity assistant sends out galleys (early bound and typeset copies of a book) to select book reviewers at newspapers and magazines; maintains and updates lists of reviewers who should receive free copies of the published book once it’s out; works with his/her boss to arrange radio, print and television interviews for authors; and may work to organize book release parties and signings at bookstores. Publicity assistants go on to be publicity directors — and because good publicity is so important to book sales, the best publicists sometimes move on to the corporate marketing and executive publishing levels.

    Production Assistant
    A production assistant will work with copy editors, typographers, binders and designers to help with the actual construction of a book. As more and more publishers realize that an unusual design or arresting cover art can help sell books, this area of publishing is getting more fun and inventive. Of course, good copy editors have always been and will always be essential to publishing of any sort.

Jobs in Magazine Publishing
Magazine staffs are usually broken down into two divisions: editorial and advertising.

    Editorial Assistant
    Editorial staffs are usually subdivided departmentally, depending on the focus and structure of the magazine. Again, the duties of the entry-level editorial assistant are largely administrative and/or clerical — but in addition to these, the assistant may also review manuscripts, give opinions on story proposals, line edit copy, generate story ideas, and even write for the magazine itself, in some cases. Production cycles are of course much shorter in magazine publishing than they are in book publishing, since most magazines publish monthly or even weekly. Thus the world of magazines can at times seem much more frenzied than the world of books, which moves along at a slower and more deliberate pace.

    Advertising Assistant
    Advertising assistants at magazines help their bosses sell advertising space — and having done that, work very hard to maintain good relationships with advertisers so they’ll continue to buy space. In addition to basic clerical duties, ad assistants will work on presentations; write reports on circulation, demographic distributions and reader purchasing patterns; coordinate promotional functions and activities (breakfasts, parties, etc.); and perform a variety of other duties designed to woo buyers and to keep them happy once they’ve been wooed.

The Job Hunt
Mercilessly exploit any and all personal contacts that you have in the publishing industry. Take your PCV buddy’s ex-girlfriend — the one you don’t know too well, but heard got a good job at Simon & Schuster — out to lunch, and hit her up for information. Write a letter to the magazine editor who visited your college class years before and ask him if you can meet him, very briefly, when you come to New York City for your interviews. This is the way it works; this is how people get jobs in the media. If you think you don’t have any contacts, think harder. If you don’t know anybody in publishing, somebody you do know probably does. It’s not considered impolitic to call or write someone as a friend-of-a-friend and make contact that way.

Contact Lynn Palmer Executive Recruitment
If you’re hoping to work in New York City, set up an early appointment with Lynn Palmer Executive Recruitment (212-883-0203, email: ). This agency specializes in placing people with magazine and book publishing companies, and they actually have a good track record of finding decent jobs for bright entry-level types. (Note: Know how to type before going.)

Plan the job hunt
Give yourself a reasonable window of time to interview and find a job. A week isn’t enough. Two or three weeks might not be enough. If you’re not from the city, and if you don’t have family living in the immediate area, prearrange your living situation by asking a series of friends to let you stay on their couches or futons for a few nights at a time.
     If you don’t have a lot of friends in the city, it can be very tough — but it can be done. Save up some money and get a room in a reputable hotel that books rooms by the week (check tourist guidebooks for a list). Many of these places cater to foreign travelers and transient job-seekers, and aren’t too expensive ($300–$400 a week). The surroundings can be a tad austere, but nothing worse than Peace Corps living.
     Of course you should consult the want ads, and it’s fine to send out cold resumes to personnel departments — but don’t fully expect to find your job that way. Few ever do. Accordingly, budget your time and energy wisely by devoting less time to scouring the newspaper, and more time to either capitalizing on, or making, personal contacts.

Prepare for the Interview
Know the background of the company to which you’re applying: How old are they? Who are their “heavy hitters”? Are they publicly or privately held? What are their modi operandi in terms of hiring, acquiring assets, etc.? What books or articles did they publish in the last year that were particularly profitable or notable? It’s not necessary — in fact, it’s probably not a good idea — to volunteer this information apropos of nothing during the interview; but a well-timed, well-executed reference or extremely subtle name-drop can show that you’re that much savvier than the glassy-eyed recent college grads going after the same job.
     Assume that everyone being considered for a given position is Harvard-educated, fluent in four languages, the former editor-in-chief of their school paper or literary magazine, and possessor of a savage, rapier wit that makes perfect strangers admire them instantly upon being introduced. Then assume that the only way to distinguish yourself from the pack is to bring out, within the context of the interview, whatever quality it is that you know you have that they don’t. All the candidates are going to be smart and affable and capable. But they’re not all going to have read the same books you’ve read, or subscribe to the same journals and magazines you do, or hold the same opinions you hold. Or, for that matter, been in the Peace Corps. Don’t be afraid to speak up about a matter or issue that’s not directly related to the job, as long as it comes up naturally in the course of conversation. Remember that in publishing, unlike in many other professions, your intelligence and general ability to think independently will usually work for you, not against you. Books and magazine articles are ultimately conceived and shaped by people who exhibit these characteristics, not simply the ability to say “yes” or to toe a company line.
     If you’re interviewing for any kind of publishing job, you’re going to be asked: What do you read? Have a solid, respectable list of titles and authors, some classic, some contemporary, ready to go. Don’t struggle with this question; it makes you look dull. And don’t just answer with “Your books!” or “Your magazine!” That’s not what they’re fishing around for.
     You know this already, but it must be said: Dress well (which usually means conservatively, even if the place seems casual and informal); smile and look into people’s eyes; keep talking, no matter what. And of course, send a thank-you note. Immediately. I mean mail it that day.

A Summer School Program Can Help You
If, after all of this information and help, you still don’t get a job, you might think of taking a summer graduate course in publishing. Three of the most famous ones are at Columbia University, New York University, and Rice University.
     The advantage of these programs is that not only do you get a solid grounding in magazine publishing, but you also meet key people within the industry. All three of these programs are “hands on” and students do projects while in class. For example, one project in all three programs is to create a new magazine, defining its audience, frequency, editorial slant, and artistic feel, while addressing how it differs from the competition. For book publishing, students have to review actual manuscripts and prepare them for publication, including designing the book jacket.
     As you might expect, English majors abound in publishing, but the breadth of the industry accommodates those with backgrounds in other humanities, journalism, business, arts, social sciences, and even the hard sciences. All of them have one thing in common: they love the printed word and the process that brings it to the page and world. If you are that person, then publishing has a place for you. Check out a few of these hot resources which may help you with a career in publishing:

  • Columbia Publishing Course
    (Formerly know as the Radcliffe Publishing Course, in 2001 it became part of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York City).

      The Graduate School of Journalism
      at Columbia University
      2950 Broadway New York, NY 10027-7004
      Telephone: (212) 854-4150 Fax: (212) 854-7837

    This six-week summer course is an intensive introduction to all facets of book and magazine publishing.

  • The Rice University Publishing Program

      School of Continuing Studies, MS 550
      PO Box 1892
      Houston, TX
      Tel (713) 527-4803; Fax (713) 285-5213

    The focus of this four-week program is on book and magazine publishing.

  • Summer Institute in Book, Magazine, and Electronic Publishing, at New York Univerisity.    
    2001 Fee: $4,195
    For a brochure and an application, write or call:

      Center for Publishing
      School of Continuing and Professional Studies
      New York University
      11 West 42nd Street, Room 400
      New York, NY 10036-8083; (212) 790-3232.

    This is an intensive seven-week introduction to the complex worlds of book and magazine publishing.

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