Despite the challenges faced by print media in recent years, even the traditional side of the publishing industry remains fairly sturdy — and when you add in the massive popularity of ebooks, you have a career path that should stay viable indefinitely. So if you’re interested in getting involved with the curation and promotion of creative works, it’s a great avenue.
Pursuing it successfully is far easier said than done, however. There are plenty of people vying to do it, and if you want to manage it, you need to be willing to consider multiple routes of entry — after all, any one of them might not work out for you. So what are your options for getting your foot on the publishing industry’s corporate ladder?
In this piece, we’re going to look at 5 tactics for getting a shot in the publishing world. You might be able to use just one of them successfully, or deploy several in combination — it all depends on your circumstances and how far you’re willing to go to get ahead. Let’s get started:
1) Get a relevant degree
As reluctant as I am to directly encourage further schooling as a path to success, knowing that degrees have been steadily devalued and plenty of publishers aren’t overly concerned about formal education at this point, I have to mention it. It still matters quite a bit, and there are two significant reasons why.
Firstly, the knowledge and skills acquired throughout a relevant degree course will greatly strengthen your position by making you more desirable as a candidate (assuming you take things seriously, that is).
When you register your interest in a position, your prospective employer will care not only about the publishing-related insights you’ve gleaned from your education, but also about how you’ve developed as a person. Can you show that you’re a hard worker? That you’re capable of enduring (or even thriving) under pressure?
Secondly, you should be able to make some good connections along the way, and you never know when that might pay off — at any time, a friend of a friend might know someone who could give you a viable route into the industry. You might not like the notion of benefitting from cronyism, but it’s a distaste that you’ll need to move past if you want to maximize your chance of achieving success.
Remember: getting an opportunity somewhere doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it, and if you’re truly undeserving of it, then you won’t keep your job for long.
2) Volunteer at a publishing house
Offering your services for free might be impractical and even damaging to your pride, but it’s something to be seriously considered if you know what position you want to get and you’re willing to put in the time to work your way up. Consider the importance of perspective: instead of unpaid work, view it as a free combination of training and research.
After all, you get to spend time around seasoned professionals, giving you ample opportunity to ask questions. How do their jobs work, exactly? How do the different parts of the business fit together? What do they find most challenging and most interesting? You can also work in queries specifically about your ambition: ask how people got started in the business, what they look for in new prospects, and what skills you could develop that would make you undeniable.
In addition to letting you ask questions, this also gives you plenty of time to impress people. Show that you’re passionate about publishing and fully invested in making it your career by going about your assigned tasks with great enthusiasm and commitment. Act as though you already work there even though you’re not getting paid, and you’ll pick up some support from those who could easily offer you gainful employment down the line.
Note that it isn’t necessarily easy to volunteer at a good publishing house, because plenty of people will ask (and volunteers can be burdens) — so ensure your pitch is compelling.
You need to find the right balance between being eager and coming across as desperate. Make it clear from your words and actions that you have a lot to offer and really want to volunteer at that particular publishing house but will find a route into the industry regardless of their decision.
3) Assist a first-time author
There are many routes to being published these days (Jericho Writers has a lengthy list here), and self-publishing is getting a lot of attention due to its minimal cost and creative freedom — but that process takes a lot of work, so there’s still good reason for an aspiring self-publisher to seek some assistance. That’s where you can enter the picture.
If you can find someone with talent who’s looking to forge their own path, you can offer your services as a literary agent (or even a marketer). Don’t bluff them by claiming that you have a lot of experience: instead, note that you’re in a similar position to them, and you just want to show what you can do. What do they have to lose by giving you an opportunity? If you don’t do a great job for them, they can simply move on and work with someone seasoned.
If they accept, and you do a good job, they’ll remember it — so you’ll have a good connection and some publishing success that you can parlay into a full-time position. You’ll also learn a huge amount in the process, and if you want to look for more freelance work as you build up your personal brand, you should find it somewhat easier.
4) Network with industry figures
One of the core benefits of having access to myriad social networks (including those aimed at professionals, such as LinkedIn) is that it’s extremely easy to reach out to notable people — and in many cases, you can simply message an author you respect (or another such industry figure with connections) and ask for tips on how to make it in the industry.
Of course, they might not have much to say, so you’ll likely need to do more. That’s why you should look out for everything from writer meetups to publisher events (new book releases, publishing courses, book fairs, etc.) and get into the habit of making appearances. If you keep showing up in the right places and asking sensible questions, you’ll likely get some kind of opportunity sooner or later — or at least some type of actionable feedback.
As with your publishing house pitching, striking the right tonal balance is essential here. If you focus entirely on being sociable and making friends, you’ll likely manage that, but it won’t necessarily help you — but if you’re too direct about what you want, people might come to view you as desperate, consequently assuming that you lack the necessary skills to make it.
Be personable and ambitious in a measured way.
5) Take (and cite) relevant work
What happens if you look around, attempt all of the above, but just can’t get any kind of opportunity? Well, you bide your time and build up your case by looking for work that will help you get into publishing down the line. For instance, you could look for work doing freelance editing, or seek a position in sales, or even do social media promotion. As noted earlier, there are general skills and qualities that will always be desirable, and they needn’t be acquired through specific positions — just hard work of whatever variety you can get.
Whatever your desired position in publishing may be, you should find work that’s broadly similar. If you excel, you can cite that work in your subsequent job applications, showing that you clearly can do the job you want even though you have no experience with it. Focus on the presentation, though: carefully detail all the overlapping elements to strengthen your argument.
Don’t simply assume that the people reviewing your applications will give you the benefit of the doubt — they likely won’t put that much time into reading them, particularly when they work at big publishing houses that receive thousands upon thousands of similar applications every year. Put simply, anything you want to be noticed will need to be spelled out as obviously as possible.
For instance, if you’ve worked in car sales, you could make the reasonable point that the art of selling is roughly the same no matter what you’re offering. You always need to understand the prospective buyer, anticipate and overcome their objections, relate what you’re providing to things they already like, and find the right price point to maximize sales and profitability.
The publishing industry has plenty of important roles and a strong future, so there are clearly opportunities out there for enterprising professionals — you just need to know how to optimize your candidacy. Try some or all of these tactics if you’re uncertain how to proceed, and remember that it’s mostly about persistence.