All publishing people come to this business with different struggle stories; some applied once, some applied dozens of times, some knew someone, some knew nobody, and some of us were fucking insane and just PICKED UP STAKES from SOMEWHERE ELSE and MOVED TO NEW YORK with NO JOB and NO APARTMENT and are now making more money than me and have a gorgeous fiancée and a car.
We all conceived of the publishing world differently, but the sense I’m getting from you is that you see one widely understood vision of the publishing world and think “that’s for me”. I’m talking about the fiefdoms of creative, intelligent, passionate people who inhabit glittering skyscrapers and whose near-insane devotion to a capricious and lumbering market/industry are what allow the world-bending and heart-winning books of today to ultimately be produced, printed, distributed, and unleashed. This is somewhat accurate; we are selling magic here. There is no CRM system for how words hit a human brain, no metric for beauty, and no businessspeak for love. Fiction, texbooks, diet books, cookbooks, self-help; it’s all made of star stuff.
However, there are plenty of us who joined up with our respective houses/concerns not because we were chasing magic, but because we were chasing sustenance. Publishing houses are businesses, and businesses promise benefits and a paycheck. You can’t eat magic. We are drawn to these jobs because they demand skills that can easily be transferred from other industries. And so for us, publishing was not the only option, but it is the one we found. Some of us stay, others drift off in search of higher wages and coherent business plans. (Furthermore, there is no one kind of publishing person. The CEO may dislike reading; the dude packing cartons in the warehouse may be able to spit an exegesis about Diana Gabaldon.)
But for all of us, once we got that call, once we signed on the dotted line and showed up in our good shirt on our first day, the idea that publishing was the Inside and we were Outside quickly faded. Suddenly, it was unclear why we’d been intimidated, why we’d taken it so personally when nobody emailed or called us back. We were here now, and there was no point looking back and wondering why it took so long or what we did right to finally get that golden ticket. But that doesn’t make the job search for those who are still in the trenches any easier.
Make no mistake; looking for publishing gigs in the US is combat. (As is looking for any job. Sometimes this makes us stronger; other times it needlessly kneecaps otherwise hopeful and worthy candidates.) What this means for you is that your approach to employment is going to be based on two battles, one of which you control, the other of which you don’t.
WHAT YOU CONTROL:
#1: Your conception of the publishing world.
The more you apply via email and webportal, the more you get frustrated, the more you wonder why you suck, what awful flaw you’re sporting but clearly blind to, the more you wonder if really you’ll ever get a job or ever have a source of pride and worth and money and ultimately consider just forming a serious opiate habit. Don’t do that. Publishing isn’t a wall, it’s a house (pun, but, for the purposes of the metaphor, bear with me). It’s not a single obstacle you surpass. It’s got a bunch of ingress points and rooms and it’s something to be invited into if you keep providing good reasons to be asked. It’s a lot of different pursuits and concerns all surrounding the production and distribution of a product, and your skill sets and background aside, you don’t do yourself any favors by not trying to understand all of it it from the outside as much as you possibly can. Learn what kinds of books your targets publishing, who makes up the power structure. It will be boring, and it will feel like you’re wasting your time. You’re not. Follow people on Twitter, bookmark every page you can stomach, ask questions to strangers. The more you do this, the better your understanding of the system and process will become, and rejection will feel less like your rope breaking and a plummeting to earth, and more like someone answering your knock and gently saying “not today, try another door”.
#2: Your application materials and your response to rejection.
If you’re actually qualified (choosing to believe you here) for the positions you’re getting no nibbles on, then it’s worth revisiting your application materials. Maybe your resume is limp-languaged and hiring managers know from jump it’s not worth considering. If you’re not good at selling your skills, then fucking pretend you are. What you think of as bragging may be what hiring managers consider cogent assertiveness; or not, but, you have no way of knowing and nothing to lose, so brag. If your cover letter is broth, make it into stew. If your resume is paragraphs, do bullet points. If you’re only applying via webportals, find the contact info for hiring managers and get in touch directly. You have nothing to lose by doing this. Unless you are an actual harassing dickbag, nobody who rejects you in HR will remember your name and automatically trash your next application. Email people directly; I cannot stress this enough. Show them you’re a fighter, not just another watery reader who’s tired of living in Florida and wants a paycheck so she can have fun in NY. Tailor your cover letters for the position’s description, and don’t be afraid to be a little flashy.
Apply constantly in every possible way and when you get a rejection, celebrate by writing four more applications then buying a fancy cocktail or beer or meal or book for yourself. Even soldiers get chocolate rations.
#3: Your location.
It can be worth taking your savings, moving north, getting a shitty job and shitty apartment, and being a local while you do your search. Only you know if this is worth doing. Don’t be afraid to move if you need a little (or a lot) more risk breathing down your neck to feel as if you and your career are truly alive. If you move here, let me know and I’ll buy you coffee.
WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL:
#1. The competition.
There are so many of you. A lot of them live closer, have more money, better connections, better resumes, better luck, and will get the jobs you’re applying for. You can do nothing about this. You will have to be a good little meritocrat. Sorry.
#2: The available and visible jobs.
Plenty of companies don’t post all their open positions. These hidden jobs are usually filled by inside hires or referral. You might be considered for one of these after you apply for a different one, but this is all handled by the HR folks in New York and none of them know you or care about your happiness. Publishing is not really a growth industry, it’s a consolidation industry, so don’t expect a flurry of new postings from all companies all the time. Sometimes you will have applied for every current opening you feel is worth it. Wait for new blue links; it won’t be a field of purple forever.
#3: Whether or not you will actually want to work in publishing once you get the job.
One of the hardest-working NYC transplants I ever knew, who finally, after 2 years of sweating and applying and Excel-gridding and interning FINALLY got hired by Random House, quit after a year and moved to California. It’s not for everyone. It might not be for you. If that’s true, your energies weren’t totally wasted, but they were a little bit and you have to accept that.
SO IN CONCLUSION…
Nobody’s path to publishing is the perfect template, least of all mine. I got lucky; you might too. The mistakes you could possibly be making will only appear when you throw enough light on your process. So keep asking advice, keep asking for criticism, keep asking for a job, keep asking yourself if you could do better, keep eating, keep drinking, keep exercising, keep spending money, keep fighting. And one day, the door will open. Or maybe a window. Or a crawlspace. But then you’re in. And you’ll change. We did.