How to Get Your Dream Job in Book Publishing

how to become a literary agent

But first, the book publishing stories worth reading this week:

Research Backs Up the Instinct That Walking Improves Creativity (Quartz): “The act of walking itself, rather than the sights encountered on a saunter, was key to improving creativity, they found.”

The Amazon Sales Game: Mastering Reviews and the Author Page (Chadwick Cannon): “There are two killer ways that an author can use Amazon’s features to bring in higher sales: reviews and Author Central.”

Audible, Long Known Only for Audiobooks, Is Branching Out Into Podcasts–and News (NiemanLab): “The podcast/audio world has been waiting for Audible to make its big move into the space. It’s here, including original content from major publishers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post.”

A New Platform for Serialized Work: Tapas Media (Jane Friedman): “On the reader-facing side, Tapas offers bite-sized stories and the ability to try any story free before purchasing or ‘unlocking’ installments. To unlock new installments, a reader might invite friends to read, watch ads, complete some other offer, or simply wait. (The founders are calling it ‘Candy Crush meets books.’)”

How to Get Your Dream Job in Book Publishing

I received an email a few weeks ago that stood out to me. It wasn’t about how to get published—it was about how to work in publishing.

As Becky wrote:

“I am an aspiring writer as well as an aspiring publisher. I am 26, and have been interested in publishing since I left high school. I studied English, History and Art History at university, and applied for a publishing degree but didn’t get in because I didn’t have any publishing experience as of yet.

I worked in an office job for 5 years, moved to London, and now am working as a legal secretary. But I really really want to get into the publishing world in any way I can. Being in London, I feel I am in the right place (so many book shops and literary festivals!) to start my career.

Do you have any advice on how to get started in the wonderful world of publishing? I am willing to start wherever I need to. All I know is, it’s my passion and it’s what I want/need to do.”

Ah! I love this question. You made my day, Becky.

I love it because I think there’s nothing more worthwhile than fighting hard to make it in publishing. And I love it because I think there are too many people out there who will tell you it’s not worth it.

So before we get even another paragraph in, let’s get a few things out of the way:

  • Yes, you will make very little money (at first).
  • Yes, you will work long hours.
  • Yes, you will get promoted more slowly than your friends in other industries.
  • Yes, you will encounter difficult personalities and possibly cutthroat office cultures.
  • But, yes, it is the greatest work in the world.

(And yes, you’ll get free books. Free books! If just the thought of that makes your heart jump, keep reading.)

With those downsides in mind, if the very idea of working with books every day still thrills you, then you belong in publishing.

Note the difference there: it should be the craft of publishing, not the craft of writing that most fascinates you. Yes, writing is a hugely important part of any worthwhile book, but if your real dream is to be a writer, then don’t spend your life working on someone else’s art. You don’t want to be that kind of frustrated writer. (And while many people in the publishing industry get the chance to write every day, or even publish their own books, it’s by no means the most direct path to a writing career.)

But if everything about books, from the typography, to the editing, to the marketing, to the intricacies of the supply chain, makes you itch with joy, then publishing is your home. And it’s a very happy home, if you ask me!

So if you’re sure that publishing is your home, but you haven’t a clue how to get in the front door, start here. This is the exact method I used to land my first (unpaid) publishing internship, as well as my first full-time editorial assistant job. I’ve also incorporated a lot of the insight and methods I’ve seen work for others. While anyone will tell you that there isn’t ONE way to get into publishing, this method will help you create a custom game plan so you can chart your own path.

A 7-Step Game Plan to Help You Get Your Dream Job in Book Publishing

 1. Sign up for every one of the job sites in the industry.

Sign up (or bookmark) the job boards of Publisher’s Weekly, Publisher’s Marketplace, MediaBistro, and Book Jobs.

For the sites that also have a daily newsletter (Publisher’s Weekly, Publisher’s Marketplace, and MediaBistro’s GalleyCat), make sure that you scan or read the whole email, not just the job board section. This will help you in two ways: you’ll keep a constant eye out for positions you’re interested in, and you’ll also keep your finger on the pulse of the industry. The sooner you can get up-to-speed on industry news, the more prepared you’ll be when that first interview request comes.

2. Create a master list of your options.

From there, create a master list of every publisher, literary agency, book scouting agency, or publishing start-up in your area (or any area you’d be willing to relocate to). Dig deep here, and don’t stop researching just because you’ve listed all the major publishers and agencies. There are hundreds of smaller publishers, agencies, new digital publishing start-ups, and publishing-related firms (PR firms, marketing consultancies, etc.). Challenge yourself to make this list as long as possible, and remember that the more you widen your net, the more options you will give yourself, and the more informed of a decision you can eventually make.

Next, start ranking. Think about your preferences: are you looking to work in a specific genre only? Do you prefer a big or small company? Would you rather be in New York? You don’t have to assign an actual number ranking to each company, but it can be helpful to structure your list with your favorites at the top, so that you know right away which companies you should be watching most closely.

This will be your birds-eye view of the industry, and you should routinely come back to this list and check in on these companies to see if they’ve listed new openings. Often companies won’t list all of their openings on the major job sites, so it’s crucial to do this cross-check.

3. Block off time for a weekly application session. 

And guard it jealously. Yes, this might mean not sleeping in on the weekend, and yes, it might mean saying no to that brunch/movie/shopping trip everyone else is doing.

But that doesn’t mean an application session needs to be absolute torture. You can find little ways to make it more enjoyable. For me, I would wake up on Saturday morning, treat myself to a Starbucks latte, then go to the library and find a cozy couch to type away on. Being around books reminded me why I was slogging through cover letters on a beautiful Saturday morning, and the quiet of the library saved me from the distraction of all the other infinitely more fun things I wanted to be doing.

So try to create an application ritual that has little elements you’ll look forward to: working in a favorite spot, eating or drinking a favorite treat, or rewarding yourself with a little splurge after your session. Then block off a recurring time slot in your calendar every week to apply and announce it to your family and friends, so they can (hopefully!) schedule get-togethers around you.

4. Aim to send 10-30 applications a month.

Yes, you read that right. Most of the time when someone complains that they can’t get a job in publishing, I find out that they’ve only been sending out a handful of applications per month. I hate to say it, but that’s not enough.

Many of the job listings you see may have internal applicants slated for them already, or the hiring manager may know someone they want, or an employee may refer a friend, or a former intern may be in the running. While employers usually post every single job opening that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re starting the search by reviewing the deluge of cold applications that come in.

Trust me, I’ve been on both ends of it: I’ve had jobs I’d interviewed for go to someone who had applied internally, and I’ve gotten first preference at other jobs because I knew the editor. You can never really know what’s going on behind the scenes.

The upside of that is that you can take any rejections with a hefty grain of salt. You may have been highly qualified, but that particular posting simply had a referral candidate already. That’s also why you shouldn’t limit yourself to just a handful of applications a month—as always, the wider your options, the more informed of a decision you can make.

5. Customize, customize, customize.

This is the hard work part of the equation, because you’ll have to ensure each and every cover letter and resume you send out is your best, most tailored work.

The hard truth is that papering the town with a generic résumé and cover letter just won’t work. You’ll be wasting both your time and the time of the person reviewing your application. Keep in mind that the entry level positions in publishing are usually the most competitive—at one publisher I worked at, an Editorial Assistant posting could easily get 100 applications a week. And this was at a mid-size publisher, not even one of the Big 5!

So spend the extra 30 minutes or an hour to customize your cover letter and résumé to the job, making sure to pull out the keywords in the job description and integrate those into your materials. Many companies now use software to cull the first round of applications before a human even looks at them, so it’s important to make your materials match the search terms as closely as possible.

Be sure to also include a bullet point at the very end of your résumé with your areas of interest—publishing is very taste-driven, so hiring managers are always looking for candidates who already read in the categories of that position.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip any positions that may not perfectly align with your ideal genres. For my first Editorial Assistant job, I was working on both romance novels and nonfiction, and though I ultimately ended up specializing in nonfiction, I loved getting experience in the genre fiction side of the business. Give yourself permission to be surprised by what you might like!

6. Consider all of your options.

You may start out dead-set on working in editorial (most people do), but you might be pleasantly surprised by positions in other areas, like marketing, or publicity, or managing editorial. Being open-minded is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in your career, not only when you’re starting out, but also as you start exploring and pivoting within your industry.

Unfortunately, most people who want to get started in publishing know so little about the other facets of the industry that they don’t give themselves a chance to consider them. I know I was that way—when I was first applying, I had no idea being a literary agent was even a thing. I had never heard of it.

But over the years, I began to notice that what I loved most about my editor job—advocating for authors, brainstorming concepts, marketplace positioning—was exactly what a literary agent does. Many years in, a light bulb finally went off in my head: aha, maybe I should be an agent!

That turned out be one of the best decisions of my entire life.

So do your best to stay open-minded. Give yourself permission to consider other options, and check in regularly with yourself to see where your strengths and interests are. There are enough closed doors in this world—don’t be the one closing doors on yourself.

7. Get to know people in the industry.

This used to mean “move to New York” but now anyone, anywhere can dip in to the flow of industry conversation through social media. There are countless industry sites (see tip #1) and publishing professionals chattering about books online. Contributing to those conversations is a wonderful way to not only make valuable connections but also to begin building the knowledge base you’ll need when your knock-on-the-door comes.

If you live in a city with a few good bookstores, keep tabs on their event schedule and attend whenever possible. Book signings, readings, and even conferences are a great place to meet that one connection that may get you past the cold application stage.

This doesn’t mean you must have a connection to land a job. I got my very first editorial internship and my very first editorial assistant job without having any connections at all. But just like with any job, having a connection will help you. And the more things you can stack in your favor, the sooner you’ll get that dream job.

I hope this game plan gives you a better sense of how to tackle such a complex task as finding your dream job. I’m a firm believer that anyone can find their dream job, but finding it, and then getting it, will never be easy, especially in a highly competitive industry like publishing.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Trust me, it is. 🙂


By the way,

Are you attending BlogHer 2016 in Los Angeles this year? If so, I’d love to meet you! I will be speaking on the the Publishing and Writing Panel–here’s what we’ll be chatting about:

“Many bloggers dream of turning their blog into a book. In this session, publishers and agents share tips and tricks to getting your blog noticed and turning it into a book. You will learn:

  • Secrets to writing a compelling query letter that makes an agent want to read your proposal
  • How to open doors and secure a book contract from a traditional publisher
  • How to make your book stand out against the competition
  • How to repurpose your blog content into a book”

If you’re a blogger and haven’t registered yet, you can get 30% off your ticket with this registration invite. Come by and say hello!

literary agent speaking at blogher

how to become a literary agent (long)

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