Every spring, MSU Moorhead’s Introduction to Publishing class takes a field trip down to the Twin Cities to visit publishers, distributors, and other book-related companies for an inside look at the industry. But how are the prospects that those students to actually get a job in publishing right out of college? Slim to none.
Most publishers fall into one of a few categories: small independent publishers, university presses, the major New York trade publishers, and textbook or classroom publishers. Independent publishers, with a few Twin Cities exceptions, tend to be run by a very small, very dedicated staff. Often, that might be only the two or three people who started the publisher. Even if there are more staff members, chances are they are working for little to no pay, which eliminates the option of getting hired by them. University presses also rely on free labor in the form of undergraduate and graduate students at their parent university. They may have a few higher-up staff roles, but they are likely filled by professors at the university who can teach and work on the press.
On the larger publisher end, we of course have the New York publishers, or the “Big Five,” which control 37 percent of book sales. They are considered the Holy Grail for us lowly undergraduates, but without an Ivy League education or, more importantly, plenty of hands-on experience in the field, you’re unlikely to find a job there right away. Another big source of publishing is textbooks and sales to teachers and librarians. The non-trade children’s lit market and high school/college textbook markets are big business, even though they stray from our traditional idea of publishing. However, most textbooks are written by technical writers with some knowledge in the area who can then work with researchers and other professionals to write the text. For children’s books, the bar is a little lower. This might be one of the easiest ways to get into publishing, but as many undergraduate programs focus more on couplets than Captain Underpants, it can be hard to gain experience in the area right out of college.
So, what’s left? Many editors-in-training may take more of a writer’s route and enroll in a good creative writing MFA program. Others may choose to pound the pavement, working as baristas and waitresses and applying to every job, internship, and volunteer position they can. Another method to consider, however, is literary magazines. It seems that editors may have to copy writers no matter what, as many authors are published in paper magazines or online zines long before getting their first book contract. While literary magazines have some of the same staff problems as small publishers, there are also endless amounts of them looking for fresh new volunteers to replace those too worn-out or broke to continue.
Working at an indie bookstore can also be a great way to stay in touch with literary trends, touch and read lots of books while getting paid. It may not have a direct path to publishing, but it is valuable (paid!) experience nonetheless. Plus, as publishers like Milkweed Editions and even Amazon experiment with opening their own bookstores, who knows what the future will surprise us with? Editors can also look to distributors like New Rivers Press’ distributor Bookmobile, which was also visited on the field trip. Employees can see publishing first-hand as they move books through production, and some may even move on to be designers, e-publishers, or managers. Distributors work directly with publishers to help their binding and design dreams become a reality, so it is a great way to get to know more about publishers and see what people in the industry are up to.
This post is not meant to be a grim outlook for those, like myself, trying to find their way into a field they love so much. It is just meant to be realistic. Sure, I dream of jumping in the car on graduation day and driving to New York to knock on the door of HarperTeen, but I would probably end up lost somewhere around Connecticut with a handful of spare change and a bucket of disappointments. In today’s job market, many of us will have to put in years of groundwork to get where we want to end up. And that’s something we should prepare and plan for. So keep the dedication, read furiously, perfect that resume, gain experience however and whenever you can, and keep the day job. While we may be ready for publishing, it might not be ready for us just yet.