Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three Looks at the Publishing Business

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Bowdoin College to a group of teenagers who are participating in the Upward Bound program this summer. I have to say I these young people really impressed me—they were so much more savvy than I ever was at their age. Most seemed interested in the writing aspect of the publishing business, but I gave them a very quick overview of different career options within the industry. And then I thought, “Gee this might make a good post.” So if you know you’d like to be involved in publishing but you don’t know exactly what you’d like to do, this post is for you.

Even if you do know what you want to do, read it anway. Nothing wrong with a little refresher.

This is a very simplistic breakdown of the three major career options available to you in book publishing. It by no means encompasses all the options, but it gives you a good breakdown of the general categories and what they entail.


Pros: You are the reason this industry exists. As a writer, you have the freedom to create a story or a work of nonfiction on any topic you choose, in any style you choose. The work is deeply satisfying and can give you the freedom to live the kind of lifestyle you want. You are self-employed and can live anywhere. There are no start-up costs for your business, only a pen and paper. There is no limit to the amount of money you can make. You can be famous, yet move about with anonymity. A good portion of your job involves travel and meeting interesting people. You get to experience the great thrill of seeing your words in print or your story come alive on the big screen.

Cons: Your success is not solely dependent on how hard you work—a lot of it has to do with luck and timing. Writing is hard, lonely work without any guarantees. Publishing is a slow business and it can take a long time to be paid and to see your book in print. While some writers make enough to sustain themselves, most do not make enough to live solely on their writing income, which makes another job necessary. Those who do support themselves have to grapple with the high cost of health insurance. Most writers do not become famous or receive much recognition. A good portion of your job involves travel, but usually not to glamorous destinations.


Pros: If you want to get rich, an agent is what you want to be. You have the satisfaction of discovering new talent and managing your clients throughout their careers. You work with authors and editors. Socializing is a big part of your job—you’re on the phone most of the day and have lots of lunch meetings. Invitations to all kinds of parties and events allow you to rub elbows with famous people. You will most likely have to travel a few times a year to the big book fairs, like Frankfurt, and to some writers’ conferences, like Maui, if you so choose.

Cons: Odds are, if you really want to be successful, you’ll have to live in New York (or at least live within commutable distance in Connecticut or New Jersey). Agents work long hours and have a never-ending flood of manuscripts to look at. Their clients can be eccentric and demanding, and often require a lot of hand-holding and ego-stroking. You have to have a fair grasp of legal matters and accounting, and should a disagreement happen between the author and the editor, you will have to play mediator. It can take a long time to build the necessary contacts and client list needed to be a successful agent. If you work for an agency, the company takes a portion of all your commissions.


(There are many kinds of editors—this is your run-of-the-mill book editor.)

Pros: As an editor, you get to play literary Indiana Jones, looking for The Holy Grail of books. You meet with agents regularly and sift through piles and piles (and piles) of ho-hum manuscripts until you find that one jewel that excites you so much, you just know it’s going to be The Next Big Thing. You find great satisfaction in discovering new talent and using your creativity to bring out the best in an author. As an editor, your work has a nice mix of quiet time and socializing. There are many opportunities for parties and lunches, and travel is a big component of your job. A good editor will travel often and have many opportunities to meet famous people. If you do your job well, the climb up the corporate ladder can be relatively quick.

Cons: Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Your life is one big deadline. You work long hours and rarely take vacations. The pay can be low, at least to start. It can take a long time to prove your worth as an editor, i.e. bring in a bestselling or well-respected book. The job requires you to be exceedingly well-rounded; social yet disciplined, literary yet extroverted, creative yet practical. You must learn how to get your points across to sensitive authors without stepping on their toes. In addition to working with authors, you have to coordinate deadlines across many departments in-house (sales, marketing, design, etc), which means that many variables are out of your control, yet still your responsibility. If anything goes wrong, you will bear the brunt of the author’s anger. Nearly all the big houses are located in New York.

Other Options

If you decide to explore the editorial side of publishing, you’ll quickly discover that there are many opportunities: sales, publicity, book design, copy writing and fact checking, just to name a few.