Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

How We Got Into Publishing: Survey Results

Sometimes I think folks outside the industry must think there’s some secret trick to break into publishing. In a way, it makes sense. It’s a global business that’s got its American heart in New York City, like some other industries that people and Hollywood movies often laud: fashion, theatre, magazines, and so on. That must be why we all get asked how we got started, or if we could let a friend of a friend pick our brain over a drink or coffee. So at the beginning of the summer, as my inbox was filling up with requests from new graduates to tell them just how I did it, I wanted to know how all of you did it. I made a survey and got 63 responses. (Thank you, survey-takers!)

An important note about my survey: I am not a survey writer. I think this is perhaps the second survey I have ever written in my adult life. Because of this, I made some questions too open-ended, or too open to interpretation, didn’t mark as many questions “must respond” as I should have; as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Be that as it may, there’s still a lot of good things to go through in these responses. (Note: This survey had some branches to it, so not every respondent answered every question. Additionally, I am not analyzing every question in this writeup.)

One of the best aspects of the responses is the range of folks who responded. Respondents ranged in age from 23-61 and their positions ranged from Intern, to Literary Scout, to a Manager of Creative Services. Let’s look at what everyone had to say about their entry into publishing.

To break this graph down into specifics, 41.25% of respondents went directly into publishing after they completed undergrad, 12.7% went to grad school first, 25.4% were in another career track first, and 20.63% were “other.” But as it turns out, a lot of the answers to this question come down to perception.

“Other” respondents were prompted to specify their circumstance. The most popular answers for “other” included working first, then grad school, then publishing. There were also several responses citing publishing summer courses, and/or working in a bookstore. These respondents didn’t consider “retail” or “menial” jobs as an “other career track.” But a lot of the “other” respondents did have what I would personally consider literary minded positions, like the aforementioned bookstore employees, there was a journalist, and someone working at a literary non-profit.

On the other hand, some of those who responded “Other Career Track First” did say that that career was retail, and one said bookstore. (An example of my poor phrasing of the questions, as well as a matter of perception.)  Four respondents in this section indicated that their first career track was literary in some way.

And as for the grad school first folks, 62.5% of respondents did do something literary with their degree. The “Other” respondent got their masters in library science and an MBA.

I asked what previous jobs and/or skills respondents felt made them a good candidate to work in publishing. The overwhelming answer? Internships. Almost 40% of answers listing what made them good candidates said their internships prior to landing their publishing jobs made them good job candidates. The second most commonly listed trait in those responses was writing skills, which was mentioned in 28% of the answers. Third most common answer was loving to read. Just because there were a lot of similarities in responses doesn’t mean the skill sets that bring people into publishing are uniform. Respondents mentioned previous job experience with places like MTV, city planning, a beauty studio, and local lobbyists. Of course, there were entries more along the lines of what one might expect to see: local library experience, journalism, literary magazines, and so forth.

Now, when I asked what made them want to work in publishing, 22 out of 41 respondents wrote out in some way that they simply love books. Not a surprise, since we’re generally considered a group of nerdy readers in this industry. But there were some answers that caught my notice that wasn’t necessarily tied first and foremost into an abiding love of books:

  • “I wanted to work at a company whose mission I believed in – didn’t have to be publishing, but a lot of publishing houses fell into that category for me.”
  • “Honestly I didn’t know what else to do with myself – it was 20 years ago and I was just so tired of music industry stuff that I asked myself what else I liked, and the answer was basically books, because I lived in NYC and film never seemed like a thing real people worked in.”
  • “It seemed more realistic than writing poetry for a living.”
  • “I wanted a stable desk job that would allow me to do some of the things I love–help people improve their writing, write, spec out new series.”

So here we are, from folks who fought tooth and nail to be here because it’s something we are passionate about to folks who just fell into this because it was a stable job. All in all, this survey confirmed what I imagine we’ve all already known: there’s no one right way to get into the industry. Some survey-takers were able to remain unemployed until they landed their first publishing job, while others worked several menial (their word, not mine) jobs until they got a publishing gig. Some worked for years in entirely different fields before simply happening upon a career in books. There are those who got their MFAs in creative writing or even publishing before diving in. The possibilities go on and on. I take comfort in the fact that there’s no “right way” to join our industry. It means we come from a variety of experiences and skills to make up an industry of people with varied skill sets.

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