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

Book Jobs Not by the Book: Wei-Ling Woo, Assistant Editor & Social Media Associate at PEN American

Wei-Ling Woo is the assistant editor and social media associate at PEN American Center. Prior to PEN, she worked as an editor at the independent publisher Epigram Books in her native Singapore, where she worked on projects as disparate as translations and cookbooks, and, along with the rest of the publishing team, championed the work of local writers and artists. She received her BA in creative writing and art history from Columbia University, and is an alum of the international writers’ residency Sangam House.WLW

What was your first exposure to book business and what were the most important things you gained from it?

My first exposure came when I got my first job as an editor at Epigram Books, an independent publisher in Singapore. The local publishing scene in Singapore was—and is—still developing, and it was an exciting time to be working there. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, learning from the ground-up; in some cases having to help establish processes and best practices that I think people working in U.S. publishing probably take for granted. Because we had such a small team, as editors we were intimately involved in the entire book publication process—from solicitation to negotiating contracts, editing, design, launch, and marketing. That gave me an incredible appreciation for how much hard work and dedication goes into the production of a book, for both the author and publishing team.

That said, it’s difficult for me to think of publishing solely in terms of “book business.” While there’s an undeniable commercial aspect to it, in my experience, it’s been more about supporting writers and their craft, and of cultivating relationships with the writers I work with. In Singapore, where the vast majority of authors lack representation by an agent, the editor often has to walk a tightrope between balancing the interests of the publisher and the interests of the author whose work they care about and are championing. Perhaps because I’m also a writer, I found myself tending to fall on the side of the author…

How do you explain your current job to people?

Currently I’m the assistant editor and social media associate at PEN American Center, the largest branch of PEN International, the world’s oldest literary and human rights organization. PEN American Center is also a member-based organization of 4,200 U.S. writers working to defend free expression, both in the United States and worldwide. As part of the Communications department, I help to edit and manage PEN’s literary blog, as well as coordinate the PEN Ten interview series, and our new Passages chapbook series, which features translated literature from countries where PEN has a particular advocacy or programming focus. Our first issue featured writers and artists from Africa, and next year we’ll be focusing on literature from China and Brazil, among other countries.

In what ways did your previous jobs or internships prepare you for what you do here?

In a literal sense, I interned at PEN when I was in college, so I was familiar with the organization’s work. At Epigram Books, I was also tasked with managing a fairly large-scale translation project, and worked with translators translating novels and short story collections from Singapore’s three other official languages—Chinese, Tamil, and Malay—into English. From then on I got more involved in the world of translation, and with the help of the Singapore Arts Council, I completed a two-month editorial mentorship at the Irish offices of Dalkey Archive Press, where I helped to edit the Library of Korean Literature series. So in that sense, my previous work has prepared me pretty well for the type of editorial work I now do at PEN, an organization that also champions the art and craft of translation. 

What value has this job brought to the way you think about book business as a whole and your own relationship to books?

Recently the discussion has resurfaced about the lack of equity and diversity in the U.S. publishing industry, and—perhaps as a result of that—a disproportionate lack of writers of color being published. On PEN’s blog, we try to feature a diverse range of voices—across gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, genre, etc.—and that’s forced me to think more deeply about areas of literature (not to mention areas of human experience) where my own knowledge is lacking. This matters to me not just because a child here won’t grow up reading a book that reflects their own experience, but, because U.S. publishers are basically gatekeepers for the entire world, I want children in Singapore, or India, or anywhere else, to grow up reading books about their histories and lives. This is not going to happen if everyone writing in English is pandering to the tastes of a small group of people in one or two major publishing centers in the world. That’s also why the development and growth of local publishing industries matters so much. Not to mention the development of local creative writing programs or avenues to mentor young writers, and the preservation of native languages and writing traditions.

What advice or perspective do you wish you had known when starting out in publishing?

  • Singapore can sometimes feel like a small, insular, far-flung island. New York City can also sometimes feel like a small, insular far-flung island.
  • Sometimes you can wind up doing the most interesting work in smaller organizations no one has ever heard of.
  • Don’t be so afraid.
  • Ask questions.
  • Learn everything.

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