As a treat–and as a passive-aggressive gesture to urge me to make up my mind as to what I was going to do with my life–my mother took me on a “field trip” to Simon & Schuster. A friend of a family friend worked in the children’s department there, and it was the summer before my senior year of high school–that time when push comes to shove when choosing a path in life. My mother, knowing I had an affinity for literature, figured that this might be an alternative career path to teaching or further academia. I was spellbound. As I trailed our acquaintance around the mostly-closed office (she’d agreed to meet us there at 6:30 pm), I knew I’d found something truly special.
When I shared my career aspirations with my high school’s guidance department later that year, they looked bewildered. “Publishing?”, they asked. “I guess you’ll need a bachelor’s in English,” was all they could really muster, without much conviction. I soon realized they didn’t know how to manage my particular ambitions, and so began my quest to navigate the world of undergraduate publishing courses.
Sequestered to my native East Coast per my parents’ guidelines, I began a search for programs. I anticipated hours of Googling and poring over college guides. Surprisingly, my search was short. I found only two options—Emerson College in Boston, and Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. I was certainly happy to have escaped the mountain of college applications dominating my friends’ lives, but I was a bit shocked that what seemed like such an enormous industry only had two East Coast programs for young people interested in the field. I found plenty of Masters’ programs in publishing: Pace University, The George Washington University, NYU. There were also certificate programs in publishing–one year deals that fit in about 10 credits, available at schools as far-flung as Minnesota State University Moorhead. But comprehensive undergraduate publishing programs were few and far between.
A born and bred Long Islander, I wanted a traditional college experience away from home, so I nixed Hofstra and packed up for the Bean. I was beginning Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing Program. Program guides boasted that this degree would give me a ‘thorough knowledge’ of topics such as ‘literary history’ and ‘creative writing’, and an overview of the ‘world of publishing’. But as I signed up for my classes, it quickly became clear that publishing would not be my main focus at Emerson. I could take a maximum of four publishing classes in my time there, as requirements dictated my degree needed to have a balance of literature and composition classes as well. Many of the publishing classes seemed to be 101 style–intro to magazine publishing, intro to print media. Though I saw the need for a traditional English degree in a sense—I couldn’t really ever interview to be, say, an acquisitions editor if I had never studied the construct of literature—I was certainly nervous that I wouldn’t graduate with a degree in publishing. I’d basically have an English degree with a fancier name, and a few publishing courses under my belt. The classes I did take towards my degree at Emerson—research writing, American literature, and a poetry workshop—were informative, engaging, and taught by inspiring professors. But they didn’t make me feel as if I was any closer to infiltrating the Big 6 than your average English undergrad.
This uncertainty, topped with the fact that all the money my parents gave me seemingly disappeared into the cash registers of Mr. Bartley’s burgers in Cambridge, made me decide to give Hofstra a go for my remaining years as an undergrad. I did what every college student dreads—packed up all my stuff and moved back into my parent’s house. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made in terms of a degree in publishing. Hofstra’s Publishing Studies program description reads, “Students who choose the Publishing Studies concentration divide their course work between literature courses and courses in which they study the history and practice of publishing and the skills and techniques that are essential in the publishing industry.” I could see right away that this degree would be much more focused on publishing. While I did have to sit through some truly zany lit requirements (Native American literature, for one), I started publishing courses almost immediately, and from people in the industry who truly had left a mark. I studied the history of publishing with a past McGraw-Hill president, honed my copyediting skills with a former Macmillan acquisitions editor, and am currently learning the most basic of graphic design skills with a past Hearst Books director of production.
My classes have not been easy; I faltered through many a copyediting assignment. But they have connected me with the larger world of publishing, and have truly given me an edge in interviewing. When interviewing to be an intern at Publishing Trendsetter as well as at my previous internship, people established in the industry were interested as well as impressed that I was learning skills in college that many learned in their first few years on the job. The proximity to New York City, the publishing capital (but certainly not exclusive location!) of the world, allowed me to attend school while simultaneously interning first for a Pulitzer Prize winning independent press, and then here at Market Partners/Trendsetter, a diverse setting that combines insight into both industry consulting and journalism.
While excited that I am poised to enter the workforce more experienced than most, I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that not everyone interested in this industry can have an experience like I did. The industry is changing, thriving, growing, and–it needs lifeblood, just like any other industry. More people could get turned on to this great world, but lack a direct path into it.
What’s my advice to those who may not have as specialized an undergrad experience as me? It sounds clichéd, but intern, intern, intern. While my classes at Hofstra have acquainted me with some influential people in the industry and made solid my basic skills, my internships are where I saw processes in publishing germinate and conclude, where I learned how to use industry jargon without sounding like a complete numbskull, and where I became confident enough to truly decide to enter publishing after college. Internships are certainly what future employers look for, and in the end, I’ll have more to say about my time spent at Bellevue Literary Press and Trendsetter than I will about my time at Hofstra or Emerson.
Many veterans in the industry will argue that publishing is, at its core, an apprenticeship industry. I’ve heard time and time again that you’ll really start developing skills once you get that proverbial foot in the door. I see the truth in that mentality, and I’m living it now as I navigate the world of publishing as an intern. But as an undergrad in publishing, I am in the process of locking down necessary skills before I need them. The apprenticeship mentality is a ‘learn as you go’ one. Hopefully, the time-consuming tasks I’ve completed over the last few years—everything from drawing up mock P&L’s to painstakingly copyediting a 500 page manuscript—will allow me to simply ‘go’, once I am hired.
Sorry, but I’ve got to run. That chapter about the history of typography in the days of Gutenberg certainly won’t read itself.