Thursday, September 30, 2010

You Don't Want to be Maxwell Perkins Because He's Dead: Publishing Jobs in This Century

You might be thinking that with this title, the post is going to be all about jobs with eBooks and POD (Print on Demand), but honestly no one in this business knows how those are going to shake out yet. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. I'll get back to you in five years.

No, this post is about how many wannabee editors say they want to be an editor because they want to discover the next Hemingway, the next Faulkner, the next Fitzgerald. Really? The next drunk, misogynist ass who also happens to be dead? And whose books would have been out of print 80 years ago if it weren't for required summer reading? This is an excellent example of how not to impress an interviewer. I know I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but it merits repeating. Especially if you are a recent college grad.

It's great if you've read the classics. Many would argue it's essential to know the background for how we got to today (although I for one think any humanities degree that involves a lot of reading is just fine for a career in publishing - Poli Sci, History, Philosophy, etc.) But do try to remember what century we're living in. You will be asked what books you've read recently. And they should be recent books. In fact, if you have time before your interview, you should run out and buy some books published by the actual publishing house (and division) where you are interviewing. Drop everything and read. It might be difficult, but you should be able to read a book a day if you otherwise do nothing else, and so you should be able to get through 3-4 before your interview (even if you're in town and free tomorrow, it's best to ask for a couple of days to prep, unless of course that means you'd no longer be in town.)

When applying for jobs in publishing, this is not the time to say to yourself, "I'd really like to beef up on the classics." This is the time to catch up on the New York Times Bestsellers. If that previous sentence made you throw up in your mouth a little bit, you might want to reconsider your prospective career, or at least make an adjustment so you're only applying to university presses. If you want a job at Random House or HarperCollins, they want bestsellers. You don't have to read a bunch of trash in prep, you can pick and choose. There are 11 NYT lists to choose from, and most of the lists actually list up to 35 titles. There are other bestseller lists you can choose among as well. If you want more literary, your best bet are the IndieBound lists.

Turn up your nose all you want; it just proves ignorance. Here is an example of books on the NYT list of 9/17:

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett
APE HOUSE by Sara Gruen
THE GRAND DESIGN by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson
THE BIG SHORT by Michael Lewis
LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave
HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeannette Walls
CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese
THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver
ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers
A LONG WAY GONE by Ishmael Beah
And I didn't even have to venture past the top 15 in any category to get this pretty literary list. You need to have read a few of these books. In particular, most English majors haven't read much nonfiction and that's an area you'd really want to catch up in. Nonfiction is easier to promote, which means it's easier to sell, which means it's easier to buy as an editor.

After you're asked what books you've read recently, you might be asked which book you liked most and why, or if your interviewer has read and liked one, you might be asked more specific questions about that particular title; if you liked it or not, what you thought, if you would have done anything differently in the publication of the book, so if you intend to try to bullsh*t your way through this question be careful. I wouldn't spout off a string of books you haven't read. Don't worry at all about saying you dislike a book if you did. It shows you are discerning, have a critical eye (key for an editor), and are willing to give your opinion despite it potentially being in the minority (naturally if any book is a bestseller, disliking it will be a minority viewpoint.)

Additionally, you will be expected to be familiar with the publisher and imprint where you are interviewing. If you go to Minotaur and spout off about horror books, or to NAL and talk about literary fiction, or to Knopf and talk about your love of romances, you've not done your homework. Some of the more mainstream divisions will be harder to pigeonhole than the genre ones, so with those you'll want to spend more time memorizing the lists, looking up the books, and reading descriptions.

If you are asked what kind of books you'd personally like to acquire one day, don't just say literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. 99% of the recent grads say that. Not only do those books normally not sell, but you want to stand out from the crowd. This is a business, not a charity, and publishers want to make money. What makes money? Again, do your homework. Find at least one category that regularly performs well that you can stomach, and be sure to mention that one. Sure I wanted to acquire literary fiction and narrative nonfiction (and I sometimes did) but the books I acquired that were big financial successes were chick lit, pop culture, and humor.

Once you've applied, you're not done with your work! There's plenty of homework before you interview. But the best and easiest advice is read. Read read read. Books published NOW.


avisannschild said...

Really? The next drunk, misogynist ass who also happens to be dead? And whose books would have been out of print 80 years ago if it weren't for required summer reading?

This made me laugh! Way to tell it like it is!

Carin S. said...

@Avisannschild, glad I made you smile! Seriously, who would read those books for fun Besides angsty teenage boys who was to show how "deep" they are? But they wouldn't be enough to keep those books in print if it weren't for schools. And you'd be surprised at how many wanna-be-editors say that!