Saturday, September 3, 2011

Breaking into Publishing

I'd love to say I was one of those people who was lucky enough to know what they wanted to do before they even came out of the womb. Pop! I'm gonna be a doctor! But that just wasn't me. As a kid, I had big plans to join the circus as a trapeze artist (and I'm afraid of heights, so I have no idea where that one came from) or become a member of the US Olympic dressage team (I rode horses for a few years, but was never very good).

Then, when I was about ten, I saw the movie Left Behind with Kirk Cameron. I was writing by then (although not very well), and suddenly being a journalist sounded like the perfect profession for me. Not so much the espionage-getting-shot-at-blackmailing part, but I liked reading teenybopper magazines. I figured that was something I could do. So I applied to colleges with the intent of becoming a journalist.

...Which lasted all of a semester. I took one of those giant 500 kid intro classes on communications 101 and basically wanted to shoot myself. And not even because of the professor, who was the meanest, most socially awkward man I've ever met. I just didn't like what I was studying. It wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped, and I ended up with less than zero interest in taking any more journalism classes.

So what did I do? I transferred schools (twice) and switched my major to creative writing. Over the course of my first semester of college, I realized that I wanted to write for myself, not because I had a deadline on a story that I wasn't even remotely invested in. 

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn't make a living being an author. I needed a new plan of attack. Being an editor had always sounded great to me (I tend to be the punctuation nazi when going through manuscripts), so I figured I'd shoot for that. Which meant getting involved in book publishing. This is perfect! I thought. I love books! 

Then I found out how hard it is to get your foot in the door. Fast-forward to my senior year of college -- I needed to get an internship for the summer between my senior and super-senior year. I applied to over fifty programs, including the Big Six publishing houses, as well as every literary agency under the sun. My resume was pretty good -- 2 years as a Madison Review staff member, small publisher intern, local magazine editor -- but I wasn't having much luck. I got calls from about seven of the 50+ places I applied to, none of which were a Big Six. One was in California, and one in Jew Jersey, neither of which I could make work. The rest were in New York, which is where I wanted to be. I phone interviewed for a few of those, then sat around waiting to hear back.

And then, something happened (which, looking back, totally changed my life in the best way possible). I got a call from a small agency in D.C. I interviewed with them, and less than a week later, I had the gig. Even better, I knew someone in D.C. that I could stay with! Needless to say, I took it. And it was the best summer of my life. I learned all about agenting, and in the process figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I, too, wanted to be an agent. I wanted to be that first stepping stone on the way to publication. I liked reading slush. I liked editing manuscripts. I liked everything about it.

Fast-forward again, this time to May 2011. I'd just graduated from college, and knew I had to get my ass out of Wisconsin. All of the best opportunities are in New York, I told myself. So... I guess that means I'm moving. By mid-June I was on a plane bound for the east coast without a place to live or a job. I crashed on friends' couches and spent the majority of my days applying for jobs (most of which I probably wasn't even qualified for). I applied for every entry level position that came up, even if it meant sending Penguin my resume seven times in one day. My resume was even better now, with real industry experience, and yet I only got one call back.

Disheartened, I decided it was time to find a "stupid job," and began applying for multiple part-time jobs. I figured I could work three "stupid jobs," and in my free time (I have no idea where I thought that was gonna come from) apply for "grown up jobs." (Yes, that's how I differentiate between the two.) After all, I was essentially homeless and needed to find a place to live. But I still wanted to be working in publishing, so I figured I could maybe intern one day a week, or online. I had a friend who was interning for a well-known agent, and was kind enough to float her my resume. Awesome Agent asked if I was looking for a full-time job, and that she knew someone in need of an assistant. She was kind enough to float them my resume, and that's how I ended up interviewing at N.S. Bienstock.

I admit, I wasn't sure what to expect going into the situation. Bienstock is a talent agency that reps people like Anderson Cooper, and all sorts of broadcast journalists and reality TV folks. At that point in time, I was sorely behind on the news, and I hadn't had a television in months. I was way out of touch. But the company has a lit department manned by Paul Fedorko (formerly of Trident) and JL Stermer (formerly of Donald Maass), and I walked out of that first interview elated. The three of us clicked instantly, and the position was exactly what I was looking for.

Sure enough, I got a call back for a second interview. And then a third. And after three weeks, was offered the position. I've been at Bienstock for three weeks now, and absolutely love it. I'm doing all the things I loved about interning, plus learning everything else I missed out on. I'm surrounded by great people and crazy opportunities.

But I'm constantly pinching myself. I know how unusual my situation is, and I know how lucky I am. I moved to New York resigned to working a minimum wage job for a year before I managed to find something in publishing. I'd planned to be just scraping by. So the fact that I now have a roof over my head and a solid job has not gone unnoticed. I thank my lucky stars every morning when I wake up, and every night before I go to bed. Sure, I kind of live in the ghetto (Jay-Z grew up across the street from me -- I don't know if I should be proud of that or not), and I live off a shitty train that makes my commute in the morning the better part of an hour, but I wouldn't change a thing.

So my advice? Hit the ground running and never give up. You're going to get rejected, and it's going to suck. But when you want something bad enough, you have to go for it. Maybe I'm too much of an optimist, but I truly believe that if you work hard, eventually it'll pay off.


  1. This is so nice to read.. A lot of the time I find stories from agents/editors who say "and it was my senior year and I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I had no interest in working in publishing until a friend told me about a job I might like, and I applied, and got it, and the rest is history." Those stories make me say "Really? It's that easy?"

    Thanks for reminding us it's hard, but worth it. I know I was really lucky to get the intersnhip I have now, and I need not to take it for granted.

  2. It definitely isn't as easy as that, even when you know people. But like I said, if you're willing to do the work, eventually it'll pay off!

    Where are you interning?

  3. You're experience sounds a lot like mine and 100 people I know. We all graduated in May and went to the NYU Summer Publishing Institute. All we could talk and think about was publishing and we spent every waking moment learning about the industry or writing cover letters for real jobs (while applying to a few fake ones).

    I started my new job as an editorial assistant around the same time you did and LOVE it. About 50% of my program has jobs now. Congrats on breaking into publishing!

  4. Congrats on the class! I was on the waiting list for Columbia's, but just missed the cutoff. In the end, it all worked out, though! I did get to see two of the NYU speakers last week, and they were fantastic. So you were really lucky to have them (Libby and Jay)!

    Where are you working now?

  5. I LOOOOOVE Libby! She was/is amazing; I saw that Young to Publishing was hosting their lecture and I'm slightly jealous I couldn't attend. I'm working at Transaction Publishers right now, a small but awesome academic press on Rutgers University campus in North New Jersey. And yeah, I didn't get into Colubmia either, so no big deal.

  6. Your post came at good time.
    I would love to be a published author, but at the same time I thought about the position of a literary agent. Sifting through slush piles? It seems great!

    Too bad there's only 15 literary agencies in Australia. I don't think any of them will take on interns. I'm not giving up though.

    It's always lovely to see someone's dream coming true. Well done!

  7. @thewwaitingroom: Her talk was insanely helpful. I can see why NYU has her speak at their program! I took a ridiculous amount of notes. Are you a part of YPG? If you're ever in NYC, you should let me know!

    @fairleeyoung: Only 15? That seems like an insanely small amount for a country that big. But I'd contact them and see if they'd like online interns. A bunch of US agents do things that way, so I'm sure you could apply for those as well.