Are Publishers “The Good Guys” or “The Bad Guys”? (Part 1)

Depends on who you ask.

As an editor, I obviously want publishers to succeed for the sake of my future employment and good literature, but I also want to feel like the people I work for are on the right side of things. What’s more, I believe that this reaction isn’t unique or surprising: almost all book lovers have passionate reactions to the book-making process once they get a glimpse behind the curtain, myself included. So when it comes to Amazon, libraries, self-publishing, indie bookstores, and so many other controversial issues, most people tend to come out passionately on one side or the other, oftentimes lambasting my future colleagues.

In the face of criticism from the people who buy our products, publishers should not be afraid to question their business decisions; do we truly know best in terms of our business model, or are we limited by conservative thinking that hurts our authors, distributors, partners, and readers? This post will attempt to lay out and flesh out the controversial issues that the publishing industry faces today, why these issues matter, what the general public thinks about publishing houses under this specific lens, and whether or not we as publishers should feel righteous, defensive, worried, ashamed, or any other feelings about the issue.

This series has a lot to cover, so this post will focus mainly on issues surrounding Amazon and self-publishing.

Amazon vs Hachette

If the continued feud between Hachette and Amazon has taught us anything, it’s that publishing houses’ PR departments will have a major impact on the profitability of publishing in the coming years. As both parties haggle over future pricing of eBooks, Hachette has harnessed the power of bestselling authors like James Patterson and Stephen Colbert to protest Amazon’s purported shady business practices and gain public support for its books. The power of this practice can best be seen in the success of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California: Stephen Colbert announced on his show that the first-time author would be destroyed by Amazon’s undermining of Hachette titles during negotiations, and suddenly her book became a surprise bestseller.

Meanwhile, Amazon has released a couple of open letters to authors and readers that attempt to show the distributor as looking out for writers and buyers more than the publishers themselves by emphasizing their superior e-royalties for Kindle Select authors. The distributor then argued that everyone wins if Amazon can just price eBooks at bargain prices, since the increased number of sales leads to more money on average for all parties—all of which plays to the idea beloved by self-publishing enthusiasts and unpublished writers that publishers are greedy, uncreative misers who don’t deserve anyone’s support.

Economically, Amazon’s argument isn’t as sound as they’d have you believe. An illuminating New Yorker article quotes literary agent Brian DeFiore, who has in fact criticized publishers for low ebook royalties in the past, as being highly skeptical of Amazon’s plan to lower prices:

Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially…If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.

The article does go on to mention that authors don’t care as much about financial gains if they can increase their readership, and that lowering book prices has been proven to lead to this eventuality. That’s part of the appeal of the self-publishing model—that authors ignored by traditional publishers have garnered huge followings through their own marketing efforts and more reasonable prices for readers. And yet, connected to the earlier point, these authors would have to place all of their hopes on one digital sales channel, whereas traditional publishers offer print sales to many channels (including Amazon) but provide reduced royalties due to costs like overhead.

Verdict: Publishers are always going to put print first in the climate Amazon has created, where its tantalizing digital business model and loss-leader pricing would give them an eventual monopoly that makes print books hard to sell for a profit. Issues like author advances, the advanced marketing and respectability that traditionally published books hold over self-published works, and the need to keep their own ebooks from undermining print sales are valid concerns that Amazon and its supporters ignore too readily.

At the same time, I do find the idea of paying authors more than 25% for ebooks compelling. Various factors have contributed to most authors making less and less on print sales, so it would be a sign of good faith to authors to increase royalties for e-sales after they have resisted the temptation of Amazon’s attempted bribery to stand behind them. But my area of expertise is not economics, so I don’t know if that is viable or naive thinking. Overall, though, my “good guy” award goes to the publishers in this category, and the “bad guy” award goes to Amazon.

Amazon’s Wild West vs. Publishers’ Literary Canon

Should publishers decide what literature should reach the bookshelves of everyday readers, or should readers’ average score out of 5 stars and bestseller lists decide? In a triumphant critique of traditional publishers in the face of rising self-publishing sales, Smashwords founder Mark Coker mocks the old idea that, “publishers alone possessed the wisdom to determine if a writer deserved passage through the pearly gates of author heaven. Writers were taught that publishers had an inalienable right to this power, and that this power was for the common good of readers.”

Coker’s argument could be that self-published novels are chosen solely on the merit of the storytelling, whereas with publishing houses readers are at the mercy of the tastes and prejudices of their editors. Of course, the most successful self-published novels don’t just succeed due to quality, but also due to skillful marketing, SEO optimization, and Amazon promotions, done either by the author herself or by her hired team. Still, he would likely argue that authors can allow readers to directly validate the enjoyability and skill of their manuscripts, rather than need a stodgy editor or literary agent to act as the solitary judge and gatekeeper.

So should traditional publishers have this power? As I said at the beginning, depends on who you ask. Many might argue that editors have more authority than regular readers to judge which stories have merit and which do not, as it’s their job, and hopefully their passion, to think critically about what people will like in their stories. And the success of certain imprints, specifically ones that generate texts in one genre or format (i.e. poetry), shows that readers have grown to trust the discerning eye of certain editors and the authors they’ve chosen to represent the publishing house. This is essentially the argument for literary canon—that publishers have discovered and nurtured the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the past and that they protect posterity by raising books like The Goldfinch over popular bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Gray.

Yet with each self-published bestseller that achieves acclaim after being rejected by publishers, these authors prove that the judgment of publishers and agents aren’t infallible. And the recent controversy at the Book Expo America, where publishers revealed a startling lack of diversity in their acquired children’s books, is a problem that extends far beyond one genre. Literary canon has always been homogenous, primarily dominated by white men and more recently white women, and the publishing scene similarly demonstrates a disparity of representation beyond a token few. Some argue that self-publishing offers the solution to the whitewashed literary sphere that publishing houses have engendered. Others argue that publishers simply need to get past the perception that multicultural books won’t sell or that POC characters can only fit within a certain mold. The fact is, publishing houses lack diversity in hiring and executives, and that engenders a culture that ignores diversity and pretends that narratives with diverse characters are inaccessible to everyday readers.

Verdict: Amazon is an incredible resource for authors, and publishers have to try to offer services and rates to compete with Amazon. I would argue that they do, especially because Amazon has thus far failed to make a major impact in their own attempts to get print books into bookstores and homes. And publishers, teamed with the literary agent barrier, do have a system in place of finding quality literature from the masses of manuscripts published every year. But the lack of diversity is a serious issue that we cannot continue to brush under the rug or place on the shoulders of a few authors of color. I personally love reading about people of different cultures, races, species, and worlds (I’m sure you can guess sci-fi is my favorite genre) and don’t understand why those narratives should ever be excluded for reasons of supposed “inaccessibility.”  So yes, this is one area that will give me no small amount of guilt if my future publishing house perpetuates this problem rather than rectifies it, and publishers will start to lose readers and money to self-publishing if they do not rectify their small-minded acquisition strategy. I unfortunately have to give the good guy rating to Amazon here, though if big publishers get their act together diversity-wise they can easily stop being the bad guy and be a force for good in literature.

Monopoly: Amazon v Apple/Big 5 Edition

I won’t go too far into the details of this case, as there are several articles that describe them for us. But the dilemma of the case is straightforward: Amazon buys books for wholesale prices from publishers and sells them for less than they paid so that no one can possibly compete with their prices, creating a monopoly supposedly in the name of consumer rights. Thus, consumers buy major publishers’ books for cheap and then stay to buy Kindle Select books that make up the profits for Amazon. Apple and the publishers colluded to create an agency model where they determine the price of books and Amazon has no say in changing it, which would drive prices up and allow other distributors like Apple to actually compete in the ebook market, but hurt consumers.

Now, the big publishers and Apple have all settled, essentially admitting guilt for their crimes, and public opinion is falling into two predictable lines: slimy Apple and stupid old publishers finally got what they deserve for sticking it to consumers, and self-publishing will take big publishing’s place; or evil Amazon is sitting laughing on the corpses of its competitors while books lose all cultural value and the industry collapses in the spirit of “competition.”

Verdict: It’s difficult to find a proper answer, despite how biased I am toward publishers. First off, it’s perfectly reasonable to ridicule the “it’s not a monopoly because Amazon did it first” defense as elementary school level, and what they did was illegal, even if Amazon has created a climate where only a united front could win against it. Still, Amazon’s current removal of pre-orders and speedy delivery for Hachette titles, and its more drastic action of removing all of Macmillan’s titles in 2010 for switching to the agency model, shows just how terrible Amazon can be to anyone who dares to ask for fair rates.

 I’m of the personal belief that companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon that destroy all small business competition, terrorize its suppliers, treat their employees like shit, and then offer insanely low prices to boost its popularity are horrible; still, what the publishers did was illegal, and gave moral high ground to the company when they should have colluded to have the DOJ go after Amazon instead. I’m giving the “Bad Guy” rating to both parties here, though the worse one clearly goes to Amazon.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to paint Amazon as the “bad guys” when they are the number one buyer of both print and electronic books for most publishers and universalize the accessibility of titles throughout the U.S. and the world to increase sales, and they have ended the stigma of “vanity publishing” in favor of empowering any entrepreneurial author to pursue his or her dreams. Major publishers are rightfully appealing to the public to make Amazon maintain the value of books and curtail its predatory pricing, but they are also completely dependent upon the distributor at this point and could not abandon it without putting their entire business at risk. In some ways, Amazon’s ruthlessness has forced publishing as an industry to adapt more quickly than it might have to the digital age, while in other ways those adaptations have hurt the publishing industry and the authors it represents by turning books a cheap business commodity. Thus, publishers have abandoned any risk-taking in favor of guaranteed money-makers from celebrity biographies to big name (white) authors’ sequel novels. So the question becomes whether publishers and Amazon will continue to fight or manage to reach an accord, since right now neither side can safely say they are entirely in the right.

Final Score: 1 Good Guy and 2 Bad Guys Each

I threw out a lot of controversial stuff and possibly criticized my future bosses while roasting the “enemy,” so hopefully I succeeded in being fair. But if you think I was too hard or soft on either side, feel free to speak your mind in the comments for some spirited debate!

For the next post on my publishing conscience I’ll talk about publishers’ relationship with independent bookstores and libraries. Spoiler alert: like today, there’s some good and some bad.

Thanks for reading!

How To Prepare for a Publishing Job While Living Outside of New York City

Just like you might have to move to Detroit to design cars or Silicon Valley to work for major computer companies, you may end up having to move to New York City or Boston to track down book publishing jobs and internships with major publishing houses. You can find small or independent publishers, academic presses, and isolated imprints of New York-based houses sporadically throughout the country, but those positions can be competitive, or seldom are open for interviews due to lower turnover rates than you’ll find in NYC. That means before you can get a job with that small publisher in your hometown, it might make sense to apply for jobs where more are available before bringing your expertise back home.

So does that mean that after you graduate college, you should just move to New York and hope you can find a job? Maybe, but before you take such a big step unprepared, there are a lot of things you can do to improve your job chances before ever setting foot in New York City.

This post will cover various resume-building experiences you can attain at college, graduate school, or from the comfort of your own home, experiences that will broaden your publishing expertise and before applying for paid positions or even internships.

College/Personal Experience

Literary Magazines: Lit mags are a great place for any budding editor to get his or her start, especially because of the thousands across the U.S. many can be found on college campuses. Future editors need practice reading a lot of slush stories to train their literary eye for what is or isn’t considered “good enough” for publication—or, to put it bluntly, train yourself to say “NO” firmly in the face of mediocrity and only accept the best—in case you ever have to read unsolicited (“slush pile”) manuscripts and make recommendations to your superior. Future marketers and publicists, meanwhile, can receive training and experience in campus and community outreach when it comes to soliciting submission, selling your magazine, and organizing events.

More official literary magazines run by professional staff will give you a stronger entry on your resume, as well as opportunities for mentoring and informational interviews about next steps for your career. Student-run publications, meanwhile, allow ambitious students to garner early experience in leadership and management roles. Ultimately, this extracurricular showcases your passion for stories and writing to future internship coordinators and employers, so don’t pass up the chance if you’re still in college or if a professional mag is nearby.

College Newspapers: If you’re interested in working at a print/digital magazine or newspaper, this experience is a major asset that will open a lot of doors for you. Several positions ask for anywhere from 3-10 writing clips, so save your best articles for job applications, or polish them up and post them on a LinkedIn account. Acting as a student editor also shows that you can work in a fast-paced environment and have a record of meeting rigid deadlines. Even if you’re more interested in book publishing, you can still use this experience to trumpet your skills in copy-editing, personnel management, and working as part of a team or with superiors/underlings depending on your place within the organization.

Bookselling: Whether you track down a position with an independent bookstore (yes, they still exist) or work for a pittance at Barnes & Noble, you’ll have a vital new cornerstone to your resume. Take a couple of minutes to read this article of quotes from publishing executives who got their start as booksellers. Or check out this Tumblr post by a Hachette recruiter, who informs applicants that “one of the most valuable experiences you can have is to work at a bookstore.” To summarize, these positions may not pay that well in the short term, but will make you an immediate expert in customer service and ideally expose you to a network of authors and literary agents that come to promote books in your store. You will become acclimated to speaking about books and discover first-hand through conversations with customers which books are popular with different demographics. Acquisitions editors need to know their projected readers’ interests and wants before deciding which novels to purchase, and sales reps have to work with bookstores and booksellers regularly.

Freelancing: Try working for a professional copyediting site like oDesk or get a membership with the Copyeditors Freelance Association, as a way to sharpen your reading/writing/grammar skills. Or try something with less pressure, like offering to edit your friends’ papers or your creative writing classmates’ novels. It’s inevitable that you are going to have a semester where you couldn’t track down a job or internship, so use freelancing as a way to keep your skills sharp and possibly make some money on the side. Rest assured that freelancing is definitely something you can and should put on a resume, especially if you can build up a client base or get positive reviews for your work.

Make Your Own Publication: If you can’t find a literary magazine, journal, or newspaper that interests you at your school, then try making your own! A lot of colleges have student officers or associations that listen to proposals for new publications or projects and can grant funding for your dream project. There is no better way to show your healthy initiative, business acumen, and skills than to bring in a physical copy of something you helped to make and co-found or co-manage; even if it fails spectacularly, it’s still a great story to discuss. My Emerson classmates and I received funding from my school to create and print a lit mag this past spring, and in each interview since then the interviewer has always seemed impressed by this fact.

Technology/Skills to Learn

HTML/CSS: Publishers have fully embraced the eBook phenomenon, which means there are a lot of jobs out there for editors who know code well enough to turn their books into ePub and Mobi (Kindle) formats. At the same time, publishers are struggling to figure out issues like selling books directly to consumers to sidestep Amazon, which means anyone who knows how to work with websites will also find a home. So whether this means taking college classes in coding or hand-coding a personal website to show off on a business card or resume, you should find a way to acclimate yourself to this technology.

Adobe Creative Suite (InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver): If your college offers free downloads of Adobe, take advantage of the offer immediately or you’ll regret it (like I do…..). Most publishers rely heavily on the latest version of creative suite, and will expect you to be at least familiar, if not proficient, in it. And I’m not simply talking about jobs for designing print layouts or covers. I’ve used InDesign during an editorial internship and for a lit mag, Photoshop during multiple positions including my current eBook production internship, and Dreamweaver to design an eBook for a work sample. Try taking computer classes like the ones found on Lynda.com that focus on individual Adobe platforms.

Chicago Manual of Style (or AP for magazines): Sorry, everyone who grew up learning MLA or APA style, you need to scrub out your brains and get used to CMS. If you are at all interested in doing freelance copyediting or proofreading for a publisher, you need to be an expert with the CMS style guide. In lieu of a class on the subject, there are online tests available for you to practice your grammar and knowledge of the English language.

Microsoft Office: You might roll your eyes when you see this in a job description, but proficiency in using Word styles and Excel formulas can be an important way to prepare yourself for an entry-level job.

Informational Interviews and Learning About the Industry

Informational interviews are an excellent way to make contacts with people at a publishing house for which you’re interested in working, even if you are thousands of miles away from New York. They aren’t, however, a guaranteed way of getting a job or even being considered for one when a position opens, so you shouldn’t do them for that reason alone. Instead, find a way to get in contact with someone in a job you find intriguing and see if they’ll give you 20-30 minutes of their time. I’ll do a full blog post later that goes into greater detail about these interviews, but for now, suffice to say that they’re a great way of knowing what you’re getting into with the job and what you still need to learn or get better at before you try applying with your favorite publishing imprint.

Another thing to keep in mind is that editorial jobs are the most competitive of any publishing jobs by far. But if you study the book creation process, you’ll see that there are a lot of entry level positions—acquisitions, production, eBook production, development, domestic/international subsidiary rights, contracts, permissions, marketing, publicity—for you to explore. The more you know about this industry, the more likely you’ll find the job that is the best fit for you. This is more about the “objective” of your resume than your actual experience: would you be happy in more than one position, and do you want to make yourself qualified in several areas to become a multifaceted candidate with management potential, or put all of your effort into one area?

Graduate Publishing Programs

There aren’t too many publishing programs nationwide. The main programs that I’ve heard of: EmersonNYU and Pace University in New York, George Washington University in D.C., and Portland State University in Oregon. You could also include Columbia’s summer program on this list as a microcosm of what these graduate programs provide.

You absolutely don’t need an MA or MS to succeed in publishing, and plenty of people have succeeded without it. But during my time at my Emerson program, I had the chance to work for two different, award-winning literary magazines in Ploughshares (professional) and Redivider (student-run), I learned how to use all of the applications above and took coding and copyediting courses, and I was given an excuse (papers) to conduct informational interviews with writers, editors, and publishers of my choosing, both remotely and in person during a school-sponsored trip to NY to visit publishers like Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin.

This post wasn’t meant to be one big advertisement for Emerson; rather, it should show you that the program simply facilitated what I could have been learning and experiencing on my own if I had known what I needed to do to get my dream job. You should choose whether you feel comfortable learning about publishing and technology on your own time, or whether you would rather attend a program that can teach you what you need and want to know.

Conclusion

Many people want to work in the book industry, and there are a lot of editorial opportunities out there for anyone to take advantage of. So it’s never too soon to start making yourself as well-rounded and unique a candidate as possible to distinguish yourself from the pack. This means making yourself technologically savvy, giving yourself a multitude of experiences with different publications to discuss during an interview, connecting with as many people as possible via interviews and social media (read: LinkedIn), and maybe joining a graduate or certification program that will officially sanction your publishing knowledge.

My next newbie-publishing posts will probably cover informational interviews, or maybe I’ll just throw out a giant list of links starting with Publisher’s Weekly of every website you should be reading to stay informed about the industry, something that is very important when it comes to interviewing for an entry-level position. And if I’ve missed some great ways to get editorial or publishing experience, feel free to throw them into the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

Preparing for a Publishing Internship Interview, and Follow-Up Questions You Should Ask Your Employer

Getting an actual interview with your dream publisher, or with any publisher, lit mag, newspaper, etc., is more than half the battle. Without fully knowing what the internship coordinator, editorial assistant, or HR rep looks for in a cover letter, getting a callback could be likened to winning the lottery—a lottery with decent odds, admittedly, but still leaving too much up to chance. Now, at the interview section of the process, you have much more control over making a good impression and feeling out what the interviewer wants from his or her intern.

In short, don’t let your upcoming interview stress you out. Most interviews follow a very similar, easy structure that this blog post will help you to prepare for:

  1. General questions about your publishing goals and background
  2. Questions about your traits, problem solving, attitude, and likes
  3. Logistical details and questions about start dates and dress codes that you should resist the urge to focus on;
  4. A Q&A period about your prospective position and publisher, a deceptively important opportunity to reveal things about yourself.

Interview formats

Interviews range in duration and style of questioning depending on the format of the interview. You may be questioned by the internship coordinator, the editorial/ production/ marketing assistants directly above you, an HR representative, or an assortment of each. See if you can discern from their emails—or directly ask if an in-person interview is preceded by a preliminary phone interview—the format of the interview and who will be questioning you, as this information can be extremely helpful in determining how to prepare for an interview.

For my seasonal (3 month) internship interviews, the number of interviewers ranged from 1-3, but the number didn’t matter. One person, usually your eventual supervisor, will take the lead on the majority of questions, while the remainder may have a question or two but generally aren’t as prepared or aware of your qualifications.

For a year-long salaried position I applied for, I ended up speaking with a dozen or so people in a three-round interview with editorial assistants, editorial department heads, and their HR representative. Fortunately, this interview was simply a longer, repetitious version of shorter interviews, with almost entirely the same questions coming up in each segment of the interview.

General Questions

Be ready for variations on the standard questions that come up in almost every interview:

i. Describe your interest in book publishing. Why are you interested in a career in editing?

ii. How have your past experiences/internships prepared you for this position? How are you qualified for this position?

iii. Why are you interested in this internship/working for publisher name here specifically?

iv. How are you a good fit for this position/company?

v. What do you hope to get out of this position?

The first two to three questions of an interview are usually these, so these questions will decide the first impression you make on the interviewer. I can’t help you in terms of avoiding nervousness and exuding confidence, but I can advise you on the content of your responses.

First, try to strike a balance between why they’re a good fit for you and why you’re a good fit for them. These questions naturally invite self-centered answers, but don’t spend too much time explaining how this internship will advance your career or why X publisher has always seemed so interesting (though this personal touch is still important). If the internship listing/webpage had a list of everyday tasks, describe how your work for them will supplement the skills you already have—a chance to praise yourself while showing your awareness of what the job entails and what you will and won’t need to learn on the job.

Similarly, if the internship is in the same field as past positions on your resume, explain how old experiences prepare you for this position while explaining how this position is somehow different or better for your career than past jobs. And most importantly, try to describe your general interest in the profession as well as your specific interest in the position. If you explain your interest in a career in editing or your love of the publishing industry, you show that the position is more than a line on your resume, which makes you a more attractive candidate.

Memorizing Anecdotes

You will then likely be asked two styles of questions: describe a situation at work that shows certain qualities or problem solving, and state certain accomplishments you are proud of. I lump these categories together because in either case you should have a selection of anecdotes ready to answer such questions as the following:

  1. What is your greatest strength/weakness? Don’t just state a quality for each. For your strength, give a short anecdote that exemplifies your strength. If you choose leadership, be sure you have something on your resume that actually tested your mettle. For your weakness, describe a moment where you realized you had a weakness in that area and how you are now working to fix that weakness, or are at least aware of it. They will appreciate the honest assessment, particularly if it is an area they specified on the job description like organization, multi-tasking, customer service, independence, or other common qualities you feel uncomfortable with.
  2. Describe a moment you dealt with a difficult supervisor/colleague/customer and how you solved the problem. This question has almost always come up for me, especially in editorial positions where my job is to email or speak with authors on a regular basis. Have an anecdote ready for each of these if possible, but be sure to focus more on your patience and graciousness rather than how much you hated your boss or hate annoying customers—unless the story is hilarious or absurd, in which case draw it out! It never hurts to show you have a sense of humor about these things, and your interviewer will likely empathize and have similar stories from their own time in your position. I’ve also had two different internships give me writing prompts asking me to respond to an angry customer to diffuse the situation, one as part of the application and one during the interview.
  3. Describe a time you worked as a team/led a team. You should hopefully have a good anecdote from a non-work source for this type of question, like participating with a literary magazine, community service group, school group project (that has to do with publishing, hopefully), or other examples.
  4. Describe a time that you had to multitask/prioritize; describe how you plan or organize your day. This question speaks for itself. Basically, your employer wants to know that you can handle the pressure of having multiple jobs to get done at once and that you know how to prioritize, both at work and in your everyday life.
  5. What are you most proud of/what is your greatest accomplishment? As I mentioned in my very first post about what not to say during an internship interview, be careful about what you would choose here, and have something prepared. It doesn’t necessarily have to pertain to publishing, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. For instance, if you describe how proud you were to have your name on the masthead of your college’s lit mag, you can use that to segue back into your passion for publishing. However, you can certainly use something else so long as it shows qualities that your employer will want in his or her intern.

Miscellaneous Questions

  • What are some of your favorite books/authors?
  • What blogs/newspapers/publishing websites do you read?
  • What do/did you study in school and how did it prepare you for this position?
  • What writing experience do you have?
  • What is your dream job/where do you want to be in five years?
  • Are there any others you’ve run into that I’ve missed? If so, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll add them!

Questions to Ask Your Employer

For a good summary of the types of questions that impress interviewers, check out this thorough article by College Magazine. But to summarize, think hard about what you need to know during the interview phase. Some typical questions you might ask—what is the dress code, what will my average day consist of, when will I have your answer, can I take the internship for college credit—don’t tell the interviewer anything about you and bog things down. The interviewer may give you some of that information later anyway, and you can always figure out the office dress code and work culture on the job, or email about college credit or other logistics.

Instead, take the time to focus on the two people in the room, as well as the people that have been there before. Ask about how this will benefit your future career, specifically if this will prepare you for an entry-level position. As a follow-up, ask what other interns moved on to do, to see if they have found the kind of success you are looking for. Then feel free to shift the flow of the conversation toward the interviewer: how did they get involved in publishing/this publisher, and what is their specific job at the company? The above article notes that “interesting questions relating to background or questions showing that a candidate has researched and done his or her homework demonstrate passion and determination…[and]only a handful of people…[ask] personal questions.” Shining the spotlight on your future boss will show you the type or person you might work for, and allows them the chance to talk about themselves while giving you some breathing room as the interview winds down.

Conclusion

All of this information collected together may appear daunting, and there’s no way to predict every single question that a given editor will care to ask about. But that doesn’t matter as much as you simply coming into the interview with these key assets: a clear self-appraisal of what you want out of this internship and your future career, knowledge about the publisher and its books/authors, a series of personal stories that show your skills, experience, growth, and areas for improvement, and some questions that show your initiative and priorities.

I hope this was helpful for you! My next non-current events post will cover how to get relevant, non-internship publishing experiences outside of publishing hub cities like New York and Boston that you can use for those pesky anecdotal/situational questions.

Thanks for reading!

HarperCollins’s Direct Sales Plan: Necessary or Futile?

If you can’t negotiate with Amazon, beat them at their own game of sales, or remove them from the equation entirely. Many industry experts and would-be experts like me have bandied this solution about, one where publishers will sell directly to consumers on their website. Now, HarperCollins is trying this strategy on a revamped website that sells both print and e-books directly to consumers, according to Publisher’s Weekly. While there will be some sales, most books will be sold at full price. The website does provide links to major retailers like Amazon and B&N, however.

I discussed this solution in a previous article, where I noted that publishers could improve their social media and marketing by having greater circulation on their websites, particularly considering most visitors to their sites are job-seekers. I also questioned whether publishers would be able to provide appealing prices to consumers when confronted with Amazon’s predatory loss-leader pricing. If consumers are going into bookstores only to buy the books they find on Amazon, you can bet that they will find it even easier to search for books on the publishers’ sites and then open Amazon in a second tab from the comfort of one’s home.

HarperCollins is clearly wary of the latter problem, which is why they are providing links to the Amazon page; it knows that it currently cannot compete with Amazon on pricing and that consumers may not end up buying their books on the site, but they want readers to at least start their search on the HarperCollins website.

The comments on the Pub Weekly article provide an apt summary of some of the problems of HarperCollins’s strategy:

  • Multiple readers are treating this strategy as the final nail in the coffin for indie bookstores, since publishers are trying to cut out the middle man distributors through direct sales. Frankly, I don’t believe that the website in its fledgling state will have that significant of an effect–people who shop at indie bookstores aren’t going to abandon them to use this website, and people who buy books online do not bring their business to physical retailers anymore anyway. What does matter is the abrupt shift in the public image of publishers, from the bullied, struggling victims of Amazon to callous, bottom-line businesses abandoning their indie partners to fend for themselves.
  • Some argue that publishers don’t know a single thing about retail and should leave this area to their long-time partners (an argument that ties into the idea that they are abandoning indie booksellers rather than exploring or expanding their options). I would argue that this argument also connects to the arguments made by self-published authors and their fans, who usually lambast publishers for being out of touch when it comes to marketing their books properly. People are losing trust in publishers to market non-major titles or properly exploit social media, and this website provides an opportunity for them to redeem their stodgy image by marketing smaller or backlist titles; or, conversely, to focus on major titles and reinforce that reputation.
  • Finally, some commenters mock the very idea that consumers care about publishers and will buy books based on something other than authors, genres, or staff/Amazon recommendations. To be honest, this assessment is fair to apply to most major publishers. Small publishers and imprints can create a focused website surrounding a certain genre or subgenre of literature, but a major house with dozens of imprints lacks a focused theme to bring in consistent readership. I would personally argue that HarperCollins would do better to focus first on revamping its imprints’ websites, then bringing readers from these disparate sites to one hub retail site for HarperCollins. These publishers are making themselves “too big to fail” but in doing so they are possibly diluting their brands from having much focus or meaning.

I think print-on-demand, direct sales from exciting publisher websites are a necessary part of publishers’ futures if they want to shake off their dependance upon Amazon; moreover, I believe this strategy does not in any way signal the death of bookstores, because publishers love having as many sales options as possible and would bend over backwards to keep these channels open. By creating backup sales options, they give themselves more negotiating power and increase profitability for books in general, which could in turn mean the return of more risky midlist and experimental titles.

I still believe that publishers have a long way to go before reaching that stage, however. I have to admit that I like some of the features on HarperCollins’s site, like search categories for series of books or award winners (i.e. Hugo, Nebula, ALA, etc. for sci-fi/fantasy). Still, I think publishers need to do more to get other people on their site, not just publishing nerds like me. Maybe publishers that do self-publishing services could make some of the best-rated self-published titles available through direct retail to boost circulation from authors. Or perhaps make a greater effort to support interactive author websites that link back to the publisher. Or some other strategies I haven’t thought of; anyone have any marketing ideas to get regular people interested in publishing websites?

Thanks for reading!

How Simon & Schuster’s New Imprint Saga Demonstrates How Exactly to Plan Your Own Publishing Business

One of the major questions sometimes asked in an editorial internship interview concerns your long term goals: are you someone interested in working your way up the chain of a publishing house within an established framework until you earn a leadership role, or do you intend to use your experience to start something of your own making? If your goal is the latter, then you should be prepared to explain such a goal with businesslike language and concrete details during the interview, as a way of showing your initiative and seriousness for the book pub profession. No one would expect you to have an innovative new model that redefines publishing or discovers an untapped market as a twenty-something college student, but it does benefit you to know the necessary rhetoric in terms of what it takes to start your own venture.

What is your starting list of titles? Will you rely more on acquiring new novels or purchasing backlist titles to start? How will you manage to pull authors away from the publishers they’re currently with to join an unproven venture? What thematic differences or production strategies would you employ to distinguish your publishing house or new imprint from those currently out there?

In an age when publishers are merging with one another, buying competitors, and dropping unprofitable imprints with rapidity, it’s rare to see too many new imprints created today. But Simon & Schuster has recognized the continued profitability of the sci-fi/fantasy market, and has likely observed how dedicated speculative fiction imprints like Ace Books for Penguin and Orbit for Hachette have achieved huge successes of late. S&S already has impressive science fiction writers on their list—Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King, for example—but they have chosen to progress beyond relying on big bestsellers in the genre. We’ll discuss here why their business model looks promising before it even begins, and the business lessons we can take out of their initial strategy for our own entrepreneurial plans in future.

Step 1: Find young, up-and-coming, award-winning authors: Of Saga’s first four original titles being released, three were written by nominees or winners of the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. Two of the books are the authors’ debut titles. A third was written under the pseudonym of an award-winning speculative author, so in some ways the book is “his debut” as well. But the most important point in my mind is that these authors have won awards primarily for their short stories and novellas, not their books.

If you pay attention to major science fiction awards or speculative short stories, you know who Ken Liu is in particular. He has won two Hugos and one Nebula in the past four years, and has been nominated for several other pieces. Simon & Schuster acquiring his first novel is a major win for the imprint’s credibility, but for many readers his undoubtedly excellent first book will come as a pleasant surprise.

Pardon the upcoming baseball metaphor for non-sports fans, but think of yourself as Billy Beane and literary magazines and short story websites as the minor leagues when it comes to building a roster of authors. Certain authors will show the qualities you’re looking for in small doses, and they will be hungry for the chance to prove themselves with your assistance. Give them that chance, and you will have acquired new talent, and likely their loyalty when it comes to selling their sequels.

Step 2: Acquire these young authors: Other imprints are eying the same young authors as you, and they have the funds and established reputation to steal away these authors before your fledgling imprint can hope to reach them. One of my major duties as an intern for Heyday Books in California was updating an Excel document of “writers to watch,” from which the editors could search for new talent for the annual New California Writing anthology. Publishers are more proactive in finding authors than you’d expect from their huge slush piles, and it’s somewhat difficult to stake a claim on a new author without someone else having discovered her first.

But somehow, Saga found a way to not only claim Ken Liu’s rising star, but also steal Genevieve Valentine away from Prime Books. This publisher released her debut novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which won or was nominated for several prominent awards. But Valentine has chosen to move on to S&S for her next book. Did S&S offer more money, or did the prestige of a Big Five publisher do enough to woo her away?

I have no insider knowledge to answer this question, but it remains an important issue nonetheless. You can’t simply decide that you want to kickstart a new fantasy or romance or mystery imprint without determining how independent you want your operation to be. Will you sell your business plan to a major publisher in order to have a monetary cushion and a name that draws authors? If so, you have to determine which publisher has a gap that your imprint can fill. If you plan to strike out alone for the sake of autonomy, then you need a stronger incentive to attract good authors to your new house, such as higher author revenue. Some independent publishers like Greywolf Press have achieved enormous success acquiring authors simply by paying them more money than the industry standard, but you have to determine if you can afford such a plan.

Step 3: Establish a distinctive style from the outset: Saga will not succeed on the strength of its authors alone, but must also create a brand of literature that will be familiar to readers, and to the booksellers who choose whether or not to place the books on store shelves. In a previous post, I discussed the clever business strategies that has allowed Orbit Books to succeed, including eye-catching covers and an emphasis on new paperback releases. They don’t focus on a single area of speculative fiction, however; their “About Us” page mentions their dedication to publishing “across the spectrum of Science Fiction and Fantasy – from action-packed urban fantasy to widescreen space opera; from sweeping epic adventures to near-future thrillers.” Saga also will not likely restrict its acquired novels to one area, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to make your proposed imprint overly specialized or limited.

But Saga’s first four books already have an interestingly ominous aesthetic: two ruined cities—one burning and another occupied by evil forces—a cracked helm, and a red snake as a symbol of the future. Orbit’s books, even its darkest dystopias like Feed, always seem to have a humorous, gleeful detachment from reality, but Saga’s initial list seems to be targeting the Game of Thrones crowd that craves solemn realism in its escapism. This choice isn’t just motivated by a trend, though; when I visited S&S’s offices in February and spoke with a couple of the editors there, they argued that the publisher has made its name on serious literature, and on seeking quality titles that establish trends rather than acquiring derivative copycats of the Harry Potters and Twilights that other publishers create. Thus, even S&S’s fantasy epics may be required to attain literary greatness. You have to determine whether your hypothetical house will have a similar culture that defines its acquisition or design choices.

Step 4: Don’t be afraid to break your own rules with the backlist:

Saga’s frontlist is deadly serious, yet its backlist mixes gothic horror and optimistic fantasy, with creatures ranging from dragons to vampires. The horror titles somewhat match with the contemporary titles’ aesthetic, but the Dragonsong titles by Hugo award winner Anne McCaffery don’t belong except for the fact that they are great fantasy novels. It doesn’t matter. The books have already sold very well, and don’t need to be matched up with new titles to keep selling well.

Conclusions: When trying to come up with an idea for your own future publishing house, the pressure is on to come up with some impressive niche subgenre, and that may be the necessary approach for founding a new literary magazine. However, your prospective employer should be just as impressed by a well-researched business plan that shows you thinking like they do.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m an avid fan of speculative fiction novels, and would love the chance to found or run my own sci-fi/fantasy imprint in the future. I will be following Saga’s initial months very closely as a perfect case study for my own future goals. If you have an interest in a particular genre, be sure to follow PW and genre-specific publishing blogs closely for comparable news about new houses and imprints, because they may also provide invaluable information for your career.

Thanks for reading!

Source article: http://io9.com/take-an-exclusive-peek-at-the-most-anticipated-scifi-im-1591612349

 

The Jane Friedman-Open Road Media Model: Thinking Creatively About Backlists and Acquisitions for Your Publisher

Original article: Publisher’s Weekly‘s Open Road Launches Series for Controversial Works

Open Road Media is an ambitious new publisher that focuses on acquiring eBooks from authors with large, underappreciated lists, defunct publishers, and other creative avenues to create an impressive digital platform of primarily backlisted titles. The company’s CEO, Jane Friedman, once rewrote the book on marketing by inventing the author tour, and now relies on professionally designed book trailers, social media, syndication, and other unconventional methods to sell books that other publishers, major and minor, have passed up.

While Friedman, who recently visited Emerson College to speak about her publishing career, is currently intent upon getting the first “e-riginal” eBook in the New York Times Book Review, she has already succeeded in a contemporary publishing model that shows the potency of eBooks as a primary channel of sales with the right marketing strategy. Equally important, she has relied upon the old publishing model of creating themed lists of books that will attract audiences.

Most recently, as described in the article above, Open Road launched Forbidden Bookshelf, which takes older books that exposed a dark, uncomfortable truth but never achieved enough exposure to sell or reach a wide audience. Of the five initial books on the list, many were published in the 80s and 90s, and all of them to my knowledge by different publishers. It’s hard to find information on their past publishing history, because they were all essentially defunct until Open Road rediscovered their potential and purchased them.

Relying on backlists is nothing new to major publishers, who can take risks on exorbitant author advances because of the safety nets provided by contemporary bestsellers like Harry Potter or Twilight, or by the classics everyone reads in school, or is supposed to, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. There is an uncreative complacency inherent in this model, where big publishers rely on and market guaranteed moneymakers and let other old titles stagnate. Friedman’s publishing house taps into the very resource that big publishers have left dormant, and succeeds as a result.

If you get an acquisitions or marketing job with a major publisher, don’t spend all of your time on new titles if you can. Some new editors have made a name for themselves finding out-of-print, obscure, or public domain titles, repackaging and rebranding them without an expensive author advance, and selling them to great success. Another example: at the risk of sounding both morbid and callous, there’s a major market for the unfinished or unpublishable stories of deceased authors, from Nabokov’s unfinished novel The Original of Laura to Octavia Butler’s undiscovered short stories (Open Road recently acquired Butler’s stories).

But even then, these strategies perpetuate the idea that publishers need to find the next bestseller or gem in the rough, rather than create a compelling list of several titles from what you have. In the digital age, all a book may need to suddenly start selling is a revamped cover that looks fresh on a digital platform.

But how easy could it really be to just make a compelling list from old titles? I’m glad you asked, hypothetical reader! I think that lists can be compelling on their own, like Open Road’s inspired flirting with controversy, or they can stem from current events or blatant plagiarism. Here’s some examples:

Piggybacking on major classics: If you’re sitting with books like Huck Finn and Grapes of Wrath on your list, you can cash in on them individually or look for other road trip or transformative journey novels to group with them. Find modern narratives of race to accompany sales of Invisible Man and Native Son. Sell despicable protagonists with Lolita. Think Amazon’s effective recommendation system, only tailored to your publishing house’s list rather than to KDP titles and your competitors.

Feminism in any genre: In solidarity with #yesallwomen, whip out old titles with strong female protagonists, or speculative societies dominated by women. You can look at the success of recent Kickstarter campaigns like Women Destroy Science Fiction and Athena’s Daughters to see how readers are craving stories with empowered women at the forefront, so dredge through the majority of your male-dominated titles for older works that will still inspire interest today and repackage them for a contemporary audience.

Hollywood and hipsters: when Star Wars episode VII comes out in a year or two, pull out the space operas from your list that inspired Lucas or expanded upon his model. For this week’s dragon-themed movie and show finale, pull out your own dragon-themed books and claim they put Drogon and Toothless to shame. Basically, show awareness of pop culture and current events happening around you in order to attract young reading audiences, while also asserting bluntly how much books are than other forms of media. Book lovers eat that kind of thing up (or at least I would).

I believe that publishers should be more dynamic about eBook marketing when it comes to taking advantage of their massive backlist, and that if publishers ever become serious about taking book distribution out of Amazon’s hands and back into their own, then they have a lot to learn from Open Road about improving their digital marketing platform. For better or worse, we’re joining publishing in a dynamic period of growth and change, and predicting how publishers should change themselves to survive and thrive will hopefully prepare us for what’s ahead.

Thanks for reading!