Breaking Into Publishing

This is the revised, slightly longer (and more in-depth) version than the one I posted on my old blog.

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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 Seventeen. I figured that was something I could do. So eight years later 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 and basically wanted to shoot myself. The thrilling lifestyle I’d envisioned, it turned out, wasn’t likely to happen unless I was the next Anderson Cooper (Which I most definitely am not). My interest in print journalism waned, and after six months, I gave up that dream.

So what did I do instead? 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, much as I would have loved to. The rest were in New York, where publishing is mainly headquartered. 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 literary 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.

I went back to Wisconsin even more determined to make this publishing thing happen. For years, I’d been hearing about the summer publishing courses offered by Columbia and NYU (there’s also one in Denver, for those of you who are interested), so I spent months working on my applications. In the end, I only applied to Columbia, and spent a few weeks on their waiting list. Ultimately, I didn’t get in. I was disappointed, to be sure, but I pushed forward, still determined to figure something out.

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 (I’m sorry, Penguin HR department!). My resume was even better now, with real industry experience, and yet by mid-July, I’d only had one interview.

Disheartened, I 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.” 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 in late July.

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 Media) and JL Stermer (formerly of the Donald Maass agency), and I walked out of that first interview elated. The three of us clicked instantly, and the position turned out to be 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 a month 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 incredible opportunities I wouldn’t have had anywhere else.

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 barely 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.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking Into Publishing

    1. Aaw, thanks, Sav!

      I know, it’s totally insane. I have friends who’ve been out here a while and still don’t have jobs. At least now I’m in a position where I might be able to help! I just wish I could give everyone jobs, haha.

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