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Publishing Jobs: 4 Hard Truths About Working in the Book Business

Natalie Layne Baker

Staff Writer

Natalie Layne Baker's writing has appeared at Audible, Hachette, Book Riot, Submittable, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Howl Round, and Bone & Ink Lit Zine. She currently resides in Philadelphia.

I truly cannot overemphasize how cool the publishing industry can be. While books and publications have existed far longer than the concept of “industry,” the modern publishing world is responsible for the piles of books you and I love reading year after year. Whom amongst us has not considered the allure of publishing jobs when making our career decisions?

Of course, there’s a lot more to publishing jobs than finding authors with brilliant new books, doing business with other bookish people to change the world through your work, and designing the marketing materials that will get amazing books into the hands of voracious readers. Before applying to all the publishing jobs you can find LinkedIn — whether as an agent, editor, designer, or any of the other thousands of people who make books — consider the following four, less-glamorous realities of the publishing industry.

Publishing is a Business

Although this may seem like an obvious detail, it’s one that may be easy to overlook. You may love reading books, but that does not necessarily translate to loving the business of publishing and selling books. As a business, publisher falls victim to the same problems as any other. Market whims can lead to volatility, and thus job insecurity.

As a business, the publishing industry also is primarily concerned with turning a profit over artistic integrity. If there’s a highly successful neo-noir romance story with a strong female protagonist that smashes bestseller lists this year, you can bet your life’s savings on the publication of a hundred similar titles in the following few years. Plenty of excellent art gets published every year, but the market will always demand bestsellers.

Publishing Jobs are Office Jobs

Similarly to how there’s a lot more to being a librarian than just finding resources for patrons, there is a lot more to do in publishing jobs than just reading and talking about books. Like any office job, there will be emails, meetings, meetings about meetings, meetings about emails, and maybe an unnecessary amount of trying to figure out how to find something to do with your hands on a slow day at the office.

Jokes aside, it’s also important to expect that whatever job you start with in publishing will likely have very little to do with the books themselves. Entry level jobs across all industries often focus on data entry, customer support, office administration, and other similar tasks — and publishing is no different. While all labor has value, it’s necessary to recognize that you may not always land a job that has direct influence on the books that get published.

You Don’t Have a Lot of Choice of Where You Can Live

As a consequence of the way most media is centralized, the overwhelming majority of publishing jobs are based in New York City, because the “Big Five” (Penguin/Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan) are all located there. Although publishing houses outside of New York do exist — in addition to innumerable university presses — plain and simple, if you’re looking at publishing jobs, you will have to at least consider moving to NYC.

This may be good news for some people, and a huge nightmare for others. Whether you’re a lover or hater of the Big Apple, there is no skirting around the fact that New York is currently the second most expensive place to live in the United States. While it’s certainly possible to make a fine living in NYC, this inflexibility is an unsavory reality of the American publishing ecosystem.

Commodifying Your Passion Can Make You Resent It

Do you want to take something you love dearly and turn it into a job, thus a source of stress, thus potentially a source of resentment? Imagine a future in which you land a job at a publishing house, but over the course of your time working there, become disillusioned by these and other less-fun aspects of your career. How will knowing the ins and outs of what goes into producing them affect your appreciation for books?

This is, of course, a highly subjective thing. For some people, it will be a no brainer; you’ll easily find meaning and value in a job that allows you to directly contribute to the production of something you personally care about. For others, the nitty-gritty might tarnish their more innocent relationship with books. It’s super important to do some soul searching before committing to this career path!

This post is by no means intended to dissuade anyone from pursuing a career in publishing. To work behind the scenes on the production of books is such an exciting idea! It is my intention to encourage people to consider the less-fun aspects alongside that dream, so as to make an informed decision about whether it might be a good career for you.