Friday, February 23, 2007

Guest Expert: Jon, Production Assistant at a Major Publisher

Today I have great advice from someone who started his first publishing job fairly recently. Jon is a 25-year-old production assistant who works in travel guides for a major publisher. In the past eight years, four people have moved up from his job to be production editors, so I often recommend this type of job as a great place to start.

Here's how Jon answered the questions that you are asking:

1. How did you land your first book publishing job?

I applied and interviewed with some newspapers, magazines, and publishers. With the publisher that I work for now, I regularly checked job postings online and stayed in contact with HR representatives about prospects for hire. I really liked the company then, and I believe in the product, what we do here, even more now. (It's great to be confident in the work that your colleagues are doing around you.) I didn't want to go after positions that I wasn't suited to and didn't have confidence in pursuing. After applying and interviewing/testing for some other positions, I signed on to the position that I am in now when it opened. It was worth the wait. I enjoy my present position in travel publishing.

2. What in your background (experience, education) do you think helped you get this job?

I came into the interview and the position with considerable experience in student and professional media. I had put in my time at the student newspaper in college and later served as managing editor at the student magazine. I'd worked as an editor for a couple other publications while at university and then interned at a city magazine. I'd also been a member of an editorial board for a professional newspaper. I had some administrative experience, so that was a benefit when coupled with my English/journalism background.

3. Do you have a degree? If so, what was your major/minor?

I have a journalism degree from my university.

4. What is a typical day like for you?

In a typical day, I will communicate by e-mail and phone with freelance copy editors. I have a lot of contact with them and serve as their go-to person in house. I manage our base of freelancers. I also assist the editors on my team with manuscript preparation whenever I can -- text, maps, art, and the like.

5. What advice would you give a college student who wants to get a job in publishing?

Simply this -- be persistent. Go after positions in publishing with gusto. Be organized and prepared. Have your résumé ready and tailored to the position, and go into the application and interview processes with confidence in what you already know and willingness to learn from others who have been before where you yourself are now. Do what you can while in school to hone your skills and just always be learning and growing more in what you have to offer.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Product Development Specialist (Development Editor)

After four years in computer book publishing, I applied for a promotion into product development. I was hired as a Product Development Specialist with the former Alpha group (of Complete Idiot's Guide fame), which had been merged into Que. This group did the very basic, beginner-level computer books about the Internet and Office programs such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. So it was easier to grasp than the programming books I had been doing. (But wouldn't you know it, one of my first projects was the Complete Idiot's Guide to JavaScript, the first book ever published on the topic. It came in from the author half as long as it needed to be, and I had to help him figure out how to fill up the rest of the book—when JavaScript was new and there wasn't much to say about it.)

My first responsibility was to evaluate the author's original outline. I had to make the structure right and ask for any missing information to be added. Once we had an approved outline, I was a consultant to help the author adhere to the rigidly irreverent style of the series. If the author didn't make his or her deadlines, I had to report him to the acquisitions editor.

Once the book was written, I read the chapters for structure, content, and sense. I was also responsible for making sure the book didn't turn out longer than planned. Going over page count made the cost of the book go up and the profitability go down.

When I was done editing, I turned over chapters to the production editor. They did their edits and sent it to the author. Then I was responsible for ensuring that the author answered all queries to my satisfaction.

I also requested royalty advance checks for authors when they met their deadlines. And I drafted the original cover copy for my books (although it always came back from the marketing department as unrecognizable—often with added features that didn't exist in the book!).

I learned some valuable lessons on the product side of things. But then an opportunity arose that I could not pass up: Frommer's travel guides.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Senior Production Editor

After just three years at Macmillan, I had gained enough experience and seniority to be promoted to senior production editor. Sounds incredible, doesn't it? But we had so much growth and turnover, and so many young people on staff, that it was a normal occurrence.

My job as senior production editor was much the same as when I was a production editor: Manage three to four complete book projects simultaneously. Even though the books averaged 600 pages each, it was still doable because there were often times when I'd done all I could on a project and needed to wait while someone else did their part. So then I could work on another part of another project.

As senior production editor, I was often assigned the biggest, most challenging, and most important books for our team. These were the ones that absolutely, positively had to hit the shelves the very same day that the software/language did. So this was a trick: How do you produce a book about a product that hasn't yet been released? Often our authors got early test versions of the software (called betas) that they used to write the books. And every time a new beta came out, they'd revise the whole book. And nobody ever knew for sure whether this was the last beta, and release was imminent, or whether there would be yet another version. So it was complicated.

In addition to my own books, I was the "prioritizer" for my team of six production and copy editors. Every day I'd decide which of our projects was most important or urgent and make sure we had adequate resources working on it. I also made sure that if someone had nothing of their own to do, they were helping the person on the team who needed it most. I also helped the team leader interview new candidates for hiring. And occasionally I was asked to help train people, such as by evaluating their editing, or by presenting a seminar on editorial processes to the production team (layout, proofreading, and indexing).

It was all a lot of hard work and a lot of fun. But one day I got the chance to move into product development (which was a stretch for someone who wasn't a techie).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Production Editing

My next step up the publishing ladder was to the position of Production Editor. Interestingly enough, I resisted the move for quite a while. I enjoyed copy editing and didn't feel ready for the responsibility of managing entire book projects from beginning to end. But the rapid growth of our company demanded that careers progressed quickly. So I accepted the step up.

As a production editor, I received chapters from the book's development editor and sent them to a copy editor (in-house or freelance). Then I did a "second edit" on that person's work. When the edits were done, I sent the chapters to the author for them to review our edits and answer our questions. When the author returned the chapters, I stripped out the queries and made sure everything was answered and consistent.

I also had to coordinate all of the "art" in the book, which was usually just pictures of computer screens or simple line drawings. I had to send these to the Illustration department to be processed, and then attach copies of them to the chapters when I submitted them to layout.

Layout took the chapters and art and made them look like the actual pages of the finished book. Then the proofreading department would check them for typos and missing text. Then I reviewed the chapters and marked any corrections. Then layout fixed them and I checked the corrections. This continued until all corrections were done correctly and the book was "clean." Then we sent it to the printer. Because we had three shifts working in Production, sometimes this would happen as late as midnight. So "shipping a book" was always a stressful race against time.

I also got a chance to proof the book's index, which was produced in-house by indexers. Sometimes I had input into the design of the interior layout and was asked to compile a "sample chapter" with a representation of each element (heading, text, tables, etc.) that appeared in the book.

Tomorrow I'll talk a little about what I did as a senior production editor.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Freelance Proofreading Opportunity

If you happen to have skills in a language other than English, Wiley Publishing may be looking for you. I received the following through the grapevine:

"We are looking for proofreaders and indexers who are fluent enough in a foreign language to proofread and index. We're particularly in need of proofreaders who can proofread and index in Spanish."

This is a great way to get experience for your resume. If you're qualified, contact Rob Springer, proofreading manager, at

Monday, February 12, 2007

Fun with Copy Editing

As a copy editor for the SAMS imprint of Macmillan Computer Publishing, I spent just about all eight hours a day editing text in Microsoft Word. First and foremost, I was looking for typos, misspellings, and bad grammar. But here's the twist: These were books about how to program a computer, so I could literally read sentence after sentence without really knowing what they meant. Add to that the fact that many of our writers were not native English speakers, and even those who did speak the language were techies who managed to butcher it all the same. So there was a lot of head-scratching. Eventually I figured out how to tell whether the sentence was grammatically correct, anyway, even if I never really figured out what was being said.

The other perplexing concept thrown my way was that of "consistency." At MCP, I learned that they were really big about making sure that if, for example, you said "coauthor" in one paragraph, you didn't say "co-author" in another. Both can be considered correct, but you have to choose one and stick with it. So we had sheets of paper called style sheets where we recorded our choices, and then used electronic searches to make sure that we did the same thing throughout all the chapters.

We also learned to apply special formatting to literal words you'd find in computer programming code: keywords, subroutines, etc. We had to underline each computer word and then it was set in a different font, to indicate to the reader that it was part of the code.

Another concept I was introduced to was "formatting," or tagging text. We had to apply a predefined style code to each paragraph, heading, etc., to show the layout program how we wanted it to look. So first-level headings were tagged as H1, regular text paragraphs were BT, code lines were C1, and the final code line of any program was C2, which built in an extra space between the end of the program and the next paragraph. This was a tough concept to "get," but it's really similar to modern HTML tagging.

What I learned as a copy editor formed the foundation for every other job I did later. I still use those skills every day. Being a copy editor demanded patience, perseverance, attention to detail, reading comprehension, logic, and focus. People's eyes get tired after looking at the screen for hours on end, and they get the urge to get up and wander. So I really had to fight that and stay glued to my computer.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the next step up the ladder: production editor.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

How Did I Get Here?

My path into book publishing was really a matter of general preparation colliding with an unexpected lucky moment. When I was in college, I had no idea that I could aspire to a job in publishing. After all, living in New York held no interest to me (okay, I'll be honest: It scared the life out of me).

At the University of Evansville, I majored in English lit and minored in public relations, the latter a concession to my ever-practical parents, who just couldn't believe they were helping to pay for me to study something that had no clear career path to the big bucks. I had worked on the school newspaper in high school, so I continued that in college. After returning from a study-abroad semester (Harlaxton College, woo-hoo!), I ditched my retail job and worked at the circulation desk at the local public library. And one summer, through my communications professors, I got a writing internship in the promotions department of the local daily newspaper.

Upon graduation I did a little freelance writing and ended up as an admissions counselor for my alma mater. But it wasn't a fit. I moved to Indianapolis and worked for a weekly newspaper in the suburbs (while living in the inner city—an interesting reverse-commute). But that wasn't fun, either—low pay, late nights, and an employer who believed wholeheartedly in beating the entitlement out of me and making me "pay my dues." (The devil drove a Subaru.)

So I was sitting in the Laundromat one day trying to keep people from stealing my clothes from the dryer when I picked up a newspaper someone had left. In it was an ad for a copy editor at Macmillan Computer Publishing. I sent my resume and landed a chance to take their editing test. I passed, was interviewed, and within six weeks was happily installed in a cubicle with my own computer. Back then, responding to newspaper ads still worked!

Over the course of the next five years I was promoted to production editor, senior production editor, and product development specialist. Then our company was merged with a reference unit in New York, and I got the chance to be a senior production editor for Frommer's travel guides, and then managing editor. After three years, the company was sold and I wanted to get out before I was laid off (turns out, I would have been allowed to keep my job without moving—we were sold to the cross-town rival). My former boss called and asked me to come be a development editor at JIST Publishing, so I went.

So now I've been at JIST eight years (and outlasted that former boss a second time), and have risen to acquisitions editor and product line manager. (In future posts I'll explain what all of those job titles really mean.) I think being at a smaller publisher (50 employees as opposed to 1,100 at Macmillan's zenith) enabled me to grow more and learn about the publishing process as a whole. At big publishers, everyone does a narrow job over and over. I've been able to do the work of about four different people, albeit on a smaller number of books.

Tomorrow I'll jump into the way-back machine and describe a typical day on my first publishing job as a copy editor; and in future posts I'll tell you about my later jobs. That way it will all make better sense.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Welcome to the Publishing Careers Blog

I think the concept of “informational interviews” was first mentioned decades ago in Richard Bolles’s groundbreaking career book, What Color Is Your Parachute? The idea is that talking with people who actually do the job you aspire to is the best way to find out what the job is really like—and possibly make some connections in the process.

As an editor at JIST Publishing (a leader in the career-book business), I have been called upon frequently to meet with, talk with, and e-mail with aspiring editors and publishing professionals, to answer their questions about what I do. Invariably, these three questions always are among what I’m asked:
  • How did you get where you are?
  • What is a typical day like for you?
  • Do you have any tips for someone who wants to get into publishing?

I dutifully answer their questions based on my own opinions gleaned from 16 years as a professional editor, eight of those editing career books. But I always wonder whether the advice I dispense could be stronger if it were combined with the wisdom of many other publishing people, and updated on a daily basis.

So after scheduling my second informational interview this week, a light suddenly clicked on:
I could put my advice in a blog, add the opinions and resources of others, and provide a truly useful service for people who, like me 16 years ago, are either unsure of their direction or how to get there. Several people volunteered their time to tell me about their jobs when I was in college. In the name of karma, I enjoy giving back.

So check back here regularly for what I think is going to be a unique and spectacular look at a profession that holds fascination for so many of us. And if you like what you read, be sure to tip your writer by clicking on the ads!