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Events: Climbing the Publishing Ladder Recap

On February 13th, a panel of five publishing professionals gathered in one of Random House’s conference rooms, organized by Dial Books, for a conversation about how to advance your career in publishing. On the panel were Kate Sederstrom, an Editorial Assistant at Bloomsbury Children’s; Dawn Ryan, Senior Managing editor at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group; Sydney Tillman, a Publicist at Scholastic; and Abbe Goldberg, a literary scout at Aram Fox. From interns t current assistants and associates, and future publishing hopefuls, the room was packed with attendees from a wide array of publishing houses. Some also tuned in on our livestream.

From left to right:
Abbe Goldberg (Aram Fox), Sydney Tillman (Scholastic), Dawn Ryan (Macmillan), Kate Sederstrom (Bloomsbury), Jena Groshek (CBC, Moderator)

While much ado is made about how difficult it is to simply get into the publishing industry, much less is said about how hard it can be to climb the career ladder once you’ve got your foot in the door! Especially in an industry that is so apprentice-based, it can be hard to know where to turn for help on advancing your career. But thankfully, these panelists were ready to share all of their hard-earned advice.

The panelists started out by sharing a variety of tips on how to be successful in your first few publishing jobs, as well as on how to create a network of other publishing professionals. One thing everyone agreed upon, was making yourself “irreplaceable,” as Dawn put it. Or, as Amy put it, “find little areas where people know to turn to you, to show you’re really important to your team”. And never underestimate the power of small talk—learn from other departments and take opportunities to take other colleagues out for coffee to learn about their positions! And, as Sydney suggested, definitely sign up for mentoring programs and shadowing opportunities for other departments. But also, don’t be afraid to set boundaries with your workplace friends and colleagues—it’s great to be genuine and have casual conversations, but don’t be afraid to take time for yourself to work. Sydney also relayed the importance of “showing up not just for your day to day job, but for others”. Whether that’s going to an author’s launch event at a bookstore, or attending a POC in publishing event, it’s important to become a person that people realize shows up to support others. It can be exhausting, but it’s one of the best ways to meet people and make connections when you’re new to the industry. 

Everyone knows how famously overworked junior staff can be in this industry. And the panelists had some advice there, too. As Sydney was quick to say, “This is a passion-driven industry…but it’s very easy to abuse passion”. And the other panelists were quick to agree. Kate said that “If you’re going to work overtime, make sure you’re getting paid overtime!” Abby was quick to relay one of her tricks to maintaining that ever-illusive work-life balance: once a week, she made plans at 6:00pm to make sure she got herself out of the office on time! For so many people in publishing, reading is not just part of your job, but also your hobby and passion, so it’s important not to get burnt out. Kate mentioned that it’s important to find time to read good books that have already been published (especially when you work in editorial or scouting departments where you have to read a lot of less polished stuff!), to remind you why you want to do this job, and why you fell in love with books in the first place.

Even with the very best of intentions and the very best work-life balance, nothing ever goes completely to plan. So how do you deal with things not going perfectly? Abby and Sydney both talked about their “failure folders”, where you keep nice emails or lists of successes you’ve had somewhere on your computer, so when you have a bad day you can scroll through and remember them. And that way when you have a review with a manager, you can have a ready-made list of your accomplishments to show off to your superiors (and remind yourself of all the good you’ve done!). Speaking of performance reviews…

One of the most heavily discussed topics was how to handle a performance review that doesn’t go so well. Performance reviews and receiving constructive criticism are always a part of any job, even for senior members of the publishing industry! But those new to publishing often feel intense anxiety about being reviewed by their managers, and worry how to handle negative feedback and how to move forward from any mistakes they may have made. And, like everyone who’s survived a few years in the industry, the panelists had copious amounts of advice on how to handle these tricky situations. What almost everyone agreed upon, was that the most important thing is to follow up with your managers after a negative performance review to check in on your progress, and to have a plan of action on how to improve. Dawn even told one story about a friend that ended up getting laid off after a negative performance review, in part because her managers had expected her to come to them afterwards with a plan on how to fix these issues, and when she didn’t, she didn’t seem proactive.

While negative reviews or making a mistake can often seem like the most important things in the world, it’s also important to keep some perspective. Kate pointed out that many of her friends are nurses—they’re literally saving lives. So, while it’s important to take steps to course correct after a mistake or a bad review, it’s also important to remember that if we make a mistake in the publishing industry, nobody dies! “Even though we love them,” she said, “they’re just books.”

Many attendees also wanted to hear advice on how to share their opinions on representation issues in books at their publishing houses, especially as people of color in the industry. Sydney stressed that it’s important to remind yourself that your identity and experiences are valuable, especially in rooms where there might be a lot of group thinking happening, like an imprint’s acquisitions meeting. When she first entered publishing, it was hard to feel confident, she said, because there weren’t people who looked like her in many of her meetings. But once she realized that wasn’t a negative, but rather an asset, she felt much more confident in advocating and speaking up for books. Of course, she emphasized, if someone says something really bad, it’s okay to put themselves in their place in a professional way! Even though that can be a terrifying thing to do, she said that once she voices her opinion, usually someone else will speak up and say that they agree. In short, remembering that you are an asset to your company and your department is important, and will help you gain confidence in your position.

What do you do when you finally get that coveted first publishing job, only to realize it might not be the right job for you? Especially with so many attendees in the crowd having just entered the industry, there was a lot of anxiety about how to move up in the industry and further your own career without undoing all of your hard work. And the entire panel agreed on the most important part of selling yourself to a new job in publishing, especially one in a different department: “Transferable skills!” Abby elaborated on this, saying that it’s important to find out how your skills correlate to that new job description, and to find out what you, specifically, can bring to the table, even if you might never have worked in that department before. Dawn called publishing a “playground”—when she worked in marketing, she constantly wondered what the Managing Editors were up to. So she invited them out for coffee to talk to them and learn about their jobs! Maybe you worked in publicity but want to transition to editorial—you can use your experience interacting and liaising with agents to your advantage. Maybe you worked in editorial but want to move into marketing—well, even as an Assistant you’re often reviewing marketing plans for agents and authors! Transferable skills are everywhere you look, as long as you know how to exploit them and learn to nurture them.

While it’s difficult and scary to have to look for a whole new job, and the prospect of learning about a whole new aspect of the industry can be daunting, it’s important to make sure your skill set matches your passions—the only way to do great work is to be passionate about what you do, after all! However, it is worth noting that you may have to make some sacrifices to switch over to a job that’s a better fit. Kate pointed out that she started out in adult publicity, even though her heart was in children’s editorial. While it was a good thing that she eventually made the switch to children’s, she did have to go back to a starting salary to do it, which felt different at age 27 than it did at age 23! And however you choose to find your next job in publishing—whether it’s a lateral move or switching departments—every panelist impressed upon the audience the importance of not burning bridges on your way out. Sydney and Abby both pointed out that while most people understand that moving jobs is not personal, it’s still important to let people know that you’re still cheering them on and supporting their authors.

Responses to the panel were enthusiastic—an audience Q&A went on for nearly half an hour, and attendees lingered and chatted with one another long after the panel ended (proving how useful these events can be for networking!). Many attendees clamored to introduce themselves to the panelists and ask follow-up questions. Many seemed reinvigorated about their job searches, and on how to talk to their bosses about moving up in their positions. So, whether you’re looking for your first job in publishing or are already applying to your third position, it’s important to remember that everyone in this business has been where you are (and often made the same mistakes and asked the same questions!).

The Early Career Committee is here for you as a resource for your entire publishing journey, and to help you make the most of your passion for books and the book industry. To sign up for our newsletter, please register on this form.

Written by Hannah Milton, ECC Board Member

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