How “Inexperience” Can Be an Asset in Publishing Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Schizophrenic Resume

Researching this project (the Entering the Book Publishing Industry series of books) over the past year, I noticed a curious feature of my reading material: it was either dispassionate analysis or effusive anecdotes. Only rarely did anyone try to draw conclusions about the ways and means of a successful career in publishing from an individual’s experiences. That absent mixture of analysis, advice and examples is an essential part of Entering the Book Publishing Industry. Given all that, and that this is my first blog post here, and you’re probably wondering who I am and why I’m dispensing advice, I thought I would share how I landed in publishing in the first place.

Today, I wear a few hats in the publishing industry. Predominantly, I’m a freelance editor, working mostly in educational publishing. I’m a developmental editor, editorial assistant, formatter, copyeditor, proofreader and fill various roles as required—not every editorial assignment falls into neat categories. I’ve also branched out into digital production, and work as a website project manager for the online components of textbooks. I’m also, of course, the co-author of Entering the Book Publishing Industry. Credentials-wise, I have an HBA in History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from the University of Toronto, and a postgrad certificate in Book and Magazine Publishing from Centennial College.

In the past, I’ve been a librarian, tour guide, landscaper, radio DJ, and event organizer. I spent nine years in the food service industry, and originally wanted to be a professional historian (see that fancy-sounding— and functionally useless— degree above).

Given all that, how did I end up in publishing? By happy accident, really.

After undergrad, I spent two years’ searching for a postgrad program and, hopefully, by extension, a job. I was living in my hometown, working as a cook and scouring syllabi and generally feeling useless. I started taking on editing jobs just to keep my mind nimble, and to distract myself from delivery invoices and application forms. Living in a university town, and surrounded by friends and colleagues still in school, I found a ready-made market for an editor with an academic background. It didn’t pay the rent, I had no formal training in editorial convention or the like, but I loved it: loved playing with words, with ideas, and helping people communicate.

I was born a book nerd, raised by bibliophiles, and have been a voracious and omnivorous reader my entire life. That’s what drew me to history, encouraged me in editing, and propelled me towards working in publishing.

I did not intentionally look for formal education in publishing. (Truth be told, I was applying for a different program when I first heard of Centennial College’s Book and Magazine Publishing program.) Given the fun I was having editing, though, I figured: why not? I was accepted, and from the very first day, fell in love with publishing. I was learning about books, surrounded by interesting people talking about books, and delirious with the suggestion that I, someday, might help make books.

I’ll spare you with the details of publishing training (mainly because we’ll discuss them in detail elsewhere). Once I graduated and started looking around for jobs, I panicked a little. Sure, I was “trained” for the industry, but I felt woefully unprepared compared to my peers. I was older, a little jaded about career paths, and lacked the English literature background that most had. What I failed to realize that these were advantages as much as disadvantages. I also, initially, failed to appreciate that the experiences I had had, though superficially unrelated to publishing, were assets in and of themselves.

Some things I learned elsewhere, that have been major advantages in publishing:

 

  1. Efficiency. I’m obsessed with finding efficiencies in my (working) life, maybe because I’m naturally inefficient. Finding and eliminating waste, optimizing time management and learning, then exploiting, my limits are just as important in my publishing work as they were in the kitchen.
  2. Communication and Interpersonal Skills. I come from a family of talkers, and love the art of communication. This might seem an insipid skill set, but in interviews, dealing with authors/clients/superiors, and generally improving the power of the written word, it has been indispensable. All of my previous and varied jobs required cooperative effort, whether it was cooking dinner for 250 people, or running a 1500-attendee concert. The ability to convey expectations and troubleshoot collectively is imperative when dealing with as complex and lengthy a process as publishing a book.
  3. Management. This is really an application of the previous two attributes. On the one hand, there is personal management—of your time, space and capacities. Had I not spent years learning my abilities and their limits, I would be far less effective in planning my current working life. The other side—group and project management—is always a challenge, and not just due to logistics and the like; the interpersonal aspect of management requires empathy, discretion, effective communication and, occasionally, a little bit of psychological manipulation. None of those things can be taught. Thankfully, I learned all about them in my previous careers.
  4. Assertiveness and Daring. Perhaps the greatest asset I required in my vagabond, pre-publishing years was confidence in the workplace. Perhaps that’s partially temperament, but it’s certainly aided by experience. Today, I’m never afraid to speak my mind when appropriate, which can make all the difference in improving a project. Similarly, I’m always looking to try something new or different, particularly if it’s never been done before. Case in point: I had zero experience in website and design, and little experience in digital production, before I applied for—and got—my digital production job.
  5. Curiosity. This is not something I learned so much as realized I already possessed, in spades: my varied work experience attests to the fact that I’m preternaturally curious about the world. I would suggest that curiosity is one of the few, absolute, requisites for a successful publishing professional. The work always offers something new, whether subject matter, collaborators, means of production, etc. Working in education, I’m constantly editing titles about things I never read in my spare time. If I wasn’t curious, those 1600-page biology textbooks would be a real slog. Natural curiosity will make your working life more tolerable, more interesting, and open professional doors that would be closed to closed-minded people.

To make this obscenely long blog post short: don’t feel that an “unconventional” background will hinder you in the publishing industry. On the contrary, varied life experiences can be a major asset when entering the industry. Whether you’re considering working in publishing, or already do, it’s worthwhile to take stock of everything you’ve done and learned in your life, no matter how unrelated it may seem, and ask yourself if the experience is applicable in publishing. Doing so will build your confidence in your skills, inform your answers on job applications and in interviews, and improve your working life.

A few years ago, I was washing dishes for minimum wage. If I could go from there to here, you can, too.