Careers in Publishing

By Anders Wallace

Careers in Publishing

Photo by Koala Park Laundromat on Pixabay

Why is publishing a book important? This might seem obvious, but in the digital age of Kindle, audio-books, and podcasts it’s more like an open question. Here’s the truth. Whether you’re reading a paper book or an e-reader, the traditional reasons why books matter are no less relevant in our always-online lives.

First, publishing is a crucial part of how human knowledge gets disseminated. Second, publishing is a key way of educating our students. Third, it’s instrumental in creating the next generation of scholars. Fourth, it’s one of the main ways to convey knowledge to a wider audience. Finally, it crystallizes knowledge in a way that can make an impact.

This post is about how and why to pursue a career in publishing. It is adapted from advice given by Al Bertrand, Associate Publishing Director at Princeton University Press. Al spoke at a recent event sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development called “Careers in Publishing” on April 17, 2018, at the Graduate Center.

Understanding the World of Publishing

When most people think of publishing they think of trade books. These are books aimed at the general public. Graduate students, on the other hand, are readily familiar with the world of academic publishing. These publishing houses range from very large—take Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, or McClure for example—to very small.

Within the world of academic publishing, university presses are a specific niche. University presses come big or small. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, for example, have huge revenues (anywhere from $500 million to approaching $1 billion). While these seem like staggering sums, they pale in comparison to the money large academic presses like Elsevier or Wiley pull in. In the U.S., large university presses are exemplified by the likes of Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and Princeton.

Beyond trade and academic presses, there are many other types of publishing. There’s professional publishing, for example, which is aimed at people in business or in niche industries (like computer science or career planning). There’s higher education publishing, which is focused on textbooks for undergrads. There are publishing houses dedicated to the children’s market. There are local presses devoted to regional matters of concern. Last but not least, there’s specialty publishing for hobbyists. These books come in all shapes and sizes, on subjects as diverse as quilting, gaming, military technology, and so on.

When you start out thinking about whether you’d like a career in publishing, it’s worth thinking about what kind of company you’d like to work at. As we’ve seen, there’s a huge range of variation among different publishers’ organizational sizes. There’s also wide variation in how commercial these organizations are. University presses generally have a not-for-profit status. They publish books because they see them as furthering the world of scholarship, so their costs are generally subsidized. At the other end of the scale, some of the big publishing houses are listed on New York stock exchanges, and have to report to shareholders on a quarterly basis. Neither model is right or wrong. What matters is what motivates you and what kind of environment you want to work in.

Speaking to an interdisciplinary group of GC students, Al told us that he transitioned into academic publishing after finishing his PhD in classics. He was drawn to publishing because he wanted to be more of a generalist. He also wanted to work in an environment that was more collaborative and team-oriented. After getting his start at Wiley (formerly Blackwell), Al found that he loved the combination of working in a business setting while continuing to work with scholars at the leading edge of producing knowledge.

At the end of the day, for Al, academic publishing is about finding academics with interesting ideas and helping them bring those ideas to the world. For him, publishing is a way of staying in touch with scholarship without being an academic.

What Are the Key Traits to Be Successful in Publishing?

As Associate Publishing Director, Al’s job is to assist and improve his authors’ work. Often this means being a sounding board for their ideas. Other times it means being able to tell authors difficult truths they need to hear so as to refine and convey their ideas to a broader audience.

Publishing is the opposite of a solitary activity. Almost everything you do involves your colleagues. It helps to be willing to approach things as part of a team. Many aspects of publishing are creative: from working with an author to come up with a title, to working with a designer to conceptualize a cover for the book. It also helps to be curious and have a genuine interest in ideas—qualities that many graduate students boast in spades. You should want to be helpful. After all, you’re helping bring ideas to life.

How is publishing different from academia? As a graduate student, Al often felt like he had to come to a seminar with knowledge ready-at-hand that he wanted to show he had command of. In a business setting, it’s much more important to come in with a spirit of curiosity and to want to explore things with other people. In graduate school, many students feel pressure to come up with something unique to say. In business, communication is much more about being consistent in your messaging, and being able to repeat your message in different ways for different audiences.

What are some different roles you can play in the world of publishing? Most people think of being an editor, an acquisitions editor, or starting out as an editorial assistant (and working your way up from there). As an editor, you often spend time going to see people in the field you’re publishing in. This might mean visiting faculty in academic departments. Conversations are typically a mixture of acquiring their existing work or commissioning a new idea. If the author’s idea for a book is a natural fit for the publisher, you might look to acquire their manuscript. If their idea doesn’t quite fit, then you’re commissioning—talking to them about what they might write, and pitching ideas for books you’d like to see them write.

Beyond acquisitions and coordinating with authors, editors spend a good amount of their time doing developmental editing. This means working with the author on developing a book’s structure, narrative flow, tone, and style. Once you’ve got the finished manuscript, the editor then acts as the go-between who coordinates the production schedule and logistics at the press, and communicates these details with the author.

But the publishing world is hardly limited to editors. Other big roles include marketing, publicity, and sales. These are the people who help push a book out into the world. For a press, marketing is essentially about trying to get earned publicity for books in the media. So a publicist has to understand and internalize the argument of a book, and go make the case for its importance to journalists who might cover it.

This might include writing short pieces for online or in-print magazines (think The Atlantic or The Baffler) who might cover it. You may spend time contacting local or independent bookstores, who can act as shop windows for getting broader publicity for a book. You might spend time liaising with big book merchants—think Amazon or even Barnes & Noble—and build relationships with their acquisitions representatives. Advertising is moving more and more onto social media like Facebook and Twitter. Now more than ever, the publishing world places emphasis on connecting and building relationships with readers in myriad ways.

Another big role to play in the publishing world is in the legal department, especially in intellectual property. This means selling foreign rights to a book. Foreign rights are licenses that let publishers abroad acquire the rights to publish a book from any given press and market it to their local or national audience of readers.

What Does a Typical Editorial Career Path Look Like?

Many editors have PhD’s, but not necessarily in the field they’re working in. Usually people get their first break in publishing by doing an internship. The downside of this model is that only certain types of people enter the field—those who can afford to work for cheap or free.

Whether or not you decide to seek an internship, a common entry-level position in publishing is as an editorial assistant. People often work for an editor in this role for a few years (a typical salary might be $35,000 per year) and learn about the life cycle of publishing—from meeting an author all the way through publication.

From there, many folks apply to move up to assistant editor. You’re not yet independently going out and signing books, but you’re more involved in the acquisitions process. From there, you’d typically move up to the role of associate editor, and then full editor, where you’d be acquiring books for the press yourself.

Are there ways to get started by freelancing? For sure. Many presses hire outside copy-editors, proof readers, fact checkers, and developmental editors who help make a manuscript better. But you shouldn’t necessarily expect these jobs to lead to full-time offers. With jobs like these, you lose in stability you gain in flexibility.

Where can you find job openings in publishing? Online, visit sites like Publishers’ Lunch and Publishers Weekly. If you’re interested in working for a university press, look up the job board on the Association of University Presses website. Also consider following presses you’re interested in on Twitter and LinkedIn. Finally, it can be helpful to sign up to receive email alerts from some of the major publishing houses.


I hope you found some insights on the world of publishing. Whether it’s a career move you’ve been considering or an idea you’re entirely new to, it’s clear that graduate students and newly-minted PhD’s have many of the important qualities become successful professionals in publishing. If you feel this kind of work resonates with you, consider making an appointment with one of our career counselors to take a self-evaluation or talk through your options.