Ask most publishing professionals over a certain age — those who’ve been in the game fifteen years or more — how we came into a career in publishing, and you’re likely to hear a tale of stumbling serendipitously into an entry-level job with some publisher or other, perhaps after an English, journalism, or similar degree, and being smitten for life. Over the past several years, however, I’ve noted that newer entrants, millennials, and the millennial-adjacent, are increasingly intentional about engaging in a career in publishing.

This may well be, as a colleague recently mentioned, the “Harry Potter” effect, the result of a generation of young professionals enraptured by the magic of books and the power of publishing. Certainly, when we publishing elders entered the profession, learning happened largely on the job; there was no such thing as a master’s degree in publishing, just as there was no such thing, exactly, as “metadata.” With the rise of digital technologies and global markets, publishing has been shifting from a ‘trade’ — a largely apprenticeship system — to a ‘profession’ — wherein professionals learn and apply a body of relevant skills and best-practices.

hand arranging wood block stacking as step stair

Whether in the early, middle, or late stage of your career and indubitably when embarking on a livelihood in publishing, conscientiously managing your career path is crucial. Just as you’ll hear innumerable variations on a theme of how veterans stumbled into the profession, there is no one path forward or optimal career progression. Inevitably, and appropriately, each of us has differing goals, realities, and circumstances.

In preparation for the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) DC Regional Event, Career Development Lab: Professional Development and Transferable Skills in Scholarly Publishing, I’d like to offer a few career management strategies and tools that I have collected and developed over the years, which I share with my students in the Master of Professional Studies in Publishing program at the George Washington University. This is not an exhaustive list, nor are these strategies limited to careers in publishing; inevitably, many of these tips will seem obvious to many of you. Yet being mindful about our long-term career and developing strategies to achieve these goals is as essential as, and intertwined with, learning and mastering the skills to succeed.

A Million Paths Forward

Recognize there is not one, but a nearly infinite, number of paths to progression in a productive and rewarding publishing career. Set goals, yet be open to serendipity; plan, and be prepared for the unexpected. One colleague I admire immensely, Gita Manaktala, began as an intern at the MIT Press, rose through the marketing ranks, and is presently Editorial Director of the press, a publisher of scholarship at the intersection of the arts, sciences, and technology. She has found enrichment, recognition, and growth opportunities within the same organization, where she has worked full time since 1992. At the same time, I’ve worked in seven organizations, in scholarly, academic, research, professional, foreign-language, and children’s publishing, plus a few consulting gigs. Needless to say, one path is not more valid than another, though having witnessed corporate takeovers, senior leadership changes, and reorganizations, my career path has at times been fraught.

Recognize as well that a wide range of different job titles and roles exist in academic publishing, and publishing in general, and there is only limited consistency or structure surround the precise meaning of these titles and roles — so expect variation between companies and types of companies. It will be beneficial to consult the Publishers Weekly annual salary survey, and other salary and job resources, as well as to conduct informational interviews (see below) to learn more about salaries, job titles, and common job requirements.

Tip: Have your resume current and ready to go at all times; be current on LinkedIn.

Recognize Your Strengths and Values

Your combination of strengths, values, career goals and priorities are unique to you. You may already have a great publishing job and seek to improve your skills and your promotional prospects; perhaps you are ready to change jobs or companies within the publishing industry; aspire to transfer from another industry into publishing; or desire to enter the business after academic studies. Regardless, it’s beneficial from time to time, and particularly at certain career crossroads, to do some introspection, to understand your strengths, recognize your values, and define your personal career goals, and identify ways to develop skills to help you achieve these goals.

There are many ways to go about this, including consulting with a professional career coach or taking a retreat to an enchanted island. One way to start is to open an Excel Spreadsheet, and on the first tab start writing down what you are good at doing and what you have experience in. Add skill areas to column C and specific skills as needed to column D. For example, the skill area of Communicating may have specific skills of Editing, Negotiating, Listening, Writing. Likewise, skill areas of Developing People, Managing Data, and Financial Management will each have several specific skills. Write down as many as you can think of; then, rank your strength in each skill from 1-10 (column A) and your level of interest in that skill (column B). Perform a sort function on column A and/or B to identify, and prioritize your strongest skills as well as priority areas to develop.

Tip: Use this tool as a guide to develop your career goals as well as to focus your resume and your interviews.

Next, open a new tab within the same spreadsheet, and write down as many values you can think of that are important to you. What rocks your boat? Write down values in column B, as many as needed. It may also be helpful, at least for some of these, to think in terms of adjectives (i.e. flexible instead of flexibility); use column C for adjectives. Then, rank your values from 1-10 in column A, and once again, perform a sort function on column A to help discover the values that are most important to you and your career. Use this tool to identify what values are most important to you as a person; consider how they relate to your career, dream job, present job or occupation; and work to identify companies that appear to share your values.

Use the next worksheet to write down several goals. Several different scientific studies have shown that you are many times more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down and if they are specific. For this exercise, write down large and small goals in column B. Include as many as possible and be as specific as possible. Review your skills and values. After you’ve written them down, use column C to rank the priority of each goal (from 1-10). Then, use column A to indicate when you plan to achieve each goal; for example, use 1 for 1 year; 2 for 2-4 years, 3 for 5 or more years. You can then perform sort function on column A or C to order your goals.

Tip: Writing down goals will help you to achieve them; review them at regular intervals, at minimum once per year.

As part of your goals, use the next tab/worksheet to describe your ideal position, as a path toward making it a reality. Be specific. Describe the company size and revenue; the specific role or job would you most desire (besides mine, thanks); and location.

For example:

Company size:

  • Employees: 500+
  • Revenue: $150M

Size: Publishing division within a large company

Role/Job Title(s): Marketing Manager

Location(s): Washington, DC

Again, you’ll find that writing down specific goals such as your ideal position will go a long way toward helping you achieve this goal.

Network and Engage

You’ll want to put effort into developing your personal network. While the word “networking” may give your heart palpitations, do not skip this step. Another way to look at it is to develop relationships, strategic partnerships, and friendships. LinkedIn is a great tool for developing your network, as are publishing conferences such as SSP’s Annual Meeting, the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) Annual Meeting, and many others. Many regions, such as Washington, DC, have regional groups.

Make sure you are on LinkedIn and that your profile is current and accurate. Have you added your recent degree or promotion? Use the platform to connect with your professional and educational friends and colleagues (send me a connection request). Ask co-workers or former bosses for recommendations. Use the platform’s tools to develop additional contacts that advance you toward your career goals. Only you can determine how much time on this platform is necessary, but try to be active at least 30-60 minutes each week — connect with people, congratulate your friends on their accomplishments, etc.

If you are new to publishing or interested in switching jobs, start with informational interviews (or networking interviews). Informational interviews/networking interviews are not an opportunity to ask for a job — never ask, but chances are, one might be offered to you in the right circumstances. Again, set goals: for X number of informational interviews per week/per month; and for what you hope to achieve in each informational interview (i.e. 3-4 prospects for additional informational interviews; 1 job lead). Don’t be a pest, but be persistent — ask your lead out for coffee (low commitment, low cost) and state you only want “30 minutes of their time.” Then, keep that time commitment.

I firmly believe it’s important, and rewarding, throughout your career — not just during a job search — to engage in the publishing community. Take an active role in a publishing association, or in whatever industry you want to be a member. Join a local network of professionals, become a member of a professional organization (your firm may already be a member of AUPresses, AAP, SSP, etc.). If you are early in your career, explore mentorship opportunities; later in your career, volunteer to be a mentor. Join a committee, volunteer at events or conferences. Write an article for publication, peer review for publication, guest edit an industry blog, and speak at conferences. These activities lead to enriching connections, help build your resume, and help to continually hone your skills. For example, Gita Manaktala was one of the principal mentors involved in the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship since its inception in 2016. She serves on the board of directors of the Association of American University Presses and co-chaired its first diversity and inclusion task force, now the Equity, Justice, and Inclusion committee. In 2019, she was awarded the AUPresses Constituency Award.

Another tool I recommend that my students at George Washington University’s Master of Professional Studies in Publishing develop is the Personal Marketing Plan. The Personal Marketing Plan is especially helpful for informational or networking interviews, as it focuses the conversation on your goals and objectives, unlike a resume/CV, which focuses on your past. Using an MS Word document, define your objectives, a positioning statement (elevator speech), describe competencies, target market(s) or desired locations, and target companies, Your competencies, skills, and attributes emerge from your work on identifying your strengths, values, and goals. As a rule, try to add 15-25 target companies or more. During your informational interviews, find out if your contact knows anyone at your target companies, or perhaps can suggest new companies similar to your targets. Add or refine target companies based on feedback from professionals in the field. Rinse and repeat.

To be sure, searching for a new job is a full-time job in and of itself. But managing your career is a continuous and continuously rewarding effort.

The SSP DC Regional Event, Career Development Lab: Professional Development and Transferable Skills in Scholarly Publishing, will feature networking opportunity and panel-audience discussion on the profession of scholarly publishing, developing your career, and mentoring others. I will be joined by Shannon O’Reilly, Senior Global Outreach Manager, Publications Division, American Chemical Society; Jasmine Wallace, Peer Review Manager, American Society for Microbiology; Puja Telikicherla, Licensing and Subsidiary Rights Manager, American Psychiatric Association Publishing; and Margaret Moerchen, Director, AGU Journals, American Geophysical Union.

We’ll address key questions such as: What are the key skills needed for successful careers in scholarly and academic publishing in the next ten years? Has publishing shifted from a “trade” — an apprenticeship, learned mostly on the job — to a “profession” — learning and applying a body of relevant skills and best practices? What is the value of a master’s in publishing, an MBA, or other graduate degrees? How can diverse voices and perspectives best be integrated into the fabric of academic publishing, and what can later-career individuals do to welcome and mentor these new voices? We will engage participants in some of these questions in an interactive format, and will actively seek input and comments from participants. I hope to see you there.

Discussion

11 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Managing Your Career in Publishing"

Would there be value in listing technical skills as well, such as experience with publishing software like InDesign, knowledge of XML standards such as JATS or library metadata, knowledge of web site design or coding?

Hi Dorothy, I have over 20 years of experience in publishing, some, though not all, of it in scholarly publishing. I do think those technical skills would be valuable. Nowadays many jobs in publishing, especially at the small- and medium-size publishers where staff may wear several hats, may have a different main focus (editing, production management, marketing) but still ask for these skills (for example, a production manager may be called upon to do hands-on InDesign work themselves, or a marketer may be called upon to maintain a marketing-driven web site). And there are many jobs in publishing in graphic design, web design, digital products (where XML knowledge is handy).

Dorothy: Absolutely. These are invaluable on a resume, especially if relevant to the position (but if not, an added plus). We emphasize technology skills and expertise in our master of publishing program at The George Washington University, and for good reason: whether an editor, marketer, or production professional, all publishers need good technical skills. (This is an area, if necessary, to also identify areas to improve—i.e. to learn more InDesign skills.) I must say, however, to be able to demonstrate these skills is important: I have interviewed candidates who claim skills in HTML or Oxygen and only vaguely know what they are.

Thank you, John, for this excellent advice. As someone who falls into the certain age camp you define, I do want to push back on the idea of the Harry Potter effect. I think there have always been many people both starting or changing careers who were passionate about the idea of working in the world of ideas and books. What was the challenge was breaking into an industry that was overwhelmingly staffed by white, privileged people, often with strong family connections and the luxury of being able to work for an apprentice salary in an industry primarily based in New York City. Competition for those entry level positions was extremely high when I started, and I think many people’s dreams of working with books were put aside before they even had a chance to begin. Publishing courses at Radcliffe (now Columbia), NYU, and Colorado offered routes for those passionate about the industry to learn about career paths other than trade editorial, and I think those courses at least tried to open the club door to wider group of job seekers (myself included). As the industry has faced transformation in our markets and our products, we’ve seen real improvements in the profession alongside the challenges. Diversity continues to be a huge issue for us, but there is more transparency in the skills one needs to progress not just upwards but across job functions. And there are so many new career paths that did not exist even a decade ago. I’m pleased to hear about the SSP Career Lab in DC, and I hope as an industry we can continue to promote and demystify publishing careers to a wider range of candidates. These are challenging and exciting times and we need to encourage a diversity of backgrounds, experience, and age to face the continued transformations ahead.

Tricia: Thank you for your comment. By all means, there have always (fortunately) been people passionate about books and ideas. But at least in earlier generations, I think (unscientifically) there were fewer people who set out on the publishing profession on purpose, “intentionally,” as I mention here. It is, I’m sure, not all “Harry Potter,” but certainly a lot of people grew up devoted to those books (and they are BIG books) thinking “I’d like to work in this business,” not just write a book (though that too).
As far as diversity, there is clearly a lot more that needs to be done to improve inclusion in our profession, but I see undeniable promise: SSP, AUPresses, Library Publishing Coalition, and many other organizations—and many individuals—are doing tremendous work in efforts not only to get more diverse voices into publishing, but, even more importantly, to keep underrepresented young professionals engaged in publishing as a rewarding career.

Excellent post, John, which I’ve sent to all of our student interns at the University of South Carolina Press. Thank you.

Thanks for this. John. I, too, will be sharing this with my team at Canadian Science Publishing.

Great post, John, thank you! I especially liked the skills/values review, which is important to do from time to time, even if you aren’t actively seeking a new or different position.

Many thanks, John. A valuable post; I have forwarded this to a colleague I am mentoring.

Some additional suggestions for people looking to get into, or those establishing themselves within the industry:
Look at the competencies required in the role, and chart where you are with them. You’ll need to be frank about it; maybe get your manager or colleague to give their input. Identify your gaps and put a plan in place to work towards them. Set it as a target. Speak to your manager about it. Can you set your personal objectives around it?
Strategy: this is what keeps your company, your department in business. It’s a revenue driven industry. The 5th largest industry in the UK. Do you know your company strategy? Get to know it and get to know how you can contribute towards it. So your company will have objectives, the strategy on how to achieve that, and then the tactics on how to achieve the strategy. Where can you get involved in the tactics and stand out, get experience, get skills?
How can you help your manager? Think about managing upwards. And that involves finding out how you can play a part in helping them, which goes towards helping you. Can you suggest tasks from the competencies where you may have gaps, that your manager can delegate to you?
Problem-solving. I can’t overstate the importance of this. It’s needed in every role, and having an understanding of it is crucial to developing careers. Get involved in problem-solving initiatives; learn problem-solving techniques; apply it to the issues that will present themselves in your role. It may be something you get involved in within a team or cross-department setting. And this to leads on to understanding how you operate within teams….!

Jason: Thanks for these excellent additions. There was as much as I left out of my article as I put in; even more, in fact, but brevity serves a purpose as well. Perhaps a follow up or two is warranted. You add some great advice here as well.

What an interesting article! With over 30 years in publishing myself, I always find it interesting to see the type of advice offered. There is much here that works. But I can also see dramatic differences from the kind of advice I tend to offer (which Jason Mitchell does in his own relevant comment).

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