A Career In Books?

An editor in New York recently said to me, “This is one of the last true apprenticeship fields.” Although she meant it as just an interesting aside, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is both a problem and an unfortunate truth in writing and publishing.

If you’re like me, as many in our field are, you spent your childhood with your nose in a book. Late nights under the covers with a flashlight, sitting on the sidewalk while others did sports, and hours at the local library are the bright, shiny, happy spots in your memory.

Books, books, books. Must read all the books.

Sadly for me, as I got older, reading became less an obsession and more of a hobby. My English class in high school was uninspiring, and few of my peers read like I did. I was from a small town and a child of poverty, so although I had dabbled in writing here and there, there was no concept of being a writer for a living. I was privileged enough to go to college, but there was no way I would waste that opportunity on an English major. I didn’t know taking a literature class was an option, let alone having a career in books. (This belief prevails. Check out this Slate article: Major Exodus: How do post-recession English departments attract students to a field losing popularity?) Thus I got my B.S. and reading was further pushed into the “something I only do for fun,” area of my life.

What am I doing with my life?

Ironically, it was my career in biology that reunited me with my love of books. As a field biologist I got to witness many of the amazing creatures nature has to offer. That being said, I was also twiddling my thumbs, a lot. You do quite a bit of “observing” in the field, which means waiting and watching for something to happen. That’s when the ideas for a novel started crowding my brain. I spent my nights tapping away at the computer, and it rekindled the love and obsession I had as a child. One year later, ta-da! My first complete novel.

Ta da! I will be a famous novelist!

I was going to make a living as a writer! This was what I should have being doing all along! Of course as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, it wasn’t ready. But I didn’t know that. It took 100+ rejections, a MFA in Creative Writing, self-publishing my next novel, and a 2-year unpaid internship at a literary agency for me to understand, six years later, what “ready” meant.

What makes you think your book is special?

All of that experience was my apprenticeship, and it opened my eyes to the world of publishing as a potential career. If you love books, despite what people tell you, teaching English or starving writer are not the only career options. The book industry world needs managing editors, literary agents, book-marketing gurus, book buyers, bookstores, designers, proofreaders, copy editors, ghost writers, book reviewers, writing conference leaders, distributors, publishers, the list goes on.

I only wish someone had pointed this out to the little girl with her nose in a book. I would have started earlier, done the unpaid internship in college, taken the courses in writing/literature, begun my career path sooner, so that the struggle would have been at the age it should have been. The MFA programs are equally as guilty, many of them focus on writing as art, scorning the “commercial” world, which is where most people in the book business make a living.

You write commercial fiction?

Many others who work in the book industry have a similar story to mine. They fell into it later in life, and realized they were in love, but it took some time to get to a moderately successful career and there were many financial sacrifices along the way. And still others don’t make it that far. The path to publishing is littered with ex-editors who couldn’t survive on such low salaries, ex-literary agents who didn’t have financial support in those first few penniless years, ex-interns who had to get a paying job and more.

Why can’t being an author and working within the book industry be a viable career path for everyone? Why can’t more universities offer programs like Columbia’s Publishing Course? Why are we expected to toil away at un-paid/low-wage apprenticeships just to get our foot in the door? Why is it that there is not a career path for novelists the way there are for so many other jobs? Why is there so little money in such an important field? And why is most of it concentrated in NYC, one of the most expensive cities to live in the world?

I don’t have to put up with this, do I?

It was luck and privilege that I was able to follow my dream career at an older age, which included a partner willing and able to support me and an educated mother who taught me to love to read. People say that publishing/writing is a career for trust-fund kids and retirees. This is not true, but it is definitely an uphill battle if you don’t have those advantages. One of the biggest reasons for this is a lack of information/opportunity available to those with less means. There are not many options for the not-so-privileged, the need-to-work-for-a-living, and the few paths to work in books that are viable for us are buried under negative stereotypes of post-English-major lifestyles.

Hey there. I work with books!

Books are considered a luxury commodity, even though reading and writing have proven again and again to be a crucial aspect of human nature. See the Guardian’s Reading Fiction “Improves” Empathy Study Finds, or the New York Times’s Writing Your Way to Happiness or NPR’s How Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ Led a Radical Muslim to Moderation.

Yes, you can work with books.
(And maybe the next doctor will be a POC. Maybe.)
The world needs more (and diverse) people working in books, but how will that happen with the current lack of support in the education system and society in general?

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