So, what do you do with yourself?

Want to make a career of editing books? Here’s a first-hand account of breaking into the publishing industry, as told by a Grattan Street Press alum.

In the last few months, when people have asked me what I do, I’ve blushed deeply, fumbled with my words, and eventually spluttered in a barely audible whisper: I’m an editor. I’m so delighted to be working as an editor that it feels like I’m boasting when I say this. I’m so earnestly excited to be working with words that I sometimes log into the company’s employee management portal just to stare at my job title. But that’s what I do, I’m an editor.

Before I was an editor, I was a teacher. I taught Maths and Science and I taught it well. Yet the effort it cost me to do so proved unsustainable. Beyond the actual work of teaching, there was as much lesson planning, marking and reporting as I was willing to make time for. It is estimated that up to 50% of early-career teachers leave the profession within the first five yearsafter just four years, I was burnt out.

I’ve always thought about writing (much more than I’ve actually written) so in an effort to lend structure to my year off, I began the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing, and Editing at The University of Melbourne. It was more than I could have hoped for. In my first semester, I took both Creative Nonfiction with the beloved Maria Tumarkin and Contemporary Fictions with the much-revered Hayley Singer. Both subjects exploded my understanding of what a book could be, expanding the closed sphere of my reading into a universe. But by the end of the year I understood that writing was something I wanted to keep in the small, private hours of my day.

In Editorial English, I discovered the particular satisfaction of mending broken sentences and by the end of Structural Editing, the editing profession had taken on the aspect of a long-time vocation. With almost five years of teaching experience behind me, I began my job search by emailing all the educational publishers I had come across in my time as a teacher: Pearson, Wiley, Cambridge, Oxford and Stile. I received a smattering of responses, most of which advised me to keep an eye on SEEK, but I had already set up job alerts for anything containing the word ‘editor’, ‘editorial’, ‘publisher’ and ‘publishing’ (later adding ‘administration’ to the mix) and was not encouraged by the infrequency of the alerts. Throughout one year of these alerts, only fifteen or so entry-level positions opened up, and many sought internship experience that I felt to be unattainable as a less than bright-eyed thirty-something-year-old (I should also say that I somewhat stubbornly refused to fork out the $16.95 for full access to Books+Publishing’s subscriber-exclusive job listings).

In the end, the circuitous route I’ve taken to arrive in publishing worked to my advantage. I applied for one internship (just one) and six jobs in two months and received a single call-back for an editorial assistant position at a small academic publisher who was interested in me because of my undergraduate studies in engineering. I was both thrilled and terrified by the prospect of walking into an interview for an industry in which I had no direct experience so I prepared obsessively, compiling fifteen pages of possible questions and examples for what I had been advised would be a behavioural interview. My partner, who does some recruiting as part of his own job, agreed to sit down and practice with me, an offer he promptly regretted when, instead of answering his very first question, I burst into tears. Once my initial panic faded, however, I (that is, we) put in several hours of practice, time well-spent learning to structure clear responses with just the right balance of situation, task, action and result.

In total, I have now endured three interviews for jobs within the publishing industry. Though my performance in the first interview for the editorial assistant position was middling, I was professional enough, and got along with my interviewers well-enough, that they came out of it thinking I would be a good fit for the team. My status as a teacher-turned-editorial assistant made the latest educational publishing interview more comfortable. But the interview for a sales and marketing position at a small trade publisher was the most mutually awkward interview experience of my life. While the interviewers were friendly (then later, patient), at no point was I able to gather any momentum. To the question ‘How do you find the next book to read?’, my only response was that I spent a lot of time on Instagram (‘Like, A LOT’), topped off with a vaguely maniacal laugh. My confusion was so insidious, and my lack of interest in sales and marketing so obvious, that at some point in the slow motion train wreck, one of the interviewers paused mid-sentence to remind me that I was interviewing for a position in sales and marketing, not editorial. 

In my current editorial role there is a lot of work, more work than our small team can calmly manage. On average, I juggle three to four large-ish tasks a week and I’m fairly sure this is, in the scheme of my year, a quiet period. I quickly learned to ask for additional time to complete tasks and currently, my greatest source of angst is balancing quality with efficiency. 

Despite the many and varied demands on everyone’s time, my co-workers still find time to answer my endless questions about reprint corrections and muster genuine enthusiasm for the latest cover reveal. One of the benefits of working in a chronically underpaid profession is that many people are there because they want to be.

Leave a Reply