Dirty Publishing (…No, Not THAT Dirty)

When was the last time you got your hands not just inky or pencil-smudged but dirty in publishing? It’s viewed as one of the more office- and brainiac-friendly pursuits of both happiness and monetary wherewithal for the food, the rent, the “miracle” moisturizer the cute girl at the mall sells. You may have other priorities. By any account, publishing is broadly seen as a career which it is and a noble industry that cracks into the realms of philosophy, science, and literature which it certainly can be. For those who want to make a demonstrable living walking the noble career path, though, there’s another aspect that deserves its share of attention: the trade.

If you were putting yourself through night school and apprenticing during the day to earn your certification in publishing, how would you handle it? If you and society all around viewed the creation, editing, proofing, promotion, commission, and digital distribution of the written word as practical in the same way refrigerator repair is practical, would your approach be any different? In other words, if Mike Rowe wanted to get into publishing, what would he do?

I can’t say for sure. But here are some tactics I, daughter of a refrigerator repairperson, adhered to to go from unenthusiastically selling cell phones at the mall (how differently might my life have gone if I’d had something fun, like Dead-Sea-Salt/dark-side-of-the-magic-moon moisturizer, to sell instead?) to making a living full-time in publishing:

1. Apprentice.

Depending on the area of publishing you’re in, an MFA, MBA, or maybe even a PhD is probably viewed as one of the surest routes to success in a somewhat unsure industry. And sometimes that works. Sometimes you study under seasoned professionals who know firsthand of what they preach and have fingers on the pulse of publishing as it happens in the here and now.

If studying writing, you may study under professors who manage to convey the techniques and history of the craft without poo-pooing either your enthusiasm or your personal perspective on writing. Enough disclaimers, though. Sometimes you get none a’ that and no bag of chips either. Not even a bag of those weird cappuccino-flavored chips.

In trades the world over, learning at the feet of someone who’s been there and preferably still IS there, doin’ it and doin’ it well is viewed as a critical step on your way to making it solo. That could mean applying for internships in your last year of college, and those can be highly useful but they’re not the only way.

The most important aspect of apprenticing, to my way of thinking, is the opportunity to truly observe the inner workings of your chosen field up close, and to try your hand at it while there’s still someone there—a knowledgeable someone; someone you have handpicked to lead and guide you as your own personal McGonagall to say “For shame! That won’t do at all.” Your dream guide/tutor may speak differently. The upshot: apprenticing doesn’t mean fetching people coffee or being the publishing house gossip girl. It means absorbing and acting.

While having or finishing a degree might more readily come with built-in venues to such opportunities, they abound elsewhere. That’s one great aspect of the independent publishing revolution: while publishing is still in strong effect in NYC, it has trickled out across the country, in many cases taking unexpected shape. If you’re taking a class at a community college, maybe your professor knows someone at the newspaper who knows of a weekend opening taking news announcements over the phone and editing copy. I mention that because mine did. It turned out I had no interest in doing the news, but I did have a handful of copyediting experience after that. Maybe there’s a local startup magazine or book publisher looking for help in exchange for a recommendation when you move on. Which leads to the next point:

2. Volunteer.

Volunteering and apprenticing typically go hand-in-hand, but I mention this separately to make a distinction. In publishing, the view is sometimes taken that unless you’re on the selling side of things, all work is volunteer work until someone kindly offers a stipend. Medical students, on the other hand, “volunteer” because the firsthand experience is undeniably necessary to their futures, there is no way they advance without having done this work sleeplessly and pennilessly. You volunteer in the beginning so you don’t have to volunteer in the future. (See #4.)

Look for calls for volunteers, and if you don’t see them, ask for them. I saw a volunteer opportunity to review books for a publication called Her Cirlce Ezine. What I had to offer at the time was a little newspaper experience and a lifelong love of literature. I said as much.

So, I reviewed books for free. For a while. And then Her Circle Ezine branched into doing author interviews, and I had the opportunity to conduct many of them, because the book reviewing had gone well. While there were some phone and email interviews, I also the opportunity to in-person interview, which led to not only great conversations but connections. At the end of this experience of talking to industry professionals otherwise known as authors I was equipped with the beginnings of a portfolio. Book reviews and author interviews and a few articles I could show when I applied for opportunities down the line.

And speaking of applying for opportunities down the line:

3. Don’t just apply for opportunities.

One summer, with whirlwind-like pep and planning, my best friend and I decided we were going to earn enough money to…well, who knows. We wanted to earn a lot of money. So we started our own cleaning business, made up fancy flyers, and distributed our fancy flyers to the richest neighborhoods in town. And then the “middle” neighborhoods in town. And then windshields of cars even if the windshield was actually more along the lines of clear plastic duct taped to a rusted metal frame. I think we got one call. From a guy who wanted to know if we cleaned topless. We did not.

From there, we decided we might need to apply places if we wanted the money that places had and we did not. No jobs hiring sounded remotely like what we wanted or, maybe more to the point, were qualified for, so we started going around to stores we at least kinda-sorta enjoyed, and we asked if we could have applications. Simple enough. A couple weeks later, I got a call from the manager at the local Michael’s, and I worked at the crafty megastore for a while. I worked at many places crafty and otherwise, megastores and otherwise but this one stands out because I remember the manager confiding in me at one point that he never advertised jobs in the paper, or anywhere. He said he appreciated people who took the initiative and applied before an opportunity was ever announced, and he always tried to pull from a pool of such applicants.

There are approximately 856,124.6 websites for freelance jobs on the web and one of the things I do is edit science material, so just hush and have faith in my figures. MediaBistro, Bookjobs, ProBlogger, Freelance Writing Gigs, ODesk, Elance. Craigslist! LinkedIn! Etc. And some of these are invaluable resources that draw to your attention job possibilities you otherwise would not have found out about. Nothing to scoff at. But it’s also important to face the reality that jobs, contracts, gigs, and so on posted to these sources are being broadcast to a worldwide, saturated, highly competitive worker pool. When you’ve reached the point where your qualifications are independently dazzling, you can really stand out even in a global casting call. But before that point, or in lieu of waiting for the right thing to come along, you can make your own opportunities.

Naturally, you can contact publishers of those books and print magazines you already love and you may get somewhere with that. A prime opportunity exists, though, in the advent of quite a bit more than 856,124.6 companies around the world maintaining websites (at least) and (in many cases) blogs. Whether it’s a news aggregator, LOL fun-stuffs web list, literary ezine, craft blog, or megaultrasupereverything store website, if you frequent it, you can always send an email, sum up your qualifications, and ask “Don’t you want me to write/edit/curate content or do something else web- and word-related for you?

4. Don’t volunteer.

Well, do, if you want. But afterward, or simultaneously: don’t. Work for pay. Whether or not it’s glamorous, or in your end-point preferred specialty: work in words for money. Maybe this seems the most obvious point of all for any who would like to make it, financially, in the noble profession, but I think the reasons behind this benefit are many.

The ultimate, the hoped- and worked-for, benefit, of course, is the actual pay in your actual chosen field. And maybe, via some of the very processes described above, you carve out that opportunity for yourself fairly early. On the route there, though, and often as an essential part of the route there, you start making money to acquire a firsthand sense of payment in publishing.

While reading about what venues provide “respectable” pay and what exact per-word or per-hour rate you should charge is useful to an extent, the various processes in publishing are for the most part so dependent on the unique capacity of the individual that firsthand experience is absolutely essential. Working for minimum wage at a cabinet shop in high school establishes for you, in a way that no lecture ever can, the parameters of the livelihood you can expect at that hourly rate. This would be a critical step for a worker in essentially any trade, but when you factor in the panoply of content- and context-level options in publishing, it seems especially important to delve into the money-making aspect of publishing to start feeling out what practical effects you can expect from your unique input.

This is not to recommend working for peanuts and the so-called privilege of working via your computer for long or at all. I do recommend, though, taking the best paying work available to you and keeping track of what you’re accomplishing financially in real time. In writing, editing, content curating, etc., there can be a steep learning curve when you jump into any new job. Once you’re up and running, though, how long is it taking you to complete one article that pays $30? Does it leave you drained to the point of weeping for early bed or does it leave it exhilarated (or at least “not drained”) enough to readily get into the next $30, or $15, or $45 article? Do you find that your knowledge of the subject matter and familiarity with the process are increasing exponentially, allowing you to move more and more swiftly through a process that once did amount to pitiful pay? Or is it still more the weeping-for-early-bed thing?

All of these factors, and plenty more, give you an ever clearer idea of how your personal work habits, preferences, and body of knowledge come out in the (financial) wash. This type of experience equates to one of the most efficient seminars you’ll ever encounter when it comes to informing what you should charge, what specific field you should work in, and how you might need to alter or spit-shine your tactics in order to reach your ultimate publishing goal.

Not to mention. When a high-paying, prestigious publisher or other company considers you, it cannot hurt to have paying work on your resume. Learning that you won a contest or that you know you stuff seven ways to Saturday as evidenced by a history of academic excellence will impress most providers of publishing jobs; no doubt about it. But remember that, despite its somewhat mythical reputation as the nonbusiness business that embraces the pauper with spotless ideals and one-of-a-kind style, publishing is an industry. Hiring you needs to appeal to any publisher as a worthwhile investment. A history of exchanging your words or editing, curating, proofreading, etc., skills for money should strike any publisher as one hell of a powerful recommendation letter.

Thank you for reading my post, and best wishes in your own publishing pursuits. If you agree with the ideas presented here, please consider sharing this post. Please also keep in mind that I provide book editing, review, and query letter services via my website. You can also find me on Twitter: @hannaheeditor.

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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