We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like.
Meet our first guest...
Patty Van Norman; Administrative Assistant in the Design + Production Department at Duke University Press in Durham, North Carolina.
What do you do?
I handle many of the administrative duties of running a book production department--paying the bills, communicating with our typesetters and printers, keeping track of the schedules of approximately 130 books we have in some stage of production at any one time, and getting books where they need to be, when they need to be there. Our department consists of both manuscript editors and book designers, and one of the things I'm proudest of is my ability to translate and mediate between two groups of people who think and work in vastly different ways.
How did you get into this line of work?
I returned to college after many years away from academia; during those many years I got married, had a couple of kids, and paid the bills by doing clerical and freelance work. When I went back to school, I found that the credits I had accumulated over the years didn't really fit into an English degree program, and I ended up majoring in Religious Studies and Women's Studies. Then I started looking for work in publishing, and the ads for all the jobs I applied for said "must have English degree." So I had to spend some time convincing people that all liberal arts majors knew how to write and think critically. Or at least that *I*, despite my inadequate knowledge of Chaucer and Milton, knew how to write and think critically.
Networking was totally the key to me getting my foot in the door in academic publishing. I was playing flute in a community band in Chapel Hill, and I found out one night that the alto sax player who sat behind me was the editor-in-chief at UNC Press. While his press didn't have any openings appropriate to my experience, he did look my resume over and show me around his press and give me some advice. When an opening came up across town at Duke, for the position of Assistant to the Director, he encouraged me to go for it, and he put in a good word for me with the director. While my first position here was a mainly clerical job, it was a great introduction to academic publishing, and my boss mentored me in many ways and helped me find my longer-term home in publishing--book production.
The Good Stuff
I love the books we publish, and I love the creative, smart, interesting people I work with. Working with fashion-conscious designers is hell on my shoe budget, but on the other hand, I'm sure I'm much cooler and more fashionable now than I would have been if I'd gotten a job as a technical writer for a pharmaceutical company.
I'm in the process now of researching a possible new position that will incorporate both skill with new technology and knowledge of traditional paper-and-ink book publishing, as we face the increasing push from all sides to publish our books in digital form. There's a lot to learn, and I'm excited to really get into this process and bravely face the future of publishing.
The Bad Stuff
I'm starting to hate some of the routine aspects, like paying the bills; I'm working on developing an internship program so I can hire someone to do my filing and bill-paying and data entry so I can focus more on higher-level tasks. Production problems can be difficult--a whole shipment of paperback covers printed with an egregious error that somehow no one caught, a book in danger of not making it to an important academic meeting, a missing shipment from Hong Kong--but they're also exciting, and good for stories over drinks. After five years in this job I'm feeling pretty confident, and I haven't had a work-related crying incident in over a year. That's always nice.
We've published a good number of books recently in such emerging fields as porn studies and white trash studies, and we have not one but two scholarly books on our list about professional wrestling.
What kind of person is good at this job?
Good organizational skills are a must in a job like mine. I think one of the big reasons I got this job was that when I was asked if I was comfortable working with databases, I told the interviewer that my entire record collection was cataloged in FileMaker. There are a lot more numbers than words in the tasks I do on many days, but luckily computers and calculators take care of most of the math skills I need. Communication skills are always good (in any job, really); and I have to do a good bit of hand-holding, negotiating, and holding my ground as I perform various functions of my job.
How do I become you?
It's not always easy to get a job in publishing, and I think a person sometimes needs to be willing to take a job that might seem beneath them, as a foot in the door. It doesn't always happen, but we have had people who started in customer service, or in the warehouse, or as student interns, who have gotten their chance to get into acquisitons or marketing and made a career for themselves in publishing. The key, I think, is to never treat *any* job as a job that's beneath you, but to put your all into it, show that you're willing to do what it takes to get the job done, and look for opportunities to show the skills you have that aren't in your job duties!
Writing and working...
Certainly I get an opportunity in this job to read a lot of writing, and to examine and learn from the work of our copyeditors and proofreaders. We do have some people on staff for whom writing is a big component of their jobs--copywriter, development coordinator, to name a couple--but most of us are dealing with the writing of others. Still, it's a pleasure to be around words and big ideas, and to promote our grand mission to disseminate scholarly thought and advance the frontiers of knowledge.