How to Break into the Publishing Industry

MUD sat down with Athena Bryan of Melville House to talk about indie publishing and how to get your start.

Source: Unsplash

If you’re interested in working in the publishing industry or want a career where you can help others achieve their dream of having their work published, you’ve come to the right place. MUD had the opportunity to speak to Athena Bryan, an editor at Melville House, an independent publishing house. She shared her expert opinion on how recent graduates can get their start in the publishing industry.


When students are searching for their potential career, one of the many things they look for are the industry requirements and how to stand out in a stack of applications. Bryan outlined a few things that students looking to go into publishing as an editor or a writer should know. “It’s a slow climb” she said, “If you are a book editor, your success is measured by the books you sign and publish. Of course, you won’t be able to start signing up books immediately, but even after the elation of signing your first book, you are looking at two or three years at a minimum to start seeing the results of your work. There is no express-lane-rocket-ship to the top. You have to pay your dues.” She emphasized the weight of the job, and the time it takes to get to your dream position.

Even though job descriptions explain the duties of a given position, you still don’t know the extent of the experience until you’re in it. There are still things about the job that might surprise you, even if you’ve been there for a while. Bryan elaborated, “When you are an editor, you also kind of serve as a therapist for your writers. You learn a lot about them, and you deal with a lot of ups and downs alongside them. The relationship is of course centered around getting the book written, but writing a book is a huge, life-swallowing endeavor. So be prepared to find yourself a little swallowed into their lives too.” She gave her honest opinion about what it really means to work at a publishing house. To make sure your client’s story sells, she stressed the importance of good client relationships in order to understand the story they’re trying to create and help them on their publishing journey.


When entering the publishing industry, you have the option to work for a large firm that has a large following, such as Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster, or you can choose to work in an independent firm like Melville House where Bryan works. “It's challenging to find the right projects: those that are big enough to find an audience, but quirky enough to fly below the big-house radar. To be candid, we operate on a totally different financial level from big houses, so we can’t exactly entice authors with major advances. But we have a reputation — and some truly amazing books in our backlist — and that keeps me ambitious about what kind of books I should strive to bring in.” The common misconception of the publishing industry, especially when it’s focused on books, is that publishing houses only publish books of a specific genre and nothing else. Within most publishing companies are imprints, which act like small businesses within the larger corporation and each one will publish books under a defining characteristic or mission. Some publishers may be famous for one imprint, but they likely publish many more genres. This opens up many other avenues when applying for a publishing job.


One of the most important things to keep in mind if you’re looking to be a part of this industry is to keep an open mind about choosing the type of publishing firm you’re interested in working for. Bryan offered some good advice about picking a firm, as well as some reassuring words regarding publishing in itself. “Publishing is not the end-all-be-all if you happen to like books. In fact, pursuing a career in an arena that you enjoy personally can be hazardous. Make sure that you are prepared to start looking at books differently. Bookstores will never feel the same to me.” Working in an industry that you view as your “dream job” has its challenges because if you enjoy reading and you’re in a job where you’re reading manuscripts all day long it can be difficult to differentiate between reading a book for pleasure and reading it for work.


As a parting note, she discussed some additional resources that could help students looking to go into the publishing industry increase their chances of finding a job. “Publisher’s Marketplace is a really interesting hub. It has industry news and a job board, but it also is where we editors go and announce our deals. Unfortunately, it’s quite expensive to be a member (publishing houses usually pony up, which affords employees access to daily deal announcements and also member info pages in what amounts to an industry-wide directory), but even as a non-member, I believe there is a version of their daily email that provides a veiled version of the daily deal announcements.” The publishing industry is more complex than any job description will show. Networking with people you know, or through a service like Publisher’s Marketplace, can also be helpful if you’re interested in applying for a position in the industry.


Publishing is a large industry, and while Athena Bryan was able to share information about one part, it may seem overwhelming to break into. Editing, writing, publishing, all forms of story creation are just one part of the job. The bigger picture of publishing is helping the writer connect with their audience and make sure the book sells. It may seem daunting, but publishing has a lot of opportunity, and could be a great career.