A Conversation with Spiegel & Grau’s junior editorial members Kirk Reed, Mya Spalter, and Hana LandesDecember 1, 2007
Getting your foot in the door to a job at a publishing company is a competitive, serious business these days, what with all the publishing certification and master’s programs that we are starting to see on candidates' résumés. What about your résumé do you think made a difference when you were applying to work as an editorial assistant at Spiegel & Grau?
Kirk Reed: Before I got into publishing (my first job was at Riverhead, with Julie and Cindy) I thought I wanted to teach, and went to graduate school for a master’s in English. After getting that degree, though, I realized I wanted a career outside of academia and looked for opportunities in the media industry. I do think graduate school was enormously helpful in honing my critical skills and broadening my reading, but it’s certainly not mandatory for someone interested in breaking into publishing.
Mya Spalter: My degree is in creative writing and the bulk of my courses were workshops in which we focused on developing editing skills and revision techniques in a hands-on, collaborative way. Post grad, I started up a workshop series with some of my former classmates to help keep us on track with our writing. That developed into a reading series that resulted in a self-published collection of poetry and short fiction. I think it was that unconventional, homespun publishing experience (we actually bound the books ourselves!) that set me apart from the other candidates.
Hana Landes: Before joining Spiegel & Grau, I interned at Grove/Atlantic, which was an invaluable introduction to the publishing industry and made my job search a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. My academic background also helped. I majored in comparative literature in college and studied French, German, and Hebrew, so when I applied here, I think it was clear that I had a deep interest in literature, was comfortable talking and writing about books critically, and would be capable of reading some of the foreign submissions that come in. But having the right qualifications for a job in publishing is really only half the battle—you also need to ensure that your résumé gets into the right hands, which can be the most difficult part of breaking into this industry. It can often be a matter of luck and fortunate timing, as it was in my case: after a very trying period of being turned down for jobs I had been hoping to get, my résumé was forwarded to Cindy, my current boss, by a friend of hers whose son I was tutoring at the time. Lucky for me, Cindy happened to have an opening a few weeks later.
KR: Because we’re a relatively small group, we have the luxury of being exposed to the full spectrum of the publishing process—from planning and production to publication and publicity. On the editorial side, we’re also privy to the submission process. We’re able to track the kinds of projects agents are submitting, read a fair share of submissions, and discuss them with our bosses. The exciting part of being on the editorial side of a boutique start-up is that you feel a tremendous sense of possibility for each title. You’re working with the understanding that every book we publish helps define our personality and sensibility as a house. And, with a leaner staff, you’re able to be extremely close to the whole operation.
HL: I definitely agree with Kirk about the benefits of being a part of a small group. Because we’re so few people, there’s always extra work to be done and exciting projects to help out with. It’s been very exciting to be able to take a stab at tasks I didn’t think I’d already be doing at this stage, like doing actual editing. I don’t think, though, that it’s merely Spiegel & Grau’s small size that encourages assistants and associates here to take an active role in the publishing process; it’s more a product of the unique, intensely creative, and collaborative work environment here. There’s a contagious enthusiasm in our offices that makes it easy to voice your opinion or share your own ideas, even as an assistant, without feeling intimidated.
KR: When I first started in publishing, I had glorious pipe dreams of spending entire work days reading. The reality is I still spend plenty of hours reading submissions, but that mainly happens at night. The day is spent doing a myriad of things I never knew existed before I got into publishing, which are all a part shepherding a book through to publication. Like most jobs, some of these tasks are stimulating (helping write copy, crafting selling points for a title, discussing the strength and appeal of a submission, interacting with authors) while some are tedious (filling out forms when a manuscript is transmitted to production for binding, placing book orders, routing various trial jackets for approval). But the culmination of all these daily e-mails, phone calls, faxes, mailings, and scribblings (not to mention the night reading!) is the satisfaction of seeing a book you love and have worked hard on in beautiful, tangible, compact form on a bookstore shelf!
MS: I had no idea what to expect when I started here. I had never worked in a corporate environment before. Like Kirk, I imagined I’d spend my days quietly reading in my cubicle like a monk in his cell, but in reality I end up spending an equal amount of time writing—coordinating our efforts with other departments, reporting on what I’ve read, declining submissions, writing copy, keeping in touch with our authors and contributing to Chris’s editorial notes.
HL: As Kirk mentioned, a large portion of our work gets done outside the office, once we’ve already left for the day or have gone home for the weekend. There’s so much to take care of during normal work hours that it’s almost impossible to get a serious chunk of reading done while in the office. But at the end of a long workday, there’s often nothing better than sitting down with a manuscript and immersing yourself in it. After spending so much time multitasking and thinking about the broader life cycle of a book, it’s nice to be able to block out all the distractions and absorb yourself completely in a text.
KR: In light of the ubiquitous and ever-expanding digital influence, I was relieved to find publishing to be a refreshingly old school business. Most editors still edit with a pencil and erasers. Copy editors flag queries for authors with Post-it notes. And a majority of the business is still based on personal relationships, all of which make publishing seem pretty genteel compared to other sectors of the media. So to answer the question, I guess I found publishing to be both much more expansive and intimate than I expected. And as for the authors, they keep things interesting. I’ve found that they usually set the tone for the editor/author dynamic—some relationships are incredibly close (I’ve been asked about the particulars of my wedding night by one author!) and others are strictly business (which is just fine too); some authors like LOTS of feedback, others like more focused, limited interaction. It’s a strange, challenging but ultimately wonderful symbiosis.
MS: What’s been most eye-opening for me is being privy to the marketing element of publishing. Prior to working at Spiegel & Grau I hadn’t realized how many people it takes to help a book to reach the widest possible audience. I guess I had previously, naively imagined that books were magically propelled into the hands of their intended readership by the sheer force of artistry. I was surprised to find out how many keen business minds it takes to get worthy titles the attention they deserve. I’ve found the authors, themselves, to be much as I expected: each their own oil and water mixture of gregarious extrovert and recluse. It seems to me that the author’s fundamental paradox is the impossible desire to be both observer and participant in any given scene-- a conflict with which I can certainly identify. They want to be renowned in their field, sought after and, like Greta Garbo, to be left alone.
HL: Like Kirk and Mya, before I started here, I had no sense of how collaborative the entire publishing process is. I’m still surprised by how many people it takes to transform a manuscript into a finished product. It also continues to shock—and excite and inspire—me to see how significantly a book can change from its original form with the help of a good editor. I’ve always been drawn to editing, but I don’t think I’d ever fully realized how important and creative a process it can be until witnessing firsthand how considerably it can transform an already very good manuscript into a cohesive, compelling, and multilayered book.
What advice might you give a recent college or graduate school grad who is trying to break into publishing?
KR: It’s important to get a sense of what each house publishes when trying to get a foot in the door. Does the house publish really commercial material or is it more literary? What kind of nonfiction do they publish? Who are their big authors? In practical terms, there’s a great site called publishers marketplace (www.publishersmarketplace.com) that’s a terrific resource about the publishing industry and keeps a running list of job opportunities. Additionally, there are some great publishing courses that seem to do a good job of teaching the basics of the business and help place graduates in entry-level positions. Finally, I’d also suggest trying to contact people who work in publishing—or closely related media such as magazines—to gain a more nuanced sense of their jobs, which will give you a better idea of where exactly you’d like to be.
MS: I agree—Publishers Marketplace is an amazing resource, not only for their job board but they also they post deal announcements that include a brief description of the project and the names and imprints/agencies of the parties involved in the deal, which is invaluable information for anyone who’d like to get an idea of the character of a house or a specific editor. But—I think it’s important to remember that publishing is a very social industry, so it’s a good idea to get off the Internet every so often and meet people! Attending talks and readings and being an active member of the literary community is a great way to get to know people who have the kind of job you want. There is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time!