This is a guide to thinking about the transition to working in academic publishing for academics, designed especially for graduate students and recent postdocs looking to move out of the tenure-track-or-bust rat race. Those interested in working in trade publishing—i.e. for Big Five publishers of fiction like Penguin Random House or indies like Graywolf and Grove Atlantic—will need to look elsewhere (trade publishing often requires a specialized degree, which can also be beneficial for academic publishing, as well as networks of contact in major cities like New York).
The following offers some things to think about as you consider whether you want to go into academic publishing, as well as some resources to help guide you.
Note: The scholarly communications forum Feeding the Elephant on h-net.org published a tl;dr version here.
Update: For a ton of links to resources and recommended reading, see Amy Sherman’s early career resource guide.
Cultivate a Support Circle
Cultivate your support circle as you think through this (and any major) transition. That support circle might include close friends, a mentor you can trust (especially one open to you “leaving” academia), family, and a therapist. While it seems obvious that we should discuss important life changes with people around us, sometimes it’s difficult to acknowledge publicly that we really do want to make a change; it can be scary. And of course your support networks can help you realize you need a change, but they can also offer pushback: do you really want this? Can you articulate why? Is it just a temporary feeling because of an unfortunate situation that might be changed, or something you’re really pretty sure about?
Be careful to set boundaries (e.g. with a mentor who does not want to acknowledge there is anything outside of academia worth doing) but also listen to the responses you get and carefully consider the questions people ask if they seem hesitant to endorse this new direction. You might learn something useful about yourself, your goals, and your desires, whether it does in fact lead you into publishing or helps you realize you want to be in academia (or in carpentry or baking or library school or wherever!) after all.
Why Do You Want to Work in Publishing?
If you are going to pursue the idea of academic publishing, you should be able to articulate why. And you should be able to answer the “why” beyond “I like books” or “I want to make books.” Those are admirable reasons, but consider this: you ask a prospective grad student why they want to become an academic and they answer “because I like learning.” It’s not a bad or dishonest answer, but it betrays a naivete about what it means to do the work/labor of academia.
For entry-level jobs in academic publishing, you might be asked something like “What appeals to you about this job?” or, more plainly, “Why do you want to work in publishing?” Being able to speak to the job and what it does beyond “I like books” is important. I’m being somewhat facetious, since I’m sure at a glance most people interested in publishing have some thoughts beyond “I like books,” but I offer this in sincerity: know why you want to devote potentially years of your life to a certain kind of labor. This is especially important because those looking to get outside of academia occasionally bring such a strong negative reaction against academia to their desire to get a non-academic job, coming off less as interested in the work of the industry and more as interested in doing anything that’s not academia. It’s a vibe. I get it, I feel you, I was there.
Having a good answer to this question, even if it’s not something you have to answer in an interview, will also help you think this transition through and will better prepare you for what’s to come, especially if you disabuse yourself of any rose-tinted vision of working in publishing compared to academia. Who knows, answering this question and learning what it means to work in publishing (the purpose of the section below) might lead you to realizing publishing isn’t for you. All self-knowledge is worthwhile knowledge!
What Jobs Are There in Academic Publishing?
This is part and parcel to the first question, because I think to have a convincing answer to why you want to work in publishing, you should know what jobs there are you could work in. Do you want to market and sell books? Work with authors to bring a book to contract with a press? Do you want to design books? What about journals—do you want to manage a journals program? Do you want to work on digital-only publications and cutting edge technological solutions to long-time publishing woes?
How do you learn about all these different jobs, though?
You can start by looking at the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) jobs list (link here), seeing what’s posted, what sort of duties each position has, and what they require to get the job. Quickly, you’ll learn that most academic publishers have many of the same departments and jobs therein. The three most common departments are acquisitions/editorial, marketing, and production, and these will have most of the jobs. Some publishers also have journals programs and digital publishing programs, as well as others related to rights, business, printing, distribution, and so on.
By becoming familiar with AUPresses jobs, as well as how AUPresses describes and categorizes different publishers, you’ll get a better sense of what jobs are available in publishing and what it means, at the level of basic duties, to work in publishing (there’s a whole other field in academic publishing, some of which overlaps with AUPresses members, called library publishing; most of their jobs are posted to AUPresses).
Paying attention to job postings will help you build a sense of what competencies you need, especially if jobs seems to overwhelmingly require familiarity with certain kinds of workflows, technologies, or labor sectors you aren’t yet familiar with. Knowing required and desired qualifications tend to appear on which kind of AUPresses job ads will help you plan what you need to learn (or check something off your list if you already have that skill!).
Being aware of AUPresses job postings will also help you see what turnover looks like in certain fields of academic publishing, the number of entry level jobs to mid- or late-career ones, and so on. You can also find jobs posted at Publishers Weekly JobZone (link here) and the Publishers Lunch Job Board (link here). These two are more geared toward trade presses, but have the occasional opportunity that you might be qualified for; good to be generally aware of, especially as you try to learn the differences between trade and academic publishing.
You can also learn a great deal about jobs by just looking at publisher websites, especially the publishers you “dream” of working with (or the ones that are simply nearby where you live). You can find a full list of academic publishers on my website (link here; note: I haven’t updated that since 2019, so there may be some new smaller publishers not on that list). If you have a rough sense of the kinds of lists editors deal with (i.e. the topics they acquire books in), the kinds of things certain publishers do and don’t publish (i.e. if they handle print and ebooks, journals, ebook library collections, distributed publishers, etc.), how the size of departments changes across presses, and so on, you’ll be much better placed to get a job by having a more competitive sense of the industry and its labor market. It’s invaluable knowledge to know what different publishers are doing, no matter where you end up working.
Looking at publishers’ websites will let you know who works for them; these days, a good many publishing professionals have social media accounts, especially Twitter, where they discuss the ins and outs of their jobs, share woes and concerns, and celebrate successes. I stress this as a way to learn what it means to think (and worry) about the same things someone in publishing does, to be aware of trends, and also to learn what the pain points in the industry are.
If you tap into these resources and follow the conversations of people working in publishing, you will learn that it is like any other industry: it has issues. It’s not a quick or easy solution to getting out of the academic squid games. It requires a set of skills that need practice and learning, as well as knowledge to understand how and what to do. Some of that can be learned in the job and there are internships, fellowships, and courses to teach those things (see the section below). This is not meant to discourage anyone, but just as a reminder: all jobs are different, all require (the development of) expertise, and all jobs face industry-specific challenges.
Many folks want to leave academia because it has a surplus of workers and a shortage of (fair-paying, healthy, secure) jobs. Publishing, especially in acquisitions, is similarly an industry where there are few jobs, little turnover in those jobs, and more people who want those jobs than jobs available. And just like in academia, job ads get responses not only from entry-level candidates but from people with years of experience (I recently sat on a committee for an entry-level job that had someone with 20+ years of experience in publishing apply). Also, the pay is pretty low and tends to be stagnant—something academics are used to.
Publishing is not an easy or quick solution to getting out of academia. It’s a career. And academics won’t be the only ones trying to get in the door. Moreover, there are often pathways to specific jobs, i.e. being hired as an editorial assistant, apprenticing for a few years there, then going out for an acquiring editor job at the same or a different press. Coming from academia, especially if you’ve finished your PhD, you’ll be competing with others in your situation and with people following these other internal pathways, maybe even people with marketing or publishing degrees.
If you’re serious about this transition:
- know the job types and the career pathways, so you know where you fit, what competencies you might lack, and how you could potentially make up or substitute for those;
- learn how you can prepare yourself to be competitive in job applications and interviews, based on your experiences, competencies, and opportunities you can take (or create) now that will be useful when you’re ready to look for a job in publishing.
Where Are You Now? When Do You Want/Need a Job? How Can You Prepare Yourself?
If you’re thinking about transitioning out of academia and into publishing, you now have to face the question of how. Obviously you need to know what the jobs are and what you want to do in publishing. You also need to measure where you are now in life and what you can do to prepare yourself to be competitive in those jobs. This means learning how to retool your academic competencies for the non-academic or alt-academic world. (Note: nobody outside of academia says/cares about “alt-ac” as a term of art, so I would not suggest using that in cover letters or interviews.)
Where are you now? Are you in a PhD program? Are you already graduated? Are you working as an adjunct? Doing something else? How immediately do you need to get a job? What experience do you already have that can be pitched as useful for a career in publishing based on your survey of AUPresses job ads? All of these are massively important questions. Only you and your support circle are qualified to answer most of these, so they are worth thinking about, since the answers will help you scaffold your path out of academia and to think more pragmatically about next steps. The last one—what experience do you have and what experience can you get—will depend a lot on these answers, and is central to how you should be thinking about your transition out of academia, whether that is ultimately into publishing or something else.
A best-case scenario is that you’re relatively early in your PhD program when you decide, “Nope, this is not right for me.” You want to explore publishing, so you’re thinking through everything we’ve talked about above. Cool. That’s the best case scenario because it means, so long as your funding is stable, and you can continue to subsist on the poverty wages paid by graduate school funding given your personal and/or family situation, then you’ve got several years to learn about publishing, build a network of contacts, and maybe get some experience. If you’re in a different situation, the following still applies, but may not be as readily or easily available to you, depending on your situation. I’m happy to talk through what you can do, based on where you are in your program and/or life after graduate school.
How can you get experience? If you’re in a PhD program, you might very well have professors working as editors on journals or book series published with a press. Your professors might have funding to hire graduate students as editorial assistants or managing editors for those journals. Your department might very well have assistantships set aside to offer student publishing experience, to help professors and train (and pay) graduate students who want to do something aside from teaching. The first thing to do is see if there are opportunities in your department to gain that sort of experience. Working on a journal or book series with a professor, and in coordination with the publisher, is an unparalleled way to gain multiple kinds of experience, from the basics—I learned to work with multiple authors while juggling their timelines and the press’s production deadlines—to the higher-level stuff—that is, how to deal with people, how to understand the needs of a production team who works on publications, and becoming generally familiar with the terminology and timetables of publishing.
If you’re at a university that has a press, you might also be able to get experience there through publishing internships and fellowships. University presses often offer summer internships, and some departments or graduate schools provide funding for this through fellowships and assistantships. These tend to differ from the assistantships above, which are often restricted to work on a specific journal or book series, rather than geared toward learning a specific job at a press. An intern-/fellow-/assistantship at a press is a really good way to get to see the work of a certain job in publishing at a daily level for several months, and essentially operates as an apprenticeship. Publishers like to hire people who have experience that they can see will directly translate into hirees being capable at the job and with little need for extra training and onboarding, so having an internship with a university press is a great way to tell a publisher that you know exactly how to do the job. It also means you’ll have connections with publishing professionals who could write recommendations when you apply for jobs.
There are also some fellowships offered by organizations like AUPresses. Fellowships like the AUPresses Diversity Fellowship (link here; I think this is now defunct, since it was supposed to run through 4 cohorts, which I believe ended in 2020-2021, but keep an eye on 2022 postings on the jobs list just in case) recognize the inequalities that make it difficult to get a job in publishing, and so offer opportunities to correct that.
These are the most obvious ways to gain experience, but also the most gatekept, in the sense that only certain universities and departments will have these opportunities, and they will be competitive. Presses can only afford (and manage) so many interns, so opportunities to gain experience in this way will be limited. Still, being aware of them, apply to them, and learning what you can about the opportunities they offer will help you more than…well, not.
However, there are other ways to gain experience. This starts with first learning what experience is required, as noted in the previous section, through careful study of job ads and by becoming familiar with some people who work in publishing, reading blogs about publishing, etc. There are few books about working in academic publishing, and those that exist are often dated (sort of like the books about being a successful grad student or writing your dissertation in ten minutes a day, etc.). Perhaps the most important book you can read, especially if you want to work in acquisitions (i.e. as an editorial assistant or acquiring editor: the people who talk with authors about the books they want to publish, get those books peer reviewed, and offer feedback themselves on manuscripts), is Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book (link here).
Reading a book about proposing a book might seem a little counterintuitive (then again, if you’re getting a PhD, you might still want to publish your diss-turned-book before ditching academia completely; you did all that work, after all!), but what’s great about Portwood-Stacer’s book is that she walks you through every step of getting a book published and, more importantly, explains what those steps mean to the editors and publishers you work with. So it’s an ideal book to get a glimpse at how publishing works and why it works certain ways. It also gives you all the terminology you need and how it’s used in publishing. It’s a great way to get your brain trying to think like someone in publishing, since that’s Portwood-Stacer’s technique for helping academics get published: see your book from the point of view of a press.
You can also gain experience, practically, by finding other ways to learn about publishing in a hands-on manner. If you have the capacity, you can volunteer your time and expertise to a journal not affiliated with your university, to work on it in some editorial capacity. You can get involved with student journals. You can put together an edited collection with a more established colleague or mentor, or edit a special issue of a journal with a mentor. These might seem like tangential experiences, but what they demonstrate to a hiring committee is that you are at least familiar with parts of what it takes to publish something, with the kinds of people-wrangling and schedule-making, the kind of preps needed to get manuscripts ready for production, handling copyediting and proofing stages, and so on. It’s not the same as having interned at a press, but it’s experience you can’t get any other way! And you can sell it as experience that will help you work with academics, once in a publishing position, because you can sympathize with how they experience they publishing process, what confuses them, what bumps are likely to come up, and so on. That’s not insignificant.
Finally, you need to start thinking differently about the experience you already have. Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In (link here), whatever you think of what some have called her “neoliberal grift” on the plight of the academic job market, is an incredibly useful tool. The chapters in the final portion of the book, “Leaving the Cult,” are really useful if you’re still working through the mixed feelings of deciding to leave academia (and those feelings can take years to work through: my therapist, appropriately, calls it “reprogramming”). Some people find “quit lit” helpful and at times informative about the kinds of complexities discovered in the transition to work outside of academia; others think the whole genre is exhausting, annoying, or performative. Whatever. Read what helps you process your decisions and feelings on whatever time works for you. What’s particularly useful in Kelsky’s book is chapter 60, “100+ Skills that Translate Outside the Academy.” It’s a great list of skills you probably already have after years in academia, but translated into non-academic speak, i.e. the way a job posting in publishing is likely to represent required and desired qualifications.
A few Google searches will show you that there is now a plethora of resources for leaving academia and translating your experiences to non-academics. Try whatever works, but always, when you can, check your application and interview materials with someone who is not an academic to get their feedback. And if you have professors serving as references, make sure they know that the job they will be referring you too is not academic, and that they might need to stress competencies other than your brilliant research and teaching capabilities. (I had some trouble with this last bit, leading the hiring committee to ask, “You do know this job isn’t academia, right?” after they had talked to my recommenders, all of whom were professors.)
These are just some ways to go about thinking through the big question of getting a job in academic publishing. There are as many ways to make the transition from grad school and postdoc life to publishing professional as there are people who have done it. It’s ok to ask people how they did it and, if they have the time, to seek their advice.
I’m happy to serve as a sounding board for ideas, discuss paths into publishing, and provide feedback on cover letters for publishing jobs. You can get in contact here. I enjoy discussing my work with people, being an advocate for folks who want to explore academic adjacent pathways, and making clear the language behind job ads and descriptions.
Best of luck and keep in touch!