University Press Week: Behind the Scenes with Eric Henney

#UpWeek

In honor of University Press Week, we’re featuring interviews and posts from members of the Princeton University Press community all week. Today, Eric Henney, a new editor of physical, earth, and computer science, shares insight on succeeding in the publishing industry:

Eric HenneyPublishing is cool. Obviously it’s appealing to be able to work on the ideas that shape the future, and it also carries some caché. The competition for entry-level jobs in a cool industry is tough enough, but in publishing it’s tougher still, because publishing is a generally shrinking industry.

So getting your first job in publishing is really hard. Intensified competition has made all varieties of publishing houses pickier about their job requirements. (Most editorial assistants I know are overqualified in reality, but barely so on paper.) This has created an entry-level bootstrapping problem: entry-level jobs now require experience that applicants likely won’t have.

If you want a good chance at landing a job (this is certainly not a given), you can travel a prescribed path: intern at the best publishing companies you can while you’re in college, likely for free and preferably a few times. Network aggressively. Be willing to take dozens of people out for coffee. Travel to them if you can; talk by phone if you must. But make sure you’re doing it once or twice a week. Move to New York. Pretend you live there already, if you have to. Enroll in a publishing program that has ties to good publishing companies. Loans can help finance you. Your network takes time to cultivate, so begin this process by sophomore year of college.

If you fail to accomplish any of this, you might feel that you’ve boxed yourself out of publishing. There’s some truth to that. When you send your applications into the vortex of a Big Five job portal, you shouldn’t expect a response if you don’t have a couple years of experience already.

This trend in entry-level hiring isn’t at all surprising, but it is suspect. Yes, networking is important. But there are good reasons that publishing doesn’t have an actual professional schooling system, like medicine. Being a good doctor is a matter of knowing enough to not kill a person once you’ve cut them open. Publishing is thankfully a little looser than that, and belonging in this world involves less obviously measurable qualifications, like creativity and curiosity.

I’ve been at PUP for four years. It’s the first formal publishing experience I have. I landed here after more than a year of office temping, substitute teaching, freelance writing for entertainment and parenting blogs (note: I am not a parent), and unsuccessful job hunting. My degree is in philosophy, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it after I graduated. All I really knew was that I needed to work with smart and interesting people and that I didn’t want to be an academic. I started as an assistant, working for then-political science editor Chuck Myers (now at Chicago) and then-physics editor Ingrid Gnerlich (now PUP’s publisher for the sciences in Europe). I think I landed the interview because I stayed in touch with the permissions coordinator, who had interviewed me a few months earlier, when I applied to be his assistant. I do not know why I got the job, and I do not think it wise to ask. But I know it came down to something other than years of experience in publishing, because I had none.

I worked really hard to get up to speed. But I knew it was not at all a given that I could do it. All I could really promise was that I really did like ideas and I really did like sharing them with other people. As it turns out, that, in combination with the modest administrative experience I actually did have, was enough. Over the last four years I’ve taken on the increasingly large responsibilities offered by the Press, and this year I was made a full editor in the sciences.
University presses maintain a unique publishing ethos, one which acknowledges that the typical path into publishing is anything but. I suspect that will endure regardless of what the rest of publishing looks like. And that’s one of the things that makes them special.