Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.20: So You Want To Work In Publishing?

Have you ever thought of being a publisher, but don’t know if it’s the right choice for you? In this episode, DongWon (an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency) walks you through this world and gives you some tips for how to decide if publishing is the right career for you.


Come up with a list of 3 things you’ve read. Think of things that can act as comp titles for your professional career and/or personal brand.

Thing of the Week:

Letters to a Writer of Color Edited by Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro

Mentioned Links:

So You Want to Work in Publishing by DongWon Song

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: You want to work in publishing? Why? If you’re excited about acquiring and editing other people’s books, great. If you think it’s a shortcut to put your book on the market, think again. To learn how publishing works without working in publishing, talk to editors and agents. Although reading a slush pile can be useful. Publishing is a big business, with lots of parts. How do you get in? Make connections! Networking. Put yourself out there! Don’t self-reject. Think “What would Brad do?” And then go for it! Make up your list of titles that you can talk about, that show who you are and what you are interested in. 

[Season 18, Episode 20]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] So You Want To Work In Publishing?

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[DongWon] So…

[Howard] You want to work in publishing.

[DongWon] So you want to work in publishing.


[DongWon] I get this question a lot. Or, I mean, I don’t get this question, I hear this a lot, that people are looking for ways to get into the industry. I hear it from people coming out of school, I hear it from writers, I hear it from a lot of people who are interested in what the business side of this looks like. What does it mean to be on the industry side? I wanted to talk a little bit, bring my perspective here, to what that process actually looks like, how to find that job if you want it, but even more importantly, how to figure out if that is a thing that’s going to be fun for you. Dan, you’ve kind of made a switch to being a little bit on the sausage factory side of this recently. How’s that been feeling?

[Dan] It’s very different. First of all, I was self-employed for 15 years, and now I work in an office with coworkers. That’s been a big adjustment.


[Dan] That’s been freaking me out. But, yeah, suddenly having a team of people… Being able to go to an art team and say we need concept art for this, or having a whole department of editors that we can draw on when we need them and event planners and all these other things. It is reminding me how much work there is and how many people are involved in the production of even a book. Which is not to say that I forgot about my agent and the editor I work with and things like that, but it goes so much beyond just your little publishing team of three or four people you work with directly. There’s a giant engine behind every book that comes out.

[Howard] I think it’s important as we begin this conversation to examine and evaluate the motivation here. Because if you want to work in publishing because you are excited about acquiring and editing other people’s books, that is exactly the right sort of decision to make. If you want to go into the publishing side of the house because you feel like that will be a shortcut to put your book into the market, then you’re doing the wrong thing. Years and years ago, I studied music and how to get into the music industry. There was this guy who said, “No, don’t be the sound guy. If you decide to be the sound guy, you’ll be the sound guy forever. You don’t get to be in front of the microphone.” So, evaluate your motives. If you want to go into publishing because you want to make lots of wonderful books from lots of wonderful people… Aces. If you want to make your book, you’ve got to focus on your craft rather than other people’s.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, that’s a great point. One of my editors once said that she loved story, but she hated writing. So, having other people write and tell her stories that she could then help shape gave her everything that she wanted.

[Howard] Beautiful.

[DongWon] Exactly. I have a lot of friends in the industry who are agents and editors and marketing folks who do write their own books. You see it happen a lot. I think they find it very fulfilling, they love doing it. It always seems very difficult to me, though, to know so intimately how publishing works and to see how the choices get made about who gets promotion, who gets this advance, who gets published here or there, and also to be participating in that process. And, also, to be spending so much of your creative energy on other projects. Right? Because I think what Mary Robinette was saying is absolutely true. For me, a lot of creative energy goes into every book I edit, every book that I write copy for, work on publicity for, whatever it is, that is all me firing on a million different engines in terms of tapping that creative well. So it’s hard to make sure you have enough left at the end of the day to focus on your own project. It’s doable. Like I said, I know a lot of people who do it. But my basic advice to somebody who’s a writer who wants to go into publishing, and I hear this sometimes, they’re like, “Oh, I want to understand the industry better to help me get published.” I’m actually like, “I think what you should focus on is writing your book, and then let industry people help you get it published, rather than trying to do it the other way around.”

[Howard] One of the best ways to learn how publishing works without actually working in publishing is go to conventions and coffee klatches with editors and agents and ask them those questions. Have those conversations in environments where they can tell you how it goes, and then you can step away and keep working on your book.

[DongWon] Totally.

[Mary Robinette] The one exception that I’m going to say is that… Maybe not the one, but the exception that is coming to mind in this moment is that working… Reading a slush pile…

[DongWon] Oh, yes.

[Mary Robinette] Is working in the publishing industry, and it’s invaluable for someone who wants to be a writer and doesn’t have any interest in going further in that career path. But that is… That is not a long-term career position.

[DongWon] I do wish everyone who wrote a query letter would spend… I don’t know, like two hours sitting down and reading a slush pile that a literary agent gets. Right? The unsolicited queries that we get. Just see the range of what we’re receiving. I plugged her newsletter last week, but my colleague, Kate McKean, wrote this piece about how sometimes what we want is writers to be doing the bare minimum in a query letter.


[DongWon] Once you look at what the unsolicited queries look like, you’ll understand what that means, which is just get across that you are professional, you’ve written this book, here’s what the book is. Be direct, be simple, be clear. That’s what we’re looking for from a letter. I think it’s hard to internalize that. It’s hard to understand what we mean by you need to stand out when you’re writing that letter until you’ve read 100 of them, a thousand of them in a row, and then realize that, “Oh. 1% of these is catching my attention and here’s why.”

[Erin] Yeah. I would say from the short fiction side of things, so, I was a slush reader for short fiction, where you read all the stories that come into a magazine. It was really valuable for a couple reasons. One is it’s nice to see work that has not yet been published. It can be easy to compare the work that you’re working on, that’s in progress, to other people’s finished products and feel like there’s such a huge gap. Like, I will never get there. So it’s nice to see all the stories that sort of come through the world from people that you don’t know. It’s also a great way to get to know your own style. They often say one of the best things about critiquing other people’s work in a workshop is not the critique you get from others, but what you learn about how you read, how you… What you want out of a story, what you like in storytelling, and what you can incorporate in your own storytelling in the process. Unfortunately, I will say that, like, slushing is time consuming, often unpaid, and not available to everyone, which is an issue. But if you are able to do it, it can be a really great way to learn more about yourself and story in a really interesting, hands-on way.

[DongWon] Totally. Two things I want to say is, one, I want to make sure we’re not discouraging people from going into publishing. I mean, publishing is a fantastic business, I love being in it, I’ve made my whole career there, I’ve been in the business since 2005. I’ve been an editor, digital publisher, startup, literary agent. I’ve seen lots of different sides of the business and all of them are really exciting. I want to return to a point that Dan made earlier, which is there’s always so many more people work in publishing than just agents and editors. Right? That is a tiny, tiny fraction of the staffing of a publisher. Those are obviously important roles. There sort of the glamour roles, the ones that everybody sees. But then you get into the marketing team, the publicity team, the art team. Sales, which I think is probably the most important team that a publisher has. Maybe that should be its own episode about how to deal with your salesforce. But the sales team are the ones who are actually taking your book, going out into the world, and convincing booksellers to stock it. Then there’s managing editorial. Right? These are the copy editors, these are the production designers, these people who are turning your words into a book. Right? Here’s the layout, here’s how we print it. All of these things. Then, all the things it takes to run a business. Right? Finance, accounting, legal. Warehousing, all of those distribution and logistics. Right? Publishers are very big companies. They employ many, many people. So if you want to work in the business, don’t be too hung up on, oh, I necessarily need to be an editor, acquiring books in this way. That is a very fun job, it’s a very difficult job. It is also primarily a management position. You’re mostly project managing and reaching out… Coordinating between all these different teams. It’s not just sitting down and reading manuscripts and editing. So, things to keep in mind, is that it can seem very appealing and glamorous. You see it portrayed in a movie or wherever.

[Ha ha chuckles]

[DongWon] Our jobs look very fun and cool. We are working on our book a year, right, and we’re traveling on the road with the author. None of that happens. You’re mostly in a cubicle, desperately juggling a thousand emails while going to 15 meetings a day. Right? Like, it’s not that there isn’t that glamour, it’s not that there isn’t that fun, but these are like really difficult jobs that require a lot of those professional skills in that way.

[Mary Robinette] You mean you don’t have a two-story Manhattan apartment, with a balcony?

[DongWon] I actually do, but that’s…



[DongWon] But, like, it’s… I feel very called out all of a sudden. But, anyways…

[Howard] Our next writing retreat is at DongWon’s place.

[DongWon] It’s very echo-y. So, bad audio quality, but you would all be very welcome.

[Mary Robinette] But it’s not in Manhattan.

[DongWon] It’s not Manhattan, it’s Brooklyn. Right?

[Dan] No. Several years ago, I went to the HarperCollins office working with them on a promo we were doing for one of the Partials books. While I was there, there was a fire drill. That, for me, was like… In a very weird way, there was this kind of really fascinating suddenly, dozens and dozens of people I didn’t even know we are in the office were out. We were all like walking down 25 flights of stairs together. Just a big testament of look at all those extra people who are here that I typically never interact with, but are vital to the process.

[DongWon] Great. Yeah. I want to talk a little bit more about what that process actually looks like in terms of starting to be able to find the opportunities to work in the business. But before we get to that, let’s take a quick break.

[Erin] So, this week’s thing of the week. Shockingly, I love a book that is about writing. How people experience writing, writing craft. So I’m thrilled to recommend this week Letters to a Writer of Color which is an essay collection edited by Deena Anappara and Taymour Soomro. They collected essays, 17 different pieces, from authors of color around the world talking about craft and the writing life. It just came out recently, about a month or so ago. It includes essays about use of the second person, trauma, art and activism, authentic political fiction, crime fiction… It’s like having a whole fun Writing Excuses type experience, but in book form. So go out there and read Letters to a Writer of Color and see what these amazing authors of color have to say about the writing life.

[DongWon] Great. So we’ve talked a little bit about why you might want to work in publishing. Let’s talk about how to do that. So, I wrote a newsletter about this, So You Want to Work in Publishing? That kind of encapsulates my, like, top-level advice to starting to find those jobs. I think the core of it is, for me, and this actually applies to writers, too. I find that this advice is pretty extensible to getting any particular role in the industry, whether that’s getting published or getting a job, which is, it is all about who you know. Right? It’s all about having the connections that can get you a little bit more attention in house, little bit more focus from somebody who has a personal connection with you. Now, when I say that, it sounds bad. Because it sounds like what I’m saying is my daddy went to school with your daddy at Harvard, and therefore I’m going to get this job. Obviously, that happens. Nepotism exists in every industry. But what I mean is something a little bit more general than that. It’s about having a personal connection with somebody who’s working inside the house, who… On the editorial team, on the marketing team, whatever it is, to just give a little bit of a nudge. Right? That person doesn’t have to be the publisher. That person doesn’t have to be in charge. In fact, it’s often more effective to go from the ground up, to have somebody’s assistant, to have an associate editor, somebody like that, who can give it that extra nudge in the editorial meeting or nudge their boss, to be like, “Hey. This person’s really cool. We should be keeping an eye on this, whether or not we have an open position to hire for or are looking at a manuscript that’s coming across our desks.”

[Howard] There’s an example from Writing Excuses that is, I think, very informative here. We get emails pretty regularly. Just cold emails from agents who want to put somebody on our show. Almost without fail, the answer is, “I’m sorry, we’re not looking for guests right now.” But, we do panels all the time with authors whose work we discover we love and whose talking we discover we love. We have those conversations and we make little tick marks in our heads saying, “I think this person would be fun to have on our show.” So, yeah, you want to be a guest on Writing Excuses, it’s not what you know, it’s not how persuasive your agent is, it’s have we had the opportunity to meet you and talk to you. It doesn’t end up being an old boys club or my daddy went to your daddy… Or…


[Dan] Yeah.

[Oh, no]

[Dan] That also happens.

[No, Alex. Don’t cut that out. That’s awesome.]

[Howard] My daddy went to Harvard with your daddy. It’s have we met you before we brought you into the workplace.

[Mary Robinette] It’s basically will you be someone that will make our lives better rather than make our lives harder. Because we definitely had guests who are like, “Let’s try to pull you out.” But, for me, the thing about the networking isn’t so much the hey, I can give someone the nudge, often it’s like, “Did you know that this job was opening up?” The number of times that an editor has passed on to me, because they know that I know people, past on a job listing, which then I have sent out to people that I know. Because they posted, but it’s always in like weird obscure places that you kind of already have to be in the industry to know to look for. So having someone who can say, “Hey, there’s a job. You should apply for it.” Is often the nudge that you need, and you can’t get that if you haven’t met the person. Which is this whole cyclical thing that is also a problem.

[Dan] Yeah. I do want to point out the kind of problematic nature of that, because it is to some extent a rich get richer scenario. Right? Like, I get invited to anthologies all the time now because I know people and they know my writing. Those are not necessarily opportunities that I am looking for or would currently benefit from the way someone who is trying to break in would absolutely love to have that, and they just don’t know the right people yet. So, I guess what I want to say is, yes, that can kind of be a self-feeding loop, but also as important as networking is, it’s not the only way to get in.

[DongWon] That is true.

[Dan] It’s not the only way to break into this industry.

[DongWon] Absolutely not the only way. You’re highlighting a big structural flaw in the industry. I think it is why getting people of color in, people from marginalized backgrounds into the industry has been a challenge. So I think one of the things that is our responsibility in the industry side, but also an opportunity for people who are looking to get into it, is to broaden the network of who we’re meeting. Right? So if you’re looking to get into the industry, I would encourage you to as much as you can step outside your normal social circles and meet a wider range of people. That’s one way to bring other people into the fold, or for you to start to enter the fold.

[Erin] Yeah. I’ve never worked in publishing. I started my career working in television. Which has a similar sort of people want to work here for various reasons, because it’s a fun industry. One thing I did was I actually worked at kind of with nonprofits and volunteer work, and was around the industry. So I worked for an organization, with an organization that was trying to help increase diversity in the television industry, which I was like, “Hum. A, benefits me, because I would like to be this diversity in the television industry, but also just I met a lot of cool people.” We put on fun events, we would do interesting things. Then, I knew people kind of accidentally through that that then they might tell me about an opportunity. The other thing is to like put yourself out there if you can and say this is what I am interested in doing. Whether that is in person, on Twitter… If people know, hey, I really want this type of job, and you’re putting that out there in a… Just hey… Not in a bugging people way, but in a hey, universe. This is what I would like from you. Sometimes people will remember that, in the next time something lands on their plate, they’ll be like, “Oh, didn’t so-and-so say that they were looking for this kind of job?” Or this kind of opportunity? And will then pass it on to you.

[DongWon] I love both of those pieces of advice so much. I mean, you can’t get a job if you are secretive about it. Right? So I think the first step is to really start putting yourself out there and really kind of dress for the job you want kind of moment, but doing that in your social life. You have to embrace the fact that you truly want this thing and be ambitious and go for it, I think, to get the thing sometimes. Then, the other thing you said is the biggest question that we’re having about okay, it’s great to know that you should meet people, but how do you actually do that. That’s the other question I get all the time. I will admit, this is gotten a lot harder post-Covid. Right? I think my advice has changed a little bit then it would have been in 2019, 2018, but still fundamentally as spaces are opening up in person events are still a great way to do that. Networking online remains difficult, especially as we’re losing Twitter which used to be sort of publishing’s watercooler. It’s getting a little bit harder to connect with people you don’t know. So, look for events, look for organizations. I think, Erin, that was such a great piece of advice. There’s lots of organizations that are hosting writing seminars, are doing events, are doing programming in certain ways. Those organizations always need event managers, they always need hands… People to, like, stack chairs, people to help… Pour wine for people, put out cheese, whatever it is. These organizations need volunteers, and it’s pretty easy to get in there. Once you’re in there, writers come, editors come, agents come, lots of people go to these things. Especially if you’re in New York, but… Working at bookstores and helping do events at bookstores is also a great way to meet a lot of writers and make some connections with people in your writing community, in your local publishing community. So, keep an eye out for those events. Look for book-oriented public events that need extra staff or are open for you to just attend. Right? Many a publishing assistant has fed themselves in early years by going to event after event after event and eating whatever snacks were available…


[DongWon] And that was dinner, right? Like, those are things that were like part of how you came up years and years ago. That’s faded a little bit. One is pay is improving very slightly in the industry. But also, as some of these events have gone away in recent years. But we’re starting to see them come back a little bit. Also, look for explicit networking events. There are networking events that happen in lots of places that are about meeting people who are in the industry, want to be in the industry. I love to run the sometimes. So, yeah, those are opportunities that are out there. Keep an eye out for them.

[Mary Robinette] The other piece that I would say is that when you do hear about a job that comes up, don’t self reject. Go ahead and apply for it. Because even if you’re like, “But I don’t really have any experience…” You don’t have any experience now. But you will have experience, and a lot of times someone will… Because I know that I have experienced this on both sides of the hiring table, that you’ll remember someone who had a really good cover letter, had a polished resume, weren’t quite ready yet, but you circle back to them later.

[DongWon] Exactly. Also, informational interviews. Even if they’re not necessarily jobs, you can just email somebody and be like, “Hey, do you have 15 minutes? Can I buy you a coffee? Can I just hop on a zoom for 15 minutes, ask you a couple questions?” I do informational interviews all the time. Me saying this publicly is probably cursing myself to get a thousand of those requests.


[DongWon] But I try to make time for people to ask me a few questions and get a little bit of insight into it. This self rejecting thing is very important. My first editorial job at Orbit, they were hiring for a senior editor position at the time. I happened to run into a friend at a party, and she was like, “You should apply for this job.” I was like, “What are you talking about? That’s a senior editor position.” She was like, “No, no, no. Just come in, meet with my boss. Just have a conversation.” I had already self rejected from that job. I had seen the posting and was like, “I can’t apply for that.” I’d only been an agent’s assistant at that time. I went in, had an interview. Whatever I said in the interview was compelling enough that he was like, “I’m going to take a risk on this person.” I wasn’t hired as a senior editor, but I was hired as a full editor. I’d come in from an assistant, jumped a few hurdles. It was only because, like, again, somebody I knew gave me the hookup, told me to do this thing, gave me the advice that this was an open position and that this was possible. I was also really lucky that that was something that worked out for me in a great way and was a transformative experience for me in the industry.

[Erin] Yeah. I would say that my biggest piece of advice on self rejection is always, “What would Brad do?” Apologies to any Brads listening to this, which is that for any job, there is like a dude named Brad who’s tall, confident, and mediocre. Who…

[DongWon] Have the confidence of a mediocre white man. That’s…

[Erin] Exactly.

[DongWon] The best advice.

[Erin] Brad is out there. Like, think of a name, like, I picture him out there, like, applying for that job, and he’s like…

[DongWon] Poor Brad is sitting there wondering what did I do?


[Erin] I’m thinking… I might be thinking, “Oh, my gosh. This one’s three years of experience and I have two and a half.” Brad is like, “I heard of this once, and I’m applying.” Unless I want to see Brad in all those jobs, like, I let the pettiness of not wanting Brad to win out over me to be the thing that propels me to put an application out there, or put myself out there for an opportunity.

[Mary Robinette] I love revenge as my method for success…


[Mary Robinette] As a strategy. That’s really good.

[Dan] To all the Brad’s listening to this…

[DongWon] We’re coming for you.

[Dan] We love you.

[DongWon] No, we’re coming for you.


[Dan] Please, also apply to the thing. It’s a different Brad we’re talking about.

[DongWon] Yeah, we’re talking about another one.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, just that one dude. This is, I think, good advice for a lot of different realms. Is there anything that you want to circle back to that’s very specific to publishing?

[DongWon] One thing that is going to happen at these networking events, and this is an important thing, is when you meet editors, when you meet agents, when you meet other writers… Small talk is difficult. Right? Learning how to network is a skill, in and of itself. Right? The one good thing about publishing, one thing that makes it easier than other industries is you are guaranteed to have a topic that everyone wants to talk about, and that is books. We’re all in this because we love books. You can always talk about books. So, people will ask you, you will ask people, the core question that comes up in every networking conversation I’ve ever had, which is, “So, what are you reading these days?” Right? Or what do you like to read? What have you read? This, inevitably for me and I think most people, draws an immediate blank as you go, “Oh, God. What was the last thing I’ve ever read,” and you cannot think of a single book title. So, my advice is, as a super tactical thing, is to come up with a list of three things that you have read. They do not have to be what you’ve literally read in the last month or whatever. What you want to be doing is picking titles that say something about yourself, that communicate a little bit who you are, what your point of view is, and what kinds of things you like to read. Think of it as like comp titles for your professional career, or your personal brand. Right? So if you want to be… If you want to work in literary fiction, pick smart, interesting literary novels, like say Hanya Yanagihana, don’t say Colleen Hoover, if you want to be working in lit. If you want to be working in commercial fiction, in commercial women’s fiction, then you should probably say Colleen Hoover or something similar. Right? Like, know what your target audience is and know where you want to fit into the industry. Then, come up with a little comp list about yourself as an introduction, as a calling card for, “Oh, right. That person had interesting tastes. They’re right for this job.”

[Mary Robinette] That sounds like great homework.

[DongWon] Absolutely. So, I think do this for yourself. Go through, make that list, think about who it is you want to be, and, a little bit of call back, decide who you are and then do it on purpose. Come up with a list of three titles that you think says something about the kind of writer you want to be, the kind of publisher you want to be. Write that down, memorize it. Have it ready to go for the next time you meet someone new.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we talk about the communication gap between publishers and writers, rejecting people with kindness, and receiving rejection with grace. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.