FAQ: How to Break into the Publishing Industry in College

The other day, I got a very polite email from a young lady who is currently in college. She was asking if I had any advice for someone trying to break into the industry in college.

Well, hopefully I didn’t overwhelm her, because I had a lot to say. I thought I would share that email here, for anyone else who has the same questions.

Hi, [Name]!

Sorry for the delayed reply. I just graduated at the end of January after my senior capstone, so I know the feeling of looking for those opportunities. 

Here’s the thing about publishing journeys; there really isn’t a twelve step process. But I’ve found that it’s helpful to hear about how other people did it. So, for your reading pleasure (or for you to roll your eyes and groan–I’m a writer after all, I write a lot), I’ve outlined some of my journey and some tips along the way.

My journey started by going to Taylor University to pursue a degree in professional writing. I came in with exactly zero publishing experience and these lofty goals of having a book published in college. Ha! It doesn’t quite work that way, as I was soon to learn. 

It was a rocky start. I was there one semester, then had to take a semester off. So that whole year was kind of a wash, very disappointing for an ambitious young’un like myself. But I was determined to come in the next year swinging.

I spent that first actual year just gaining experience. You have to do a lot of writing for free before you get paid. I did dozens and dozens of book reviews for the ECLA (Evangelical Church Library Association). If you read Christian books, definitely check out their guidelines here: https://eclalibraries.org/about/ecla-policies-guidelines/ecla-media-review-guidelines/ . I wrote for other smaller places, like the Aboite Independent and the local news as well, but that would be the sort of thing I would look around for where you are.

I was also on the pub board for Illuminate YA Publishing, evaluating manuscripts as they came in and giving feedback. That wasn’t paid or anything, but it was good experience, and when the managing editor needed someone to run the website and blog, I took that on as well. There are quite a few small pubs like that that might give you tasks to do to gain experience, whether Illuminate, Brimstone, Little Lamb Books, etc. It’s just a matter of reaching out. It’s well nigh impossible to get your foot in the door at Harper Collins or someplace like that right off the bat, but smaller pubs are often happy to take on a part-time unpaid intern.

I got pretty down by the end of that year, though. I didn’t feel like I was doing much, and I thought maybe I should switch majors and do something practical. But just then, God slapped me upside the head. I won a few writing awards (if a contest is free, I’d say go for it and enter! Google searches help). My professor passed me along an assignment from a national magazine (my first real paid piece!). Most importantly, though, I ended up in a killer internship.

It started by sitting outside a classroom for an hour on a Saturday, waiting for a man to show up. That man was Cyle Young, a literary agent who would be speaking to a class that day, and who I was determined to talk to before he did. I was dressed nice, and my friend and I were the first to greet him. We chatted with him, and by the end, I had a summer internship with his literary agency, Cyle Young Literary Elite. He also connected me with Little Lamb Books, where I became an editorial/marketing intern. Again, not paid positions, but good experience.

At the end of that summer, in August, one of the junior agents was leaving, so I offered to take on her clients. That’s how I ended up as a junior agent; it was just kind of jumping on that opportunity. Thus, my second year in college I was a junior agent, taking on my own clients, starting to negotiate contracts. Also through the agency, one of the agents loved my manuscript and took me on as a client, so that started getting sent out to publishers. I went to some conferences as an agent that year.

I was also the online editor and social media manager for our college newspaper. If you have a college newspaper, I highly recommend that, even if journalism isn’t your thing (it isn’t mine at all). Working with deadlines, with others, with style guides, it’s all great stuff, and you get a ton of bylines to add to your portfolio. You can even win some awards; I didn’t realize this until our faculty advisor told me I was coming to a state awards ceremony to accept some awards, but that also looks pretty nice on a resume. Also, don’t be afraid to suggest things; I pitched a humor column that I ended up writing for Life and Times, and it became the most popular part of the newspaper. So, pitch things! The worst anyone can say is no.

Things get a little complicated after that, with a semester in L.A., working as a manuscript editor, etc. My boss at the agency hooked me up with the publisher at Mountain Brook Ink, who was looking for a new publicity manager. I interviewed, interned for a few weeks, and moved into the position. It’s been a ton of fun, and we actually try the crazy ideas I throw out there. We even started a brand new speculative fiction imprint. That’s been quite the undertaking, but a whole lot of fun. I get to do all sorts of things, from editing, to acquisitions, to publicity.

I’m going to around ten conferences so far this year as faculty. I’m sure more will come up. The nice thing is once you go to a few, word gets around, and people start asking you to come. I think that’s an important thing about this industry. Once you set the ball rolling, opportunities tend to present themselves.

I think there’s a misconception around being an author that a lot of people have, and I certainly did coming into college. It’s really hard to get published without first putting in your dues in the industry. Publishers want to know that you’re a professional, that you can do it. I now have four books contracted (two different series) that will be coming out, the first one in November, but I didn’t get the first contract until November 2019, more than a year after I got an agent. And that took a while too. Things in the industry just move incredibly slowly. I had this grand idea that I was going to break onto the scene as a novelist in college, but actually, that’s kind of a bad idea. I’m so glad I didn’t have a book published in college; I would have had no idea what I was doing. I still feel very under-prepared, and my actual job is to help authors sell books!

I’m not sure how you stumbled upon my name, but it seems a lot of people do from my Crosswalk, Christianity.com, and Bible Study Tools articles. I started writing for them last summer because a friend of mine wrote for them and recommended me to the editors. That’s another area where I can’t really give advice on “how to get editors to pick you;” like many things, it’s about making friends and connections who trust you.

Clearly I’m not big shot writer or anything; I’m muddling my way through just like anyone else. But, these are the tips I can give:

  1. Check out small publishers and offer your assistance for whatever they need–even if it’s marketing or something you don’t love. That can easily turn into tasks you like better if you hop on opportunities that arise, and if nothing else, it’s a resume builder.
  2. Check out ECLA if you haven’t already. Unlocked by Keys for Kids is a teen devotional always looking for submissions; there should be contact info on the website. Our Daily Bread also has a teen site, YMI, where I believe you can find contact info.
  3. Be willing to write for free at first. (Though also know when to stop. At this point, I’ve paid my dues, and I don’t write anything for free anymore unless I want to for fun.)
  4. Join your college newspaper. I cannot recommend this enough.
  5. Talk to people and make friends. Including on social media. Follow editors and authors. I have some great online pals I’ve never met in person. Almost everything in this industry is about knowing someone.
  6. Just give it a shot! Enter the contest. Pitch the idea. Apply for the job. The worst anyone can say is no.
  7. Study study study. Read read read. Books on editing. Books on writing. Dialogue by Robert McKee. Word by Word by Linda Taylor. The Chicago Manual of Style. The AP Stylebook. 
  8. Take advantage of as many writing and editing classes as you can. And take a few marketing classes and social media strategy if you can squeeze them in! So much of everything is about marketing and publicity.
  9. Reach out to people. (Like you did to me!)
  10. Don’t give up. It’s slow. It’s agonizing. But you never know what little thing will end up being your big break.

I hope this was at least somewhat helpful. If you have more questions, or more specific questions, feel free to ask.
Blessings to you!

And to you, readers, if you have questions (or advice!), please feel free to drop them in the comments!

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