You Want to Work in Academic Publishing: What Next?

Catherine Cocks's picture

by Sean Guynes, acquiring editor, Lever Press

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. A longer, more detailed version can be found here.


Cultivate a Support Circle

Cultivate your support circle as you think through this transition. That support circle might include close friends, a mentor you can trust (especially one open to you “leaving” academia), family, or a therapist. 


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,” which betray a naivete about what it means to do the work/labor of publishing. 

Having a good answer will also help you think this transition through and 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 it isn’t for you. All self-knowledge is worthwhile! More importantly, you just might be asked some version of this question in a job interview.


What Jobs are There in Academic Publishing? 

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 books 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, seeing what’s posted, what sorts of duties each position has, and what’s required to get the job. Knowing which 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!). 

You can also learn a great deal about jobs by looking at publisher websites. You can find a full list of academic publishers on my website. 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.

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. Following them isa 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.


How Can You Prepare Yourself?

If you’re thinking about transitioning out of academia and into publishing, you need to learn how to retool yourself for the kind of job you want. But how can you get experience you don’t already have? 

If you’re in a PhD program, you might have professors working as journal or book series editors, and they might have funding to hire graduate students as editorial assistants or managing editors. Your department might have assistantships set aside to offer students publishing experience. 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 them. Fellowships like the AUPresses Diversity Fellowship 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, since only certain universities and departments will have these opportunities, and they will be competitive.

There are other ways to gain experience. While there are few books about working in academic publishing, and those that exist are often dated, perhaps the most important book you can read is Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book. As she walks you through every step of getting a book published, she explains what those steps mean to editors and publishers. It’s an ideal book to get a glimpse at how publishing works and why it works in 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.

You can also find other ways to learn about publishing in a hands-on manner, such as by volunteering your time and expertise to a journal not affiliated with your university, getting involved with student journals, putting together an edited collection with a more established colleague or mentor, or editing a special issue of a journal with a mentor. These experiences demonstrate to a hiring committee that you are familiar with what it takes to publish something, that you have participated in the work of publishing as a scholar and so will be able to help other scholars through the process. Being able to speak to these experiences as a scholar and publishing professional, and to how it aligns with a publisher’s mission is *chef’s kiss*.

Finally, you need to start thinking differently about the experience you already have. Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In, whatever you think of what some have called her “neoliberal grift” on the plight of the academic job market, is an incredibly useful tool. I particularly recommend 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.


Final Thoughts

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. Coming from academia, especially if you’ve finished your PhD, you’ll be competing with others in your situation and with people following other internal pathways, maybe even people with marketing or publishing degrees.

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 okay to ask people how they did it and, if they have the time, to seek their advice


Sean Guynes is an editor and writer living on Anishinaabe land in what is now Ann Arbor, MI. He is currently the acquiring editor for Lever Press.

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