With our Ask WNDB column, we get industry insiders to answer your burning questions! This month we discuss how to start a career in publishing with Feather Flores, editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
What advice would you give to someone who writes, “I am a high school student who is interested in pursuing a career in publishing or editing in the future. What are the kinds of extracurricular activities that I can get under my belt now to A. Appeal to universities and B. Help me to gain experience in the field?”
There are SO many activities that fit the bill! When conducting resumé reviews, I usually advise students and publishing hopefuls to emphasize any experience related to books (paid or volunteer work at libraries, for example), education/tutoring (any work with kids, younger students, campers, etc.), other publications (newspapers, magazines, blogs), or reading/writing/literacy in general. That said, any leadership or volunteer opportunity is an excellent learning experience!
Publishing is a large and varied industry full of talented people with many different interests, so it’s always a good idea to explore the opportunities that YOU find exciting. You might not know right now how they’ll become relevant to your ultimate career path, and that’s okay. They always do (I promise), and it’s in making room for the unexpected that you’ll experience the most rewarding growth. Whether it’s working behind the scenes as a paid intern at a museum, volunteering with a local nonprofit, or helping organize events for organizations at your school, the key is to make sure you’re spending time participating in activities you enjoy. Everything is experience—it’s all in how you frame the story.
What are the best undergraduate programs to transition into a publishing program or career path?
My advice above pertains here as well. While it may be helpful to have an undergrad degree in English, communications, or another writing-related field, it’s certainly not necessary. Undergrad is a time when you can explore different fields with curiosity and abandon, and it’s best used in service of your own self-discovery. What kind of person are you? Which ideas light you up with joy and inspiration? How do you find yourself wanting to make a difference in the world? The answers to these questions are deeply personal, and you may be surprised to find yourself gravitating to entirely different fields of study than you expected. Trust your intuition! You are the person who knows YOU best, and your journey will be what it needs to be. Speaking as an editor, I can say with confidence that the most fulfilled creatives I know are those who spend time getting to know themselves and the truth of their unique, ever-evolving stories. Whatever undergrad program you end up in, if you spend those years honing your writing voice and following your interests, you’ll come out more prepared for a career in publishing than you were when you went in. No bells and whistles necessary.
What aspects of a cover letter are most important for the industry? Do you have any advice on getting noticed when submitting a resume through an HR portal?
Oh, I love cover letters. Cover letters can be conceptualized as a pitch for you as an employee in the given role, but I find it even more helpful to think of each cover letter you write as a story. It’s the story of you, the person, weaving together your interests and experience with your passion for the role, framed in a way that enables your values and ethos to shine through. The best cover letters go beyond adding color to a resume—like any story, they take the reader on a journey and leave them feeling something by the end of it. (And when it comes to demonstrating your prowess as a writer in a writing-heavy job, there’s no better way to “show, don’t tell!”)
When I applied to my current role at Simon & Schuster, for example, I told the story of who I am as an editor. What are my editorial strengths and superpowers? What kinds of stories resonate with me, and why? How do I conceptualize the role and the imprint, and how would I approach the job were I chosen for it? I answered these questions by opening with an anecdote about a group of kids I’d recently encountered in a park, who were selling odds and ends at a makeshift “store,” and from whom I was gifted a small conch shell because it “wasn’t very nice” (true story!). The interaction prompted me to think about what book publishing really is—and for me, our readers, the young people we make the books for, are its heart. Because of this framework, I could end the cover letter with an ethical call to action (the most powerful rhetorical ending to a persuasive essay like a cover letter): “I am a gatekeeper, and I want the gates open as wide as possible . . . I want protagonists from cultures around the globe, and I want to see them living: falling in love, solving the case, saving the world, figuring themselves out. Selling shells to strangers in the middle of the park. I want to see them—I want to see me . . . Let me bring these stories to life with you. I’m here for the young readers, for the books that endure, and I hope you’ll have me.”
Resumé-wise, be sure that you are making the most of your space! You only have a page, but you can pack a lot in and showcase your writing (and organizational) skills here, too. Stay concrete (add numbers and quantities wherever possible); use active verbs and avoid repetitive words or phrases; work in keywords from the job listing (and the company or imprint website, if relevant) wherever possible. Save as a PDF, so your formatting is preserved. And always list your strengths (not just program proficiency, but also essential “soft” skills) near the top!
Are there certain departments or segments of publishing that are a good place to begin one’s career? Is it your sense that it is easier to get hired into certain departments over others?
Publishing is competitive across the board, since it’s a passion-based industry (for better or worse). I have a sense that editorial is the trickiest department to break into, though of course I have more insight here than elsewhere. Apologies that I’m not more insightful on this front!
Tell us about your job, and your day-to-day routine.
My job looks completely different depending on the day! I love that about being an editor, though it can be tricky to plan out your week in advance. I generally begin the day by resolving urgent emails. These might be relevant to a project in production (Did materials come in? Do I need to review or sign off on anything? Does a colleague need a quick answer to help them do their job?) or to a project that’s published (Does the author/artist/agent have a question? Is there a marketing or publicity update I need to read? Are there sales asks I need to facilitate?) or to a project on submission (Is there an update on an offer I have out? Do I need to schedule a call? Is the timeline of an auction changing?). Then I’ll move on to the bulk of my day, which might be preparing materials for acquisition or launch; writing copy for jacket flaps or cover memos; reading and responding to submissions; reviewing materials for color, design, or proofreading notes; Zooming with my colleagues for schedule, art, or acquisitions meetings; or (my favorite) turning my computer on airplane mode and editing my manuscripts!
What do you wish you had known before taking a job in publishing?
Going above and beyond in your role doesn’t always pay off. Publishing roles will demand everything you have and more, so it’s essential to protect your energy. Setting healthy boundaries means being intentional about how you spend your time and passion—because you only have so much of both.
What is your one best tip for someone trying to break into publishing?
So many people want the role you’re applying for, but only YOU want it for YOUR reasons. Find out what they are and speak to them with clarity and purpose. You can be a work in progress and be honest about what you know now. This is an industry of storytellers—and if that’s you, then you absolutely belong here. It’s just a matter of time before your story finds its perfect audience.
Feather Flores joined Atheneum in 2022 after four years at Chronicle Books. She works on smart, joyful picture books; middle grade romps with coming-of-age themes; and bold, open-hearted YA that reimagines everything our identities can be. Her list encompasses fiction and nonfiction, with an emphasis on stories by, about, and for people from marginalized communities. She champions books that depict the beauty and diversity of the human experience: the humor, the complexity, the curiosity, the magic. Anything that encourages young readers to be more fully and unapologetically themselves, she wants to read it. Feather edits from the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find her expressing endless enthusiasm on Twitter @featherfully and explore more books she loves at featherflores.com.