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By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Olivia Funderburg, Managing Editorial Assistant at Berkley Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House, to the WNDB blog to discuss her career. Olivia Funderburg participated in the 2017 WNDB Internship Grant Program.
You recently accepted a new position in managing editorial at PRH. Can you tell us about that? How will this be different from what you did in your last role at Scholastic, and how do you hope it will advance your career?
My new role is really different in a few ways. I’m working with just books now, rather than both books and teaching materials. I’m working with adult books, instead of children’s books, at Berkley, which is a Penguin imprint. And contrary to what people think when I say “managing editorial,” I’m not actually editing manuscripts!
I’m excited about how different my new job is from my previous one. I wanted to really challenge myself to do something different to expand my publishing skills. Most especially, I wanted to learn more about the trade publishing workflow and working in managing editorial means I get to be right in the middle of that workflow, coordinating between different departments and gaining an understanding of each department’s role in successfully publishing a book. I’m really happy knowing that my work in managing editorial is key to a book making it onto readers’ shelves! After just a few weeks, I can already tell that my experience in this role will prepare me to work at even the busiest imprints or publishing houses in the future and that my new knowledge will be applicable to both children’s book publishing and adult book publishing.
What do you like most so far about your new role?
I like how big the scope is! Berkley is a really busy imprint and we publish a wide variety of books—from romance novels and cozy mysteries to thrillers and science fiction novels, and even Westerns. One of the first things I learned is that Berkley actually has multiple imprints within it, which is in part a result of various mergers over the years but is also related to the size of Berkley’s list and the fact that our titles are so varied. I do a lot of wrangling copy and other tasks to help make sure that the various elements of all Berkley’s books come together on time.
I also like that Berkley’s books are fun—in general, Berkley books can be categorized genre fiction and commercial fiction, which to me means stories that people can escape into and genres that people are really dedicated fans of. In my role, as the person who coordinates weekly cover meetings, I get to see in-progress covers for all of these fun books and hear some of the considerations that go into designing a cover.
Do you have any advice for those working their way up in editorial to make the move to a promotion or a different position?
My first piece of advice is to think broadly about how your current experience applies to a role that you’re interested in. It’s all about transferable skills! My time in education editorial gave me valuable experience with the pace of publishing work in a general sense and also specific experience that is really applicable to my new position in trade managing editorial, like maintaining complicated tracking grids and keeping track of deadlines.
Second, if you’re looking to make a transition to a different department or different area of the industry, don’t be afraid or unwilling to make a move that is technically a lateral one, if you can afford to do so and if the new opportunity is one that will be challenging, a great learning opportunity, or otherwise personally fulfilling for you. My new position is technically at the same “level” as my previous one, but I didn’t see that as a con, and the numerous pros made it easy to decide to accept the role. I was able to make the move into trade publishing that I was hoping for, my salary and benefits are better in my new position, and I’m working with a huge volume of titles—Berkley publishes about three hundred titles a year—which means I’m challenged every day.
Tell us a little bit about what you did in your last position as an editorial assistant at Scholastic. I know the question about a “typical day” is overplayed, so what were some of your favorite things about that role?
As an Editorial Assistant in Scholastic’s Education division, I helped create products for K-6 classrooms, the configurations of which vary, but generally consist of books accompanied by some kind of lessons. Some of those books are published by Scholastic Trade, some are licensed from other publishers, and some, for the lower grade levels, are picture books created by the Education team.
With my first program, I was doing mostly more administrative work, like updating title tracking grids, but with more recent programs, I was able to take on more hands-on work with editing teaching materials, and I was also able to write and edit picture book manuscripts for picture books. Writing picture books used to be one of my least favorite things because it’s really hard and I didn’t think I was good at it. It’s still hard, but I’ve become better at it with practice and I don’t set unrealistic expectations for myself, like to have countless book ideas at the drop of a hat, because I haven’t been doing this for very long yet. Editing teaching materials has shaped the way I read children’s books—when I read a book and think about how it can be taught, I can find STEM or history lessons in novel and character, friendship, or citizen lessons in everything. Even when kids are reading outside of the classroom, books are always communicating a lesson.
One of my favorite things about my role has been the opportunity to engage with books from a huge variety of publishers, from Big 5 publishing houses to small independent presses. Putting together a new product involves a wide survey of the children’s book market and then reading and evaluating books to decide which should be included in a particular program and why. Another one of my favorite things about that role was that this work gave me a new appreciation for nonfiction children’s literature, which I think is a less celebrated or less paid attention to part of the children’s book market but is an integral part of a classroom library. I’ve read some really amazing picture book biographies—many about influential women and people of color I had never heard of—and other nonfiction books that skillfully present all kinds of different topics in an accessible way.
You worked in the education division, which is different from what many people assume when they think about editorial at a book publisher. How do you think the skills needed for each role are different and are there any similarities between the two?
Working in the education division meant that when we’re curating a collection of books, we were thinking about a specific audience: Schools. Having studied education helps me think critically about how a book will build reading comprehension, social-emotional learning, and writing skills. The other distinction between the two editorial processes is that in education, we were evaluating books after they have been published. Being an editorial assistant in trade would mean that you’re evaluating submitted manuscripts and thinking about a much broader audience.
I think that what both roles require, in addition to skills like good time management and careful prioritizing, is a strong sense of what kids want and need to see in books, in terms of representation and topics or stories that they haven’t been able to read about before. I approached my work thinking about readers and their needs first, rather than thinking simply about what will sell first. That idea is relevant to publishing in a broader sense too, in that I think general book publishing can take lessons from how children’s publishing has been becoming more diverse.
Even though the workflow and products of Scholastic’ Education division are distinct from that of trade publishing, the volume and pace of the work are certainly comparable, and the product development is intertwined with trade publishing because it would be impossible to create successful, high-quality educational products without the increasingly exciting, diverse children’s books that are being published.
Previously, you also interned at HarperCollins Children’s Books and Greenwillow Books through WNDB’s Internship Grant Program. Did you have any other internships or jobs in the publishing world?
Before I interned at HarperCollins, I interned at David R. Godine, a small independent publisher in Boston. David R. Godine is really small; like I worked in an office with five people small. The small size meant that I wasn’t assigned to one department and even as a part-time intern, I got to learn about and be involved in different aspects of the publishing process, from reviewing slush submissions to doing special market sales research. And while at Wellesley, I was a research assistant for an Africana Studies professor and learned a bit about academic publishing because worked with him during the process of publishing a new book with a university press.
What were some of your favorite things about interning at Greenwillow and any of your other previous experiences in publishing?
Something that was consistent across my two internship experiences is how welcoming publishing people are. That might sound somewhat cliché, but it’s true. In each of my publishing experiences so far, I’ve worked with people who are really passionate about what they do and are eager to open the door for the next person. From managing editorial to sales, publishing is full of people who take immense pride in their work and who are really dedicated to the industry’s long-term success.
You’ve previously worked as a bookseller. What did you learn from bookselling that you took to your current role at Scholastic?
I was a bookseller at my college bookstore from my sophomore year through my senior year. When I first got that job, I was so excited because, for whatever reason, that was my dream college job and I had thought about it my entire first year. Working in the bookstore at Wellesley meant that I could see trends and changes in the curriculum by way of stocking and selling the books for all the school’s courses. In science and math courses, the textbooks generally stayed the same over time.
But in humanities and social science courses, I could watch how trends in publishing intersected with shifts in the curriculum. Books like Between the World and Me and Homegoing came out while I was a bookseller. Those books were getting tons of buzz and called must-reads, and then I saw them added to courses across different departments. I also always paid close attention to the selection of books for the Writing for Children course, which had a strategic combination of classics like The Snowy Day or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and newer classics like The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson.
You’re a Wellesley College alum! That’s local to me. Why did you want to go to school in the Boston area? Why did you make the decision to move to NYC, as many in publishing do? What do you see as different about the NYC publishing world from the Boston one, which is considerably smaller?
I grew up in Massachusetts and didn’t want to go to school too far from home. Since I grew up on Nantucket, going to school in the Boston area is far in a certain way—to get home for break I couldn’t just drive or take a bus, I also had to take a ferry! I also didn’t want to go to school in the city, but being at Wellesley meant it was really easy to get to the city when I wanted to, and Wellesley’s beautiful campus was a good place for me to take the step of leaving home with a relative level of seclusion. Plus, my mom went to Wellesley so I had known about it since I was really young, and Wellesley ended up being a good fit for me in a lot of ways.
I did move to NYC because I wanted to work in publishing and I already understood then that NYC is the high-profile center of the industry. I liked NYC as a city, but I gained a greater appreciation for it after moving here, particularly for Brooklyn, and I could see myself living here long-term, for the industry but also for all the life the city has to offer, from good food to good independent bookstores. Even though I grew up on a small island, I’ve found myself thriving off of the energy of NYC.
I think the scale of publishing is what’s most different in NYC. In Boston, you have independent publishers like Candlewick and Page Street, whereas, in New York, the Big 5 houses really dominate. NYC publishing feels more corporate. I think independent publishers are still thinking about profits, but they have different priorities and freedoms than a major publishing house like Penguin Random House or HarperCollins that’s owned by a larger media company.
Is there anything you’ve learned about publishing that you wouldn’t have expected when you started out in the industry?
I don’t want to say that I haven’t learned a lot about the publishing industry yet, but I want to emphasize that I still have a lot to learn. My biggest goal right now is to learn more about the trade publishing process and build my skills in that area. One of the main takeaways from my experience in the industry so far is that the jobs in publishing are more varied than I had thought. Before working at Scholastic, I hadn’t thought or known about educational publishing as a job that existed, but since my academic background is in English and Education Studies, the position was a great entryway into the industry for me and it has been a great way to build my knowledge of the children’s book market.
Are there any published or forthcoming kidlit books you’d recommend?
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. I’m a little biased with this one because Malinda Lo is also a Wellesley alum. Her newest novel, which is also her first historical fiction novel, unearths an intersection of queer history and Chinese American history. The protagonist Lily’s story captivated me unlike anything I have read before.
Maya and the Robot by Eve L. Ewing. Ewing is a writer and sociologist of education from Chicago who I have followed for a long time. She has published two poetry books as well as Ironheart and other Marvel comics. This book is her first foray into kidlit.
Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant. I just started reading this debut novel, and the protagonist Tessa is just so charming. I didn’t get to read a lot of books about biracial black girls like me while I was growing up, so reading this book brings me a particular kind of joy. I’m also really impressed by how Bryant depicts Tessa’s anxiety, which I can really relate to.
I Promise by LeBron James, illustrated by Nina Mata. I think I’m one of LeBron James’s biggest admirers. I’m so impressed by the work he has done with his Family Foundation and I Promise School. This picture book exemplifies everything that I hope to do with my career and my life outside of it: advocate for diverse books and figure out how schools can be more equitable.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds. I don’t think there are a ton of middle-grade short story collections out there, and Reynolds, of course, does a fantastic job with the format. He’s a writer who can do literally anything. Each story is tied together by the experience of walking home from school, which, Reynolds noted at an event hosted by the Strand, is a natural moment of autonomy for kids. I think autonomy is a really important word when it comes to talking about children’s books, whether you’re thinking about children’s autonomy over choosing which books to read or thinking about their autonomy over their own lives and how to honor that in literature.
Olivia Funderburg is a publishing professional from Nantucket, Massachusetts. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2018 with a degree in English and Education Studies. Olivia was a We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant recipient in 2017 and later began her work in publishing as an Editorial Assistant with Scholastic’s Education division, combining her passion for diverse books and equity in education. Outside of work, she is usually baking up a storm in her Brooklyn kitchen.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.