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Career Advice

Career options in publishing for humanities graduates

Grad school is a good time to start exploring a career path in publishing.


Graduate students today might take a hard look at the academic job market and conclude that a career as a professor is probably not in the cards. But for those students who nonetheless would like to work in a university environment, there are other options, including university staff positions and jobs in university labs or clinical settings.

Humanities graduate students have another career option that will allow them to use their research skills and keep them coming back to university campuses, while delivering a paycheck from the private sector: scholarly or textbook publishing.

“I liked research and writing and I liked the university environment,” says Michelle Lobkowicz, who began thinking about a publishing career while she was studying towards a master’s degree in English literature at the University of Guelph. “I liked dealing with ideas and learning and hoped I would have a job that would connect me to that.”

Her first fulltime publishing job was as a sales representative in Guelph, Ontario, with Broadview Press, a year after graduating with her MA. Today she is sales manager for the higher education division of University of Toronto Press. She moved when UTP acquired Broadview’s history and social sciences textbook lists in 2008.

A master’s degree is typically the credential publishers are looking for in people they hire, although a few staff members have a PhD and some have a bachelor’s degree, says Ms. Lobkowicz. “The master’s level signifies a bit more commitment to further study and specialization and more aptitude for the theoretical tenets of a discipline,” she explains. “It helps in meeting and discussing things with a professor.”

Many newly minted MA graduates start as seasonal sales representatives, a four-month contract that is often an entry into fulltime publishing work as sales reps, special project managers and other positions.

Book sales, who is it for?

People who succeed in this line of work are well-organized, curious, good listeners and “able to ask smart questions,” says Ms. Lobkowicz. They need to be able to understand what the book is about “and distill that into a two- or three-sentence pitch.” The job includes email sales as well as a lot of travel to campuses to meet professors.

Selling books “isn’t like selling cars: you get the book into the prof’s hands and then you wait to see if they are going to adopt it,” she says. That can take two years. With textbooks, your end-customers are students whom you’re selling to through their professor. “It is all about building relationships. As humanities graduates, you learn a lot about that in your degree program.”

There are basically two sides to the publishing industry: the production side, which includes substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading, among other pre-press responsibilities; and sales and marketing, which can move into acquisitions and is more likely to lead to senior management positions.

“If you want to do purely editorial – copyediting and proofreading – there are some wonderful post-grad programs at Ryerson University and Centennial College, with internships that let you explore and make those connections,” says Suzanne Clark, senior acquisitions editor with Oxford University Press based in Toronto.

“If you want to explore the other side, then truly sales is a gateway that opens up to many things – acquisitions, marketing, sales management.”

The path to acquisitions

As an undergraduate at Western University in English and linguistics, Ms. Clark had done academic work with the Canadian Poetry Press and with an academic journal, Canadian Poetry. During her master’s program in English at Western, she began looking at other possibilities in publishing. “I reached out and learned a bit about higher-education publishing in talking with people who worked at McGraw-Hill and Oxford,” she says.

“I first met them at Congress [of the Humanities and Social Sciences] at the book fair. I asked about their backgrounds, what they thought about the industry and how they got into it, and what they looked for [when hiring]. I was really intrigued, and stayed in touch with a couple of those folks.”

One year into a PhD program, she was enjoying the work but knew that her chances of landing a good academic job were improbable. “I was taking a serious look at the job market and, while I liked the university atmosphere and am passionate about education, I knew the potential … to choose to stay in Ontario and live in a city where I wanted to was less likely,” says Ms. Clark.

“What other jobs would exist where I could still be involved with academics and spend time on campus? And, like many English majors, I like books.”

She started in publishing sales with Oxford – an ideal route, she says, to acquisitions. “Sales is the path that allows you to gain market experience and understand an important component to publishing in Canada. You have to suit the ways courses are being taught and what the market is looking for. In a relatively short time, you gain wonderful customer-service skills and experience communicating. However more importantly, you understand how the market operates.”

Meet leading scholars

Ms. Clark soon discovered that acquisitions – that is, finding authors with ideas for textbooks – was her passion. “One thing I like so much about it is that I am able to build a list, and I get to interact with and meet some of the most important and emerging academics in Canada while also having a role to influence the resources being used in classrooms in Canada.”

Her job entails travelling the country to meet prospective authors in the fields she’s responsible for – sociology, criminology and engineering. She needs to understand the challenges in the field and emerging trends and be aware of competing books.

For graduate students in the humanities who may be unsure of what to do next, Ms. Clark has some advice. “When you’re in graduate school, whether you plan to continue through or not, it‘s important to have a sense of the skills you’re developing on an ongoing basis and be able to recognize and catalogue those and be aware of what else you could be doing.” She counsels them to seize opportunities “to reach out and connect with others, and be very open to learning about how people get into roles that you’ve considered.”

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  1. Fred / August 2, 2014 at 13:58

    Am I the only one who’s noticed that its the Humanities that are always targeted in the ads as a field where there is absolutely NO WORK? The market for humanities work is changing and to be a success, one has to think creatively and find alternative means of entering the market. I suppose that a sales job is good for individuals unwilling or unable to live up to that challenge; however, I suspect that articles like this are being written by academic administrators hoping to further dwindle the budgets allotted to humanities research. Corporate models are killing the Humanities because people with corporation-based educations do not possess the skills in critical analysis to understand the complexity of a humanities-based education. So, keep your sales jobs. Those of us in the humaniites will be running the show one day and we’ll be telling the corporate administrators how to reapply their skills sets outside of the failed corporate model.