How I Ended Up in Publishing

After leaving my job of two years, I decided to pack my bags and take a nose dive south to Central America to visit one of my best friends who had been volunteering with the Peace Corps for the past two years. We were going to meet in the country’s capital, and back pack from city to city for about three weeks. I was in the middle of my job hunt for a full-time position in publishing so I couldn’t afford to be away any longer, and my friend was using part of her limited vacation time. Since it was actually cheaper for me to be in Nicaragua rather than New York City, where I was living, I could justify a trip even if my savings was becoming more and more depleted. I had been working towards the perfect job for years, and to be honest, I was exhausted. I needed the break.

In high school, I knew I wanted to work with the media, specifically journalism. We were required to present an in-depth thesis to our school board before graduation, and I decided to write mine on how technology was changing the landscape of the media. We were a relatively new school, so I was the first student nearing graduation to express interest in this field. We lived in a smaller southeast town, so pursuing any sort of job in the media almost certainly meant you were looking to move to a bigger city where there was more opportunity. Most of my classmates were pursuing jobs in the medical industry, teaching, or business, which were all much more practical choices for the area.

I looked for ways to build my college application, like writing for the school newsletter and becoming the student editor of our school yearbook. I was determined to show everyone I was serious about pursuing this field. I tried to dabble in any sort of writing that would add to my college application and entered several different regional contests. I was constantly pushing myself to become better. But when it came time to select my freshman classes for college, I buckled. What did I know about publishing or the media? I had come from a small town with a  family of teachers and nurses. The one family friend I knew in journalism worked for a newspaper in Florida. He had advised my dad to “lock me in my room” until I chose a more stable field with better pay. It was a joke, but still. At seventeen I felt like I could defy the odds  and become a great journalist or editor. But at eighteen, I was already starting to think about job security. What happened those few months between high school graduation and college?

I decided to start out in nursing. My grandmother and aunt were nurses so naturally they loved the idea. My mom was glad I was going into a field that promised almost certain employment. My only real excitement though was the prospect of becoming a traveling nurse where they would pay me to live in different parts of the country for months at a time. I didn’t like visiting hospitals, I felt nauseas when I looked at isolated diseased body parts in my anatomy book, and I hated listening to my anatomy and physiology classmates discussing the latest episode of E.R. Who even watched E.R. still?

I’ll never forget my dad stopping me as I packed up the car to head to school one weekend when I was about halfway through my first semester.

“Katie, I just don’t see you in nursing.”

I have to admit, my feelings were a little hurt. He knew me, and said what I was trying so hard not to say. Life was too short not to pursue something just because you were afraid of a challenge. I ended up declaring a B.A. in English. I tacked on a second major in journalism, joined our school paper, and began freelance writing for a few local publications. Writing essays and articles came so much easier than studying limbs and cellular structure in chemically scented labs.

I was paid twenty-five dollars for my first story about the benefits of calcium in a healthy diet. No amount of pay could replace my happiness when I met a representative for the dairy association at Panera Bread to interview her for my story. Over coffee and a baguette, I had become a true journalist. I felt legit with my recorder from Walmart and my new steno pad. This was something tangible that proved my efforts were actually paying off.

I picked up several more freelance gigs, one of which never paid me the promised $1.10 per word. Lesson learned, never write without a contract. I spent countless hours on the phone and via email with financial advisors crunching numbers and working on an interesting lead when all I was writing about was the tourism revenue our local city brought in and how that affected our local economy. But it was another writing clip, and my heart literally did flips when I saw my byline beside all the graphs and charts.

When I graduated college, I began freelancing for the features section of a local newspaper. But without a steady job, I had to begin serving at a local restaurant to make ends meet. I wore suspenders, smelled like barbecue, and had the most hideous but required black sneakers. They looked like special orthopedic shoes and had no traction. I mastered the small talk, learned how to balance multiple plates on one arm, and could whip up a mean salad in under a minute. I reminded myself this was only a means to an end.

As I spoke with one of my previous journalism professors, she encouraged me to look into a post-graduate publishing institute since I was serious about working in the publishing field. Freelance writing in the region was near to impossible to make a stable living. As I researched the institute I realized I would need a couple of thousand dollars to attend any of them – there was one that I knew of in Denver and two in New York- plus I would need resume experience if I had any hope of getting a job after the program.

I began applying for “big girl” jobs and started working for a software start-up company to begin my savings for the program. It would be a nine to five, hourly wage, but it was consistent. I took it. The job market was tough and a lot of my friends had either opted for grad school, or quite literally left the country to do extensive traveling. I was determined to save enough for one of the two publishing institutes in New York City though.

Within the first few weeks, the job they had hired me for didn’t really fit what I was doing. Apparently, working as an office assistant for someone who works from home six hours away has a lot of downtime. So I began picking up phone calls from clients, and instead of being an office assistant, they switched me to head up all of the software trainings with those clients. I learned programs, wrote user guides, and talked almost constantly on the phone all day. By five, my voice would be almost gone and I was sore from sitting in a chair all day. It would be a four or five hours at a time before I would remember to even stand-up. It wasn’t my dream, but it was a job and a good company, and for that I was thankful.

The company I was working for allowed me to relocate to New York City to begin working from home. I was one step closer to my dream job! I was elated that first year I worked from my apartment on 7th avenue. After working for them almost two years, I had saved enough for a couple of months rent, plus tuition for the publishing institute at New York University. I decided it was time to take the plunge– I quit my job and immediately began my publishing classes.

The program was intense, with group projects and constant speakers during the morning and afternoon sessions. We would sit in class taking notes, writing down contact information, and trying to introduce ourselves to the speakers who held various positions at different publishing houses. I learned the ins and outs of books and magazines. When the program ended, I scattered my resume to all the big publishing houses. I shook hands, wrote emails, and did everything short of stalking to apply to any job leads. Despite all my efforts, I left for Nicaragua with no certainties and very, very unemployed.

Landing in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, I literally jumped for joy when I saw my friend. While I was battling the nine to five, she had been living in a small village, volunteering with the Peace Corps. We had both graduated with degrees that offered no employment certainty. She had her B.A. in art history and I had mine in English and journalism. We had grown up together– even been roommates in college. Now, we were taking a much needed break as we both prepared to begin the job hunt once again. Her stint with the Peace Corps was coming to an end, and my pursuit of a full-time job in publishing was just beginning. We were both mid-twenty somethings awaiting the next big chapter of our lives in a struggling economy.

Despite the unemployment rate, I felt my biggest hurdle was myself. I simply needed to stop obsessing about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I realized I had come to fear that I would give up what I loved for job security, like what I had done when I first declared nursing as my major. And now, thousands of miles from New York, my mind was anxiously going over every detail of the last few weeks of my job hunt. I began to worry about not having access to my cell phone. The coverage plans were too expensive. What if someone tried to call me about a job application while I was out of the country? I had followed up with everyone I had left my resume with, but what if they hadn’t gotten my email or message? What if a new assistant position became available and I couldn’t be one of the first to apply for it? The past ten years of my life I had been focused on reaching this goal, but I had also craved time to just let go of it all and simply be myself. If I couldn’t let it go in Central America, where I had no phone or internet access, where could I?

We caught a bus out of Managua and headed to Ometepe, an island consisting of two volcanoes connected by a slim peninsula. Getting out of the bus, I squinted as I scanned the lake for the ferry that would take us to the island, swatting gnats in clumps and pondering what it would be like to travel and write for a living. With some good bug repellent, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe if I couldn’t find something full-time, I would travel the world and try my hand at freelance writing again, working odd jobs. Maybe I could find something at a coffee plantation or banana farm?

As we walked over the gravel path to our ferry, I began making a mental checklist of all of the follow-up calls I would make when I returned. Perhaps I should just show up at the offices, though a restraining order may not be the best the way to make an impression.

Our ferry was barely bigger than mid-sized speed boat, but with a bottom level. Underneath the deck, benches were crammed beside the inner mechanisms of the giant motor. I rested my head in the frame of one of the oversized windows and watched a group of American college students laughing as they danced to music only they could hear from an iPod they shared. Life seemed so much simpler in college. Or maybe we were just less aware of everything going on around us. Though if I were honest with myself, I was always aware of everything going on around me. I just had the added security of four years padded into my career plan before my make or break it moment happened.

After the ferry docked, we caught a ride on the dirt road winding along Lake Managua, catching glimpses of the water when it wasn’t blocked by trees and brush. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours because my flight into Managua had been delayed, so I was stuck in the Miami airport the night before. I had spent the night plotting out what the next two years of my career might be like. Here, all of that was becoming easier to leave behind with the wind blowing through my hair though. Every other thought was about being unemployed instead of every thought. I  began to feel invigorated in the back of an opened pickup truck, like I had found some sort of freedom — similar to that freedom in college of having the whole world open to you.I had become so obsessed with the next step that I had failed to recognize my freedom in this very moment.

As we gathered our stuff together to hike Volcan Maderas, the hotel owner tried to insist on a tour guide, but my friend spoke fluent Spanish and had hiked that trail earlier that year. Besides, the tour guide just smiled and stared at us all through breakfast and no one wants that first thing in the morning.

For the longest times, we were the only people on the trail. It was rainy season, so everything was lush and overgrown as we meandered further up the volcano. When a man appeared about twenty feet to the side with a machete, his face expressionless, I thought that perhaps there are worse things than a smiling tour guide. If he killed us though, at least I wouldn’t have to worry what became of all of my job inquiries. Then I learned the farmers in Nicaragua use machetes to cut through the brush or work on their farms that lined either side of the trail. I was partially relieved.

The steeper the trail, the less I thought about home.  The less I thought about home, the less I thought about work, or lack of work. I just wanted to make it up the volcano and look out over the top. I wanted to conquer something and I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back down. Three hours into the hike, we stopped at an overlook with a view that spanned across the island and gave us a direct view of the neighboring volcano. We were only halfway to the top. If we didn’t turn around, we would miss the last bus of the day to the cool spring. The humidity was almost unbearable though, and the thought of diving into cool water was irresistible.

As I sat on a bench, drinking my last bit of water and surveying the land, I opted for the cool spring. So what if I didn’t make the top? The climb was worth it for this view. I was in a country with no strings attached, a good friend by my side, and I had a mountain of possibility waiting for me when I got back to the city. I made a pack with myself not to think about my resume, where I had applied or what I was going to apply to when I got back. I knew I was up for the challenge to find a job in publishing, but now, I needed to enjoy where I was at. These moments are too precious to lose.

As it turned out, some of my worst fears were confirmed when I landed in Florida to make my connecting flight back to New York three weeks later. I missed the call from someone at one of the biggest publishing houses in the industry who had looked over my resume and was considering me for an open entry level position. When I called back about the position, I was informed the lady was no longer with the company and they had already filled the position. But I wasn’t worried, not now. Something could have come of it, but perhaps not. I was also allowing myself to live outside of the perimeters of a job that so often times define a person. If I didn’t get hired right away, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

In the end, I ended up getting an internship, luckily paid, where I worked full-time during the week. I babysat in the evenings and worked other odd-jobs on the weekends, and guess what, it wasn’t half-bad. I took time to enjoy the moments of just being able to do what I had always wanted to do. After several months, I was hired full-time at that same company. Even now though, I have to remind myself to sit back and enjoy the climb. Good things are worth the wait, and the wait can be the best part. I’m still excited about the possibility ahead. Who knows where this crazy industry will take me in the next couple of years? And if I do decide to go back into nursing (despite my instant gag reflex when it comes to blood), at least I’ll know I gave it everything I had.

Idealizing Publishing

The publishing industry has always been reminiscent of a wistful era where editorial assistants scurried around narrow halls in pencil skirts behind horn-rimmed glasses with their notepads and pens, high heels and nylons. They worked with rough edged paper, black ink, and luxurious cover designs in a world where everyone knew everyone.

When I read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and watch classic movies from that time period, that world is reinforced.  I can imagine the distinguished voices of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the clinking of their glasses of Scotch and soda as they meet with their editors in dimly lit bars.

Of course, I glamorize the past, but I would love to sit across from them and discuss writing– to chat about character development and plot inspiration.  I would want to know Agatha Christie’s writing routine, what her friends thought of her, and if she knew how each story would end before she even began writing. Many of my fellow publishing friends think the same way. In publishing, the workforce is full of idealistic readers that were passionate about the written word at some point of their life. Perhaps Fitzgerald described our common bond when he said: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone.”

AnneMany of us fell in love with a particular book or author at an early age. For me, it was L.M. Montgomery and her description of Prince Edward Island. Emily of New Moon, Anne of Green Gables, and Pat of Silverbush all became my friends.

A lot has changed since then and as we continue moving into the digital era, there will always be something said for all of the work that goes into a book. From the acquisition, to the edits and design, all the way to how that book reaches specific audiences. I love being a part of that process and seeing authors who’ve achieved bringing a story to life.

In that respect, I’ll always be an idealist.

Christmas in NYC: Passion in the Details

Fall is past, winter is here, and Christmas lights now line the city’s magnificent buildings. Wreaths frame doorways and their faded evergreen is nostalgic of a bygone era. I’m drinking gingerbread lattes and toffee-nut coffees, wrapped in my cold-weather gear as I reminisce of New York during the time of It Happened on Fifth Avenue and Miracle on 34th Street. Sentimental? Me? I might be worse than a Sandra Bullock movie.

I recently met a travel writer at a local bookstore’s holiday party. He is a much older gentleman from Europe, who moved to New York on a whim, expecting to only live here a few months. But on his flight home, he dreamed of Manhattan rising out of the sea. He since returned, met his wife, and has been here for decades.

We talked T.S. Eliot, the Upper West Side, and smoked salmon. I’ve read T.S. Eliot, dreamed of living on the Upper West Side, and have yet to taste smoked salmon. Regardless, he made the life he now lives. And while I have had no dreams of a city rising out of water, I appreciate passion. Passion is something we all need, and it often starts with the details.

Goodbye NYU, Hello Summer Travels

The Publishing Institute is officially over. Ceremonies were held, projects judged and goodbyes said. During the first half, I worked as web editor for the prototype magazine Going, a travel publication. I couldn’t have been happier with the subject matter or my group. The next half of the program, I used the left side of my brain as sales manager for a graphic novel imprint. Numbers, numbers and MORE numbers. Way to whip my brain into shape!

 The day after it finished, I plane hopped to Savannah and spent a week in South Carolina. I rode my bike to the pastry shop for breakfast and spent my afternoons on the beach with my sweet, little nephews. There were morning walks on the beach, wave-wipe outs (where sand gets everywhere) and late afternoon swims in the pool. After my week on Hilton Head Island, I was relaxed, sun-kissed and totally stuffed from all of the wonderful calabash seafood and family cuisine! Did I mention my mom and sister are amazing cooks? Exactly what one needs when wearing a bathing suit every day.

From there, my plane took a nose dive further south to Joanna in Nicaragua. She’s been living there for the past two years while in the Peace Corps. We spent 10 days back-packing from one city to the next. We hiked a few volcanoes, went swimming in a natural spring and met some of the gracious people Joanna has built relationships with over the past two years in her town called La Fuente. While the pace of the South and Nicaragua are similar, the cultures could not have been more different. 

 

In Nicaragua, the workday begins around 5 am and ends by 11 that morning. No one wants to risk darkening their skin in the sun. Marriage doesn’t necessarily mean monogamy. Catcalls are frequent. There are even horns with the infamous whistle for drivers to blow at women. And when beggars ask for money, people usually give it regardless of their own income. I met so many generous, kind-hearted people. Catching a ride with a passerby was easier than hailing a cab in this city.

All of this was a bit of a shock after working a full-time job, then diving into six weeks of intense lectures and project sessions. I left NYC to the land of fried chicken and “hey ya’ll,” then arrived in a country where my only communication skills included asking where the nearest bathroom was and counting to eleven. Random Italian words even flared up in my attempts at conversation. I am proud to say I was able to entertain with my numerical counting though – at least for about 20 minutes until Joanna returned.

 

My own job hunt was put into perspective when I learned that about 50% of Nicaraguans are either unemployed or underemployed. There was evident poverty and yet beauty everywhere – a place of true extremes.

When I got off my flight at JFK and trekked back to my Harlem abode, I was shocked at the cleanliness of the subway. Yes, shocked! Two years ago, I was appalled at the trash and stench when visiting NYC after London. Perspectives change, and for that I am humbled and grateful.

My First Week at SCPS


The wind was whipping around the tall skyscrapers as I sped around the Woolworth building, through the side entrance and up the escalators into a large classroom where West Coast meets East Coast and students have travelled from as far as Singapore for one pursuit – publishing in the Big Apple.

And here I am, one among a hundred who gets excited each time we’re handed a new magazine to review before one of the brand dignitaries appear in our class. This is just our first week, and we have five more weeks to go in the Publishing Institute at NYU.

Imagine this – diet coke, stacks of magazines and a lovely new pair of glasses. I’m ready for whatever they throw at us…though a large blueberry muffin might be nice around 11 am when my stomach realizes lunch isn’t for another hour!

We’ve had lectures on top of lectures, forums, mock interviews and LOADS of information regarding the new digital age in this industry. It seems magazine professionals are just as interested when they hear a word like “iPad” as we are when we hear the word “job.”

On Thursday, we all escaped the classroom for a few hours. My group embarked towards midtown to the Hearst building, where we strolled by Good Housekeeping and spent over an hour with two editors at Marie Claire. We met in one of the editorial conference rooms, where the magazine boards had cutouts of the September issue. (I’m not sure if this is exactly insider news, but I did see pictures of Dakota Fanning).

I couldn’t help wondering how anyone got any work done there when they filmed the reality show, “Running in Heels”? If this perhaps slipped past your TV memorabilia, you missed dramatic interns flitting around an office all day on the Style Network. Yeah, I definitely watched that for about half a season.

The two editors we spoke with, however, were amazing. Both were down to earth and more than happy to talk to us about how they got to where they were. This went against the whole Miranda Priestly typecast from “The Devil Wears Prada.” There were no coats being slung or harrowing looks.

My other ah-ha moment came when I was running down an escalator one rainy evening after a day of classes to make the train I heard approaching. Ever notice those signs reminding you not to run down stairs? Maybe next time you should take heed. I reached the bottom of the escalator quicker than I intended and received a bloody elbow as the result. I did make my train – much to the alarm of a cop who tried to insist that I sit down after my tumble.

Tomorrow evening, we have an Alumni Party with graduates from other classes. I’m debating my black heels, but after the escalator incident and other unmentionable moments the past week, flats sound sturdy. I need sturdy…at least on a Monday.