Much Ado About an English Major Career

by Robert M. Keding
contributor to the Underground

It’s a dreary Tuesday evening on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus when Annette Hobbs Magier, Abby Saul, and Naomi Hoffman take the stage for a panel discussion on finding careers in publishing. Before them, in the small lecture hall, sit approximately fifty English majors, each with the same question on their minds: What in the world am I going to do when I graduate?

“I became the world’s best folder of children’s polos.”

For Magier, the answer was simple: “I’d always wanted to be [a magazine] editor, no doubt in my mind.” So how, then, did she go from that near-certain future to working in the boiler room of a Staten Island Ferry, then the children’s clothing section of Marshall Field’s, and now to the top of the marketing department for the publishing house Albert Whitman & Company? Well, to be frank, she doesn’t quite know herself.

Magier’s first inkling that editing was not in the cards came during a post-undergraduate NYU summer publishing program. “Have you all seen The Devil Wears Prada?” she asks the crowd. “Well the magazine [editing] world is exactly like that, not even kidding—absolutely cutthroat.” So Magier changed her plans and began to think creatively. She set her sights on New York City, home to the ‘Big Five’ publishing houses. But she couldn’t just get up and settle down halfway across the country overnight. “My father was a ship captain, so he was able to get me a job working below deck on a boat they were moving from the Great Lake to use in New York as a ferry… I told him how great of a story this was gonna make, and how it’d get my foot in the door… I was totally gonna make it—I didn’t make it.”

She did find herself in job interviews, however, with employers intrigued by her atypical resume. And it was in one such interview, at HarperCollins, where she learned the most useful lesson of her entire career—never limit yourself. She accepted a position in rights management, the kind of place where “nobody wants to be,” clearing the use of book excerpts for school textbooks. She eventually rolled on up into the Marketing Department, finding herself working with children’s books, no less, the very sort of thing she’d taken a liking to at her part-time job in the youth clothing section of Marshall Field’s. “It wasn’t a likely path, and it wasn’t what I planned, but I love what I do now,” she tells the room, a large smile spreading across her face. It seems that in life, just like in our favorite novels, the best endings are often the most unpredictable ones.

“I spent my senior year of college freaking out.”

Abby Saul had an unusual entry into the publishing world. Also wanting to be an editor, Saul enrolled in the same NYU program as Magier, with equally uncertain results. She recalls that by the final event of the summer, a job fair, she didn’t even bother attending. “I decided to just start being an online pest… I emailed literally everyone I could, looking for an opening.” An opening which she got when offered a small role working production: “It was my job to take the book from its finalized manuscript form, and to turn it into an actual finished product—something you could hold in your hands.” Saul had never before considered this part of the publishing process, let alone conceived it as something she might be interested in. “The first thing I worked on was doing touchup and Photoshop for a textbook entitled Structural Concrete,” she recounts, chuckling to herself along with the rest of the audience. “Not very interesting, I know.”

Fortunately, Saul soon moved her way up from Structural Concrete to such work as the Betty Crocker cookbooks. She found doing color correction on chocolate chip cookies much more enthralling than highway overpasses, but there was still more ladder-climbing to do: “Sometimes, in order to progress, you have to leave the place you’re at, jump over into some other publishing house or capacity, and then start working your way up again there.”

Eventually, Saul decided the next best move was to strike out on her own path. Just this past year she has become a freelance agent, a liaison between authors and publishing houses. “The slush pile is a real thing,” she tells the crowd. “Agented manuscripts get seen first in the business… Even as just a new agent I receive around 200 queries a week to sort through.” Although her path forward is not grounded, Saul is optimistic, quite liking the freedom that being her own boss affords her. Unlike other career paths which are clear and predetermined, publishing seems more about doing your own thing. Perhaps it is quite fitting that in such a creative industry, it is so often up to authors to write their own chapters in life.

“I ate peanut butter sandwiches for an entire summer.”

Naomi Hoffman starts off her tale by reminiscing about the time not so long ago when she would have been one of the students listening in the audience. As her senior year drew to a close, her parents kept asking what the plan was for life after graduation, a question all of us English majors have undoubtedly heard a few dozen too many times. Her response? “I’m not sure yet… I’m an artist, Mom.”

Her first summer after graduation was rough. She was strapped for cash and “just sort of listed about.” But, much like Magier and Saul, it was only because of this struggle that opportunities developed. Among other odd jobs, Hoffman found herself babysitting. And even though such work seems far from applicable on an English major’s resume (much like working the boilers on a ferry), she found it one of the most relevant experiences of her career: “Taking care of three kids at one time told me more about publishing than anything else in the world.”

One of Hoffman’s first industry jobs was redeveloping the literary section of Newcity magazine, then in its infancy. The path wasn’t easy, however. The magazine had few resources, and Hoffman found herself working very part time for little, sometimes no money. The hope was that if her new literary section was successful enough, the company would grow as a result, opening up space for her. In the meantime she worked more odd jobs, including “mindless” office work, but eventually she was brought onboard. She is also currently the Editor in Chief of Curbside Splendor, a small indie publishing house in Chicago which recently opened its own bookstore in the South Loop. In these capacities, Hoffman is able to spread her love for literature. It seems that ‘off-the-beaten-track’ is right up her alley.

But it was the final piece of advice that night which was perhaps the most poignant, echoed by all three members of the panel. That is—once you find a job, once you find a position which pays the bills and gets your foot in the door, ask yourself, “Is this where I really want to be?” As all three publishers proved, it is oh so easy to get stuck within your own headspace when it comes to what the future holds. But the most important thing we can do is to trust our gut, pursuing not necessarily what pays the most in money but what lends the most in love. Because even though publishing is an industry and writing novels is a business, we can’t lose sight of what drew us to literature in the first place—our hearts.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s