Special Guest Post by Camille Allen
Not long ago, MSU was fortunate enough to have editor Navah Wolfe and literary agent DongWon Song visit a number of PW classes and host a public conversation about their careers. The pair also took time out of their day to sit down for an interview and share their feelings and opinions about their experiences in publishing. What resulted was an insightful discussion about making meaningful connections, standing out in a highly competitive field, and adjusting to the waters of an industry where reading is just one of the responsibilities.
Before Wolfe and Song became established figures in the publishing industry, they were undergrads at Yeshiva University (Wolfe) and Duke University (Song).
What degree programs were you enrolled in, and were they related to what you do now?
Navah: I was a History major and an English lit minor. I would say I was on the fence between history and English Lit as a major, so it was kind of a coin toss between the two for me. History has always felt less like what I learned in elementary school, which is a list of facts, and more so the way we tell the stories that shape our world and the ways we discuss events. It’s how we talk about history and what happened in the past that shapes how we do things in the future and that’s what has always fascinated me. I’ve always been a story person.
DongWon: I was a double major in English and economics, so on paper it looks like that's the perfect set of things to do for publishing because it’s sort of story-meets-business, and in some ways that is true. Being an English major definitely gave me a lot of good critical reading skills that would help a lot in terms of being an editor, especially to be critical and make a case for something and all those things. My economics degree doesn't help me on the publishing side because economics is different from business, but there's a lot of complex worldbuilding that goes into science fiction-fantasy, so economics taught me how to look at systems and how they interact. That helped me a lot in understanding worldbuilding and how things intersect, so I do use my economics degree more than I thought I would in this business.
What were your introductions into the business? Did you get experience as an undergrad?
DW: I had a particular insight because I have a close family member who works in publishing. Through her I got to see some of how the business worked and got some insight into it, so I kind of knew how the business was set up and worked before I started looking for a job, and that helped me a lot.
N: I did two internships while I was in college. My first one was at Norton and it was in college science textbooks, and that’s how I learned that I really liked publishing and really didn't like college science textbooks. My second internship was at Aladdin, which is the children’s imprint at Simon and Schuster, where I learned that I really love children's and that was definitely what I wanted to do. So that was a very good education for me.
How did you find entry-level positions after graduation, and what was the hardest part about that?
N: There are entry-level jobs in every department. Editorially speaking it is mainly editorial assistant jobs. It's really an apprenticeship job so you can come in the door and know literally nothing, as long as you you're conscientious and detail-oriented and on top of things. The challenge is that there are very few positions open and many people who want them and are qualified for them, so the big challenge is getting your resume on the desk of someone who is hiring. The last time we had an open editorial assistant position I think there were 500 resumes that came in and my boss interviewed 12 of them. I would say I spent about six months interviewing for jobs and applying for jobs before I had enough and I got a job working at a children's bookstore. I spent a long time applying for jobs and getting “almost there,” which can be frustrating. Ideally the goal is that you find a job that you're right for.
DW: It’s a lot of competition. Right out of school I was working in media and I wanted to switch to books. As I mentioned before, I had a cousin who worked in the business and in some ways it gave me a big leg up, but even with that comparative advantage it took me a good six months as well just going in a lot of interviews, meeting new people and talking with them before I found an agent who needed a new assistant and we really hit it off. A lot of times it’s just making that personal connection with somebody in an interview. On paper I was a good candidate and I was well connected and all these things, but if you don't find a way to stand out and don’t know a way to connect with the person you're talking with, then it's very hard for that to translate into any opportunities. My advice would be to be warm and be friendly and be positive as much as humanly possible.
N: You’re just a sea of faces. One of my colleagues often tells the story of how when she was interviewing for an assistant position she got tons of really great, really enthusiastic, really well-read, qualified candidates and they were all basically exactly the same. Every interview kind of melted into the other until someone came in who had broken her foot the week before and she was in a cast. She asked about her broken foot and then they got to have a conversation that was not just about the same things, and that was the person she hired. It’s not that breaking your foot will get you the job, but it's a different way to make yourself stand out and talk about something that's not “here are the books I’ve read” and “why I want to be in publishing.”
Building off of that, how did you find the networking process to be?
DW: When I was starting out, it was very hard for me to go to events. I didn’t like socializing at these networking events because I found it very challenging and I was very uncomfortable. Now I love going to these events because I finally understood that it's more about having real conversations with people and becoming friends with them than it is about trying to impress them or unlock some way to have them give you an opportunity. What you’re doing is casting a very wide net that will hopefully one day be useful, and if it isn’t useful than at least you have a new friend. You should do what you can and push yourself to go out to stuff, and if you can only do one a month, that's fine. If you can do one a week, that’s great. You have to do it to some extent if you want to succeed, but don't torture yourself over it either.
N: In children’s, I went to events because my boss strongly encouraged it, and he was right to do that. But I was always a little bit awkward, a little bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I switched over to science fiction that I started going to conventions and I found the people that I liked and that I was comfortable talking to. The key thing to remember is that the people you want to be friends with and the people you want to make those connections with are not going to look down on you because you're not somebody yet. They're going to enjoy talking to you because you're an interesting, multi-faceted human being with a personality. You don’t exist as your resume, you exist as a fully-rounded person and if they're not interested in talking to you because you don't have a job yet or haven’t published a book yet, then you're not interested in talking to them either no matter how important they are. And also a key thing to remember is that networking is best done with your peers. It's best done with people on your level.
Let’s switch gears a little bit. What are the best and worst parts of your jobs?
DW: My very, very favorite thing is that moment when I get to call a writer who I want to sign, and I get to tell them about why I love their work and they have to sit there and they have to listen to me. I get to spend as long as I want talking to them in the most extravagant terms possible about how deeply and authentically I feel their vision and how much I love it, and they lose their minds. It's great and it is so much fun. The worst part is having to deliver bad news and having to say, “okay this thing that we wanted to do, this plan that we had, and all the things that we did just fell on its face. Now what do we do?” That’s a constant and really important part of the job and how we respond to that is really important, but it’s hard and it’s not fun.
N: I would say my favorite thing to do is editorial phone calls. I love working with an author to make a book better, having the really long conversation, getting elbows deep into a manuscript, getting to know it really, really well and then finding solutions to problems and making it better. That's really satisfying to me, especially when writers come to me afterwards and say, “this book is so much better, thank you so much! I thought I did so much work on it already and now it's so much better.” The worst thing is probably when I have to do something that I know the author is not going to like. When we have to use a cover that they’re not going to like or when I can’t get the marketing dollars that I wanted, or when we can’t send them on the tour that we were hoping for. When we can't buy their next book, that’s a really bad one that I don’t enjoy doing. Anytime we have to give bad news or say no, that's never fun.
People may already have an idea of what you do as an editor and an agent. What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about your jobs?
N: I think the most common misconception about an editor’s job is that it’s a great job for introverts because we can “sit and read all day.” We get that all the time and that could not be less true. A good deal of my job is networking and meeting people and making friends with them so that they know what I like and what kind of books I’m looking for. I’m also pitching my projects constantly to sales, to acquisitions, to production, to design, and just constantly pitching, pitching, pitching my project. You’re constantly shouting at people about how great your books are and why, so it’s not a great job for introverts. That’s probably the biggest misconception.
DW: For me, it’s probably this idea that an agent exists to get the deal done. I think the thing that I push back against the most is the idea that all I do is take the book, pitch it, negotiate the deal and then that's it. I tend to be much more hands-on throughout the process, making sure communication is going well, making sure we get the marketing plan that we want, liaising when it comes to the cover, and checking in on a variety of things throughout the process. A really important part of what I do is finding ways to develop and grow those projects in other media as well. As the media landscape evolves, doing books and just books for an author is harder to sustain, so business development is also a big part of what I do that’s almost entirely invisible to anyone who's not actively one of my clients.
Has there ever been a time when you questioned whether or not you were in the right career?
DW: I've tried to leave publishing twice and I failed both times. The first time, I decided I didn't like being an agent because I didn't like networking and I didn't like pitching things, which I’ve come completely 180 on now, but I decided I wanted to go back to school and apply to a bunch of grad programs. I ended up in a very two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood moment where I got an opportunity to become an editor and also had an acceptance letter from a major institution. In one summer I had to make a choice, and I feel like I picked the right one with the editorial position. Then I joined a startup after that editorial job where I switched there from a book-oriented role to a tech-oriented role. I had a great time working there, but I realized over time that the only thing I'm truly good at is working with writers and the only thing I really enjoy is working with writers, so it was important for me to get back to doing what I like to do and that was books. That’s how I circled back to this particular role and I've never felt more at home in a role and in a job than I do in this one.
N: I never questioned whether I wanted to be in publishing or not. I worked in children’s for seven years but I very quickly discovered that I really love adult science-fiction fantasy and enjoy the industry a lot more than I ever enjoyed children’s. I’m more at home there, my people are there, I’m able to do things that I was never able to do in YA and that was kind of a surprise to me. I say this a lot, but we work too hard and get paid too little to not love books, so the day that I stop loving books is the day I have to quit this job. I have interrogated it multiple times, but I love this job. I love it a lot and I feel tremendously lucky that I get to do it.
Do you have any parting words of wisdom for people interested in a career in publishing?
[DongWon had to leave our meeting at this point].
N: The best thing I can tell you is that it’s about perseverance and luck. But luck isn’t just about things happening to you, it’s about running with opportunities. It’s not easy, but you have to know what you’re interested in, you have to be widely-read, you have to be passionate, and you just have to stick with it and try to create opportunities for yourself.