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First Person

Literature Alumnus Discusses Employment in Publishing Industry

By Blair Bryant Nichols, CAS/’07

Photo courtesy of Blair Bryant Nichols.

Photo courtesy of Blair Bryant Nichols.

When I declared a literature major, I barely knew that the publishing industry existed. It wasn’t until a fellow classmate shared that she was double majoring in literature and communication to pursue a career in publishing that I began to think there was an answer to “what do you want to do with an English degree” other than teaching.  I picked up The Novel by James Michener and quickly became enamored with the different roles people played in the creation of books.

Upon my dad’s encouragement to inquire about internship opportunities with my professors, one set me up with an interview at the National Endowment for the Arts in the Literature Department. I was offered a position, and thus began my journey in a career working with writers.  From the NEA, I interned at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and a literary agency. I quickly learned the aspects of the field that I liked (event/author management and publicity) and what I didn’t like (editing and the endless reading of manuscripts and proposals of dubious quality). It seemed like I should pursue a career as a book publicist. 

With this in mind, I applied to the Columbia Publishing Course, dubbed “The West Point of Publishing,” a six-week course that focuses on book, magazine, and digital publishing (NYU has a similar course, the Summer Publishing Institute), and a month before graduation I received the large envelope to confirm that I would be attending. 

CPC and SPI are designed to help mostly recent college graduates break into the publishing world by providing them with the necessary knowledge, skills, and contacts. The course is broken into two parts: book and magazine/digital publishing. At the end of the book section, there is a workshop where you are separated into about ten mock publishing houses of varying identity. Each member of the house takes on a different role from CEO to production manager, marketing, editorial, design, and of course, publicity. I served as the publicity manager for my team and spent the week working on publicity plans and press kits for our titles. Luckily for me, the faculty member for the publicity managers was impressed by my work and less than three weeks later hired me to be his assistant at the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau.

It was a departure from the publicity position that I thought I wanted, but it was an opportunity to be part of new trend in the industry, and most importantly it was a job in the elusive field I desired to be part of. I had little choice but to enthusiastically accept. Over the course of the next couple years, my boss served as a wonderful mentor, sharing his two decades worth of experience and allowing me to be directly involved as we built up our department. In the wake of the recession and layoffs industry-wide, we survived, but there was little room to move up or expand. I began to wonder if I’d be able to sustain a career in this industry since publishers’ speakers bureaus were sparse and still extremely young. But luck intervened again, and I responded to an ad from a well known lecture agency that was looking for a new director for its publishers division. 

Despite my age and relative inexperience, I was hired to direct both the Simon and Schuster and Hachette speakers bureaus, two of the other major publishing houses, for Greater Talent Network. I now meet regularly with the publicity directors I once hoped to become to discuss their upcoming books and which of their authors would make the best speakers. I get to manage agents who then pitch and arrange events for the authors and oversee our marketing efforts. 

I often advise students or recent graduates on how best to break into the industry. Courses like CPC or SPI are great resources if you have the money to invest in one of them. For the friendships and connections alone I think they are worth it, but they can be a big price to pay for students trying to start their career in an industry known for low salaries. Connections and experience are the best way to get your foot in the door of any industry. Most publishing houses have internship programs, if you don’t want to do a semester in New York. The most common programs run in the summer, and they will provide you with a great background of the many different career options and with invaluable contacts when you’re ready for that first job. Again, I was lucky to find some related internships in DC while I was still an undergraduate, which definitely helped not only prepare for CPC and my career, but also confirmed that it was an industry I wanted to be  a pursue a career in. 

Beyond summer courses and internships you will make yourself a valuable candidate by learning about new trends in the field; e-books, video book trailers, social media, and online marketing are quickly becoming some of the most important topics and tools in the industry. And most of the people in publishing don’t have experience in these areas so they are looking for young employees to help them transition into the digital age.  Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the publishing houses’ websites, and you’ll see how these elements are beginning to be incorporated and how they could perhaps be better utilized. 

You chose to pursue a degree in literature because you love it, and that’s great. But it takes more than critical thinking, analysis, and writing to succeed in this industry.  Think about adding some business, psychology, and computer classes into your schedule, and you’ll be pleased with the variety of skills you have to offer when you head up to New York or wherever to join the ranks of the literati. Just be open to any opportunity that comes your way, it may just turn into the career of your dreams.