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Publishing 101 with Katelyn Stark

Florida State University offers a unique major for people wanting to pursue a career in the publishing industry. The Editing, Writing, and Media (EWM) major provides a track of courses appropriate for preparing students interested in a future with publishing as well as editing in today’s business of writing and books. However, just like every student despite the major, there is anxiety on how to secure a job after graduation in the desired field. Katelyn Stark, a Ph.D. candidate studying Rhetoric and Composition at FSU, not only has experience teaching courses relevant to the career and knowledge of writing, but she also has experience working in the industry. Luckily, she sat down with me willing to offer advice for students hoping to enter the industry in the future.

Courtesy: Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Her Campus (HC): Was there anything in your life that made you realize that you want to pursue a career in publishing?

Katelyn Stark (KS):  Yes. When I first started college, I entered my degree aiming to be a high school history teacher. It wasn’t until my sophomore year when I started taking courses about curriculum design, high school regulation and estate regulation that I decided maybe this isn’t what I want to do, but I felt kind of stuck in that track since I already put two years into a history degree. It was the summer before my junior year that I was reading a book called Chasing Harry Winston, which is just some women’s fiction novel—not very literary. The protagonist was a book editor. I had no idea that that job existed, and that publishing was a thing. Granted, this was ten or twelve years ago. Knowing publishing is a career is a lot more forward-facing now than it was back then, especially when only traditional English degrees were around. It was that book that I thought: “This is what I want to do!” And I Googled how to become a book editor, and they said you need an English degree, and so I went downstairs and told my parents that I am changing my degree. The first week of school, I met with the chair and said, “I want to be an English major.”

HC: And was it a rough shift? Did you have to stay in college for a longer time?

KS: I didn’t have to stay in college longer. I just took history as my minor. I then front-loaded all my English courses and had heavy semesters. I loved reading, and I loved my English degree.

HC: Did your university, which is Appalachian State University, offer a good amount of courses guided toward publishing or was it mostly heavy on literature?

KS: Appalachian State has a very great literature track degree, and I was able to take some creative writing classes, business writing, and professional writing. But there were no classes that [were] directly related to publishing or editing.

HC: Do you think FSU has a good track better guided for people wanting to pursue a career in publishing?

KS: I think the EWM major at Florida State absolutely prepares students to enter the publishing industry and to do so competitively and successfully.

HC: Do you think you have to be an EWM major to pursue a career in publishing, or could anyone in another major, for example, Communications, be able to get into the industry?

KS: So, I don’t think you have to be an EWM major only because the Editing, Writing, and Media major only exists at FSU, and so the publishing jobs, which you all will be applying to, all of the other applicants will have either a Literature-based degree, traditional English degree or even a Communication degree. But I do think an EWM major puts you ahead of the other candidates.

HC: Yeah, because you have more experience from the classes taken.

KS: Yes, and I think you can pitch your experience in a very productive way.

HC: So, how did you build your skillset in editing and writing in order to be confident enough to start your own publishing company?

KS: I moved to New York City after college, and I got a job at a literary agency. The literary agency is kind of the step between the authors and the publishing house. They represent authors and then sell books to publishing houses. The way it works, though, is that we read what they call the “slush pile,” which are all of the different submissions that came in we are responsible of reading. We either have to tell the author “Yes! We want to represent you, and we will get working right away.” This maybe happens 0.01% of the time. Or you would tell them: “No we are not interested in the book.” There was a middle ground, though, when you say: “We really like your storyline, and we like what this book can offer, but it’s not ready for publishing yet. So we suggest that you hire an editor.” And because we have so many contacts in the publishing and editing business, we knew a lot of editors that we would recommend. “Here’s a quality person that you can work with to bring your book up to publishing standards.” I was responsible to read the manuscripts before and after editing. I would communicate with the editors and the authors, and I had to learn about the different editing types. Because I was kind of that middle point person, I learned how to do all of this. Then, I wrote a lot in college. I was a creative writer. I wrote two books in college, which no one will ever see, and about a dozen short stories. So, as a writer working with my own peer editors, I formed writing groups. I would edit someone’s work, and they would edit my work. I had practice doing that, and so I developed the knowledge of what I was doing and how to name and call what I was doing while I was working at the literary agency.

Courtesy: Zach Goldstein

HC: When starting Stark Contrast Editing, how did you manage to get clients to trust your editing?

KS: So, word of mouth is really important. I actually took clients for free and worked just as a partnership. I kind of continued what I had been doing in college as I was just a writer. But I called it different. I called it Stark Contrast Editing. I called it my business. I created social media accounts such as Twitter and Instagram, and I created a website. I would post about my work on there, but there is a large author community on Twitter, especially. So, just word of mouth, I circulated upon there. I never paid to ever promote my work. I would just get email queries, and I would sign clients through social media.

HC: How long did you write for free?

KS: Maybe six months.

HC: That’s not that bad. What was the most difficult part in the process of starting this business?

KS: The most difficult part was learning how to develop productive relationships with my authors and realizing authors are all very different. Because books are so personal, it required you to get to know them as a person as well. I still have great relationships with my authors that I have worked with six or seven years ago. I think that is really important because books are so sensitive. It influences how you’re able to edit that book, which was a hard lesson to learn that first time around when I was just supercritical all of the time and would get kind of harsh feedback from my authors and panic. “I don’t know how to move forward.” So, all of the work I just poured into this manuscript meant absolutely nothing if they weren’t able to take it and do something with it.

HC: Did starting Stark Contrast Editing meet your expectations of the publishing industry?

KS: Well, mine is a little bit different because I don’t only work at Stark Contrast Editing, and I think that is a very important part of my story. When I worked in the publishing industry in New York, then started Stark Contrast Editing, I decided that this is not something I can do full time. I almost stopped loving to read when I was just a laborer behind the books. Usually, when manuscripts came to me, they were in a rougher state—as all manuscripts were—and so it kind of drained me pretty quickly. I then decided I’d open this company because I want to teach people how to write. I’m a writing teacher, and I executed that through Stark Contrast Editing. I decided, though, it would be more productive for me if I went back to get my master’s degree and then, further, my Ph.D. so I can teach people how to write in an academic setting.

HC: And do you want to continue in the academic setting, or would you ever consider returning to the publishing industry?

KS: I don’t think I’ll ever return to publishing only because PhDs are very difficult to obtain, and they take a long time. I am on a very specific and tight track now. But I get to basically work with writers every day. I have taught over 500 students in just the few years I have been doing this. That has been really rewarding for me, and the content seems fresh and new with every semester and every batch of students. I keep Stark Contrast Editing open, and I work with very select and few clients right now. That is more of my side job. I don’t want to let that go, but I prefer being a writing teacher in academia.

HC: What is the most important thing you have learned throughout your experience with either teaching, editing, or publishing?

KS: The most important thing that I have learned is that my opinions, suggestions, and feedback is only part of it. Every author has their own agency, autonomy, and voice. It’s not my job to inflict my voice onto their work. My job is to help them develop their voice and develop their story. I think that is what teaching is about—helping your students succeed and become way more than what they were able to do before entering your class. I want my authors to become way more than before they started working with me.

HC: A lot of people believe that the publishing industry is a dying career because not many people are reading books in print, but do you think that’s the case?

KS: So, this was a major concern around 2012-2013, and there was actually an article that came out in 2013 that said, “by 2017 print books will be obsolete.” It’s almost 2020, and print books are everywhere still. I think it’s less the publishing industry dying because I think people are still reading.  I think it’s the medium on which they are consuming books, contents, and stories. Those are questions for the distributors. You are dealing with Amazon now. The publishing houses are still thriving, and they will continue to grow as long as they keep up with the trends of how people are buying and consuming their content, which I think they have.

HC: And for my final question, what advice do you have for anyone wanting to enter the publishing career?

KS: Join a type of community, whether online or with your peers. This is how I learned. I would edit a chapter at a time of someone else’s work, and it would go through my round of edits. Then another person would edit the work, and I would see what that second editor changed of mine or added to mine. I will see what I did wrong or what I missed, and we would switch at different points so I would be the second editor. Then I would see all of what that first person did, and I would have to think about every decision. “Does this comma go there? Is this dialogue tag or action tag? Is this the right sensory?” And, so, because I was working alongside another editor and we were kind of cross-checking each other, I kind of developed explicit knowledge on how to edit someone else’s work. If you want to get a competitive job, especially in a major publishing house in New York, you have to have a New York City-based internship. This was something I learned over months of trying to get a job somewhere. I learned this from an HR rep at Penguin Random House. She said, “There are over 500 people applying for this position. If you do not have a NYC based internship, they are not even going to look at your application.” So that’s when I moved to NYC, got a full-time job at Starbucks, got an unpaid internship at a literary agency and, after a couple of weeks, I convinced them to hire me full time so I could quit my position at Starbucks. You have to have a literary-based internship, preferably in New York City, though, I do think students, especially at FSU in the EWM major, can pitch their education to either supplement or be an addition to an internship.

Courtesy: Aleksas Stan on Unsplash

Essentially, take every opportunity as a learning community. At FSU, there are many opportunities in order to build your skillset and knowledge to better prepare for a career in the publishing industry. If you cannot secure an internship in NYC, then get the most from your education in order to pitch your courses as a supplement. Keep your fingers crossed and work hard. You got this!

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Jocelyn is a senior at FSU studying Editing, Writing, and Media (EWM) and Chinese as well as seeking her TESOL certification with the Department of Education. If not studying or volunteering, she enjoys spending time with her black cat Salem watching YouTube videos.
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