What its Like as an Editorial Assistant in NYC

When Cara Reilly was living in Bel Air, Maryland, she chose the University of Maryland because of the English department’s reputation. Growing up going to small schools, she decided that the city atmosphere of the campus was what she wanted for her undergraduate education. Several months after graduating in May 2016 with a double degree in English and Romance Languages (Italian and Spanish), Cara found herself working as an editorial assistant for two separate editors at Doubleday Publishing, an extension of Penguin Random House in New York. 

Photo by Cara Reilly

HC: What sort of on-campus activities were you a part of and how did they shape your college career? 

CR: At UMD I was a part of the Stylus literary magazine and took creative writing classes for fun, which were instructive in learning how to read someone else’s work, identify what’s working and what’s not, and figure out how to fix it. I was also a member of the Language House, which I loved both for the people I met and the impact it had on my Italian. At my current job, I’ve even been able to read a few partial manuscripts in Italian for colleagues, which has come in handy.

HC: Immediately after graduation, how did you know where to look for applying for internships or jobs?

CR: A friend from a creative writing class told me about the Columbia Publishing Course, which is a six-week postgrad course that takes place at Columbia University. After taking the course in summer 2016, I moved back home to Maryland to apply for entry-level editorial and agency opportunities, as well as paid internships in case full-time work didn’t pan out initially.

HC: What was the experience like pursuing a career in New York? Did you know that was where you wanted to be after graduating?

CR: I always knew I wanted to work in book publishing and to work on the kinds of books I liked to read I knew I’d have to move to New York. Pursuing that dream was hard at first. It’s challenging to apply for jobs in a city that you don’t live in, so I was taking lots of Skype interviews, or taking a bus up to New York for the day to interview and look for an apartment. By the end of August, I officially moved here after landing two concurrent paid internships, one of which thankfully turned into a full-time position after less than a month.

HC: How did you find your way to your current job as an Editorial Assistant at Doubleday?

CR: I applied after working at a literary agency for a year and a half, where I came to the realization that I wanted to be on the editorial side of things, not on the business side. I was drawn to Doubleday because they published some of my favorite authors (Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, Heidi Julavits) and the position would be for two editors whose lists I admired.

Image provided by Cara Reilly 

HC: Can you briefly describe your day to day routine?

CR: Most days my to-do list consists of communicating with authors, drafting jacket copy, brainstorming cover and title ideas, writing rejection letters, managing deadlines, keeping track of publicity and marketing, and sitting in on meetings. I also read submissions for both editors and occasionally line edit alongside them, which primarily gets done at night and on weekends. For that reason, I tend to eat lunch at my desk so I can catch up on reading, but occasionally I’ll go for a walk in nearby Central Park.

HC: You are an editorial assistant for two separate editors. Do you do different types of jobs for each editor or are the tasks similar?

CR: Most of the tasks are similar, but the process tends to vary. One editor acquires only fiction, and the other only nonfiction, so that makes the work inherently different. Also every editor has a different way of doing things, so it’s helpful to learn two approaches.

HC: What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had while in New York?

CR: It’s been memorable and a tad surreal to occasionally rub shoulders with a celebrity or a favorite writer of mine. So far I’ve ridden the subway with Jennifer Egan, seen Ilana Glazer and Hannibal Buress around Brooklyn (separately), and taken a yoga class with Jia Tolentino.

HC: Was it hard transitioning from your hometown to New York?

CR: Honestly, the hardest part about moving to New York was learning how to dress weather-appropriately. You can’t go back to your dorm room to change or grab an umbrella from your car, and by taking public transportation you’re exposed to the elements in a way that was new to me. But I have a real winter coat now that looks like a sleeping bag, so I think I’ve finally adjusted. Otherwise, I love living here. Everyone says they like to visit but wouldn’t want to live in New York, but I feel the opposite. I had only ever seen the touristy parts as a visitor, which are not an accurate portrayal of the city. The real thing is so much more fun.

Photo provided by Cara Reilly

HC: Any funny work stories you can share?

CR: I can’t think of anything funny so I’ll share some fun moments instead! One of the most memorable parts of the job so far has been watching an author whose book I worked on hit the New York Times bestseller list or seeing my name in a book’s acknowledgments. That’s the dream, really—to be a part of the process and contribute to the bookshelf in some small way.

HC: Advice you wish you could give your younger self when it comes to working in publishing?

CR: I spent a lot of time senior year applying for jobs, which was a mistake. Publishing doesn’t operate on the same timeline as other industries; it’s much more last-minute, so you should only apply if you can start within two weeks. I also wish I had taken more English classes in college that focused on contemporary writers. As much as I loved reading Shakespeare and Tolstoy, that led me to have limited education in a certain kind of writer (i.e. one that is white, male, and dead). Otherwise, my advice would be to just read as much as you can to develop a sense of your personal taste. And always buy your books from independent bookstores, never Amazon!

HC: What goals do you hope to accomplish at your current job? What goals do you hope to accomplish in the future?

CR: My goal is to be an editor so I’m looking forward to building a list of my own books, which will ideally be equal parts literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.