Alumni in the Spotlight – November 2011

Meghan Stevenson is a 2007 graduate of the MS in Publishing program and is currently an Associate Editor at Hudson Street Press at Penguin Group. In this interview, in addition to offering up advice to students and alumni, Ms. Stevenson will tell us a bit about how her career has evolved and continues to grow in today’s dynamic publishing environment.

Prof. Denning:  Hi Meghan, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview.  It has been 5 years since you graduated from the M.S. in Publishing program.  What have you been doing with yourself since then?

MS:  Hi Jane! I’ve been working at major publishers since I graduated from the program—actually I started as an intern at Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) my very first semester at Pace. I got hired there as an assistant, moved up the ranks and joined Hudson Street Press/Plume at Penguin in 2008 as an Associate Editor.

Prof. Denning:  Please tell me a bit about how your educational experience  at Pace and how it  prepared you for your publishing career.

MS:  Pace helped me get my job. Not only did it put me in the right place at the right time—that is so critical—but it also made the learning curve of being an editorial assistant easier. Frankly, I had a broader concept of publishing than other assistants which gave me a boost in terms of gaining experience.

Prof. Denning:  What was the topic of your thesis paper?  What advice would you give to students who still have to write their papers?

MS:  Ironically, my thesis was on fiction, which I don’t publish anymore. But mostly it was about how editors and houses “break out” debut authors, which is still relevant in my career today. I would advise students not to get hung up on what subject is “right” but what really interests them. To me, I wanted to know why a few debut novels become bestsellers and others didn’t.

Prof. Denning:  What were some of the highlights of your Graduate experience? (Please mention your internships here.)

MS:  There are so many! I made a million friends there, which I think was the biggest perk I didn’t expect. The classmates I went to Pace with are still really good friends of mine and create an extensive network across publishing. I really enjoyed Professor Carroll’s class on copyediting, and Professor Soares is an invaluable teacher. I also have to thank you for hooking me up with the internship at S&S, because that got my career started!

Prof. Denning:  How have you been involved in the program since graduating?

MS:  I’ve been pleased to give presentations for Professor Soare’s classes, both online and in person with my fellow alums. I’ve also passed along resumes for students that professors thought had talent where appropriate.

Prof. Denning:  Have you always been interested in publishing?  Where did that passion come from?

MS:  I read tons of books but never thought of publishing as an industry. Then a undergrad friend came into an English lit class proclaiming she was going to work at Random House, and a light came on. I wanted to move to New York, and it seemed like a good fit because I’ve always loved books. In retrospect, I had been acting like an editor all my life.

Prof. Denning:  Can you tell us about Hudson Street Press and what it is like working there?

MS:  Hudson Street Press is a truly unique imprint. It’s really small—just my boss, me, and an assistant—and we publish about 10 to 15 nonfiction, hardcover books a year. I love it because I have a great boss (Caroline Sutton, of Random House, Collins, and Touchstone) and I get to work on books that change people’s lives. And, since my list is relatively small, I have enough time to help individual authors on each and every one of their projects.

Prof. Denning:  Tell us a bit about what your job entails.

MS:  That’s actually incredibly difficult to pin down! I do a bit of everything. I consult on jacket and interior design, I read and acquire submissions, I edit books, I advise authors on social media and marketing, I help tailor the messages publicity and advertising use, I tell authors how to handle their love lives!

To people outside the industry, I describe my job like an octopus: I’m in the center, delegating throughout Penguin to publish the book from start to finish.

Prof. Denning:  As an Associate Editor, do you prefer the acquisitions side of the job or the editorial side (manuscript development)?  Why?

MS:  Acquiring is awesome but I particularly enjoy taking a manuscript or proposal that is a bit rough and finding the right way to communicate what the author wants to say. I enjoy developmental editing the most, because I like to work with the author to tailor their overall message and delivery to the reader.

Prof. Denning:  How does technology/social media fit into your current job?

MS:  Well, I’m on twitter (@megstevenson) and I use that to bridge my personal and professional lives. I get to keep on top of news and cultural events and follow famous people I love, but I can also tell my authors bits and pieces about who I am and what’s important to me. It’s a unique way of communicating about publishing too—tons of editors and agents tweet, and we hold #askeditor sessions where random people can ask questions about what we do and how we operate. I think that’s really important because there are so many writers and so little information out there about how big publishing works.

Prof. Denning:  What influences the types of books that Hudson Street Press acquires?  Are there certain factors that would make you fight for one book over another?

MS:  I acquire a lot of narrative nonfiction, and what attracts me is the same as what attracts fiction editors: a story you can’t put down. And for the prescriptive (how-to) books on our list, I always look for a unique hook—something that other books haven’t covered, or a book that presents information in a different way—and an author we can promote, usually with academic or professional connections. If I would be the audience for the book, I typically try to acquire it as well!

Prof. Denning:  What do you think the future holds for book publishers?  Do you think the launch of designated ebook readers and the iPad (and subsequent tablets) forever changed publishing as we know it?

MS:  Personally, I think ebooks are a great new frontier. People reading is people reading. There has been research that shows people buy more titles on ereaders, whether it’s a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad. I think people buy more on ereaders because it’s easy, quick, and you don’t have to take out your wallet to do it. I suspect it will definitely change the way publishing operates, for obvious reasons, but I don’t think it’s the Armageddon some people proclaim it to be.

Prof. Denning:  What do you think the biggest trends in book publishing are today?  What are some of the biggest challenges that Publishers face?

MS:  For nonfiction, brain books are huge but I think we’re near the cusp of that now. And in terms of challenges, I think that figuring out how to make ebooks profitable and fair to everyone in the industry is a big one. I also think that physical bookstores will transition somewhat in the coming years, though your guess is as good as mine as to how. Some people think they’ll focus more on cards and gift items (like B&N) while others think hand-selling will come to be a reason consumers shop at actual stores rather than by going online.

Prof. Denning:  How has the industry changed since you began your career?  What was the work environment like (in terms of job opportunities) then as opposed to now?

MS:  It’s always hard to get a foot in the door. But today, you have the economy and the shrinking of the industry to deal with. If I were a student today, I think I’d go into the smaller businesses of publishing instead of trying to work at a house—like agencies, ghostwriting firms, copywriting firms, etc. Those places are great to intern at and help you build connections.

Prof. Denning:  Editors are always on the lookout for the next big thing.  What are some of your strategies in successfully navigating and anticipating the ever-changing market?

MS:  I think it’s crucial to think like a reader. Where do you buy books? What is your natural behavior in a bookstore? What do your friends do? What are your buying habits? I like asking people who don’t work in the industry how they feel about ebooks, or what reader they are using, or which books are their favorites. I think this helps you figure out what sells and what doesn’t on a very basic level. It can also help you spot holes in the market.

Prof. Denning:  What companies (apart from Penguin) do you admire or think are innovators in the industry?

MS:  Obviously, what Larry Kirshbaum is doing with Amazon Publishing should be interesting to see, and I applaud both Simon & Schuster and Random House for doing some amazing promotions and having huge bestsellers this year. But I also think Penguin is doing interesting things online, including BookCountry (an independent site for writers.) But overall, I’m impressed by Harper Perennial because I buy their books more often than other imprints and they’ve done some great promotions with ebooks on twitter that promote the imprint as a brand.

Prof. Denning:  Would you like to speculate on the future of ebooks? Books in general?  What areas do you think will be the most impacted (textbooks, children’s, trade, graphic novels, romance, etc.)?

MS:  I suspect longform journalism, novellas, and short stories through programs like Amazon Singles will become even more popular than they already are. The Vanity Fair ebook about The Art of Fielding was wonderful. It not only helped sell the book to readers but it also gave a fascinating insight into the world of publishing. I’d love to see more of that happening from the big houses. (Penguin is doing eSpecials, which are similar, e-book-only short books from established authors.) I think bookstores will continue to exist but that people will be driven to independents more often because their booksellers know exactly what you’re looking for and can hand-sell you books based on your taste. It’s a better experience for the customer—especially one that doesn’t know what he or she wants—than searching for what you want online through some kind of logarithm.

Ultimately, I think books will become like vinyl is today: a useable, but precious object. People who just want the story in their library or to read it once will buy it online as an ebook but those of us who adore it, who want to experience it over and over again, have it as a reflection of who we are on our shelves will continue to buy printed books. But as a whole, I’m betting readers will buy more eBooks than print. That’s already happening.

Prof. Denning:  What do you think are the essential skills our students need to leave the program with in order to succeed in the industry?

MS:  I think you have to be ready to take any position, even if it’s not what you originally wanted. Every position has lessons to teach. Read as much as you can—especially bestsellers, because it’s important to know why those books work even if you’re not publishing in that area. (For instance, I typically read one or two fiction bestsellers even though I don’t publish fiction, to see why readers fell in love with the book. And, admittedly, for fun.)

Prof. Denning:  What advice would you have for students specifically looking to become editors? Are there any skills or resume builders that are especially helpful to achieving an editorial career?

MS:  If you want to be an editor, the first stage is being an editorial assistant. A definite advantage is experience working in an office. You should know how to answer phones, type letters, handle minor IT travesties (so you can show your boss how to navigate common programs), and deliver refreshments like coffee, tea, and appetizers fluidly. It’s all part of making your boss look good. Otherwise, jobs related to writing and editing like working at a bookstore or volunteering at a book related charity (such as Housing Works Bookstore or the Goddard Riverside Book Fair) would also be helpful. Essentially your resume should reflect both where you’ve been and what skills you have to offer that will help you be great at the job you’re applying for.

Prof. Denning:  Any other advice you would like to offer to our students as they work towards graduation and entering the field?

MS:  A lot of people will tell you that publishing is dying, that everyone is self-publishing, or that there’s no jobs. That’s not exactly true: publishing is changing and jobs are just as hard (or as easy, for some) to come by as they ever were. Staying open to any possibility and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes along will be the best (and frankly, the only) preparation you can do. It’s especially important to network with your fellow Pacers! You never know when a graduate school friend will come through for you.

Prof. Denning:  Any advice for those looking to survive and thrive in this industry?

MS:  This is going to sound like Sesame Street, but it’s really key to be yourself. We all love books, so that’s something everyone has in common. Ask questions of your elders, whether those are fellow assistants or people above you. Be appropriate, but be curious, and whatever you do, keep reading.