Alumni in the Spotlight: Alex Grover

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Alex Grover is an E-book Production Associate at Penguin Random House. He is also web editor for the New York Chapter of the WNBA. He is a 2016 graduate of the Pace MS in Publishing Program and currently lives in Harlem, NY.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-12-00-19-pmBreana Swinehart: Hello Alex! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. What’s your official job title, and what does your job entail?

Alex Grover: I am an E-book Production Associate at Penguin Random House. I take print files for Berkley/NAL, Roc, Ace, and other Penguin Group imprints and convert them into e-books for vendors like Apple, Google, and Amazon.

Bre: Can you describe some of the work you do and how your department interacts with the other members of the company?

Alex: I consistently work on mass-market titles, which range from cozy cat mysteries to erotica (an interesting spectrum for sure!), but since our department is very collaborative, I’ve had the opportunity to work on children’s books, business books, cookbooks, and the classics as well. Since I started as an assistant in July of 2015, I’ve converted or updated frontlist and backlist books by authors like Jojo Moyes, Nora Roberts, Christine Feehan, Arthur Miller, and Stephen King.

Because e-books require many of the same resources as the print edition, we receive specific instructions from production and design, editorial, and managing editorial on how exactly to create an e-book for a given title. We also create promotional e-books for marketing and work with subsidiary rights when acquiring the rights to new backlist titles that need e-books.

Bre: What are “promotional e-books?”

Alex: I guess the “promotional” nomenclature is a bit wonky! What I generally mean is a free e-book that marketing will promote to get the word out about an author, develop a readership, and simply just create content that brings more readers to PRH. There are also e-galleys that we create (which are different than what I call promotional e-books) that serve as first-pass press copies.

Bre: What made you want to work in this particular field of publishing?

Alex: In 2014, it didn’t even occur to me that there were people dedicated to making e-books full-time. Here we are in 2016, and I’m neck-deep in it.

I actually stumbled onto the Pace University publishing courses when I was looking for creative writing programs. I was lucky enough to receive a graduate assistantship at Pace University Press, where I developed some of my initial production chops. But, of course, I didn’t think anything of production at first. I’d caught the editorial bug, which I think is the bug most everyone who initially enters publishing has. Editorial is great for a lot of people, but something really important I learned through Pace—and came to find out firsthand at PRH—is the range of different jobs you can find in publishing. There’s quite a lot other than editorial: sales, marketing, legal, design, human resources, online services, IT, and, of course, digital production.

Bre: How did you find your current position?

Alex: The e-book career path came by chance. Professor Jane Denning recommended I apply for an internship with RosettaBooks, whose production manager (Hannah Bennett) was also a Pace publishing alum. Once there, I truly started delving into the world of e-books.

After roughly four months, Professor Denning forwarded an opportunity my way for an assistant position in PRH’s e-book production department. A year and a few months after accepting the position, I’m entirely immersed.

I do have to say, and as you can see, Professor Denning and Pace were really influential in helping me find my way towards e-books. It took a bit of luck and timing, but their connections were absolutely huge for me. I sincerely couldn’t have made it to PRH without them.

Bre: Tell us some aspects of your job that you love—what are some things that make you excited about what you’re doing now?

Alex: I love to read books, but I think there’s a part of me that loves making books more. The actual craft of building an e-book gives me joy to no end. While the technical details may be mundane to others, what makes me happy about the job is translating a quirky design format to HTML and CSS, or finishing an image-heavy book, reading it over, and thinking, “Wow—this actually looks really good.” And the coding component, which includes both e-book design and workflow automation, helps ensure I have a new puzzle to solve every day.

Bre: Looking back on your time at Pace, how do you think your educational experiences from the MS Publishing Programs helped you prepare for your current job?

Alex: The program gave me a stellar survey of the general publishing process. I was able to jump right into the production schedule at PRH because I’d already prepped for these schedules in my Pace classes. Hearing anecdotes from my professors—each currently or previously having been immersed in publishing—also made me feel very comfortable from the start when meeting production and editorial staff. I even had a situation where a new colleague at work knew one of my professors, which helped ensure an instant connection.

Bre: The thesis you wrote as a graduate student here—“E-Books as Non-interactive Textual Compositions: An Argument for Simplicity over Complexity in Future E-Book Formats”—was published in an edition of the Publishing Research Quarterly. (Congratulations!) Would you mind sharing some background on the article and what you hope readers come away with understanding?

Alex: Thank you! When I began work on my thesis, I was obsessed with the idea of virtual reality, or VR, as the new way that readers could consume their favorite books or the news. Funny enough, the more I looked into the idea, the more I realized that e-books are not fit for VR devices (at least for the next decade). It’s not that VR e-books (or v-books, as I called them, which is me trying to be clever and failing), aren’t possible, it’s really that there’s no demand for something like a VR e-book that would warrant a budget more suited for a video game or mobile app. Instead, I think the converse will come true: that e-books will emerge in even more accessible formats than they are now. That said, having now worked almost a full year in e-book production after finishing the paper, I don’t really see this happening until a new trailblazing product or service comes to supplant current e-readers.

Bre: What were some of the highlights of your graduate experience?

Alex: Having mentioned the editorial bug to you, I can tell you how I was freed from it. I took Editorial Practices and Principles with one of my favorite professors at Pace, Meghan Stevenson, and I was bent on being the best student in that class. I wasn’t, though, because frankly editorial wasn’t the right fit for me. The professor gave out many true-to-life and sobering assignments that reflected the editorial world. While I didn’t quite bomb them, they helped me rethink my trajectory in publishing and focus on what I was good at, which was production. That professor is now a good friend that I very much count as a mentor.

The friends I made at Pace are still some of the best I have in New York. The same close-knit group I used to study with and sit with at the infamous David Pecker Lectures are now contacts at Macmillan, Workman, Hachette, and elsewhere. A MS in Publishing graduate from Pace can expect to make friends across the industry.

Bre: You recently became a member of Pace’s MS in Publishing Advisory Board—again, congratulations! What do you hope to accomplish with this new position?

Alex: Thank you again! I’m very grateful to Prof. Sherman Raskin for inclusion on the board. For one, I want to give a perspective on the program from a recent graduate. A way for the board to get the most accurate insights on the program is to ask its own students what they think of the program. But I think I can really help when informing what’s needed for digital production, which has become a much more prevalent part of the publishing process. I had a recent discussion with a supervisor who said that a lot of otherwise qualified candidates don’t have the necessary skill set to work in digital. I want Pace students to have the advantage in that regard.

Bre: What advice would you give students entering the field do to set themselves apart from other applicants?

Alex: Here is where that skill set I mentioned comes into play. For any position in digital production, desktop publishing software like Adobe InDesign and languages like HTML and CSS experience are a must. Applicants who don’t have these knowledge bases aren’t even considered. I’d also recommend learning Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, which are other industry-grade programs used across production and design.

penguin_random_house_2014_logo_detail_whiteWhile I don’t hire anyone myself, I do have an interview story. When I applied for my first position at PRH, I was coming in with a decent bit of experience in production, but not more than any other committed applicant. Months later, I learned that I was neck-and-neck with another candidate who had the same level of experience and skills that I had.

The reason they chose me? They asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said I was interested in a career in e-books. When they asked the same question to the other candidate, they said they weren’t sure. That was the tipping point.

My advice: If you’re sincerely interested in a position, be sure to express that certitude in the interview, even if you don’t see yourself there in five years. If you find you don’t even have that conviction, be mindful of whether or not you actually want that position.

Bre: What do you see yourself working on in the future, say 5 to 10 years into your career?

Alex: That’s an interesting question, since I’ve really only just begun at PRH. Wherever I end up in the next five years, whether I’m managing a department or more heavily involved in programming, I hope my work is e-book related.

Bre: Thank you so much for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Alex: I appreciate you taking the time to interview me! I also want to thank Professor Denning and Prof. Raskin for all of the opportunities they afforded me over the past two years. I intend to remain part of the Pace community for a long time.

Publishing is not for everyone. It’s a mix of corporate office work, number-crunching, and literary craftsmanship. Yet, there’s an immense joy across colleagues when a book becomes a rousing success. When publishing is good, it’s really good.

Bre: Thank you, Alex, for your informative interview!

A Review: Balancing Commitment and Craft in Political Fiction

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WNBA-NYC Chapter Event: Balancing Commitment and Craft in Political Fiction
The political fiction panel speakers, left to right: Céline Keating, Elizabeth Nunez, Tiphanie Yanique, Ellen Meeropol, Marnie Mueller.

 

 

Introduction by Andrea Baron, VP Programming, WNBA-NYC
Over 100 people attended our November 5th panel discussion on Political Fiction at Pace University in New York City. The Dyson College departments of Pace Publishing, Women’s and Gender Studies, and English departments co-sponsored the event, and the many students in the audience set the tone for a lively discussion of the traditions and inspirations for political fiction, as well as the challenges facing women writers.

Our authors discussed the challenges of writing political fiction — framing language, developing character, and structuring plot to dramatize conflicts of class, race, gender, and politics while avoiding the pitfalls of authorial intrusion and didacticism.

The panel included six accomplished novelists: Ellen Meeropol, author of House Arrest ;Marnie Mueller, author of My Mother’s Island;   Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning: A NovelElizabeth Nunez author of Boundaries; and Céline Keating, author of Layla. The panel was moderated by writer and teacher Susan Breen, author of The Fiction Class.

 

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Alex Grover, a current Pace MS in Publishing graduate student who attended the event, shares his insights about the panel and what the authors had to say: 

Duty against the Norm: How Five Authors Write Political Fiction in Order to Change Their World

By Alex Grover

Why aren’t more books tackling tough and ambiguous subjects?

That was my question after having the privilege to attend a powerful panel hosted by the WNBA-NYC called, Balancing Commitment and Craft in Political Fiction. The five novelists—Céline Keating, Elizabeth Nunez, Tiphanie Yanique, Ellen Meeropol, and Marnie Mueller—in a discussion moderated by Susan Breen talked about their united cause in not only giving voice to important, impactful movements but also giving themselves voices as women. As Yanique stated early in the conversation, “to be a woman writer, even today, is a political act.”

The novelists first discussed their books as examples of the niche political fiction genre, including a story of growing up as a white non-prisoner in a Japanese internment camp, a mindful revision of The Tempest, and a discovery of self-identity during the feminist movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Why did they write these books? For Mueller, it was wanting “to know my background, what my parents did during World War II.” For Nunez, it was a way to articulate how those who appropriated her culture in the past had generalized and transformed her people into something they weren’t. In writing Prospero’s Daughter, Nunez “talks back to Shakespeare.”

Breen, an author herself and an instructor at Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan, then asked the panel, “What is political fiction?” At its core, it’s “tersely political material,” said Mueller, “strung together with a plot.” From Meeropol’s experience, “Real political fiction should be partisan, but should ask the reader to take a stand.” As Yanique put it, writing political fiction meant “consciously writing against a particular kind of patriarchy.” No matter the interpretation of the question, the panel met at an agreement that all novels, no matter their structure, are political to some degree. “If you have a book that exclusively features white people in a white suburb,” she said, “that’s still political. That’s still making a statement. It’s just that that statement doesn’t go against the status quo.”

On writing and craft, the authors gave advice for those who wanted to pen their own novels. While a novel may be a vital tool in influencing our society, it must also be entertaining. “We are wrapping you up and pulling you in,” Nunez said, comparing the process to a sequence from Charlotte’s Web where a fly allows itself to be captured by the titular spider. “You don’t know you’re being eaten.” From implanting “zingers” in a work to using mystery as a vehicle for political subversion, as Céline described in her own observation of the genre, authors must still keep the audience’s attention.

As powerful as their statements were, the panelists recognized that there are barriers that must be overcome in the publishing industry. Considering minority writers, Nunez talked about how a publishing house will say they publish black writers, yet those writers are still gathered in marginal imprints, or ghettoes as Nunez referred to them, and not exposed to mainstream audiences. As Nunez asked when considering the problem, “Are we not human?”

The evening with these authors was an exploration of the underpinnings of contemporary thought, a writing workshop, and a challenging view of current publishing paradigms. Some standards of writing we consider to be normal are not. As Yanique asked, “There’s not one gay person in Maine?” She was referring to an unnamed and popular author that actively influences our perception of the times. Considering the many social issues of the present still unresolved, the panelists recognized their moral obligation—and accepted.

 

Alex Grover (@AlexPGrover) is a graduate assistant at Pace University Press. He has written articles for Quirk Books and Apiary Magazine and has work published in Strange Horizons (forthcoming) and Acappella Zoo. He is currently participating in NaNoWriMo.