NEW YORK — Book publishing may be an industry that never stops predicting its own demise or mourning better days, but it remains golden enough for young people such as Lindsay Neff.
"It's the big time, it's where everything happens," says Neff, 22, a Stow, Ohio, native who recently graduated from the College of Wooster with a double major in English and philosophy. "I've always loved reading and I've always loved writing and I've always enjoyed analyzing texts. So that's what really did it for me and made me want to be in publishing."
Neff is among some 100 young women and men who attended the Summer Publishing Institute at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, where CEOs, editors, booksellers, agents and recruiters give talks and teach seminars, and students immerse themselves in a business that has changed, and not changed, in profound ways.
For decades, college graduates eager to break into publishing have been attending programs at NYU, Columbia University (formerly based at Radcliffe College) and the University of Denver. Alumni include publishing executives Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic and the Weinstein Company's Judy Hottensen, Alfred A. Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon and HarperCollins sales president Josh Marwell.
The programs remain in high demand even through the worst of news about the industry. The decline and impending liquidation of the Borders superstore chain has not deterred NYU student Ben Zarov, a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa. Borders' fall makes Zarov "fear that people don't care about books," but he still believes that it's possible to "make things better" and he wants a career in publishing.
"It seems like an excellent way to engage in the world of ideas. I like reading and it (publishing) is a way to participate in the national conversation, what people are talking about and what people are reading," says Zarov, 23 and a native of Portland, Ore.
The students share an old-fashioned love of books and a modern willingness to read them in new ways. E-books are now more than 20 percent of the overall market, more than the double the rate of a year ago, and a simple show of hands at NYU demonstrates the advance. On the first day, students were asked who owned e-reading devices; most raised their hands. Last year, only a few did.
Publishers and school officials also say students are more business-minded and better informed than a decade ago. Lindy Hess, who directs Columbia's book program, says most students initially wanted to be editors, but by the end were also considering marketing, sales and other departments. NYU publishing student Darcy Latta, who majored in English literature at the University of Pittsburgh, says she is interested in publicity because she loves how "business departments combine the creative and commercial aspects of the industry."
"When I first met with students, they all wanted to be on the editorial side," says Jane Friedman, the former CEO of HarperCollins who co-founded the digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media. "Now, they're all thinking about marketing and even if they want to be an editor eventually, they're willing to try different things."
"Kids today, they seem to know a lot more about our business than they did 10 years ago," says Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. "They have a lot more access to it, through what they read on the Internet. They're able to get a real-time perspective."
The summer programs have evolved with their students, devoting far more time to digital issues than even a few years ago, but one tradition has lasted: The vast majority of attendees are women. Andrea L. Chambers, executive director of the NYU publishing institute, suspects the reason is part of a larger story about the industry itself.
"It's a very tough question because the trend dates back many years to industries that were more `open to women,' like teaching and nursing," Chambers says. "All of that is changing, but certain industries are slower to change."
"It's never surprising to me that there are a lot more women," says John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishers. "If you look at literature majors, you could guess that most of them are women."
Two principal speakers at the NYU program were men. Tom Allen, president and CEO of the industry trade group the Association of American Publishers, celebrated the book's ongoing importance and said publishing welcomed "literate, engaged and interesting people." Perseus Book Group CEO David Steinberger imagined the industry in 2020, when the Internet will enable anyone to be a publisher, but not necessarily to be a good one.
"Quality will always matter," he said. "It actually matters if the book is good."
Students learned about editing, marketing, advertising, design and other parts of the business. They not only were told the basics, but practiced them. They were split up into 10 teams of 10 and asked to develop their own imprints, with industry executives judging the results. Neff was Web director for Monkey Tails Press, specializing in books for children and adults. Zarov served as publicist for Crime Scenes Press, an imprint for true crime books and graphic novels. Latta was named editorial director of Pomegranate Publications.
"We wanted to create an imprint for the modern woman that dealt with relationships, but avoided the cliches," Latta explained. "We developed texts that were humorous, irreverent and edgy that would encourage honest discussions of love, sex and relationships. We chose the title Pomegranate Publications because of the mythological significance of pomegranates, the lush red color and because pomegranates frequently leave permanent stains, just like relationships."
NYU students also met with officials from Barnes & Noble Inc., and independent stores, and toured a variety of publishers, from such long-established houses as Simon & Schuster and Penguin Group (USA) to Open Road media. At Macmillan, Sargent stood in short sleeves and khakis and spoke to some 20 students gathered in his office.
"The pay is crap," he warned, although it gets better over time. And the work is hard. But publishing remains a vital and "viable" industry where employees are far happier, if not wealthier, than those on Wall Street. The book world values trust and longevity, but Sargent also suggested that new employees should be willing to move around if they want to move up. "Think of publishing as one big company," Sargent said. "We don't hold it against you if you work for Random House for three years, then go to Simon & Schuster."
The average editorial assistant might start out making between $25,000-$35,000 (or less at a small publisher), and a panel of recent alumni that spoke at NYU acknowledged that living in Manhattan means half of a paycheck will go toward rent. In his keynote speech, the AAP's Allen said publishing was "not an industry that enriches many, but it is an industry that provides meaningful work at reasonable compensation."
Susan Gordon, who runs Lynne Palmer Executive Recruitment Inc., advised students not only to stay up to date on New York publishing, but on the city itself. When timing how long it will take to get to an interview, she noted, remember that the streets in New York run far longer East to West than they do from North to South.
She later said that the market has tightened since she first started recruiting, in the 1980s, because the industry has consolidated. But the prospects are not "doom and gloom" and more jobs are available now compared to two years ago. Hess said Columbia had more applicants than usual, more than 470 for 101 openings, because young people were more concerned about finding jobs.
"People used to call me up and say, `I have job offers from four different publishers, which one should I take?'" Hess says. "You don't hear that much anymore."
"It's gotten better, but it's still very competitive," NYU's Chambers says. "There's a lot more networking involved. You have to know how to make connections. And students shouldn't think of just your classic publishing house. They should open their minds to literary agencies, book packagers. Publishing is a very big term."
The NYU course ended with a career fair attended by most of the top publishers, Chambers says, and some students already had interviews scheduled. Neff says she began applying for work even before the program ended and was counting on contacts she made at NYU to help. Latta said she might need a few months to find a job, but believes she has made a good start. Zarov said the outlook was "decent," that he had some "promising leads." But he wasn't thinking about getting rich.
"At this age, I only have responsibility for myself," Zarov says. "Right now, I'm just following my passion."
"I always thought happiness in a career is more important than making money," Neff says. "Maybe I can say that because I'm young and idealistic."