Experiential vs. Educational Learning

My friends and family were naturally curious when I shared my plans to start a master’s program in book publishing. Many asked why I needed further education to enter the publishing industry. Is a bachelor’s degree in English literature just a fun way to spend four years and thousands of dollars? So I applied for internships before I dove headfirst into another educational commitment. Microcosm Publishing of Portland, Oregon, was gracious enough to offer me an internship, and my personal experiment began. Would this internship be sufficient to teach me everything I wanted to learn about the industry in order to eventually get a full-time job?

As it turns out, the answer is not a clean yes or no.

This post is about the differences and similarities between experiential learning (e.g., my internship) and educational learning (e.g., the publishing program) within the publishing industry and why both have value and complement each other. It will focus on my experiences as an intern at Microcosm Publishing and a first-term student at Ooligan Press and give examples of how what I’ve learned in my classes has directly transferred to my internship and vice versa.

Expertise vs. Infrastructure:
At Microcosm, I’ve gotten my hands dirty. I’ve proofread two manuscripts, worked on Photoshop projects (with which I have very little prior experience but with which they trust me, amazingly), stuffed envelopes with Microcosm’s “witchy” catalog before sending them to hundreds of book retailers across America, moved many, many boxes of books, and gained some incredible insight into what it means to be a small independent publisher in the big pond of publishing.

But without the expertise I’ve been getting from my classes, I would have very little context in which to understand my experiences. How would I know that Microcosm’s decision to do their own distribution and part ways with Ingram was a bold move for an independent publisher? I spent an entire day unpacking all the books that had been sent back to Microcosm, but I didn’t even know what Ingram was prior to starting the program.

Another pertinent example of the way in which my learning has positively impacted my job is my approach to book descriptions—you know, the summaries that entice readers and get them excited to purchase books and read them.

The instructions from my Microcosm supervisor were to read the back cover, skim the first couple chapters, then write a short description and avoid sounding like an Amazon review. I’ve learned from my marketing class that a book purchase is an emotional investment for the average consumer, and this has directly impacted the way I approach my book descriptions for Microcosm’s online catalog. I now understand that I’m not just regurgitating the back cover; I’m helping people find the right book by detailing not only what the book is about but also why someone would want to read it.

Undergoing both the educational and experiential learning processes has given me the benefit of being able to immediately apply concepts and theories to real-life situations. Further, I am able to filter my experience as an intern and contextualize it within the larger arena of the publishing industry.

So in short, the answer to the question of whether my internship would teach me everything I needed to know for a career in publishing is no—not on its own. However, this internship has been hugely beneficial for applying and contextualizing all the wisdom and expertise that is being taught in the publishing program at PSU.

Inside Dark Horse Comics, Part II

I worked as an editorial intern at Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie, Oregon, during PSU’s winter term this year, and while I was there, I ended up learning more than I ever anticipated. In my previous post on my time at the Dark Horse offices, I focused on explaining DHDPs and work orders. In this entry, I’ll continue my detailed look into what exactly a comics editor does, and I’ll focus on two more editorial tasks: creating bookmaps and comp lists.

Bookmaps (or BKMPs):
I think of work orders and bookmaps like siblings. While the work order is more of a text-based document, the bookmap is more visual (I think of it more like an actual map). I would often fill out a spreadsheet in Excel showing precisely what goes into the book, column by column. On the left side of the spreadsheet is a listing of every single page of the book and a brief description of what goes on it. If the book is a longer trade paperback, the bookmap can end up looking overwhelming and rather redundant (e.g. PAGE 7, STORY PAGE; PAGE 8, STORY PAGE; ad infinitum), but it is necessary for the design department to have this and it is helpful to see what will happen in a document before it goes to print. On the right side of most bookmaps is basic information from the work order, like the size, paper material, or general content information. If a bookmap for a comic is a twenty-two-page issue of a recurring series, it is quite easy to bang through one of them. If you have set up a bookmap properly from scratch, the rest of the issues for that series should be a cinch since you are, in theory, only changing a few bits of information on the following BKMPs.

Making bookmaps is not necessarily difficult, but it is a good exercise in staying disciplined and honest in your daily work. Making sure things are consistent and being consistent yourself are two fundamental characteristic one needs as an editor.

Comp Lists:
In the publishing industry, a comp list is used as shorthand for a book that is comparable to another recent title—a way to narrow the focus of the book’s marketing strategy. However, in comics, comp lists are actually short for complimentary lists. They are lists of people who are owed a certain number of copies of the book because they have worked on said book that is ready to publish. Artists, writers, and other team members are often owed a specific number of copies per their contract with Dark Horse.

As an intern or an editor, we are required to research the entire team that had a hand in producing the book and look around the contract and voucher files in the database to see what and how many copies are owed to whom. Very often, artists and/or writers are owed roughly eight to ten copies of their own works, colorists, either two or three, and letterers, two or three. Editorial often receives one to two copies, and the editorial director receives exactly one copy of everything Dark Horse publishes.

This was a relatively simple task that allowed me to get familiar with the contents of the editorial department server, which is massive and confusing for a day or two just because there’s so much content on it. Again, though, once you’ve gotten the hang of it and understand much of the industry jargon being used, it is merely somewhat-fancier data entry work. It also gave me a peek into the economics of the industry, at least from the perspective of a medium-sized publisher like Dark Horse. Seeing what properties are connected to more or less money and how comps are doled out informed me of that sometimes-invisible hierarchy that definitely exists in the comics world.

If you are outside the book publishing community, or even within the circle, some of these tasks may not sound all that thrilling. While they are sometimes tedious and time-consuming, they never feel burdensome if you have passion for the medium you’re in. Thankfully for me, that’s the case.

For more information on Dark Horse Comics, please visit their website.

Interning as an Oolie

The best thing about the Ooligan Press graduate program, as I am sure you are aware, is the opportunity every student has to work on and publish actual books. This experience is what helps set Ooligan apart from other programs, and it sets the students up for success. While I haven’t yet experienced how the skills learned at Ooligan can be applied to full-time publishing jobs, I can speak to how Ooligan has helped me with my time as an intern.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several internship opportunities with a wide range of publishing houses. My role and the types of tasks I’ve performed at each have ranged from contacting authors and bookstores to setting up author tour dates to “I totally forgot the intern was showing up today, does anyone have any envelopes that need stuffing?” And while the first option can definitely feel more rewarding, I can say from experience that there is a certain satisfaction in sending out countless advanced reader copies. It’s true that the vast majority of work you will perform as an intern may be relegated to the “busy work” category—compiling various lists, searching the internet for potential contacts, and the aforementioned stuffing of envelopes—and as tedious as the work was at times, absolutely everything I did as an intern was greatly appreciated. Generating contact sheets or sending out books for review aren’t the most glamourous assignments, but without those steps a book is doomed to failure. What allowed me to do these things well—to create useful contact lists and write outreach letters that had a chance of getting a response—was that I had plenty of practice from my time in Ooligan. Every now and again there were a few instances where I got to do the cool book marketing stuff, and when I told my mom what I did all day at my internship, those were my main talking points. The coolest thing I ever got to do was schedule a book tour for one of the more well-known authors at a publishing house. This included contacting stores, calling hotels, and coordinating with the author’s talent agent (yes, that’s right, talent agent) in order to have a successful book launch.

Aside from the actual work that was done, the best part of being a publishing intern is simply being inside an actual publishing house. Simply being around professionals in the industry and listening to the way they bounce ideas off of each other was the most beneficial part of my time there. One of my internships was for a small, two-person business, and witnessing the amount of hustle those two had when it came to procuring, producing, and promoting their titles was intoxicating. There are some things you can’t learn in school, and the grittiness required to run a successful small print publishing company is one of them. I’ve taken something away from all of my internships, and I’d like to think I’ve given something back. Through all of them, it was impossible to miss how the work I’ve done at Ooligan Press has helped set me on the path toward a career in the publishing field.

The World Outside of Publishing: Translating Skills from Ooligan to Elsewhere

Today at 1:00 p.m., I sat in Book Editing listening to a zealous defense of a comma resting innocently (or not so innocently) between two clauses. Were the clauses independent? Was the comma grammatically unnecessary but useful in improving clarity? There are moments like these in this program (even as I study to become an editor, a valiant defender of punctuation’s worthy cause) when the thought briefly passes through my mind that I might have something better to do with two hours of time than discuss the merits of a single comma. Something like catch up with the work that steadily flows into my inbox for my internship at the communications department of Ecotrust, a Portland-based environmental nonprofit.

Today at 4:30 p.m., I stood next to Lola Milholland, who oversees my internship, discussing my next assignment: to review and reconcile a copyeditor’s assessment of four papers pending publication to Ecotrust’s E3 Network website. How delightful irony can be.

On the surface, my work for Ecotrust has little to do with publishing. Though Ecotrust publishes Edible Portland, a quarterly local food magazine, it doesn’t edit books, nor does it market, design, digitize, or publish them. I applied for the internship (run through PSU’s Sustainability Internship Program) because I was fresh off my sister’s Idaho farm, searching desperately for a way to keep one foot in the soil amid the concrete and steel of the city. Working for Ecotrust does this for me. I have also found that the work of communicating ideas is not so different from one field to the other.

Last month, I found myself HTML coding a blog post for Ooligan in the same week that I was coding recipes to put on the Edible Portland website. The month before that, I spent a week condensing press releases and reports on Ecotrust’s watershed restoration initiatives into pieces for the Ecotrust project pages at around the same time that I was was writing back cover copy with the Untangling the Knot team.Early in the fall, I spent days composing and scheduling tweets and Facebook posts about the fall issue of Edible Portland right as I was diving into marketing projects for Untangling the Knot. Today, I took part in a lively debate about the function of a comma. Just a few hours later, I reconsidered all of the commas in a piece Lola and I wrote for the E3 Network, my trusty Chicago Manual of Style open at my elbow.

The completion of each of these tasks requires some version of the skills we divide into departments at Ooligan: design, marketing, editing, social media, digital content. The industry is changing at an alarming rate; who knows what the future of publishing will look like? Perhaps there will be more jobs for publishing professionals as technology shapes new types of information distribution; perhaps the Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct when they project a a slight decline in the number of working editors by 2022. Either way, understanding how information is consumed and having the know-how to effect change on that process is nothing if not a useful, marketable skill.

Strengthening My Skills by Interning with Hawthorne Books

In this program, the importance of internships is something that we students are constantly reminded of (though of course this is not isolated to the publishing industry—many graduate programs not only encourage extracurricular internships, but require them). We’re told that internships are an invaluable way to meet important industry professionals for networking purposes and gain real-world publishing experience, which they absolutely are. It can’t be denied, though, that internships are often stressful, because let’s face it: once you’re done with the hard work of finding an internship, you’re rewarded with more work. And this is on top of an already rigorous course load that includes academic classes and hands-on work within Ooligan Press! When we begin our internships, it’s with the fervent wish of gamblers everywhere that this bet will pay off. We hope and pray that the hours we put in will be worthwhile.

I haven’t needed luck this term, though: the deck’s been stacked in my favor. For my second internship during my time in the program, I’ve been working at Hawthorne Books, the esteemed independent press here in Portland, under the phenomenal Rhonda Hughes and Liz Crain. I knew from the get-go that this internship would be useful to me—and enjoyable, to boot. I had a great time getting to know Rhonda during my time in her marketing and publicity class last fall; I was so impressed by her knowledge and attitude that when I heard that she offered internships to Ooligan students, I didn’t hesitate to apply.

I work for Hawthorne Books twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays. Officially, my title (beyond “intern”) is “Publicity Assistant,” which means that the vast majority of the work I do is related to marketing and publicity. I’ve been working primarily with Ariel Gore’s latest memoir, The End of Eve, which is fantastic: a funny, gritty, heartfelt look at mother-daughter relationships, different incarnations of family, and queer and feminist responses to caregiving, The End of Eve has the potential to strike a chord with a variety of audiences. It’s been my job over the past month or so to send out story pitches and review requests to national and regional media outlets; I’ve also targeted and contacted media outlets in the cities she’s stopping in to do readings or events for her national book tour (which she booked herself!).

Cover art for 'The End of Eve'.

The End of Eve, by Ariel Gore, was published on March 1st.

Much of this kind of work is time-consuming or repetitive, but I don’t mind; the work simply has to be done. This is how books are promoted! Besides, it’s been a great experience to share my excitement about an amazing story in a professional setting, and I’ve already gotten back multiple positive responses from people who’d like to provide coverage for the book. Next, I’ll likely start working on media coverage requests for Tom Spanbauer’s new novel, I Loved You More.

Though my passion is editing, I’m glad to be doing this kind of work after spending so much time honing my editing skills within the book publishing program. Marketing and publicity skills are valuable things to have in your arsenal of abilities when you’re looking for a job in publishing (which I will be very, very soon—I graduate in June). The publishing program attempts, as much as possible, to create well-rounded generalist publishing professionals that will have a full range of talents and skills to offer the industry; I feel confident that I’ll go into my job search with a strong grasp of not only editing but also marketing, publicity, and professional communication, and my internship at Hawthorne Books has definitely helped me get to that point.