Keeping an Open Mind About Working in Niche Publishing

Generally, when Ooligan student editors think about traipsing off into the nebulous Real World to find the editing career that the publishing program has prepared them for, they imagine working in the realm of fiction or literary nonfiction publishing. In part, this is probably because this is what Ooligan prepares us for the most. Though we discuss niche and nonfiction publishing at length, we primarily publish fiction and literary nonfiction, and our professors speak from the perspective of fiction and literary nonfiction publishers, given that they tend to work at local literary presses like Hawthorne or Tin House. It’s probably also partly because this is what we want. In a perfect world, every literary connoisseur would get to edit the next Great American Novel. However, I’ve found myself in the perhaps not-so-unique position of working at a niche nonfiction publishing house since the beginning of this school year, and usually the first comment I get when I describe the work I do there is, “Wow. That sounds really boring.” Or, alternatively, “That sounds absolutely soul-crushing.

Harsh.

I work as an editorial assistant for a publishing house called Trial Guides in a quarter-long-internship-turned-year-long-something-else. Trial Guides is a tiny press staffed by fewer than fifteen people. They typically put out no more than ten products a year, they distribute their own merchandise, and they publish for the very specific demographic of plaintiff trial attorneys on the go. And guess what? Working there? It’s not horrible. My soul is still intact. I haven’t died of boredom yet, and I don’t really foresee doing so in the near future. On the contrary: though the editing work is something that I might have had trouble visualizing myself doing before, it’s something that is uniquely challenging in a way that Ooligan hadn’t necessarily prepared me for.

There’s something intuitive about editing fiction for those who actively consume it. Though copyediting is a little bit of a black-and-white process based in grammar styles and rules of consistency, we pull from our preconceptions about the shape of a story in order to edit a novel’s content. When I’m working on a manuscript for Trial Guides, editing developmentally is a completely different animal. I don’t necessarily sit around reading law books for fun, and it’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of a consumer who I’m not. It’s fun to take on a different perspective. It’s liberating to assume the point of view of an objective outsider. Additionally, a lot of thought goes into considering the acquisition of a title—a lot of agonizingly scrutinous market research. A lot of thought has to go into the way that materials are organized, into the way that people consume information, and into the way that people will be using our material as a text or a reference book. It’s fascinating to tear apart a reference book and force it to make sense. And you know what? If anything, copyediting is more fun when you’re not editing for style. Prioritizing clarity above all other things legitimizes all the gleeful ways we can rip things up and reassemble them to be more succinct and more useful.

Even though I might eventually like to be working with high literature or graphic novels or smutty romance or sci-fi dreck, I think there’s something awesome about niche publishing—textbooks, educational materials, dense materials for academics, difficult materials for specialized markets—and the way that it forces us outside of our comfort zone. I’ll tell anyone that I really adore doing the things I’m doing now, even though I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to a few years ago either. I think that it would do Oolies well to keep open hearts and minds about pursuing careers with publishing houses like Trial Guides. There’s something to be said for working in the industry doing what you want to be doing, even if you’re not exactly where you want to be yet. And hey, maybe in the future Oolies can push for classes about things like nonfiction and reference publishing or indexing so that students can confront the things that sound scary, soul-crushing, or dull early on and learn that they’re not so bad after all.

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