Interview with Alumnus Melanie Figueroa

Melanie Figueroa, an Ooligan Press alumnus, explains how the press influenced her career following Portland State’s graduate program. At twenty-four years old, Figueroa moved to Southern California to pursue a job with Quarto Publishing Group, where she learned what it means to be part of a medium-sized press working as an editorial project manager. Figueroa is currently learning to navigate her new job by drawing upon experiences from her time at Ooligan Press. I initially contacted Figueroa for my own curiosity; I wanted to know how Ooligan Press had shaped her future: this is her story.

Why did you go into publishing?

I got into publishing the way I think most people probably do: I love reading. I always have. In high school, I started writing angsty poetry—that’s the only kind of poetry there is for a high school student—and in community college, a professor recommended me for a job as a tutor at the writing center. Writing and reading were things that I naturally gravitated towards, and so for me, I always planned on making a career out of books—even if I wasn’t always sure just how to do that.

Can you tell me more about the publishing company you work for? How did you come across this specific publishing house? What makes this particular publishing company different? What kind of publishing is done here?

I work for Quarto Publishing Group USA, but specifically for their Walter Foster and Walter Foster Jr. imprints. The Quarto Group is what I’d call a medium-sized publisher; they have a total of four offices across the United States—and a whole other team working out of the UK, where they got their start. Across all their imprints, there is quite a range of titles, so I’ll just focus on the imprints that I work for.

Walter Foster publishes instructional art books for adults, while Walter Foster Jr. publishes children’s books and kits that cover a broader range of subjects from art, crafting, history, and more. The books are very accessible and fun, but the real reason I was drawn to them was because they’re not books you simply read and put on a shelf. They’re books that inspire you to create and learn. Some upcoming titles that I’m excited about, for instance, How to Be a Blogger and Vlogger in 10 Easy Lessons or 101 Things to Do Outside, help children use their imaginations, or in the case of the latter, get outdoors.

When Walter Foster was hiring for my position, they had postings up on industry job boards, like Book Jobs. I believe that’s where I first heard of Quarto, though I recognized some of their authors immediately—like Gemma Correll and her Doodling for Cat People.

What are the details of your position within the company? What does editorial work entail?

I got hired on as an editorial project manager, which means that after a title is acquired, I usher it through each stage until it reaches production. Every book is different. Many of Walter Foster’s books start out in-house. An editor sees that there’s a market for something—people are really into crafting right now, for instance—and then decides they want to make a whole book with crafting projects a parent can do with their kids. Generally the editor already has an author, or even multiple authors, in mind at this point. I help contract the author and any freelance illustrators we might need; I make sure everyone’s meeting deadlines. As the text and images start coming in, I edit and tag it for the designers.

My main focus is on our licensed titles, but I also coordinate our children’s titles. Walter Foster has a long-standing relationship with Disney, and we often do books that teach people how to draw different characters. Since these books may require a certain level of confidentiality—if a movie hasn’t been released yet, for instance—I generally write the text for these titles myself rather than contracting out. It’s fun, creative work. I love film, and being able to combine the two is a dream. The licensing aspect of the job involves some networking, more so than other editorial positions. Licensors like Disney have meetings where they reveal upcoming projects and meet with licensees. There’s an expo in Las Vegas every year; you get to meet people and get a feel for whether or not you can work together to create something new.

Can you give me a brief description of how an average day at the publishing house looks?

Most of us start our day by checking emails, reviewing our calendars, and writing a list of tasks that need to be prioritized. There’s usually a meeting to attend, one for editorial, acquisitions, or production. But beyond that, we each have our own areas of focus. I might be copyediting a manuscript or researching and mapping out a new title. We have designers who work in-house, while others deal with our printers or make sure our books are being talked about. Sometimes something timely comes up and you have to put everything else on pause to take care of it. Last week, for instance, I did this to put together some materials our publisher could bring with her to Frankfurt. It’s important to be flexible and manage your time wisely.

How has Ooligan press prepared you for your position at this publishing company?

I wouldn’t have been hired for this position if it weren’t for Ooligan. When the publisher at Walter Foster called and offered me the job, she told me that they were initially looking for someone who had worked in publishing longer—not someone who was fresh out of college. But during the interview process, I convinced her that I knew about the industry and that I could do the work. I credit that to Ooligan’s unique program, for being able to immerse myself in the work at an actual press while attending classes that taught me everything from copyright law to the basics of InDesign. When I was in the program, I was a project manager for Ooligan’s annual Write to Publish conference. I can’t tell you how crucial that experience was for me. It gave me confidence in myself and taught me how to wear many hats.

What are myths you’d like to dispel about working in the editorial department?

I think there’s this myth that people who work in editorial, especially for books, are meek and quiet. Yet so much of an editor’s job requires that person to be able to give critical feedback about a project, or in the case of an acquiring editor, the confidence to pitch an idea and stand behind it. You can’t do that if you’re afraid of your own voice.

Is working in editorial something you’ve always wanted to do, or did you come to that conclusion during graduate school?

Working in editorial is something I’ve always wanted to do. However, I used to think I would only be happy editing fiction. That was before graduate school. People always say, “Do what you’ll love and you’ll never work a day,” and what I loved doing was reading literary fiction. I quickly realized that spending all day editing the books you love reading at night was a surefire way to stop loving them. At least for me, it was.

Was it difficult to obtain work within the editorial department following graduation?

I didn’t find it difficult to land an interview, but I do think it’s really important to be clear about how graduating from a program like Ooligan sets you apart. It’s also important not to rely solely on your experience in the program, to get out there and find internships to supplement all the learning you are doing in class. The most difficult part, I think, is geography. If you’re not living in a publishing hub like New York, then you might have to find other types of work using your editorial skills.

Is there any advice you’d like to give to students interested in entering the publishing field?

Again, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of internships. It’s not just about padding your resume. Portland is such a small place—everyone knows everyone. When I interned at Late Night Library, I met book publicists from publishing houses all over the US. I volunteered at LNL’s booth at AWP in Seattle, and there too, I met so many of the authors who we had helped promote and professionals who work in the industry. These are people I’m still in contact with. Just put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to shake a stranger’s hand—to learn from the people you’ll meet throughout the program. I met Mary Bisbee Beek when I was project managing Write to Publish; she not only helped make that event a success but she was also one of the first people I went to for advice when Quarto called me for an interview. We spent almost an hour on the phone prepping. Where else, besides Ooligan, do you meet someone like that?

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