TCW - Jobs, Money & Opinion

How to Break Into Publishing: Part 1

Thumbnail image for 115819__devil_wears_prada_l.jpgAs the managing editor of Today's Chicago Woman and a woman under 30, I'm often asked by people, most often college students and other young women, my secret to success in the industry. How did I "make it" at a young age? How did I get my break? What advice would I give other aspiring writers and editors?

The truth is there is no secret, but what I usually say is this: Getting your "break" in the publishing industry is a trifecta of timing, connections and preparedness. That is:

Connections are important, but nobody gives anything away for free. Timing, in any industry where there are a finite number of jobs, is essential, but means nothing if you're not prepared to take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself. And preparedness, aka old fashioned hard work, is the most crucial of all, so you can be ready to jump when the first two points fall into place.

Of course, there's a little more to it than that. So if you'll excuse my departure from my regular topics, I thought I'd offer my thoughts on how to "make it" in my industry, based on my own experience in navigating the world of publishing, as well as lessons gleaned from other workplace experts during my time at TCW. I'm by no means the final word on any of these subjects; consider this a jumping-off point. If you have further questions, please leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to reply with a useful response.

Check back in a couple days, when I'll post Part 2 of this two-post series.

Learn how to give to get. (That is, learn how to network.) It's possible you'll find your dream job on MediaBistro.com or JournalismJobs.com. It's also possible you'll pass Anna Wintour on the street, she'll exclaim, "I love your outfit!" and hire you on the spot for Vogue. In other words: have a plan B.

One of the reasons people hate networking is that when an evening of chatting and business-card-exchanging doesn't result in a solid job lead, the time investment can seem like a waste. The trick is to mentally redefine it from networking to relationship building. They say that in publishing, connections are everything. They're not. Connections are useless if they don't grow into real relationships.

Chicago is certainly not wont for networking opportunities. Industry-specific groups like MediaBistro or the Association for Women Journalists are great places to start, but branch out. Check out networking events from various organizations and associations; visit Networking Monkey to find events that fit your needs. Think specific. Do you want to break into food writing? Fashion? Business? Attend events that will expose you to key people in those industries, whether or not they're in the publishing world. 

Once you're there, don't consider it a race to collect the most business cards. Three hundred names are worthless if you can't tell a friend anything about the people behind those names. While it's wise to have your "elevator speech" ready to go, don't spend the entire time talking about yourself. Ask questions about people. Find out what their professional goals are. Learn about them, and from them. Then (most importantly!) follow up; a simple email with, "It was great to meet you, and I look forward to seeing you at future events" can solidify a 5-minute meeting. Don't abandon a contact just because they don't have a job waiting to be filled. Nobody likes to feel like you're using them for their resources. Don't approach new relationships with the idea of what they can do for you; find out what you can do for them. You're building a connection that may pay off in unexpected ways in the future.

You'll attend a lot of events where you feel like you wasted your time. That's ok. Stay motivated. Find a friend to attend with you. Set a goal for yourself on how many events you'll attend per week or month. And then stick to it. 

Ask questions and gather information. Whether you're still in college, trying to break into the industry or making early waves, it's never a bad idea to keep learning. You know those new friends you made at networking events? Reach out. Most people are happy to find 20 or 30 minutes for an informational interview to talk about their experiences in the industry. The trick to landing an informational interview is to be concise and specific. In your email requesting the interview, specify exactly how much time you'd like and what you're hoping to learn from the conversation. And when the interview rolls around, come prepared with a list of questions. Stay on topic--don't try to parlay the informational interview into a job interview. Keep it brief; show them you value their time. And follow-up with a nice thank-you email or note. Manners and genuine appreciation always go a long way.

Don't look at failures as failures. You'll most likely get knocked down at various points along your path to a career in journalism, but you know the old saying: make lemonade. Did you have a job interview that didn't work out? Thank the company for the opportunity to learn about their goals and keep in touch. Find out if they accept freelance queries or volunteers. Drop them an email in three or six months to compliment them on a particular story or issue that you genuinely enjoyed. Say "hello" at networking events. Stay in their line of vision in a positive (not stalker-y) way, and if their new hire doesn't pan out, or they have another job opening in a few months, you'll have more of a foothold in their door this time around.

People often ask if it's OK to ask for feedback from recruiters on why they weren't chosen for a position and tips on how to improve. My advice is to play it by ear. Did you feel like you made a connection with the recruiter and you left the interview with a friendly and respectful rapport? Go ahead and politely ask for feedback (again: be concise and specific). If not, it's best to let it go.

Embrace freelancing. Even if you're in a 9-5 job that's just "paying the bills"--whether it's waitressing, copy editing or working at your less-than-dream publication--you can still be pursuing your true passion on the side. Freelancing is a great way to A) build up and diversify your published clips when you're in school and B) keep your clips and resume current while you're searching for your first full-time post. Beyond the clips, freelancing helps you build a professional relationship with an editor. When it comes time to fill a position, do you think they'll more readily offer you an interview if you're an anonymous resume, or a trusted freelancer who's been contributing solid articles for the last six months?

The first step is to learn how to properly query and pitch editors. This is an entirely separate subject, so I'll just say this: Research the publication. Don't give up. Tailor your pitches for different editors. Don't give up. Make friends with your Writer's Market. And don't give up. Beyond that, MediaBistro is always a great resource, and I'm a big fan of Chicagoland freelancer Kelly James-Engers' books on the subject, Six Figure Freelancing and Ready, Aim, Specialize

This is one area where "preparedness" comes into play. If you're at a networking event and ask an editor if they accept freelancers, you'd better have some ideas in mind--or at least come up with a few to email over in the next couple of days. Don't expect an editor to respond, "Why yes, we accept freelancers! Here, your first assignment is...." Be ready to show editors what you can bring to their publication and pitch them your unique ideas.

Did you find these tips useful? Check back in a couple days for Part 2, including tips on monitoring your public profile, getting your start in online publishing and my thoughts on journalism grad school.

As always, follow me on Twitter at @CassandraGaddo.

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4 Comments

Kelly James-Enger said:

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Hi, Cassie!

Great post and thanks so much for mentioning my books! Looking forward to part 2. And I'm not sure if you know, but I have a blog of my own, on successful freelancing, at http://dollarsanddeadlines.blogspot.com. Its focus is on making more money in less time...you know I'm all about that! :)

Thanks again and keep up the great work! :)

Cassandra Gaddo said:

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Hi Kelly! Thanks for reading. Just browsing through the top couple of posts on your blog, I'm reminded why I find your advice so useful and straightforward. Thanks for sharing the link!
Cassandra

M. Wolff said:

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Great post! Another thing that I (accidentally) taught myself is that you're networking wherever you go. A relationship I built through my volunteer work (that was done purely for the sake of volunteering, and not really as a means to a professional end) landed me a job interview. It was purely a coincidence that this person used to work for that company and still had contacts there, but it goes to show that you never know who can help you out, so keep building (and fostering) relationships.

Cassandra Gaddo said:

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Great point, Maggie. I always tell people that--you never know who you're meeting, so it pays to be respectful and professional. You never know where it will pay off down the line.

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