Working Mentors and Learning on the Job

Dear Yours Truly,

I’m a longtime fan of your personal blog, movie blog, and now your advice blog. Even though we’ve never met, I think of you in a very fond and friendly way. It’s very exciting to be a blog participant! My questions is long but, sadly, not very juicy. It’s about work.

First some background. About two years ago I left my PhD program. I was 4.5 years in but not yet ABD and had come to the realization that I was pretty unhappy and lonely in the academic lifestyle and was afraid that things weren’t going to change a lot once I had a job (if I was able to even get a job). The first few years the idea that there was no separation between my work life and my personal passions and intellectual pursuits was really exciting. Then it became awful and excruciating. And I also realized that I didn’t have the skill set to be both a successful scholar and a nice and fun, laid back person not wracked with guilt about what I wasn’t accomplishing when I was doing anything besides studying.

So I was super lucky to land a pretty amazing job in academic publishing right when I decided to leave my program on a trial basis. I was surprised to love the job right away. I got to travel, it was challenging but not overwhelming, and it felt different than other office jobs I’d had or imagined in that I felt like I had a chance to make important contributions and decisions and help shape the company practices and the publications I worked on. At first it felt a little sad to be shepherding other people’s work through the publication process instead of producing my own work, but I was so much happier in many key ways so that feeling soon faded. And I’ve found/returned to a lot of other important creative outlets that I had neglected while I was in school.

After about 5 months at this job (once I’d decided not to go back to my PhD program), just to see what would happen, I asked my company if I could move to NYC and work remotely, and they said yes. So now I am extremely happy, living in New York like I always wanted to with my husband (who was with me before and during the grad school experience in the college town where I was doing my PhD, and where he was also fairly unhappy), hanging with old friends, catching up on doing all the fun stuff that I denied myself when I was in grad school, reading lots of books for fun, writing as a side project and not to survive, working from home (or wherever), and traveling to academic conferences all over the world. Life’s pretty good and I don’t regret leaving my program (nor do I really regret spending several years in grad school—I got to learn more languages, read a lot, expand my mind, and I feel like I got out right when I saw my life taking a turn down a long, dark road). And, of course, having a job and work lifestyle that suits me better makes it especially easy to feel like I made the right decision.

So my question isn’t really related to any of that. It’s related to the fact that I somehow now have this career for which I am totally unprepared and kind of under-qualified. I had a couple professional jobs between my undergrad years and grad school (I had three years between the two, but spent one abroad on a fellowship). So I don’t have a very robust professional background. But since joining this publishing company, I’ve been promoted a couple times. Which is great, because now I have a budding career instead of a shitty entry-level job—which is what I feared I would be forced to take when I left grad school. Only now, with no prior publishing experience and after only 1.5 years at this company, I’m running my department and managing a bunch of people. I was promoted both because other people above me were fired or quit and because I am pretty competent and comfortable leading a team and I get along really well with the president and founder of the company, who like that I have an academic background and can talk to authors about their work.

But now I’m responsible for doing things like marketing academic journals, trying to get institutions to subscribe to them, trying to get the journals indexed and assigned impact factors, etc. I don’t really know exactly how to do any of that and there isn’t anyone at my company who has done it before. My two bosses are the bosses of the whole company, not really managers or supervisors. They are also academics and authors, so they have some experience and they started this publishing company that’s been around for a while so they obviously know things about academic publishing, but they really can’t be mentors to me in a meaningful way because they have no practical experience and they’re incredibly hands-off when it comes to day-to-day things.

Nevertheless, they have given me goals for how much money they want me to bring in. It’s definitely not a “meet your sales goals or you’re fired” type situation, but they are clearly expecting me to generate some revenue and, while I feel like they’re supportive and they want to help me succeed, they aren’t really capable of being helpful in the way I’d like someone (a boss figure) to be. They can’t say, “Here’s what we’ve done in the past and this is why it did or didn’t work,” because they’ve never really done “it” or been super involved with anyone who was trying to do “it” (I think “it” here refers mainly to all the marketing/sales aspects of my job—but also random publishing things related to copyright and licensing and other things that I don’t know about.)

Not surprisingly, cold calling and emailing librarians about having their institution subscribe to our journals has not worked so far. I’ve also tried to set up meetings when I travel to conferences. But I’m not sure if a.) I’m not getting responses because I haven’t contacted enough people yet and I just have to keep at it, b.) Schools just don’t have enough money now to subscribe to new journals, c.) This is not the appropriate approach, or d.) Our journals suck (i.e. they aren’t prestigious enough, they don’t have an impact factor, etc.). I’ve also tried getting authors who publish in the journals to recommend us to their libraries and to follow up on my calls and emails to librarians at their schools. So far no luck, but at least it has elicited some response from the libraries (usually “We can’t afford to subscribe right now,” which may be true).

I have a friend who’s a librarian at a university and I asked if I could ask her all my questions about how to approach libraries about subscribing to our journals, etc. But she doesn’t actually do anything with acquisitions, so she hasn’t had a lot of helpful information. She’s really the only person I could think of to approach in an informal way, so I’ve exhausted my personal contacts on this one. My grad school friends are all on the author side of things (as I was) and my non-grad school friends and husband are in other fields.

So I’m wondering…how can I find a mentor in my field who has some idea of how to do this stuff or has done it before? I honestly have no idea how this company acquired the only institutional subscribers that it has now or how it got its publications indexed in the places that it’s indexed, or what some of the things even are that I am already beginning to discuss with other publishing professionals on a daily basis (Why are there subscription agents? What do they do? What really is an aggregator?) My former boss, who had some knowledge about this stuff, was fired last spring and she left the company on pretty bad terms. We are friendly on Facebook, but I don’t feel like I can ask her anything about this stuff without upsetting her. Plus she lives in Australia.

Is this one of the things that informational interviews could be for? (I’ve never done one.) It seems like it’d be weird/inappropriate to go to another publisher to ask how they do really basic things. Also, even though I’m in a great situation now, I will likely be looking for a different job in another year or so (I don’t think the remote thing can last forever and I’d like to earn a New York wage instead of a Midwest college town wage at some point), so I don’t want to put off any potential employers. I’ve learned a lot already on my own in the last year and a half, but I’m definitely getting to the point now where I’m really wishing I had someone knowledgeable to talk to about this and bounce ideas off of. How do I get a work guru?

Thanks in advance for any help or ideas you might have!

Best regards,

Working Girl

Wow! Reading your question, I kept coming up with the advice I’d give you, only to find that you’d already given and taken that very advice for yourself. At first I was like “talk to your boss,” but then you explained that your boss(es) don’t really have any info that could be helpful to you, because this isn’t their purview. So then I was thinking, “ask a friend in the biz,” but it sounds like you don’t have any, save for your non-journal-acquiring librarian friend and your mad former boss. Then I was thinking “try to get a meeting with somebody at a different journal,” which, as you then point out, is pretty awkward.

I’m still thinking that last one might be a good bet. Not everyone has a “kill or be killed” attitude with regard to their career, right? I am in the academic humanities, and while there are definitely some Me First types who jealously guard their syllabuses and won’t give advice to anyone for fear of losing their own small leg up in the world, I have also come across just as many–if not more–people who are actual human beings about the whole process. Colleagues who share syllabuses and job materials and templates; older professors who are super kindly and want to help the new crop of scholars; I even had the chair of a department where I did a disastrous job interview call me later and give me really, really loving (if brutal) advice, and it made me 100 times better at my next job interview. So these people, I have to believe, are also out there in your field, which after all is very related to academia.

Some of them are jerks, no doubt. An academic publisher made me cry one time. But then that same day, a different one could not have been warmer or more human. So, just like everywhere, your field is probably a mixed bag of kindly older mentor-figures and shitty assholes. But how do you find one of the former while avoiding the latter?

I think your instinct–that what you need is a mentor–is exactly right. You describe this exciting rags-to-riches career explosion that is pretty exhilarating to read about, but since it happened so quickly and since it wasn’t the thing you’d been planning on, you’re coming in half-cocked, as it were. This seems very reasonable to me, and I’m sure your bosses understand it, and everything. But what you do need is a mentor, someone to answer questions and give advice. Someone who can give you a reading list and tell you how to educate yourself.

I wonder if this mentor HAS to come from academic publishing? Couldn’t s/he come from some other publishing world, which would then alleviate some of the awkwardness of asking a competitor for help? What other kinds of publications have to deal with these imperatives, of selling units and getting subscriptions and stuff? Could you talk to someone at a fancy art magazine or weird literary journal? It seems like even someone not exactly in your exact field but still in a very similar situation could have tons of wisdom to pass on to you.

Librarians would also be good resources, as you clearly know. Have you tried to set up a serious one-on-one meeting with an academic librarian? I can’t totally tell from your letter. Like, a meeting that had nothing to do with you trying to “sell” to that librarian. A purely fact-finding meeting. Like, could you email the head of the graduate library at NYU or whatever and be like “can I please have an hour of your time to ask you about x,y, and z?” I have no idea how weird that would be but it seems worth a shot if you haven’t done it already.

Asking for help is awesome. Asking older, more established people for advice and wisdom used to be extremely normal and acceptable. Getting a meeting with some fancy businessman and then picking his brain. This is time-honored! I assume it is still done, and is still more-or-less normal, even though we no longer live in that Baby Boomer world of incredibly easy networking (“kid, you got the goods”). A person who is a decent, empathetic, human person, is going to still be all those things even when they rise to a cool established position in their career; they’re going to appreciate someone reaching out to them for help, unless they’re an asshole, in which case they probably just will never write you back, so whatever.

So also, do you go to, like, what are they called…like a job fair, but with publishing houses? At conferences there’s always all the publishers down in the basement, with all their new books on display, and desperate people with books they’re trying to sell can set up meetings with them, during which they will make those book-having people cry. Can you informally just start jawing with some of these colleagues, and then if you have a connection with one, or one seems like less of an asshole, can you be like “can I buy you a drink and just ask you some incredibly basic questions about this job?” I really don’t think that is very awkward. That seems so incredibly normal to me. I have already done that like 10 times for prospective grad students in my field–all of whom represent potential future competitors for me. Because that is what being a goddamn human is about. Trying to be nice and helpful! Making friends! Have you tried this tactic?

I think nice people appreciate openness and honesty. I think it is pretty charming when some competent young person is like “I don’t know what I’m doing, can you please help me.” This is basically how I passed all my math classes in high school and college. I think if you made a friend at one of these publishing fairs and then got martinis and just asked them your list of questions, that would be so normal and not weird. Write up your questions as simply and basically as you can get them into words and then just be ready to ask them whenever you get a chance with someone.

Can you ask your librarian friend to hook you up with the acquisitions person at her library, for a meeting? And then similarly just ask those questions and see what you get.

Also, aren’t there books or online resources for How To Succeed In Academic Publishing or whatever? I feel like there is an online resource for everything. Do you know this woman Karen Kelsky? It seems weird and janky and fake, but she actually gets serious rave reviews from all kinds of established people, and she wrote an article for the Chronicle and stuff. She is somebody who you basically pay to mentor you. I think her area is pretty firmly academia itself, but I wonder if she could point you in a direction, or I wonder if there is a similar kind of resource for people trying to get into publishing or learn about publishing? I definitely know for example in Portland there are all kinds of resources for starting your own publishing company or whatever. It’s not the same thing as what you’re doing, but I just wonder if there is a way to zero in on something helpful via thinking through all these other kinds of resources. This is the paragraph where I’m just throwing out ideas, in the hopes that one of them sparks a real idea for you.

Mentorship is important, and I do believe that there are people in every field who feel strongly about it. It’s just a question of finding those people. I’m also wondering about your mad former boss…is she crazy-mad or just regular mad? How much does she like you as a person? I’d like to believe that even if I were mad at my former company, I’d be able to separate that anger from my desire to help a younger colleague/friend who was struggling. Is there a way you can write her a super honest, thoughtful, respectful email, acknowledging the awkwardness and her anger but also just wondering if she might be willing to answer some questions, perhaps via Skype or even just in email form? The worst she can do is say “Your email bummed me out, I don’t want to do that,” which I agree would make you feel terrible, but I still think this option might be worth a shot. If she’s mad at your current bosses this could even be a way for her to be like “yeah fuck those guys for not helping you! I’LL HELP YOU.” This is probably how I would feel, if I were in this position, honestly. Maybe consider this option and write a draft of that email and stew on it for a bit, see how it feels.

I don’t know if any of this is helpful. I also do think that this is a wretched, wretched time for universities and libraries, financially speaking, and that it could very easily be the case that this is just a time when institutions aren’t subscribing to new journals. This could be one easy way into a broader career convo with a colleague. “Boy, universities sure aren’t subscribing to journals these days, huh?” I am picturing you like in Glengarry Glen Ross, tie loosened, bourbon in hand, bitching about the job with some buddies. See what they say to that, it could be instructive. Because while I’m sure you DO actually have a lot to learn about this job, it’s also very possible that your neophyte anxiety is just being unfortunately combined with unrelated economic issues, and making you feel worse than is necessary.

If any commenters have other ideas, please chime in!!!!

Also in conclusion: Great job making a rad new career for yourself after almost getting destroyed by academia! It’s such a success story and I am very happy for you.

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3 Responses to Working Mentors and Learning on the Job

  1. Jeanette says:

    I think that what you need are friends in your field, more than informational interviews. Maybe google a few things like “women in publishing happy hour” or “publishing networking ny” and see what you find? Meetup might be another good resource. I’ve had good luck going to events in my own field when they meet consistently, ideally in a bar, so that you start getting to know people. Striking up casual friendships will help you start building a network of people who you like, and who want to help each other out, and it will be way more fun than going to big one-off events and trying to hand out cards. If you lay that groundwork, I think you could maybe get a sense of who is safe and appropriate to approach with some of your specific questions. Anyway, just my two cents. Good luckk!

  2. yelena says:

    Are there professional organizations that have info and networking opps for their members? In the small press field, I’m thinking of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (clmp dot org) that have publisher resources on their site and even peer publisher advising. Don’t know about academic publishing, but maybe google around?

  3. Jessica says:

    I would suggest that she hit up a conference that is maybe a little more broad based and attend whatever networking events they have, scour the listings of who is speaking/presenting/attending and/or ask her boss if they have anyone she should meet while she is there. If they are successful, they have been around forever, they know people, though they themselves might be unhelpful. Say “I’d love to buy you a drink and pick your brain.” You don’t have to tell people you have no idea how you are supposed to approach certain aspects of the job, you can say “I am tossing around ideas of how to expand blah blah” or you can ask them who does really well in your frield and then seek out that person as a mentor or connection.

    Also, use the new year to go to your bosses and say you want to have a little pow wow and just say you want to talk about expectations and any new ideas moving forward into 2013. Tell them you love the job and you just want to find ways to push things forward and get their input, whatever posi-corpo speak you want to throw at it. Pitch them some tangentally related small idea and then draw them out that way. Then it might feel and sound less vulnerable, but then also puts the onus on them to help give you direction or at least give you a communicated framework instead of a hands off expectation.

    I don;t know how competitive the world of academic publishing is, but even in the truly competitive world of magazine publishing, people with the same jobs hang out together and g drink and bitch about their jobs and it’s not like state secrets are trading hands. You might also want to just look into regular professional womens mentorship programs and workshops–two of my friends who just wanted to get ahead in their fields did them and found them really helpful, just in terms of having a little coaching.

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