“On the Job Training” or “In the Classroom”?

Marian SchembariBy Marian Schembari, Contributing Editor, Digital Book World

When I first decided to pursue a career in publishing, I toyed with the idea of enrolling in one of the many publishing courses, including the summer program at Columbia University. There were also the programs at NYU, Pace University, University of Denver, and the now defunct Stanford Publishing Course for Professionals.

But at as much as $5,000 (give or take), I wasn’t sure if it was really worth it.

I’d love to take a class at NYU’s Center for Publishing where they offer a Master of Science, professional certificates, continuing education courses, and a six-week long Summer Institute. The classes sound like a lot of fun (or at least they do for nerds like me), and you only need to take five to receive a certificate, but I don’t know how I’d choose!

At the Digitize Your Career: Marketing & Editorial Forum, Kevin MacDonald (Senior Production Editor, Hyperion) suggested that taking a class or two would offer a good overview for anyone because we could all use a little bit more understanding of what our co-workers actually do. While many classes may focus on editorial functions – the “most interesting part” – MacDonald, perhaps not surprisingly, recommended taking a class on book production.

While I think we’d all love to take a course or five to refresh our memory, learn more about the industry, or get a leg up when applying to jobs, you’d need to actually be sure that your $500 (or more) is going to be a worthwhile investment. I know while I was unemployed I didn’t have that kind of money to drop.

Would it hurt? No, probably not; but while I’ve heard that it’s a good thing to have on your resume, it won’t necessarily land you your dream job. Most people say a good internship is just as valuable as any certificate, and some would argue even more so, as you actually get hands-on experience rather than just theory.

But what about networking opportunities? These classes are usually taught by some seriously impressive, well-connected professionals.

Manuela Soares, a lecturer at Pace University’s Publishing Program, says their program is definitely worth the investment. “Absolutely. With our Master’s degree, students can work more effectively in the industry. Would an employer rather hire someone straight out of college with no experience or someone with an advanced degree who knows how the publishing business is organized?”

Melissa Breau is a freelance writer and editor specializing in business content, currently working full-time as an associate/web editor at a business-to-business magazine, and a graduate of Pace’s Publishing Program. Breau enjoyed it “immensely,” praising her time at Pace, explaining that the assignments helped expand her understanding of the field, the lecturers helped expand her network, and she credits the program for helping her quickly climb the career ladder.

“I do not think I’d be where I am in my career right now without the program.”

Lara Simpson, a publicist at Da Capo Press, graduated with an M.A. in Writing Literature and Publishing from Emerson College in December of 2008. Simpson says the program was worth the money “if only for the connections,” as she was able to develop relationships with some of the top people in the industry. Her career path stemmed from classes in Book Publicity and Sales & Marketing where she met Lissa Warren, VP and Senior Director of Publicity for Da Capo Press, and her current employer.

When I asked if she would recommend others take such a course she said, “Yes and No.”

“Yes because I know that going to Emerson is the reason I’m employed right now. No, because I know a lot of people who didn’t go to graduate school who are still thriving in the business and have learned more than enough on the job to allow them to be great at what they do. Looking back, I’ve used skills I learned in almost every class. My experience copyediting, using InDesign, and even having a basic knowledge of the overall process of book publishing are all things that continue to aid me in my current career.”

But could she have learned all that on the job? Maybe. Maybe not.

“In my first year teaching in the program,” Professor Soares recalls, “a student said to me: ‘I’ve been working at a major trade house for almost a year in the Marketing department. No one explains anything. I’ve learned more in a month of classes than I have the entire year on the job.’”

With the industry changing so rapidly, though, can these courses keep up and offer timely, relevant information?

“Honestly, no,” says Breau. “However, since each of my professors worked in the field, they could bring in examples of how the changes taking place were impacting their jobs and workplaces… This allowed for new developments to be incorporated into the class as they developed – notably, the Google book settlement happened during my ethics class, and we discussed it in-depth.”

“I think there could have been more about e-publishing and classes on where book publishing was headed,” Simpson says about Emerson. “I believe the school is offering more in that realm now though.”

At Pace, Professor Soares says, “Our curriculum reflects the changing times – digital marketing and social networking, for example – while maintaining a core curriculum that prepares students for all aspects of the publishing industry.”

Babette Ross, former Associate Director of Sales Administration at Random House, is enrolled in NYU’s certificate program and noted: “Since I’ve been around a lot of these ‘future of publishing’ events, in addition to the classes at NYU, and I read so many marketing newsletters, blogs, etc… I’ve found that so much of this info just isn’t new to me. That’s not a criticism of the program, but I’m on the lookout for ‘aha moments’; a gem of an idea that I hadn’t heard about or thought of in a particular light.”

Ross says the best part of the program is the people she meets. “All of the professors and guest speakers are incredibly helpful in terms of sharing networks.”

While experienced professionals might not get as much return on their investment in a certificate or MS in publishing as someone brand new to the industry, with so many educational and networking resources now available, even the less experienced may find that they’re not learning anything new. While pursuing a certificate or Master’s right after college might make sense for some, it may not be the best option for those who already know the ins and outs of the industry.

Of course, the opportunity to learn on the job requires actually having the job, and for many these days, it’s the getting the job part that’s difficult.

Marian Schembari digs social media and books. Usually at the same time.

3 thoughts on ““On the Job Training” or “In the Classroom”?

  1. Panzerwurst

    “Would an employer rather hire someone straight out of college with no experience or someone with an advanced degree who knows how the publishing business is organized?””

    I’m honestly not seeing much of a difference between these two.

    Reply
  2. Colleen in MA

    As a book designer, I can comment on “we could all use a little bit more understanding of what our co-workers actually do.” I LOVE working in-house at Adams Media and interacting with the different departments – Editorial, Marketing, Publicity, and Sales. As a designer, I’m always willing to sit with an editor and review the manuscript, the target audience, how to make the elements of the manuscript speak to the reader, etc. Most of us designers want to collaborate with the editor and make the best product possible. So, perhaps a program isn’t necessary to learn what we do – just ask us! But I do agree, a program can give a well-rounded perspective on all the different departments that go into making a book happen and can therefore give an advantage to a graduate.

    Reply
  3. Jody Retro

    I think Marian has written a very provocative article, with honestly as much weight as which came first – the chicken or the egg? Here’s my egg: I just finished a publishing certificate course at NYU’s SCPS, with an emphasis on digital publishing. Here’s my chicken: I enrolled after thirteen years in traditional publishing as an editor. Laid off last year (no chicken-laying jokes please!), I’ve been supporting myself as a freelance copyeditor, but want to get into the world of digital book publishing.

    I got into traditional publishing with absolutely no training; in fact, I was first hired as a temp. I’ve been a writer all my life and did script evaluations in Hollywood for years, so my publishing career started because I was literate, willing to learn, and not afraid to ask questions. Honestly, I do wish that I had had some publishing education under my belt in those initial years, but there was so much work to do, I didn’t have time to take classes! (It helps to note that half the time you ask someone to explain something, the answer is usually “I don’t know why we do it that way, but that’s the way we do it.” How many people can actually explain why it’s called a “French fold?” What does it matter?) I agree with Kevin that classroom instruction would be helpful, but I also feel that it’s incumbent upon the publisher to make surethat all its personnel are knowledgeable and well-instructed.

    Back to my egg (the certificate): I had no choice but to sign up for classes for digital publishing. My last publisher’s digital dept. was established in Los Angeles, with very little connection to the New York office. And in the current economy, it’s laughable to think that 1) I would be hired because I wanted to be trained on the job to combine my trad pub skills with digital skills, and 2) I could afford to live on an assistant editor’s salary anymore.

    Babette makes another good point about curriculum in professional and graduate classes rapidly becoming obsolete. The iPad came out in the middle of my Digital Strategies class. By next semester, this will be really old news. And there was barely any, if at all, “hands-on” experience offered in my classes. I have also found the “aha” moments lacking – I believe these come from actually working on a viable product at a real house. Unfortunately, SCPS does not offer internships.

    I have made a few contacts through the classes I took, but made more taking my own initiative. I’m just contacting the heads of the divisions and asking to talk to them about what’s going on with their digital publishing efforts. As one vice-president said after we talked, “Your problem is that you’re qualified for a job that doesn’t exist yet.” I’m also learning my problem is that these companies are pulling personnel from within (with less traditional publishing experience than mine) and offering training to them for this as-yet nonexistent but upcoming head count. Publishers don’t seem to want to pay to hire those with experience if you’re under the VP level.

    So I think the chicken’s running around with its head off and the egg is rather scrambled. Marian’s final point seals the deal for me – regardless of education, training, experience, or connections, if you’re not within a publishing house now, your prospects are pretty fried. What I’m hoping is that the publishing houses will wise up to these skilled workers who have taken it upon themselves to be educated in the new digital directions, and hire them as independent contractors to help bring their front and back lists into the new age of publishing.

    Reply

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