So, You Want to Work in Publishing: The Role of a Publicist

Senior Publicist Sara Wigal shares her experience in publishing, from working at a literary agency as an intern, editing at a magazine, and now creating creative plans for authors in the form of publicity.
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For aspiring authors everywhere, getting a publishing deal is a dream come true. They’ve slaved away at their manuscript to find that someone else also believes in their dream and wants to help it come to fruition. Beyond this crucial goal, there is often a shroud of mystery surrounding the process for the path to publication, and it has been my pleasure throughout my career to be a part of many steps an author takes on this journey.

But what about those of us that love books but perhaps do not want to write them? How can we work around literature and engage in an industry that many do not understand very well?

This is a guest post by Sara Wigal. Wigal began her literary career peddling her original illustrated stories at age 6 to her parents’ patient coworkers. She studied literature at the University of California, San Diego as an undergraduate and went on to receive her M.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College. She’s worked on the agent side, in publishing houses, and with private publicity firms, and she brings her varied perspectives about all aspects of an author’s writing career to the team at JKS as a Senior Publicist. A friend to writers both personally and professionally, she enjoys reading most genres and loves channeling her creativity to spread the news about each wonderful book she encounters. Authors are inspired by her ideas and high-octane energy!

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As a college student studying literature and a lifelong avid reader, I was always asked whether I wanted to be an English teacher (no), a journalist (no), or a novelist (no). I knew I loved reading books and writing essays for my major, but beyond that I really had no idea what shape my career might someday take. I didn’t know the publishing industry even existed, frankly, and had never heard about how books came to be, other than through the grit of each individual author. The network of supporting roles wasn’t glamorized to me, and I simply had no knowledge about what was out there.

In the last quarter of my college career, I was lucky to have had an academic internship with Writers House, a prestigious literary agency I had never heard of before. Working at an agency, I learned that querying an agent to find someone to represent him or her to publishing houses was often the first step for many writers seeking a traditional publishing deal. When I joyously shared my newfound career path (of course, I would be an agent too, one day!) my friends asked me if I was a book editor. “No,” I would respond, “I work for a literary agency.” This should have been my first clue that no one has any idea what any job titles are other than editor in the publishing universe. After all, I hadn’t known either!

Agents definitely do edit manuscripts—their job is to work with the authors to create the best possible version of a draft to showcase to editors at various publishing houses who will then present the author with a contract to publish their book. Then the agent negotiates that contract and advocates for its best implementation. I loved my time on the agency side and was honored to work on many books that have become bestsellers!

When my internship ran its due course, I worked for a small arts magazine publisher, and this time, I really was an editor. I realized quickly that magazine editing was not for me—long days writing and rewriting, choosing my writing assignments with good sales in mind, tweaking text, and checking for formatting issues … it rings a lot of peoples’ bells, but not mine. But when asked what my job was, people seemed to understand my job title, at least!

I moved along to work on my Masters in Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College, where I could create publishing industry contacts and learn more about the various aspects of this befuddling industry that created the books I so loved being around. I was a magazine editor yet again as part of my graduate work-study, and enjoyed this job much more, though I knew it still was not for me. I began interning with a major publisher in their Children’s Book Marketing & Publicity department … and found my niche. Working with authors to cement their brand identities, communicating with the news media, and designing fun, supporting materials to catch the eyes of consumers and reviewers made my heart sing. I knew I loved agent work, but here was something else that was equally fun! And still, I was not an editor.

I had an opportunity to become a literary radio publicist while I was in school, working with Open Book Publicity for many years scheduling radio tours for authors. As a publicist, I crystallized my job description to what I firmly believe is the point of the job—to tell people about wonderful books. As a niche media publicist, I began forming relationships with radio producers and hosts, feeding them guests for their shows to entertain the masses and spread the good news about books to come. I had many conversations with friends and family who introduced me as a book editor, which as we all know now, is the only publishing job title people know about!

I am now a comprehensive media literary publicist, which means that I work with all forms of the media to attract coverage for my clients. After they’ve gotten the agent, accepted a publishing deal, worked with their actual book editor to finish revising the book, and it’s gone to print … that’s where the publicity team comes in. At the firm I am now a Senior Publicist at, JKS Communications, we hand tailor our campaigns for each author. Some want to do lots of bookstore events on top of radio interviews, TV coverage, and online and print media attention. Some come to us for assistance with their branding or digital marketing needs, like running Facebook ads. Still others come to us because they want to independently publish their book—they are embracing the growing sector of indie authors who have foregone the traditional route with an agent and publishing deal in order to connect with their fans directly.

My day-to-day varies dramatically depending on who my clients are and what stage of their campaign we are in. I stay engaged and keep boredom at bay by learning the author and his or her work, writing press kits, designing media tours, and choosing which contacts I will approach in hopes of gaining coverage, following up with these outlets, attending conference, assisting in acquiring new clients, planning creative projects like unique postcards and special book-themed swag, and so many other dynamic tasks. It’s public relations, but specialized to a literary client base, and it’s challenging and rewarding, every day.

My career arc has brought me firmly into an area I love, and it didn’t require me to be either an editor or an author. If you are thinking about entering the industry, some of the jobs you might consider include …

  • Agent
  • Editor
  • Marketing Associate
  • Publicist
  • HR Representative
  • Publisher
  • Sales Representative
  • Graphic Designer
  • Art Director
  • Accountant
  • Web Developer
  • Copyright Associate
  • Inventory Manager
  • Audiobook Narrator
  • Bookseller
  • … the list goes on!

The publishing industry has roles similar to those of most major types of companies and needs for many different skill sets beyond being an author or editor, so if you love books and want to work with them, you can do so in many of these “supporting” roles that are satisfying careers for book lovers all over.

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