Ask Alex: Summer Publishing Courses
Happy April! This month I'm back with a question submitted to me via email (I'm happy to take questions here in the comments, but you're more than welcome to email me if you'd like to ask privately. I'll always double-check to make sure it's okay to post the question here.)
Thanks for taking time to answer everyone's questions... I hope you don't mind me emailing you, but it's kind of time sensitive. I'm wondering if you'd be able to talk about the different summer publishing institutes that happen. I know you did the Columbia Course, but do you know anything about the others? Do you think they're worth it and what's actually involved? Thanks!
So the reason this question is time sensitive is that the deadlines for the different summer publishing courses just passed... so... this answer is not ideally timed for the general public. (I'm sorry!) Hopefully this will still be useful to those of you considering a career change or graduating next spring. This is probably the second most popular question I've gotten over the past few years. There's a lot to cover, so let me dive right in...
To my knowledge, there are three big programs that happen during each summer: the Columbia Publishing Course, the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, and the Denver Publishing Institute. I've had friends participate in all three courses, but I can really only speak specifically to what's involved with the CPC. All three courses, however, have a similar set-up.
Speaking very generally, these courses focus on all areas of publishing--book, magazine, and digital--though I would argue that CPC is stronger on the book publishing side and NYU has a stronger focus on magazines and the digital side of things. Alas, the Denver course remains a bit of a mystery to me in terms of strengths/weaknesses. I will be completely blunt and up-front with you guys in saying that the advice I received was to pick CPC or NYU over Denver if I got into them. Not because the Denver course is somehow deficient or less worthy, but because Columbia and NYU are local to the publishing world. It makes applying for jobs, informational interviews, and office visits much easier on you, and more lecturers are able to come in for panels and workshops.
So what are these courses exactly? They're generally about six weeks long, all taking place during June and July at the different universities where you live, sleep, and eat. Every day, you attend a number of lectures given by people who work in the industry on a variety of subjects. For example: the life of an editor, how digital publishing is changing, how a book cover is designed, etc. Afterward, you get to ask the visiting professional questions, and you're given their contact information to send 1) thank you notes (should you choose to do so [hint: you should]) or 2) questions or 3) requests for informational interviews. We did have a few sort of "homework" assignments for CPC, but those were pretty few and far between.
If you're interested in seeing the kinds of people who stop by and give these lectures, check out page three of the CPC 2013 brochure. You can find previous speakers featured at NYU starting on page eight of their informational brochure. I kid you not when I say these are awesome people who know what they're talking about.
The most infamous part of these courses are the book workshop and the magazine/digital workshop. Best/worst experience of my time at Columbia! Best because it's fun and engaging and challenge. Worst, because you're so stressed out you start dreaming about page counts.
The workshops are two very intense weeks that take place after you finish the lectures on book publishing, and then, later, after the lectures on magazines/digital. You break off into small groups and basically set up your own publishing company/magazine/website.Everyone is assigned different roles they have to play. For the book workshop, we had a CEO/publisher overseeing everything, two or three editors, a publicist, a marketing person, subrights, a cover designer, and someone overseeing the financial side. We had to decide the message of the company and develop a list of books from the ground up. The best way I can describe this is that it's sort of like book packaging--we came up with the idea for the book, found real authors who could in theory write/illustrate them, created their covers, developed marketing/publicity plans, and had to make pretend advance offers (meaning the poor soul stuck doing finance had to do P&Ls [profit and loss statements] for all of the books). My team was a children's imprint and we had to dream up everything from picture books to YA titles and balance our lists. Least you think you're thrown into the deep end without a life jacket, you do, in fact, work with mentors who give you feedback, advice, and tough love when necessary. At the end of the week you get your business plan all bound up and it's reviewed by industry professionals. The process for the magazine/digital workshop has a nearly identical set up.
(FYI: CPC and NYU both do these workshops, but I don't think Denver does.)
So who's the ideal candidate for these programs?
I've mentioned this before, but but I didn't have a publishing internship before I started working in the industry. I was feeling nervous about being inexperienced and I wanted to learn more about the different areas within publishing, so I thought it would be a good fit for me. Plus, I was having a hard time connecting to alums from my alma mater and getting in for informational interviews, and, if nothing else, I knew the contacts I'd make through the course would be invaluable. The cynic's view of these courses is that you're essentially paying a pretty penny for insider networking and a job fair, and, well, yes. The courses are NOT cheap (I think CPC is up to about $8000 for a six week program, which includes room and board as well as the program tuition). I was able to attend because my university had a scholarship specifically set aside for students to attend one of the three courses. If you're seriously considering applying, please remember to check with your career services office to see if you can apply a pre-existing scholarship to a course. I believe there's also limited financial aid available through the courses.
The general consensus for my graduating class was that the program was worth the cost. Like with most things in life, what you put into it is what you get out of it. I learned so much about the publishing world and I got to meet incredible industry giants and hear about their career paths and experiences. There is, indeed, a huge career fair at the end, and the program sends out a packet of current students to all of the different HR departments while the program is happening. (Someone from the first company I worked for called me and a few others while the course was taking place and asked us to come in for informational interviews. My first job was the direct result of that--I never applied for the position, but I was asked to come in by the HR recruiter to interview for it.)
The biggest pay off for me was graduating with an instant network of people my age that I've kept in touch with. It's very, very nice that we can rely on one another to send in resumes, make professional connections, or ask them for advice. With the CPC at least, you're ALSO signed up for an alumni listserv that posts jobs that are only open to CPC grads, or are being offered by older CPC grads who want to return the favor and give someone from the program a leg up. If you're thinking this all sounds a bit incestuous, I agree--it's another example of how publishing is still a bit of an old boy's network. Connections are king!
Are these programs required for a job in publishing? Nope. Do they help? Yes, if you're willing to put the work in and network.