“How I Got My Start in Publishing”: An Alumni Feature by Melanie Burkhardt ’18

During a recent job interview at Baker Publishing Group in Ada, Michigan, the interviewer asked how I had become interested in the position of an acquisitions assistant. Trying to appeal to my audience, I made the classic joke, “Well, I was an English major. So eventually I had to ask myself the question, what am I going to do with this?”

The comment was met with a few chuckles from the room, identifying the fellow English majors. And while it was nice to get a laugh, it also made me sort of sad. Why has studying English become the punch line of a joke? And especially one made by English majors themselves?

The reason I studied English was because I love stories. Analyzing them, reading them, and writing them. But I majored in English because I believe in stories. I believe they have the power to change peoples’ lives and have an impact on our world. Stories—in the form of books, specifically—have long been a source of comfort, information, and exploration for me.

Being a lover of books my whole life, I was intrigued by the publishing world. What happens before a book ends up on a shelf in a store or a library? Who gets to decide which books are worth publishing and which are not? What is it like to journey with a story from initial manuscript to printed book?

By my senior year at Hope, I had my eyes fixed on publishing as a possible career path. And yet, I knew nothing about the industry. As a student, I had held a couple of different on-campus jobs, including working as a TA in the English Department and conducting research with Prof. Natalie Dykstra for her next book, a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. My experiences were meaningful, but none directly related to publishing, and I worried I was too late to join the field.

On learning about my new interest in publishing, Prof. Dykstra invited me to Boston, where I would conduct research at the Houghton Library at Harvard but also have lunch with her publicist from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to talk about publishing and possible opportunities. Besides having a wonderful time in Boston, I gained valuable advice from this lunch meeting, the most important being to simply gain experience. In other words, I was told that the publishing world can be tricky to break into but that I just needed to get my foot in the door.

On returning to campus, I set up a meeting with Hope’s Career Development Center to gather a list of alumni contacts who either currently worked or had worked in the publishing industry. I soon began setting up phone meetings with these alumni to try and learn more about the field and the different types of jobs available. One of these connections led me to my eventual post-graduation internship with Eerdmans Publishing Company, a smaller academic publishing house in Grand Rapids. My internship was in the editorial department and consisted of learning the ins and outs of project editing. I proofread and copyedited manuscripts and indexes and participated in meetings. My foot was officially “in the door” of the publishing world.

Since my internship ended in August, I had the aforementioned interview at Baker and landed the position of acquisitions assistant. This experience has opened my eyes to the inner workings of a publishing house, as I daily work with the many changes that books go through just to get on a shelf. And while it has been thrilling to learn about the industry and these processes from the ground level, what fuels my work and the work of Baker as a company is the same belief that I stuck to when studying English: that stories have the power to impact our world and people for the better.

I am only at the very start of my career, and I don’t know for sure if I will be in publishing forever or if life will move me in a different direction. I’ve found it’s important to remember that not all career paths are going to look the same, and English majors may have a bit more of a winding road ahead of them. But just like any good book, life is more fun with a couple twists and turns along the way.

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