Textbooks: Offering Priceless Knowledge, or Swindling Students?

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A while ago, I posted a discussion asking readers about their textbook habits: where they buy them, how they use them, whether they ever keep them.  Unsurprisingly, a lot of commenters said they want the best possible deal (who doesn’t?).  I was surprised, however, that the comments were generally polite–not because I think Pages Unbound doesn’t have thoughtful and courteous readers, but because I have seen conversations about textbooks in various other spaces and various other platforms become incredibly frustrated.  The start of every semester, students and parents inevitably panic about the cost of textbooks (Again, who doesn’t?  I certainly do.)  However, I think there are some widespread misunderstandings about the interactions of professors, college bookstores, and academic publishers that are preventing us, students and booksellers alike, from having a profitable conversation about the value of textbooks.

My own investment in this conversation is complicated.  I used to work in a college bookstore as a sales associate; I understood the workings of selling books but certainly wasn’t calling the shots.  I am currently a PhD student, which means I may someday assign textbooks to students to buy and may even have the opportunity to write myself.  I have applied for jobs working with academic publishers and though I’ve never held such a position, I’ve spoken with people who do.  I also currently, and have for the past several years, spend lots of money each semester purchasing textbooks for my own use.  I have seen the textbook process from multiple angles, but this experience has helped give me some answers to common questions about textbook use and pricing.

Why Are Textbooks Expensive?

There are multiple answers to this question.  Generally, the blame gets passed to the publishers and authors, whom many textbook buyers imagine are just greedy and subsequently rolling in wealth.  I assure you, they are not; try looking up the average salary of publishers and then remember many of these industry professionals live in large cities that have high costs of living.  So what is going on?

First, many textbooks are being sold in a niche market.  The latest book on thermodynamics is unlikely to have a huge print run and make it to the New York Times Bestsellers list.  As with any product, a small consumer base means higher prices.

Second, students are paying for authors’ expertise.  Textbooks are generally written by experts in their field.  The book itself takes a long time to write, but it also took the author(s) many years of personal study, research, and teaching experience to get to a point they could authoritatively write an academic book.

Third, “cheap” options actually contribute to high book prices.  When bookstores sell students used books or rent them books, the publisher and author make zero profit on those transactions; only the store wins.  Thus, publishers need to price new textbooks high enough that they actually receive compensation for their work.  The price of the new book has to make up for the fact the college bookstore, or sites like Amazon, will sell or rent that exact same book four more times without ever giving more money to the publisher or author.

Why Won’t the Bookstore Buy My Book Back?

Again, there are multiple answers.  Let’s assume, however, that your book isn’t too damaged to be resold (isn’t missing pages, isn’t water-damaged, isn’t highlighted in so many colors no one else can read it) and that the book is actually being used in a course next semester (i.e. there is an existing demand for the book).

My first response is: No one is obligated to buy your book back from you.  Most college bookstores are not actually run by the college; they are run by outside companies who, yes, would like you to be a happy customer but who are also interested in making money.  They’ll only buy the book if they can make a profit from the deal.

Thus, the most common reason stores can’t by books back is lack of demand.  Yes, the college may be assigning the same book next semester, but the bookstore may have 300 new copies already in stock and may have already bought 200 used copies from other students.  The store knows they are only going to sell 500 copies next semester, so they aren’t going to buy yours and end up with 501 in stock.  At this point, a good option for the student “stuck” with the book is to try selling to another company or to try selling directly to another student taking the course.

Why Can’t I Return (Insert Product)?

An opened loose-leaf book: The store has no guarantee the pages are all present, and would not like to risk selling an incomplete book to another student.  Try selling directly to a student who needs the book; many are willing to gamble you haven’t lost chapter 12.

An online access code: The store often cannot tell whether the code has already been used, and would not like to risk selling an invalid code to another student.  Again, try selling directly to another student in need.

A book the professor never used all semester: First, the store has no idea what’s behind this story. Did the professor never assign readings from the book, did you just never look at the book, or are you making this all up in an attempt to get a full refund?  Second, this goes back to the store’s being divorced from the college.  The store doesn’t control book usage; it just stocks the book, and only does so because the professor requested it.  If the professor told students to buy an expensive book and then never utilized it in the course, that’s a situation for which the professor should be taken to task.

More questions about textbooks? Ask me in the comments!

Top Seven Things I Learned as a Literary Agency Intern

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I have previously blogged about my experience as an editorial intern at a children’s books imprint, as well as various other topics pertaining to the publishing industry: how to find an internship, what the interview might look like, and tips for getting an internship.

This past summer, I had a bit of a different internship experience, this time with a literary agency (which, like the publisher I interned with, shall remain unnamed.  My views do not reflect their views and all that).  Seeing the industry from a different perspective was interesting, so I wanted to share some of what I learned, both to help those who might be deciding if they want to work in publishing and to help those who might be trying to get a manuscript published.  Or just for the general interest of people who like books.

  1. Secrecy is the key word. I signed a confidentiality agreement before starting the internship, basically asserting that I would not discuss my work outside of the agency (mostly regarding clients, manuscripts, and deals). Agents don’t want other agents to know they’re considering X book because someone else might attempt to woo their potential client away from them.
  1. Agents want to have their authors’ backs. They are experts in the industry and will fight to get their authors the best deals, whether that means selling rights primarily to a single publisher, or pursuing selling separate rights to multiple publishers.
  1. I mentioned this in regards to editors, but it applies to agents, as well: They want to work with people they like. You don’t necessarily need to be best friends with your agent, but you should always be polite, respectful, and open to the fact that you’re going to have to edit parts of your manuscript. No one wants to work with someone rude or whiny.  And if you lie to them about how many other agents are interested in your work, they will find out, and they will not be pleased.
  1. In addition to culling submitted manuscripts for great books, agents are also looking for the Next Big Thing on their own. They stay in touch with popular culture and look for journalists, bloggers, celebrities, etc. they think could write a compelling book and sometimes pitch an idea to them!
  1. Having “influence” can only help aspiring authors. Agents and editors want to know that your book is going to sell, so if you have 90,000 followers on Twitter, you want to include that information in your query letter, as well as your intention to market your book to said followers. (Keep in mind, however, that for social media numbers to matter to agents, they have to be big.  Two thousand followers are not going to sway them.)  This does not mean, however, that if you are a completely unknown author that no agent will be interested in your book.  If it’s good, it’s good.
  1. As a corollary to this point, if you want to sell a nonfiction book, you need to have expertise in the subject you are writing about. You need to convince the agent (who will then need to convince an editor) that you are the person to write about a diet, or DIY remodeling, or whatever. List any degrees you’ve earned, any articles you’ve written, etc. that are relevant to your topic.  But make sure they matter and are unique.  Saying that you are a mother is not a fast track to publishing your book on parenting.
  1. It’s generally not easy to just “become a literary agent.” Agents get paid when they sell books to publishers. This means that those looking to start out in the industry often have to take on other roles in the agency (ones with a more stable salary) as they build their client list.

Overall, I had a great time at this internship and learned a lot about how the publishing industry works.  As always, I’m happy to answer any questions, especially from readers interested in getting a publishing internship of their own!

Preparing for Publishing Internship Interviews- Updated

Publishing Internship Interviews Sample Questions

Introduction

As the season for applying to summer publishing internships approaches, I thought I would share some of the interview questions I have been asked while applying to both internships and full-time jobs with publishers.  (Full disclosure: I have had one editorial internship with a major publisher and three internships with literary agents. No full time jobs yet, but I do have significant experience applying to these positions!)

I have written previous posts with my Top Ten Tips for Getting an Editorial Internships and my Top Ten Things I Learned As an Editorial Intern.  If you have any internship/publishing questions I haven’t answered, feel free to ask in the comments, or email me!

Interview Questions

First Interview

  • Why are you interested in [specific type of literature]?
  • Why are you interested in this publishing company?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What are your favorite books?
  • What television shows do you like to watch?
  • What are you reading currently?
  • What is a recent book you read that you didn’t like?  Why?
  • How do you stay organized?
  • Are you detail-oriented?
  • Describe your ideal work environment.
  • What did you learn at your last internship?
  • Are you ok with doing a lot of administrative tasks?
  • Tell us about your blog.
  • Do you have any questions for us?

As you can see, the interview questions tend to include a mix of “standard” interview questions and questions specifically about books. Of course, you’ll want to demonstrate your interest in the company.  Tell them why you want to intern or work specifically at that company, with that imprint, not just why why want to work in the publishing industry in general.  You’ll also want to demonstrate that you read the books the specific imprint publishes. Be able to talk about a variety of books in the genre/category, and make sure you’re not only mentioning bestsellers.

First Interview (Academic Publishing Internship)

  • Read a manuscript proposal.  If you would like to acquire it, write a reader’s report to the editor explaining why.  If you would not, write a rejection letter addressed to the author.

Second Stage Interview (Children’s Editorial Internships and Literary Agencies)

  • Read manuscript and write a reader’s report.
  • Read manuscript and write a reader’s report and jacket copy.

How to Write a Reader’s Report for Your Application

If you’ve made it to the second round of an interview and are now being asked to write a reader’s report, congratulations!  In the best-case scenario, the publisher or literary agency will send you a sample of the type of report they’re looking for and other general instructions. (This is particularly helpful because different employers will want rather different lengths of reports and different information included. I’ve written six page reports for one internships and one page reports for others.)  If you aren’t given instructions, I suggest inquiring what they’re looking for. However, if the answer is vague or if (like me), you’re asked to write the report on the spot at an in-person interview, here’s some general advice:

Do Preliminary Research

If you’re applying to work with a specific imprint or a specific person, try to figure out their tastes.  As an intern or entry-level employee, you’re not generally being asked to give your personal opinion on a manuscript; you’re being asked whether the manuscript is something your supervisor would be interested in.  If your tastes don’t naturally coincide, you’re going to have to do your best to think like your supervisor, especially before they hire you.  I’ve been rejected from internships for essentially not having the “correct” opinion of the manuscript I was asked to write a sample reader’s report on.

So do some research. What manuscripts has your potential supervisor acquired before?  Have they done any interviews where they’ve stated what they are or are not looking for in a book? What types of books does their publishing house or agency generally acquire?  I’ve been given a manuscript for an internship application that was listed under “recent deals” on a blog post on the agency’s website and, in fact, had recently been published.  I tried to do the honest thing by telling the agency I knew the book had been sold to a major publisher and didn’t feel I could give an unbiased report on it (anyone who had done a Google search would know to write a positive reader’s report!), but the point is that you never know what useful information you’ll find.

Answer These Questions

But what should actually be in the report?  Again, the desired information will vary by potential employer. Some people are mostly interested in characters while others want to know if the plot is engaging.  However, if you haven’t been provided with particularly clear instructions on what the employer is expecting the report to look like, consider these categories:

  • Summary. The editor/agent will probably have a query letter with a summary of the manuscript. However, since they haven’t read the manuscript yet themselves (the point of a reader’s report is to give them a sense of whether they want to), it can help to give them your own, brief take on what the manuscript is about. This will also give them the information they need to follow your report, such as who the characters you’ll be referencing are.
  • Characters. What are the characters like?  Are they developed?  Do they have arcs? Or are they flat? If you want to make a statement on whether they’re “relatable” or “likable,” remember that these impressions can vary widely by reader.
  • Plot. Is it engaging?  Logical?  What is the pacing like?  How much of the plot is “action” and how much is “character development?”
  • Voice.  Who’s telling the story?  What is the voice like?  Is it appropriate for the character?  For instance, does a first person narrator who’s fifteen sound fifteen or do they sound fifty? Or is the author trying too hard to make them sound fifteen and using too much ridiculous slang?
  • Writing. What is the prose like?  This could be one of the most important points of the novel. Remember that, with a good editor, anyone could spruce up their plot or make their protagonist more developed. But if the prose is clunky, awkward, or just unsophisticated, that’s going to be difficult to fix.
  • Recommendation. Finally, make a clear recommendation. Do you think this is a clear winner your supervisor will definitely want to look at?  Do you think it has potential so your supervisor should look at it to give a more experienced evaluation of it?  Or is the manuscript not worth your supervisor’s time? If you feel you have enough insight into the industry/market to make further comments, you can also give your impression of whether you think the manuscript would sell. (For instance, maybe it’s a pretty well-written vampire romance, but that fad is past and it’s not remarkable enough to really find readers at this point in time, so you’re recommending a pass on the story but keeping the author in mind for future projects.)

Further Reading

If you’re still searching for a position to apply to, check out my other posts:

Have you applied for any publishing positions? What was your experience?

Finding a Publishing Internship

How to Find Book Publishing Internships

If you’re interested in doing a summer publishing internship, it’s time to start looking!  The application deadlines for many internships are late (read: May), but some are being advertised now, and Penguin’s application deadline is the end of February!  If you’re not already updating your resume and writing cover letters, here are some tips on finding internship opportunities.

Editorial internships tend to be the most popular, but stay open to opportunities in other departments, such as marketing, publicity, social media, or design.

Note: This post is focused primarily on publishing house and literary agency internships, but the advice can doubtless be applied to various fields.

Check Internship Listings

There are tons of places to find internship listings, but if you check these websites, you’re likely to find most internship opportunities.

*Bookjobs isn’t always updated.  Be sure you’re applying to internships for this specific year and season.  However, even if you do find a 2012 internship posted, you might want to follow it up by going to the publisher’s/literary agent’s website and seeing if they have a more recent opportunity listed there.  Also, check the Bookjobs links for both internships and jobs; there will be internships posted in both.

Go Directly to the Source

Sometimes publishers or literary agencies don’t advertise their internships on external websites.  Be sure to visit their company pages directly and either search “internships” or find the “careers” pages.  Often, internship opportunities are listed along full-time jobs.

Ask!

I never tried this tactic myself, but I’ve read blog posts by former publishing interns who claimed to have emailed literary agents asking for the opportunity to intern with them—when the agency was not even advertising internships.  If you’re assertive enough to take this approach, it might be worth a try.  I assume, at worst, you’ll either receive no response or an emailed rejection.

Just be sure to briefly highlight in in your query email why you would be qualified to work for them, and (if it’s true!) mention that you would be eligible to receive college credit in exchange for such an internship.  That way, they won’t have to worry about paying you. (Unpaid internships are a controversial topic right now, but, remember, you’re pitching yourself for a position that doesn’t even exist.  Reminding them that creating an internship for you isn’t going to cost them any money can only be a plus.)

Stay Connected

Although I was blogging when I applied for my first editorial internship, I wasn’t using Facebook or Twitter for my blog.  Since then, I have joined a lot more social media sites, and I have noticed literary agents, indie publishers, and major publishers advertising internship opportunities through these sites.  Many major publishers have career-specific Twitter accounts that you can follow to stay connected.  (ex. Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan)  Other times, you’ll just have to follow publishers and literary agents and wait for opportunities to show up randomly in your feed.

A word of warning: I have seen some advertisements for internships show up this way that include little to no information on the positions—even if they link to an actual blog post or website that should give details.  All they say:  “We’re seeking a marketing intern!  Contact us!”  Before going through the entire process of writing a cover letter, I recommend getting in touch with the internship coordinator and ascertaining a few facts: when the internship starts, how long it lasts, whether it is paid, where it is located.  (Seriously, why do people expect me to apply for a position without telling me whether it’s in New York, San Francisco, or telecommuting?  If you’re responsible for one of these ads and reading this post, please go fix it!)

Need More Advice?

Check out my previous posts on getting an editorial internship and what I learned from my editorial internship.  Also, come back in March for a post on the interview questions I have encountered!

If you have a question about something I haven’t addressed, or you have advice for would-be interns, please leave a comment below!

Top Ten Tuesday (44): Top Ten Tips for Getting an Editorial Internship

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Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Freebie: Top Ten Tips for Getting an Editorial Internship

This past summer, I worked as an editorial intern for a children’s publisher.  During the application process, I learned a lot about what publishers are looking for in potential interns.  I certainly did not follow all these tips, and if you are interested in publishing, you don’t need to either.  But in such a competitive industry, everything helps!  I hope some readers find these ideas useful!

1. Read.  If you want to work in publishing, you have to really love books.  You also have to convince publishers that you do.  Interviewers will ask you what you’ve read recently, what you thought about it, and why, so make sure you read books relevant to the jobs you are applying for.  If you apply for children’s editorial, it will not help to admit you haven’t picked up a YA, MG, or picture book since you were ten!

2. Blog.  Putting yourself and your thoughts on the Internet comes with a lot of risks.  Running a blog in which you routinely insult authors, commenters, or the publishing industry, for example, may do more harm than good.  However, running a well-written and thoughtful blog can help a lot.  It shows your dedication to reading and that you are comfortable and proficient in utilizing online resources to promote books.  Your reviews will give publishers a good idea of what types of books you like to read, and it will also help them decide if you will be capable of judging manuscripts and writing useful reader’s reports.  (Reader’s reports generally include a summary of a manuscript and an intern’s thoughts–what was good, what was bad, how the manuscript could be improved, what type of audience might enjoy it, and, ultimately, a suggestion whether the editor should bother to reader the manuscript, too.)

3. Employ social media.  Again, poor use of social media can be risky.  Yet certain editorial internships (and almost ALL marketing/online marketing internships) require proficiency with common websites like Facebook and Twitter.

4. Get office experience.  If you can, find an on-campus job that will give you office experience.  Publishing internships (and jobs) often include tasks such as filing and copying, and many applications list such experience as a “plus.”

5.  Start early.  Publishing is a competitive industry, so if you are looking for an internship with one of the “Big Six/Five,” it can help to have a previous internship with a literary agency, a smaller publisher, even your local newspaper.  This isn’t strictly necessary, but it can only help you.  (We don’t really need to discuss how ironic it is that one needs to have already had a internship in order to get one….)

6.  Remember the costs.  Many publishing internship are unpaid (again, a separate discussion).  And many of them, particularly the “big” ones, are in New York.  If this is something you want to pursue, consider how you can finance living in a major city for a summer with no salary.  Check if your school has scholarships.  See if you know anyone (a relative?) you can live with.  Look for a part-time job on the weekends.  If you need summer housing, try to find it early (difficult, since the deadlines for the internships are often very late in the spring), so you can get the best deal.

Update: If you can’t afford to live in New York without a salary for a summer, you may also want to look into literary agency internships. Many also require you to show up in person, but there are a decent number of telecommuting positions available, as well.  The downside: they’re often advertised sporadically and not well publicized.  You’ll have to follow agency blogs, Twitter accounts, etc.to find a lot of them.

7.  If you have housing, mention it.  In more than one interview, publishers have mentioned it offers them ease of mind if potential interns already have housing, or at least concrete plans.  They don’t want to hire someone who won’t be able to show up at the last minute.  If you do not actually have housing (which may be the case, as you may not want to put down a deposit until you actually have a reason to live in New York), explain your plans for obtaining it.

8.  Personalize your applications.  One publisher called me for an interview because I had mentioned specific titles they published in my cover letter.  She said I stood out because I had clearly researched the company more than most of the other applicants, and I sounded as if I were actually interested.  I didn’t claim to have read them–because I hadn’t–but simply mentioned I thought they published a great variety of titles and that they looked like books I would love to work with.

9.  Read the application and FAQs carefully.  You don’t want to be that person who asks on the publisher’s Facebook page for information they clearly have listed under their internship guidelines–and which three other people already asked about on the page before you.  It will definitely kill the “pays attention to details” claim you have on your resume.  You also don’t want to forget to submit anything or otherwise disqualify yourself for failing to follow instructions.

10.  Be passionate.  There are probably people who go to a better college than you, who have better grades, who have more connections.  Companies will pay attention to those people.  Ultimately, however, a passion for literature is something that cannot be faked, and if you really love books and the industry, the publisher will choose you.  Put effort into conveying your excitement, as well as your qualifications, in your cover letter, and if you are called for an interview, be excited then, too.  Sound like someone who will be happy to show up to work, so that your supervisors will be happy to work with you.

Top Ten Tuesday (38): Top Ten Things I Learned as an Editorial Intern

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Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is:

Freebie: Top Ten Things I Learned As an Editorial Intern

I spent this past summer as an editorial intern (publisher to remain unnamed, since my views do not reflect the views of their company, etc. and so forth).  I had a fantastic time (I would really love this job!), and I learned a lot about publishing, too—specifically for children’s books.

1.   If you want to publish a book, get an agent.  Even though many publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, many publishers know their chances of reading a manuscript they will like and that fits their list increases greatly when the manuscript is from an agent.  And, sadly, the fact that your manuscript is in the slush pile at all says something about you immediately—that you didn’t take five minutes to research the industry and realize you really need an agent.

2.  Editors do a lot more than edit.  They meet with agents, speak at writers’ conferences, comfort authors, write jacket copies, look for artists, and so much more.

3.  The art is edited just as much as the text.  Designers send notes to artists about anything from coloring to the fact they think some faces in the background crowd of a scene look a little too frightening for a picture book.

4.  The marketing and sales departments actually get a lot of say on artistic matters.  These are the people who have to sell the book, and they have enough experience to know whether certain words in the title will turn off young buyers or whether certain styles of covers just have not sold books in the past.  (But don’t worry, they do read the books and they love them, too!  Sometimes they just have to be a little more practical than the editorial department.)

5.  Editing truly is a skill.  Book reviewers will know how easy it is to say, “____ didn’t work in the book” or “I didn’t like ____.”  Coming up with practical solutions to fix the problem can be harder.  Editors cannot just say, “I felt as if I did not truly know the love interest” to the author and leave him or her hanging.  They need to suggest places the love interest can appear more in the story, or ways that he might get into a heart-felt conversation with the protagonist.  Editors often need to be as good at creative writing as their authors.

6.  Author attitude matters.  It generally takes two years for a book to be published after it is acquired, and the editor has to work with the author closely the entire time.  No one wants to work with someone who is difficult, arrogant, or rude, no matter how wonderful his or her book is.  This is one reason a cover letter is important, whether you are querying an agent or a publisher directly.  Make sure you sound polite and professional, and include any experience (with editors or otherwise) that demonstrates you will open to others’ suggestions and willing to modify your manuscript.

7.  Fancy picture books go through tons of tests.  There are a lot of laws about what materials can be used (in case children chew the books) and about special materials.  Do you want an actual string on a picture of a balloon in the book?  There are length restrictions.  Pop-up books are a particular problem, and people literally sit down opening and closing them to make sure the process still goes smoothly on the hundredth reading.

8. The review quotes on Amazon saying how great the book is are selected and submitted by the publisher.  It is good to have a healthy suspicion of too many ellipses….  You never know what was actually cut out of that quote.

9.  Picture book summaries and taglines should be in the voice of the book.  This can be difficult and involve a lot of rereading, but it is definitely a fun and worthwhile challenge!

10.  Everyone who works on publishing a book really loves the book.  It is truly inspiring to see people who have been working on a book for two years, and who have read the book dozens of time, get excited all over again when the final copies are printed.  (And, yes, they get just as giddy about cool cover effects as everyone else.)