Abigail Hall: Musings on a Beautiful and Mysterious Industry: A Publishing Intern Reflects

Abigail Hall, Hollins University publishing intern at UNC Press, January 2019
Abigail Hall, Hollins University publishing intern at UNC Press, January 2019

This past January, I was able to live out a lifelong dream of mine: wearing business casual clothes five days a week. I own so many sweaters and I was ecstatic to finally be able to do something with them.

But this past month was more than just a chance to try out my office fashion. January 2019 was also the month I interned in the UNC Press Publicity Department.

I applied to the one-month internship through my school, Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, so I could get a taste of the kind of real-world jobs that English majors like myself regularly seek out. The short timeframe for the internship is due to Hollins’ month long J-Term, in which students can partake in a wide array of activities, such as taking classes or going abroad. I decided to intern in breezy little Chapel Hill to learn a little bit about a mysterious industry. Since I’m a senior, it was my last chance to take advantage of a January Signature Internship, and I sure am glad I didn’t chicken out.

Before going into the internship, I knew very little about publishing. I supposed the employees worked in offices and cubicles; I suspected that there was a lot of paperwork. That’s about as far as my knowledge went. Honestly, all of the information I knew about publishing came from the movie The Proposal, but I barely even paid attention to that until after Sandra Bullock went through at least a little character development. Needless to say, I didn’t know much.

Obviously, I was a little worried about my first day. Being an absolute industry newbie was frightening, even despite the fact that I knew deep down nobody expected me to be an expert. Thankfully, when I walked through the doors, I was greeted by a whole slew of people who really love books, and I felt right at home. I strained my neck trying to read all the titles on the various shelves as I was led through the building, impressed by the variety of subjects and the quality of covers.

I quickly came to realize that my initial thoughts about publishing were pretty much on point, but that there was more to the industry than what I had imagined. Every department, from Marketing to Production to Editorial—Acquisitions and Manuscript—worked together to create a singular organism of book creation and distribution. The constant moving through various departments meant that I learned a lot of faces, but, unfortunately, not as many names.

I also learned that a lot goes into marketing a book, and it happens way in advance. Books don’t just turn up on store shelves one day, fresh off the printer. No—books are a painstaking labor of love, and marketing is a huge part of that labor. Marketing plans are living and breathing, which is something I quickly figured out as I combed through various books—from Fall 18, Spring 19, and even forward to Fall 19—in order to see which ones would be appropriate for various festivals. Books that weren’t even published yet were being considered for festivals, awards, and events, and I got to be a teeny, tiny part of that.

And mailing. There is so much mailing in marketing. I was constantly making noise, ripping open boxes or printing a label from a tiny label maker that sounded like a choking robot. It was as amazing as mailing can be, I guess.

The most formidable task in my four weeks at UNC Press was sitting through two days of launch meetings, during which books for the next season are discussed in regard to their publishing dates, titles, and market. Launch was like a group of parents urgently anticipating the arrival of dozens of babies, trying to paint the nurseries and buy diapers before the due dates crept up. It was long and a little slow at times, but I learned a lot about how each department works together in a meeting and what kinds of books would be coming from the Press in the fall.

My favorite assignment as an intern, by far, was getting to work through two author Q&As for the Press. I got to read parts of the books and develop questions based on what I read, which were then sent to the authors or editors to answer. Interacting with the authors and editors in this way—even if I didn’t really talk to them myself—was so fun and felt almost unreal. I mean, typing up some questions isn’t anything magical, but actually getting responses, and knowing that those responses will go out into the world through a press kit, is what really made the task meaningful.

For anyone looking at a career in publishing, I would certainly suggest trying to secure an internship. Information on the internet about the industry will never compare to actually working in it. Of course, finding an internship isn’t the easiest thing in the world; the best route would be a school career center, like the amazing people at the Hollins Career Center who helped me and so many other students apply to J-Term internships. Internet job boards are another good choice, along with simply reaching out to acquaintances in the field for suggestions.

In the end, I’ve truly appreciated my time with UNC Press, and I’m endlessly grateful for all the help from my supervisor and Director of Publicity Gina Mahalek, Publicist Allie Shay, Marketing Department Assistant Anna Faison, Exhibits and Awards Assistant Ann Bingham, and of course, Director of Development and Hollins Alum Joanna Ruth Marsland. Without them, I never would have learned how to ride the local bus, never would have had my noisy label maker, and never would have even been given a chance to be part of the beautiful process of book publishing.

by Abigail Hall