by Natalia Vargas-Caba
Natalia's Nook is LUMINA's monthly column about all things publishing. Natalia Vargas-Caba is a publicity assistant at Atria Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. This column will talk about careers in publishing, how to attract an editor, life after the MFA, and using other departments in publishing to your advantage. You can find out more about Natalia by visiting her LinkedIn profile.
I didn’t start with influence. Instead, I came to Sarah Lawrence College as an undergraduate transfer student from Bronx Community College. I was one of the first in my family to study at university. My mother never stepped into high school, much less finished an eighth-grade level of education in the corn fields of the Dominican Republic. Going to Sarah Lawrence was a comfort away from the gritty Bronx of my childhood. The campus’s serene space called on the poems and stories I otherwise could not have written among the sirens and bright lamps that shone over the dark 4 train station out my bedroom window.
While studying at Sarah Lawrence, I never wasted my time. I devoted my weekdays to class, while the weekends were time for work. I held a weekend part-time job as a hostess-with-the-mostess at the East Village Ukrainian diner, Veselka. I’d chat with the hungry patrons on the syntax of Roberto Bolaño’s poetry in my native Spanish, and leave after midnight with the scent of fresh, boiled onions and sauerkraut pierogies on my clothes. Then I’d head to the nearby Café-Pick-Me-Up and write essays for class until the late-night bar crawlers went back to their homes. Days off were rare.
In my first semester, Career Services held an Internship and Volunteer Fair. Scanning through the list of participating companies, Simon & Schuster caught my attention. I wasn’t the only one: the table was crowded on the day of the fair. I didn’t rehearse anything. I walked up to the representative and handed her my resumé. I held eye contact with her and said I currently worked in a restaurant and volunteered with the literary non-profit Girls Write Now. My experience seemed low, but the initiative I gave to present myself as someone worthy to intern at their company made me stand out. A month later, Simon & Schuster gave me a call and hired me to work with the editors at Scribner, all while seating customers at Veselka and studying full-time.
The internship lasted just two months. It felt short, but I absorbed and took in as much as possible with the time given. While at Scribner, I could never feel above any task, even those that felt the most “intern-like”. Even when I was photocopying Stephen King’s latest manuscript – almost a thousand pages – three times, all I could think was: I get to sift through this before the rest of his absolute fans can even get to hold it.
That persistence led me to other opportunities. I connected more with Girls Write Now, as their networks attract influential women. One of their board members was the former publisher for The Feminist Press and she gave me a place there that summer. I switched to marketing and publicity then, a crucial step as all the editorial positions were taken. Instead of backing down, I leapt at another department to stay in the industry.
Afterwards, Career Services noticed I took advantage of the publishing opportunities available. They planned a site visit to HarperCollins and invited me to join. My schedule was strained with conference project deadlines and seating people at Veselka, but I cleared time for it.
At the visit, I went up to the hiring director, handed her my resumé, and briefly listed my experience. She directed me to apply online, and I kept in contact through email. First, to thank her for the site visit. Second, to list the publishers I’d already interned at. And third, to mention the books at HarperCollins I adored, especially knowing that their imprint William Morrow published Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite writers. A week later, I was at their corporate office again to speak with the senior publicist at William Morrow. The senior publicist said that my charisma as a hostess could function in publicity. Publicists represent authors, as a hostess is the face of the restaurant. A day later, I was taken on as their summer publicity intern.
I not only worked with William Morrow, but publicists from Dey Street, Avon, and Ecco asked that I help with small tasks. I always said yes to everything. Saying yes was natural for me. Just take and grab all the tasks. Show initiative. In one case, I had to find the identity of a person selling Advance Reader Copies illegally on eBay. Through initiative, I detected the offending person. A task normally one would balk on, I went ahead regardless. A year after this internship, I visited Ecco again, and they remembered me as the “girl with the hands,”regarding the time I’d offered my hands to hold books for their Facebook and Instagram banners.
In my final year at Sarah Lawrence, I took a break from interning and revisited the Internship and Volunteer Fair. There, Macmillan stepped in. I repeated my motions: handed them my resumé, kept strict eye contact, and listed my experience. That night I stalked the hiring manager on LinkedIn and thanked her for meeting me. She took my request and placed me with the publicity team at St. Martin’s Press.
But after I graduated, I did not leave with a job offer. Despite all the work I had done, I did not complete my final goal. At this point, I shrunk my resume’s font size from 10 to 9, to fit all the publishers, Veselka, and Girls Write Now on one page. I applied to editorial and publicity positions I found on publishers’ career sites, as well as Publishers Lunch – a Monster.com for the world of books. Not one call for an interview.
During this time, I reached out to the people I had met throughout my track with brightly-worded emails that said, “Remember me?” and “I graduated!” Code words for: I’m available and need a job. The editors and publicists put in a word for open opportunities, and interviews came. None were in my line of work, but I took any interview I could get. That was my initiative. One was in foreign rights at a literary agency. I convinced the interviewer my love for international books made me suitable. We left with smiles and a follow-up email for a writing sample. My last email from the agency said that though they were happy to meet with me, they chose a more experienced candidate.
In some ways, I wanted to believe that it was just my lack of experience. In other, more sinister thoughts, I wanted to disbelieve that it was my full, exotic name, my address in the Bronx, and my fluency in Spanish listed on my resume that barred me from becoming a suitable candidate. Book publishing is notorious for its lack of diversity, with 79% of the entire industry identifying as white, as highlighted in a viral Publisher’s Weekly article. I wondered if I was also a victim of racial profiling.
Then, Career Services organized a panel of publishing experts that summer, including the hiring director from Simon & Schuster. We weren’t required to bring a resume, yet I thought to print out mine. After the panel ended, I went up to the speakers and repeated my motions: resumé in hand, strict eye contact, experience. The hiring director came to ask me why I was so familiar. I said she began a domino effect and gave me my first chance. She asked why I wasn’t working yet. I was trying, I told her. Days later, she introduced me to the publicity team at Atria Books, where I am now an assistant.
My ride was imperfect. I never considered how I could arrive to my place, I just knew I had the initiative and networking skills to get there. If you’ll consider a role in book publishing, know that your track may be as muddled and uncertain with hope to hear back from a resume submission or an interview. But with networking and initiative—the two guides that got me this far—everything may fall together in unexpected ways. I began as a first-generation Latina from the Bronx, and am now on my way to become an associate publicist at Simon & Schuster.