Reflections on NYU’s SPI & Publishing

New York University is one of a few colleges that offer intensive publishing courses. Their Summer Publishing Institute (which has now finished its 38th year) is a six-week long course that covers magazine and book publishing essentials. Columbia University has a similar program (as well as an additional, all-book focus program at Oxford), and Denver has a program as well (though their program is shorter and less hands-on from what I understand). I can’t speak to the other programs much, but here’s the skinny on NYU’s SPI course.

As previously stated, the course is 6 weeks long. Generally, the course begins at the beginning of June and ends halfway through July. The first three weeks are dedicated to Magazine Media Publishing, while the last three weeks are dedicated to Book Publishing. The days are rather long – more so in the first three weeks than in the second. I began most days, in the class building (the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan), by 8:30 or 9 AM and ended the class day anywhere from 4:30 to 6 PM. There are a number of different sessions throughout each day, and your attendance is mostly required for all of them (I’ll touch on this again later). Most of the sessions fall into one of the following “categories”

  • Speakers: they don’t necessarily give lectures, but they’re not exactly very interactive either. most will have powerpoint presentations. some will tell stories the entire time
  • Panels: there will be anything from 3-6 people on these panels. there are a lot of leading questions asked and expected answers given. Truthfully, I found these sessions to be the least informative/helpful, but they did offer a large variety of viewpoints on singular topics/themes, which was nice.
  • Interactive Sessions: few and far between, but very much the most exciting and memorable (some were game type settings, others were relied heavily on question/answer engagement)

There wasn’t any one of these types of sessions that was completely useless. I learned from all of them. But the practical knowledge/applicable skills were generally difficult to uncover in panels most, then speakers, then interactive sessions.

Overall, I’ll say that the Magazine Session was more stressful as opposed to the Book Session. I think there are a number of factors that made it that way in my opinion:

  • the work flow and pace of the magazine industry is incredibly fast, even in the real world. where some publications are quarterly, monthly, or even weekly for magazines, books take years to get published
  • there was a larger volume of work to be done for the magazine session overall.
  • there were less check-in opportunities in the magazine session. we would get feedback and then change things, but not have any solid ideas of whether our changes were for the better or not
    • additionally, the check-ins were a little more loose in terms of what was to be “finished” and/or “turned in” for evaluation/review – meaning that we didn’t have concrete ideas of how those concepts were to appear in the final project.
    • alternatively, the book session’s check-ins were gradual and each assignment showed up in the final project where
  • we went into the book session with the magazine session already under our belt. for the magazine session, we went in blind.

There were difficulties in the book session regarding group members doing their assigned tasks and actually doing their fair share… but that was largely due to the fact that in the book session, the last three weeks of the program, students are exponentially more stressed about finding jobs and/or places to live after the program ends and thus, are dipping out of class more frequently. hence, the attendance issue. the program directors and administrators understand that we’re all stressed about this stuff, but they do ask that we check in with them prior to disappearing and/or not showing up. Heads up, attendance does count toward your grade for the course.

Things I wish I had known (about the program, about publishing, about New York) prior to the start of the program:

  • There are three sets of assignments in the program. I knew about the first two, but not the last.
    • pre-program homework assignments
      • assignments for the magazine session
      • assignments for the book session
    • the group projects:
      • creating a magazine media brand (complete with mock-up and business strategy) in your assigned category
      • creating an imprint and producing a three-title list (complete with catalogue and marketing campaigns) in your assigned category
    • and two editorial assignments
      • an edit test during the magazine session
      • a reader’s report during the book session
  • There are a lot of departments and roles within publishing. LOTS of different avenues you can take to get involved. “Editorial” and “being an editor” is what you hear of most, but I promise,it’s not what you think it is. There’s so much more to it, and it’s changing still.
  • New York City is enticing. It’s also expensive. I know, that’s a given. But really, it’s really expensive. And it’s a “who you know” kind of world here, more than you’d think.
  • LinkedIn is a thing. Get familiar with it. Use it well.

Words of advice for anyone looking to break into publishing and/or go to this program:

  • Read up on industry news. magazine.org and publishersweekly.com are going to be your best friends. knowing what’s going on is a really good, really easy way to connect with people and have something to discuss.
  • Edit rests and reader’s reports are generally part of the application/hiring process for editorial publishing jobs and sometimes for other department too. Get familiar with them.
  • As I said before, editorial is the most commonly known aspect of publishing. But there’s a lot more. Sales, Advertising/Marketing, Subsidiary Rights (Books), Consumer Marketing (Magazines), Publicity (Books), Social/Digital. Are you interested in finances? Do you like research? Do you have retail experience? Bring it all to the table and figure out your strengths and weaknesses. I guarantee that they’ll play into multiple departments, and that’ll give you a much better projection for how to break into the publishing industry. As the most well-known part of publishing, editorial is also the most competitive. Give yourself an angle. Give yourself something unique.
  • Bring more money than you think you’ll need. Budgets go out the window. You’re going to want to explore and have fun too. Time is a little limited (especially with the weekend computer workshops – if you choose to attend them), but you’ll find yourself awake early on the weekends and late during the week, wishing you had an extra ten bucks for insomnia cookies or something. Trust me. Also, don’t forget that your MetroCard costs money. Walking’s great, but not for the distance from the dorm NYU reserves for SPI to the Woolworth Building where they have us come for “classes”.
  • If you’re serious about publishing and New York, and you can swing it, make a trip to the city prior to the summer you attend the program. At the very least, look into the different boroughs before the program starts. Each of the boroughs has their pros and cons, and each have a multitude of neighborhoods with different feels to them. NYC has a 30-housing market, so there’s really no point in looking for a place early when you won’t be able to move in for another two months or however long. But, you can, at the very least, get a sense of prices and comfort level.

And lastly: Job hunting.

This one’s a pain. I hate job hunting. But here’s the reality. The people who go into publishing and stay in publishing don’t do it for the money. Chances are, you’ll make sightly more on the magazine side of things than you will on the book side, but that’s honestly just my guess based on how people have acted/carried themselves and talked about it. Here are some things you’ll want to keep in mind about job hunting (both in publishing and in NYC in general):

  • Start networking EARLY. The more people you know in the business, the better. Tap your internship supervisors and your fellow interns. Don’t forget though that your connections outside the industry help too – there’s no telling how you might be connected. You know more people than you think you know.
  • Most hiring managers want their positions filled asap. In fact, most want them filled before they even know they’re going to be open. So keep that in mind because you don’t want to apply and have them ask you to start when you actually have four weeks of the program left… Alternatively, when you start applying, be ready to jump on something if they offer it. If you have plans for after the program, it might be best to wait til after those are done to apply for jobs.
  • Don’t forget about temp agencies and internships. Retail jobs are awesome too – don’t knock working at B&N or the local Indie.
  • Follow up with every single person you connect with. Thank them for taking the time to talk to you. Thank your interviewers. Send a quick email thanks to let them know you’ve grateful within the first 24 hours, and then send (handwritten) thank you notes/cards asap. It goes a long way.

Where am I in all of this? I’m applying for a lot of jobs. Trying to make the best of my connections and expand them as possible. And just… I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it all works out.