What I Learned From My Summer Internship, Part 1

I can hardly believe that one week from Friday, my internship with Houghton Mifflin will be over. Ten weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to fully absorb everything, yet I also learned so much from the wonderful editors I’ve worked with this summer.

Margaret Raymo, Kate O’Sullivan, and Erica Zappy were the Editors “on location” in the Houghton Mifflin Boston office, with the knowledgeable Christine Krones as Editorial Assistant, and the ever-helpful Meredith Wilson as Assistant to the Publisher. Editor Ann Rider also sent me tasks from her home office in Minnesota.

My primary responsibility was to read, read, read – a job with which I had no problem, as you might imagine. I read manuscript submissions for the various editors and wrote reader reports. What are reader reports, you ask? Basically, it’s my opinion. How great is that? As I clearly have no trouble stating my opinion, that’s pretty much the perfect task for me. What was harder was putting into words the feelings I get from reading manuscripts, both those that appealed to me and those that didn’t. What was it I was/was not liking? What about that character was so compelling? Was the dialogue too stilted and unreal? What impressed me about that turn of phrase or plot sequence? Could a paragraph be removed to tighten a scene? I don’t know how other interns/editorial assistants work, but nothing seemed too large or too small for me to comment about. Thanks to my MFA and the critical papers I spent the last two years writing, I was somewhat more prepared to describe the answers to these questions using (I hope!) appropriately descriptive language and industry jargon. The hardest part about this? Not knowing if or when I might see the books I liked in print. It IS thrilling, though, to know that at least a few manuscripts I liked were acquired during the time I was at HMH. Sometime in the next few years, I’ll be able to pass a bookstore shelf and smile, knowing I’d read the manuscript version years prior.

Other fun editorial tasks I learned included how to write decline letters, catalogue descriptions, and flap copy. For decline letters, I learned never to send them right before a major holiday – even if it clears off my desk, the recipient won’t be so pleased. I also learned to say something nice before making a suggestion, much like operating within a writing group structure. Lastly, personal to me, I had to learn to change my tone – I was sounding too condescending (shocker!). Catalogue descriptions are comprised of a one-liner sell-line, a short descriptive paragraph, and maybe an excerpt from the book. This all goes into the catalogue publishers put together to give to their reps who sell to bookstores and other retail accounts. As for flap copy, in April 2011, go take a look for The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, Book 3 in the Knights’ Tales series by acclaimed Arthurian author Gerald Morris, illustrated by Aaron Renier (9780547418551, $14.99). On the cover of the book, on the inside flap, should be printed my synopsis/description of the tale. Book 1 is pictured here; this series has been approved by the eight-year-old boy in the household I live in.

Last, but certainly not least, I also got to go through slush piles. Confession: this was my favorite part, second only to reading the actual solicited manuscripts. Slush piles are unsolicited manuscripts, sent to Houghton Mifflin by hopeful would-be authors who have not made a personal contact with any of the editors. Houghton Mifflin is one of the few publishers that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts; most publishers prefer that potential authors work through agents. The slush piles were my favorite because it was like a treasure hunt AND a project I got to organize at the same time. My fun-loving, slightly-OCD self was in heaven. What’s even more exciting is that one of the picture books I plucked from the slush pile might get picked up by HMH! Nothing for sure yet but an editor is taking a second look at it. I have daydreams of helping an unknown author get their work published to the joyful satisfaction of us both. I can’t help it; I’m an idealist.

Those are the major day-to-day tasks I work on. Stay tuned for the next installment of “What I Learned From My Summer Internship,” when I will be discussing unexpected (by me) issues that editors come across.

Oh, the other thing I get to do? Go out for after-work-drinks with my fellow interns (and co-workers).

2 thoughts on “What I Learned From My Summer Internship, Part 1

  1. Great post. I can't wait to read part 2. What I am interested in finding out in part 2 is how good or bad the slush pile is/was. As the summer progressed were you more quickly able figure out if a book was going to work or not?

  2. That's a great question and one that I think different people have different answers for. In speaking with other interns, many of them didn't take to slush pile reading quite the same way I did. Most of them flipped through, barely glancing at query letters before tossing the whole thing into a recycling bin. That's not my approach. I think my years of working as a bookseller and reading books critically gave me my own sense of what had potential. I would pick out manuscripts that either worked, or maybe just showed potential in an idea or style of writing, then write a reader report on what I liked. Then that pile would get passed around the office. Each editor has their own taste, too, so the slush pile manuscripts actually have to make it through two rounds of eyes – whatever intern or assistant is reading it, and then whatever decision-making-editor is reading it. If my taste and an editor's taste doesn't match up, then everyone is S.O.L. Honestly though, even trying to see potential, I probably recycled 95%-99% of the slush piles I went through.

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