The Intern Discovers Five Truths About Publishing

Feeling strangely uncomfortable in my business clothes and missing my scruffy college student sweatshirt, I walked into a gleaming lobby where a smiling man in a suit ushered me towards golden elevators.  I zoomed upward, landing in a richly carpeted hallway lined with mahogany doors. Berrett-Koehler had the biggest door and the biggest sign.  I crept in with appropriate feelings of awe.  There I was, on my first day, ready to learn.  

That was a month ago.  Here are five interesting things I've learned since then:

1. Leadership doesn't need to mean hierarchy.  "I want to discuss ways that I can mentor you, and you can mentor me," our publisher recently said to a new employee.  I thought this was a wonderful approach.  Another leader would simply have said, "I need to train you. We have to show you how things are done around here."  But this wasn't an order, this was an invitation, "We'll teach each other how to do our jobs."  If I ever become a leader, I hope I can model this quality and be the kind of person who is always willing to learn something new and never shuts himself off in a fortress of authority.   

2. The world is awash in good intentions, but intentions aren't enough.  Since Berrett-Koehler's mission is "creating a world that works for all," the slush pile is crammed with idealistic manifestos and blueprints for better tomorrows. Horrible things or injustices happen to people and they deal with it by writing a book to "help other people in my situation." Or professors sit in their offices and draw these complex bubble charts about how to save the world from evil. All morning I sit reading these books into which people have poured their heart and soul. One by one I decide which ones won't sell (about 95% of them). One by one I call the authors to deliver the bad news. One by one the manuscripts fall between my fingers into the recycling bin. Yet, I am left feeling strangely happy. Maybe the bubble charts don't actually show how to deliver the world from evil, but they do prove that apathy is very far from ruling supreme.  

3. Books don't launch movements, movements launch books. 
Whenever a book proposal comes in, I have to look at the author bio and evaluate his degree of fame. Does he speak often to groups? Does he give workshops? Does he publish in magazines? Does he belong to professional societies and tightly-knit communities? Does he have good connections?  Simply put: is he out there stoking the furnace of his movement, or is he simply sitting in his basement scribbling down theories for the book which he will use to supposedly launch his movement? The key to any kind of change, after all, is connecting with other people. A book is a way of connecting with large numbers of people, but it won't work unless you've been connecting with smaller numbers on the personal level first.

4. Employees of this publishing house get to take home free books!  This was by far the happiest discovery.  In fact, I was so ridiculously delighted by this perk that my boss joked they should hire me permanently by paying my wages in books. I giggled and pointed out, "You don't see homeless people standing around with cardboard signs that say, WILL WORK FOR BOOKS."  My boss replied, "No, you don't. On the other hand, if I did see a homeless person with that sign, I would surely respect that man." 

5. People look up to publishers as enlightened souls, but they're just business people like everyone else.  When I turn down authors, I always give them feedback and constructive criticism of some kind (it's the BK way -- no form rejections). At first I was really nervous and startled when I noticed how the authors I was calling hung on to my every word -- as if I was a sagely being imbued with higher knowledge. I kept thinking, "I'm only twenty-one years old, yet here I am telling these experts and these professors that their work just isn't good enough. Life is so strange sometimes...." I think often, in our respect for institutions, we forget that all institutions are made up of people just like ourselves.


  1. These are thoughtful and inspiring, and reading this concludes what has been a calm and contemplative morning for me.

    I am now off to brew myself a first-class cup of coffee, at which point I will continue with the reverie which you have so pleasantly amplified.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Charlotte. Great comments and insights.