Read Local: Olivia Ngai on Publishing and How Bloggers Are Changing the Book World

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New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

Recent college graduates are struggling to enter just about every field, but book publishing is notoriously elitist, and has one of the highest attrition rates. As a reviewer, I often communicate with interns about logistics, but never before have I noticed the same intern's name pop up at totally different houses. Readers, meet the intrepid Olivia Ngai, an intern at both the publishing arm of City Lights and the lesser-known Zest, producer of books for teens.

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What was your major in college, and when did you graduate?

I graduated last year in May with a degree in English.

Had you always planned on working in publishing after graduation? 

I think I always knew that books were in my future, but getting into publishing never occurred to me until my last two years of college when I was a staff reader on a student-run publication. I had to read more than 100 short stories and evaluate them for publication, but I never knew what came after deciding which stories to publish.

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Are these internships paid?

The internships are not paid.

How are you surviving?

I'm lucky to have my parents financially support me for now until I find a paid job.

Did you intern in order to try on publishing and see if it fits, or was it just a necessity of the labor market?

I took the internships to see if I would like publishing while also gaining work experience. Before I graduated, everyone in my major was having anxiety about what comes after college. It was weird because though I felt like there weren't many options for me, I also felt like the English major is so broad and extends to a wide range of career choices. People usually think English majors graduate to become teachers and writers, but part of what my internships have taught me is that there are actually many more jobs than just those two professions.

How do the actual internships match your expectations?

I entered my internships with no expectations, mainly because I didn't know what to expect. Aside from having little knowledge and information about the industry, I didn't know if I would even like the publishing world. I knew I liked reading books, and I just wanted to learn how stories can go from being thoughts in a person's head to books selling off shelves in stores. Being involved in the process of book publishing has opened my eyes to just how much collaborative work goes into producing one book. The learning curve has been very steep for me in that there's a lot to learn in just a little bit of time.

Are there day-to-day realities of publishing that surprised you?

I can't really say what I'm surprised about because I had no idea what publishing even entailed. So in a sense, everything is surprising and yet not a surprise. One thing I didn't realize is how important even the smallest details are. For example, I never really noticed the different sizes of books as a consumer, but when I was proofing sales sheets, the inconsistencies in trim sizes were a huge deal. When I think about the actual production of the book, then of course trim sizes are really important. But when I buy books in bookstores, I never think about how the size of the book affects my decision to pick it up and buy it.

Another thing that also surprised me is how much bloggers are making a difference in the book world. I help publicize books as part of my internship, and aside from reaching out to radio, TV, newspaper, and magazine outlets, I also contact bloggers. I don't think bloggers even existed 20 years ago, and now they have huge followings on the Internet. And I love reading blogs too, so I can see how effective their thoughts on books can be to their readers.

What do you like best about your job?

The best part of my internships is getting new projects and responsibilities. There's so much to learn!

People envision interns filing papers and doing other odd jobs. Describe some of those "new projects and responsibilities."

I have done data entry, mailing, research, and light accounting that most internships usually require, but I've also edited blog posts and podcasts, evaluated and submitted book proposals for publication, and directly corresponded with reviewers and bloggers. I've written press releases and web content, proofread manuscripts and books, and contributed suggestions on some projects.

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Looking back, what have you worked on that is most meaningful to you, the kind of book or project you readily call upon when someone asks you about your work?

One of my favorite projects is proofreading manuscripts. That's like work wrapped in fun for me. It also feels like a secret project the world doesn't get to see yet while I help get it ready. But I like writing press releases and web content too, because writing requires using my brain in a creative way.

As the description of this column notes, New York City is home to the big publishing houses. Do you see yourself moving to the East Coast, or are you committed to staying in San Francisco?

I'm so connected to my roots that I don't think I can move. But that would be a wonderful dream because there are so many opportunities in New York.

What are your favorite books, past or present?

My favorite books are The Little Prince, The Catcher in the Rye, The Phantom Tollbooth, and anything by Roald Dahl. My English classes have also taught me to love Paradise Lost and Frankenstein.


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