Grad Student Spotlight: Rebecca Nelson

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If you’ve ever considered submitting a query letter to a literary agent, you might know they typically include a few paragraphs about your manuscript, where it fits in the market, and your qualifications or publication history. If you’ve never been an intern at a literary agency, you might not know that sometimes, in lieu of a query letter, people submit 600×600 pixel Microsoft Paint images with only their book’s title and some bright colors.

Getting an internship in publishing was hell, but actually getting to do the work hands-on is nothing short of a dream come true.

I applied to approximately 20 internships, some remote and some in-person, for the summer semester. Every application necessitates a complete overhaul of the cover letter, making sure it fits the call for applications, the press or agency, and the type of internship. The internship I ended up getting for the summer was in marketing — not exactly what I wanted, but close enough that I knew the experience would be good. For the fall semester, I applied to about 10 internships and had many more applications on the way to completion when I got an interview for one internship and was accepted to another. The interview ended up leading to a second acceptance, and me being me, I accepted both positions, one with a literary agency and one with a press, Dzanc Books.

The Microsoft Paint query letter has been only one of many surprises that have come with getting a look inside the publishing industry. A lot of things about publishing in general aren’t intuitive — the trick to writing an editorial letter an author will actually listen to (being extremely nice seems to be the biggest factor), how many different types of edits a manuscript goes through — and there are many, many small surprises with the daily work of reading queries. Every day as my fellow interns and I slog through dozens of queries at the literary agency, there are plenty that show a stunning lack of failure to follow instructions (even if they might not submit a digital painting as a letter).

In my internship with Dzanc Books, an independent press, there are fewer blatant no’s because submissions to presses typically have already gone through an agent’s selection process and editorial touch. One aspect of my internship with Dzanc is giving submissions to their novel and short story collection contests a first glance. Being on the opposite side of the application table is odd — the submission program even has a Roman-empire-like thumbs up/thumbs down function that we interns use in addition to providing a three-pronged reader report .

Interning at the literary agency has already involved many different levels of the agenting process: the email we all access directly receives every query sent to the agency, which we all vote on with a simple yes or no. Many are those obvious no’s: a query letter that’s just a biography of the author and nothing about the book, a missing 5-page sample, a genre that isn’t even a little bit listed on the agency’s website. Some are more difficult to decide on, especially knowing that  too many yeses will mean many more reader reports. Reader reports are on material that passes that first sweep: we read three chapters of the manuscript and then write an evaluation accompanied by another yes or no. If a book passes that stage, a second reader report of the entire manuscript is in order, and if the book is eventually acquired by the agency, an editorial letter (meant to help the author revise for submission to publishers) is the final step.

The other big part of both internships is learning about publishing. For the literary agency, all the interns call into an hour-long conference call with the agent we work under every other week. The call is partly learning about publishing and partly sharing feedback on submissions, bestsellers, and critiquing possible non-fiction book ideas. For Dzanc Books, we have weekly half-hour Skype sessions with the editor-in-chief, during which she explains the nitty-gritty of one particular aspect of publishing, for example proofreading. Both internships are extremely aware that as much as the interns are a help to the company, they’re also there to gain experience and knowledge for their own future careers. I’ve noticed that both are very understanding about school and work commitments and seem to expect occasional delays rather than demanding to be the No. 1 priority in an intern’s life.

Balancing teaching, taking a class, working on my master’s project, sleeping, exercising, and enjoying leisure time with my two internships has been going well this semester — but I  find being busy a little exhilarating, so I might not be the best test case: YMMV. I would, however, definitely recommend getting course credit for an internship because if I had two classes right now instead of one I might be having a meltdown. If you’re considering going into publishing or another professional path that requires experience, an internship is an extremely rewarding option. It might take you 20 or 30 or 100 tries to get one, but it’s worth it: some days I find a query letter that is genuinely exciting, fresh, and spectacularly written, and it’s confirmation that I’ve chosen the right career path for me.

Rebecca Nelson (M.A. ’20)

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