Q&A with Marisa DiNovis, editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Marisa DiNovis is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. She is a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a winner of a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society. In this interview, conducted by email, DiNovis discusses her job, her path to book publishing and her reading recommendations.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day in publishing is different — it doesn’t have the same daily or weekly rhythm as a newsroom or magazine office environment. My job title is Editorial Assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House. Most editorial assistants in book publishing report to either the publisher of an imprint or an editor or two, and work on a range of tasks from developmental editing a manuscript to writing jacket copy and from drafting profit and loss statements to submitting copyright notices.

I report to our publisher/editorial director, and I also provide editorial support to executive and mid-level editors. Our group consists of 12 wonderful editors (who have worked on books like “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “The Golden Compass”), and I interact with our design team, managing editor, copy editor and marketing and publicity teams on a daily basis.

At Knopf BFYR, we publish books for all ages, including board books, picture books, chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels. One of the best parts of starting my career at Random House is that even entry-level editors are allowed to acquire. So in addition to backing up other editors on their books, I also interact with agents and authors as I look to build my own list at Knopf.

On a given day, I might be working on any number of projects. I always spend time reading. Sometimes it’s a manuscript on submission from a literary agent. Occasionally, it’s an interesting story I find in the slush pile (hard-copy submissions from unagented writers), and often it’s a sophomore manuscript from an existing Knopf author for which I’m supporting the editor.

I write a fair amount each day as well, which might take the form of a decline note, an editorial letter for an author whose manuscript we’ve bought or suggestions for a submission that isn’t quite ready but I’d be willing to evaluate again after revision.

As an assistant, I spend part of my work day on a few administrative tasks, like taking my boss’s messages, scheduling conference rooms and ordering in books from our warehouse — but unless you work as an administrative assistant, these tasks do not monopolize your time. You might also find me structure-tagging a manuscript with notes for design and production, attending a meeting to brainstorm potential illustrators for a picture book manuscript or aggregating Web copy for fall 2016 books to send to our copy editor.

And every so often my day might include an author visit with R.J. Palacio or Markus Zusak!

Q. You were a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did that area of study help you move into your career, and what did you have to learn on your own?

A. That’s correct. I was an editing and graphic design student within the journalism major, and I also majored in English. The marriage of those two areas of study provided me with an excellent framework for my field.

In journalism, the departmental focus on practical skills and professional development was invaluable. It’s difficult to teach networking, but the journalism school helped me navigate where to begin.

On the editing and design track, and specifically in my editing classes, I learned how editing and design teams interact and work together—an insight that has been very helpful every day I’ve interned and worked in publishing. I also use my copy-editing skills on a daily basis. Whether I’m querying an author, doing a cold proofread with a manuscript or preparing a document for the production team, I’m thinking about the principles of copy editing.

The English major taught me how to speak eloquently about literature. Without that, I couldn’t perform successfully in my job. I usually read anywhere from five to a dozen manuscripts and books in a given week. I would argue that studying English is just about the best training there is for the reading marathon that is a publishing career.

On my own, I needed to learn what hiring managers in publishing look for in an entry-level applicant. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there — trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Poets & Writers magazine as well as the Young to Publishing Group, and, of course, industry professionals. Book publishing is relatively small, so it was important to learn who’s who. LinkedIn and Twitter helped with that, as most publisher websites don’t list personnel.

Given the size of the industry, I learned networking is vital to getting a job. In my first informational interview, I was told that editorial jobs receive more applications than jobs for any other department in publishing, thus making them the most competitive. It was essential to develop a sense of the different houses, their respective mission statements and their successful books, in order to align myself with the divisions that matched my goals.

But perhaps the most important thing that school didn’t teach me was my personal literary tastes. As an aspiring editor, one aspect hiring managers look for in a candidate is someone who knows what he or she likes — they want an assistant equipped to make informed observations and confident decisions when weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a submission.

Q. Book editing sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for students pursuing internships and jobs in this field?

A. I am so obviously biased, but every day working in books — especially books for young readers —is incredible. I can’t think of a single person I work with who wouldn’t tell you they are in their dream job.

My best piece of advice is this: intern, intern, intern. I say it three times for a reason. Try to do at least a few internships during college. Full disclosure: I can’t count on my hands the number of in-office and remote internships, freelance jobs and related on-campus publications I worked at in order to land my job.

At UNC, students are very lucky in that the Triangle area is a book publishing microcosm—you have Oxford University Press, UNC Press, Duke University Press, Algonquin Books, Light Messages Publishing, Technical Information Publishing Services, Lulu and others. Take advantage of the proximity during the school year. I know I did, and the connections I made there are a part of what helped me get my job.

I mentioned this earlier, but learn the industry. Publishing is almost entirely based in New York, which can present financial obstacles for summer internships. Remember that university career services often offer grants for students doing unpaid summer internships. Many of the larger houses pay a modest rate for summer interns, which is helpful, but these internships are highly competitive. Don’t forget about the smaller companies that can help you get your foot in the door—oftentimes it’s at the smaller houses or agencies (or even a book-related start-up company) where you get more hands-on experience.

Informational interviews are also key. Find the editors, publicists or marketing assistants who do jobs you one day hope to have. If it’s a high-level employee, try to find his or her assistant. Then reach out to that person. Ask for a short phone interview, question-and-answer by email or an in-person meeting if you’re visiting New York. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to find people who had been in the industry for five years or less, and ask them how they got their job and what prepared them for it.

If you’re excited about books, show it. On social media, in person. It’s easy to be cynical about the economic climate in the publishing and news industries. It’s less easy to show that you’re invested and eager to learn regardless. When I interviewed for this job, my now-coworker told me he thought I was more passionate about children’s books than he is, and I really do believe that was taken into consideration when the hiring decision was made.

Strive to be overqualified — there’s really no such thing.

Q. Editing is fun. So is reading. What book(s) are you reading now, and what recommendations do you have?

A. I bet you thought this would be a short concluding answer! Well, I’m reading a number of books and manuscripts across a many different formats.

I’m just finishing up a submission that is a circus-freakshow retelling of “Hamlet.” I am also digging into a modern counterpart to “The Little Prince,” which I found in the slush pile. I’m also re-reading “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman for a large-scale project to brainstorm new cover designs for future editions.

For my book club, I’m reading an advanced reader’s copy of “Julia Vanishes,” the first installment of a debut fantasy trilogy by Catherine Egan. But the reading project I’m most excited about is a first draft manuscript by a bestselling Knopf author — unfortunately, I can’t say more about this as it isn’t released for public knowledge yet. And last, I always try to be reading one non-work-related book for fun, and right now that’s “Full Cicada Moon” by Marilyn Hilton, a middle grade novel in verse.

For sheer thrill and excitement, the book I can’t stop recommending this season, for readers of any age, is “Illuminae” by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Think “The Hunger Games” meets “Star Wars,” told through a dossier of uncovered files with a healthy dose of a self-destructing artificial intelligence. I haven’t had as much fun reading a book as I did with this in years.

In a lot of ways, I’m as much interested in design as I am in literature, so I love reading picture books and graphic novels. Neil Gaiman recently published an illustrated version of his YA short story “The Sleeper and the Spindle” — it’s an enchanting read made even more interesting by format. “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash and “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson were my two favorite graphic novels of the year, an LGBTQ-inclusive YA memoir and a middle grade fantasy respectively.

And then there’s my self-proclaimed soapbox book, “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit, a debut that comes out at the end of January. This is a World War II novel with magical realism perfect for readers who loved “The Book Thief” — and the most captivating and merit-worthy piece of literature I’ve read in 2015.