A roundtable discussion with the production department of Catapult books.
This conversation is a discussion with Catapult’s full-time production team: vice president of corporate culture and senior managing editor Wah-Ming Chang (WMC); production manager Olenka Burgess (OB); production editor Laura Berry (LB); and production assistant tracy danes (TD). We hope you enjoy learning more about how the production team functions at Catapult, how they each arrived at publishing, and their recommendations for breaking into the industry.
Spell it out for us! What is the role of the production team? What other departments do you interact with—and what does your relationship with Catapult’s authors look like?
What has your professional journey been like? How did you arrive at publishing and, more specifically, production?
all my favorite things at the same time
alwaysWorld of Warcraft
What’s your position at Catapult? Can you give us a general overview of your role and/or describe what a standard workweek or workday looks like?
OB: I am the production manager. My main responsibilities are planning production schedules for each season’s books, monitoring the inventory and reprint needs of our extensive backlist, and serving as a point of contact between Catapult and our printers and warehouse to ensure that books exist when they are supposed to, looking how they are supposed to. A typical day involves a lot of spreadsheets—reports of fast-moving inventory, detailed book schedules and progress trackers, logs of active print jobs and their timelines—and some physical sheets, i.e. samples of finished books I flip through to make sure all is as it should be.
LB: I’m a production editor. A production editor typically manages (or, at some publishers, performs in-house) a book’s copyediting and proofreading. At Catapult, the book’s production editor also designs and typesets the book interior; other houses might have a separate interior design department or outsource the work.
On a typical day, I might arrange a proofread with a freelancer, input second-pass corrections to a book in InDesign, collate manuscript edits from the copy editor and author in Word, design a sample book interior, review covers, and take care of minutia involving invoices, barcodes, and the Library of Congress.
TD: I am the production assistant for the three book imprints (Catapult Press, Counterpoint Press, and Soft Skull Press). It’s a role that didn’t exist at Catapult before me, which means I’ve had the joy of sculpting, to an extent, my own job description. I handle a menagerie of PDFs, spreadsheets, form templates, cover-copy documents, task schedules, and blurbs; I manage all things ebook production; and, most delightfully, I don the production editor’s cap for paperback conversions and a handful of frontlist titles each season. As Laura points out, there’s little consistency from day to day. Production, to me, is about riding the tides and, after being unceremoniously tossed around by printer delays and schedule shifts, coming at last to understand the ebb and flow—to predict the rushes and to wade with grace through the unpredictable.
WMC: I am the senior managing editor and oversee the growth of the production team. A typical day involves copyediting and proofreading in-house material, reviewing mechanicals, obsessively going over and adjusting deadlines for all titles in production or about to go into production, contacting stakeholders about material that’s past due, adding proofreading corrections to a book interior, and examining the book package once it arrives at my door.
What would you recommend for people interested in breaking into the publishing industry?
LB: There’s no harm in casting a wide net, but I would try to figure out what things you actually enjoy doing on a daily basis and then reach out to people in publishing to learn what their work lives are like. Even if you know someone only through a friend of a friend or social media, most people are happy to discuss their experiences, and you can compare what they love/don’t love about their jobs with your own priorities.
Also, a tip if you’re specifically interested in typesetting and layout—there’s no standard title for these jobs, so you’ll want to search the terms “production design,” “book interior design,” “digital production,” and “desktop publishing.”
TD: What Laura said! Be playful and try things out, especially if you’re applying for internships. A question I asked myself when sending applications was “Big Five or small indie?” A job at a tiny five-person operation is going to have you doing more diverse work than a role at one of the Big Five. Catapult is somewhere in between; to me, a person whose interests are always shifting, that’s the Goldilocks zone. The breadth of responsibilities keeps me interested, engaged, and learning. (Where else does an assistant manage ebooks?) If you prefer to have a clearly defined role and stable job description, then a bigger, more established corporate structure might be a better fit.
Whatever position you end up in, advocate for yourself—for your salary, your benefits, your boundaries, but also your job description. Even though I started at Catapult as a publicity and marketing intern, I knew I liked production. I made a point of reaching out to the production team to ask what tasks I might dip my toes into; from there, I took on more and more until, after my internship, I was brought on as a production assistant. Don’t do more work than you’re getting paid for, though!
WMC: Work your way into a house that publishes your favorite writers. Love being a step in the process that creates books. Love writers. Have opinions about certain writers. Don’t be shy about expressing these opinions. Love books.
OB: I’ll take this opportunity to give a shout-out to the book-publishing master’s program at Portland State University. The program is unique in that you can really get your hands dirty working at Ooligan Press, the program’s trade publishing house. At Ooligan, you’re able to take on responsibilities and make high-level decisions that would otherwise require years of job experience to access. While a publishing degree is certainly not necessary, it can be a great way to gain a comprehensive understanding of the publishing process and industry, especially for those who are outside New York (though remote internships have diminished this hurdle!) and those looking to make a career shift. You come away from the program with skills and connections that can help you break into the industry and that are also widely applicable outside of it.
What skills and/or interests do you think are ideal for pursuing a career in book production?
OB: A nearly unhealthy attention to detail. A love of the shapes of words, with their attendant loops and angles.
LB: Knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style, InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, Microsoft Office, and maybe HTML/CSS for ebook purposes. A love, or at least tolerance, for spreadsheets and schedules. Even if you’re unfamiliar with most of these things, if you’re an artsy/nerdy type, production might suit you. On the less technical side, it helps to be empathetic, organized, and decisive.
TD: List making and flexibility (priorities can shift often and suddenly). Delight in details. An appreciation of paper.
WMC: Meticulousness to detail is essential. If you don’t have it when you start out, and for some reason you want to find a home in book production, you will learn it. This involves a lot of repetitive steps that teach you what to look out for—for example, always adding a serial comma per house style; confirming a publication name against its online or printed masthead; reviewing edits from authors, copy editors, and proofreaders to make sure they conform to general house style and are consistent with the title’s style sheet; and lightly proofing the new pass against the previous pass to make sure all edits were made correctly. I learned a lot of these copyediting and proofreading skills not through a class but from reviewing copy editors’ work. It’s this repetitiveness and willingness to learn from your own errors and absorb from those around you that will make book production a good fit.
What’s something about the industry (or your position) that you wish were more transparent or better understood by those outside of it?
OB: The printing and binding of books is still a craft, even on an industrial scale! Though printing technology is advanced and the equipment is high volume, the materials involved have their own organic quirks and fluctuations, and there are humans behind every step of the process.
LB: Production can get pretty technical, and you’re not expected to know everything going in, whether you’re a production assistant learning the ropes or an author whose book is headed for print. If you have questions, please ask away!
Also, you never need to apologize for typos. They’re inevitable, and they keep copy editors warm and fed.
TD: Again, what Laura said. Production is heavy with jargon. My time at Penguin Random House was spent mostly just asking “What does that mean?” and “How does that work?” I’ve found that people who get paid to interrogate the clarity of language are generally sympathetic to misunderstandings.
More important: If you’re someone who sees something questionable and can’t help but ask, if you’re invested in change, if you value workers over tradition, publishing stands to benefit from your collaboration, love, and honesty.
WMC: We love all the fussy rules around grammar and syntax and, when it’s done right, all the breaking of these rules.
Eliza Harris is an editorial assistant for Catapult, Social Media Manager + Assistant Poetry Editor forDIAGRAM, and Director of Communications for The Speakeasy Project. She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and is now based in Seattle, Washington. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @elizaeharris.