In these times when readers are responding to our books “more than ever,” when our authors—including Richard Blanco, Imani Perry, Robin DiAngelo, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, and Bettina Love—are appearing in the media, their ideas going viral on social media, their voices being heard on so many platforms, we thought it might be good to take a break to focus on some of the staff who work hard to find, shape, edit, produce, and promote those works. Our blog series “Beacon Behind the Books” introduces to you a member of our staff and gives you a behind-the-scenes look, department by department, at what goes on at our office.
For the month of May, we introduce you to our publicity assistant, Michelle Betters!
What drew you to publishing, Michelle? How did you find your way to Beacon?
I studied poetry in college and worked a handful of odd publishing jobs around New York. Through both good and bad experiences in that world, I developed a genuine passion for promoting work by both new and underrepresented writers. I was always That Person telling my friends, “You need to read this new book! You need to read this new poem!” Yelling about new books is fun, you know? It’s a celebration, which, for me, always felt like a natural extension of being a super nerdy reader. So when I applied to graduate schools and Emerson’s publishing program offered me a funded spot, I leapt at the chance to explore publishing outside of New York. After that, my path became a little circuitous. I drove an author and his dogs around the northeast for his book tour. I worked at Ploughshares Literary Journal and a local indie bookstore. I taught college composition. I was a freelance writer. I traveled up and down the east coast researching early twentieth-century women pilots for someone’s book-in-progress. (That book is Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien, and you should read it! Amelia Earhart was not the only woman flying tiny, fragile planes around the world!) Now I’m working at Beacon, where I somehow get paid to say, “You need to read this new book! You need to read this new poem!”
What’s a typical day in the life of a publicist?
Emails! I send so many emails. Today, I’m following up with radio producers to confirm interviews, pitching events to bookstores, and corresponding with authors about various parts of the publicity process. Not to say the most millennial thing ever, but I honestly can’t imagine working in publishing before the internet. Aside from emailing everyone all the time, a typical day for me might also include reading samples of next season’s books, researching new media opportunities, writing press releases, and—one of my personal favorites—tracking down email addresses for elusive magazine editors. Oh! And I mail so many books! I’ve accidentally memorized mailing addresses for a lot of the outlets we work with regularly. It’s so weird. Last time I was in New York, I was like, “Oh, I know three magazines on this block.”
What upcoming projects are you excited about?
We’re releasing some radical books by women this year! I’m so excited about all of them. Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science is such a fascinating, chilling investigation of the history of race science and its contemporary interlocutors. I couldn’t put the book down. She knows exactly how to make scientific and historical analysis accessible. Then there’s Mona Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, which is like a punch in the face, but in a good way. I wish I could go back in time and give the book to my young queer self. And Lauren Michele Jackson’s book White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation!! I’ve told everyone I know how much I love her work, especially her essay on digital blackface, but honestly, she’s The Culture Writer to read right now.
What’s your advice to someone interested in entering the publishing field?
My first piece of advice would be this. In my experience, you don’t necessarily have to study publishing to get a job in the industry. That probably sounds silly coming from someone who did. Don’t get me wrong: it definitely helped. But I’ve met so many people who pursued other things—literature, history, political science, religion, hospitality—and they’re stellar at their jobs. In fact, I’d venture to say that at a nonfiction publisher like Beacon, experience in other fields is super helpful. If you just started applying to jobs in publishing, think about how to translate your knowledge to working at a publishing house. Maybe you’re a meticulous researcher, and you could use those skills as an editor or a publicist, or you’ve got customer service experience, which primes you for the sales department.
Another thing I’d suggest, especially to anyone applying to internships, is to experiment with roles in different departments. There are so many ways to be involved in the book-making process. If you’re just starting out, make a list of all the ways you engage with books aside from reading, whether it’s social media or planning poetry readings in your living room. There’s probably a publisher that’ll pay you to do that. Also! Publishing doesn’t just happen in New York or Boston. If you feel like these cities might not be for you, that’s okay. There are cool independent publishers across the country. Minneapolis is booming right now!
In an alternate universe, what career would you have?
Paleontologist? Campaign manager? Screenwriter? Podcaster? Running a dog rescue? Action movie hero? Probably a paleontologist. I’m going through a second dinosaur phase right now.
Hobbies outside of work?
I started rock climbing a little over a year ago and I’m hooked. Beyond it being a (actually, seriously) fun way to work out some stress, it’s also intellectually challenging. It’s like solving a puzzle. You have to decide where your hands and feet need to go and when. Plus, I feel like I’m that much closer to being an action movie hero.
I love going to the movies, especially at indie theaters like the Brattle in Harvard Square. They have this monthly event called Trash Night where they show an “F-grade,” straight-to-VHS movie, and it’s exactly my thing.
I also co-host an event series with my partner called We Met Online, which features (and pays!) local poets, musicians, artists, performers, and activists. So I try to spend some time every weekend going to shows and zine fairs and DIY markets in search of those people. Because I had a hard time finding a community when I first moved to Boston, one of my goals for the series is nurturing/contributing to the community I’ve found. If you live in the area and want to come to the next thing, find me on Twitter!
About Michelle Betters
Prior to joining Beacon in 2018, Michelle Betters worked at Ploughshares Literary Journal, Boston Review, and Trident Booksellers. She holds a Master’s degree in publishing and writing from Emerson College and a BFA in poetry from Pratt. She tweets about books and dogs at @mbetterpeaches.