For undergraduates unsure of what to do after graduation, Random House Chairman and CEO Peter Olson advises against making “the classic, default decision” of going to law school.
“Franz Kafka said the intellectual equivalent of going to law school is like chewing on dry wood,” said Olson, who started out as a lawyer himself. “I found myself fundamentally bored in the corporate environment, and you, as soon-to-be college graduates, have the opportunity of joining the book publishing company and avoiding all of the mistakes I made.”
Olson and four other Random House affiliates — including two Yale alumni and a Saybrook College senior who interned with the publishing company last summer — spoke to about 40 students at the Omni New Haven Hotel Wednesday afternoon about the experience of working in the publishing industry, and why he and his colleagues find their work particularly rewarding.
“I wish I had known, coming out of college, that there was an opportunity like working in book publishing, where you can be proud of the work you’re doing each day,” Olson said.
Random House, which publishes more than 9,000 new titles annually, is the largest publisher of English-language books in the world, Olsen said. He said the company is actually made up of smaller, but relatively autonomous, companies that are bound together within one corporation.
Nathan Hood ’04 and Margo Wexberg ’01 spoke about their difficulties transitioning between college life and the professional world, and about how each came to work at Random House.
Hood said he started out at Yale as an economics major, but ended up majoring in sociology without wanting to be a sociologist. He said he first became interested in book publishing when a friend of his family recommended that he look into it. Hood currently works in the sales department of Random House, selling books to large chain markets like Wal-Mart, Target and grocery stores for whom selling books is not a first priority.
“It’s a job in business, but it feels more creative when you’re dealing with books rather than selling stocks, bonds or legal fees,” Hood said.
Hood said he feels his current job has sociological aspects, as he often chooses to pitch certain books over others based on the demographics around a store.
Both Hood and Wexberg spoke about the lifestyle advantages that come with publishing careers, including fixed office hours that allow for generous personal and leisure time. Hood said that while investment bankers may pull in a salary almost double his own, they are also working more than twice as many hours as he is.
Wexberg majored in English at Yale and served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Literary Magazine her senior year. She said that after studying English at Yale helped her become well-versed in literary classics — like Dostoevsky, Chaucer and Milton — she decided she would rather pursue a career that allowed her to be involved with contemporary writers and current novels.
“What used to be analyzing books by a bunch of dead guys has become a study and analysis of current writers who I know, publishing in the present day,” she said.
Wexberg said she has recently been promoted, after working with Random House for three years. Olson said book publishing companies offer equal access to promotions.
Most of the students at the presentation were Yale College juniors or seniors, or were studying in one of the University’s graduate programs. A large portion of the audience stayed after the talk to ask more specific questions.
“I think the presentation was helpful in terms of learning about what a publishing company actually does,” Meg Watkins ’08 said. “As an outsider, it can be hard to know what actually goes on in producing a book.”
Anna Lvovsky ’07 said that although she also enjoyed the presentation, she was already familiar with most of the information, having interned with other publishing houses in the past. She said she was somewhat disappointed that the presentation focused on more commercial aspects of publishing.
“There was a definite emphasis on sales in the presentation,” Lvovsky said. “I think so many Yale English and literature majors want to go into publishing because they love literature, but it really is a job in sales.”
Olson also spoke briefly about some of the internships available at Random House. He said the company is prepared to accept about 40 interns this summer.