Alumni Profile: Heather Gernenz, Publicity Manager at the University of Illinois Press

We talked to Heather Gernez, Publicity Manager at the University of Illinois Press, about her experience of working at a press and the challenges she faced before starting her career as Publicity Manager. We also asked her for some suggestions for our undergraduates who want to pursue a career in the field Heather is now. This is what she said:

What is your current job? What challenges did you face to get there?

I’m currently the publicity manager at the University of Illinois Press. My primary responsibilities include sending books out to reviewers, setting up interviews and events for authors, and managing the press’s social media accounts.

I first started working for the press as student worker in the marketing department in my junior year of college. I had been working at Barnes and Noble as a bookseller since high school and knew I wanted to pursue a career in publishing. After college, I continued working at Barnes and Noble, and also began working at the UIUC library in Collection Management Services as an academic hourly. I applied to so many jobs in publishing during this time, mainly editorial positions, which is what I thought I wanted to pursue, but never had any luck. Looking back now, I think if I had been applying to jobs in publicity I would have been a lot more successful based on my previous experience. The work I did for my predecessor during my time as a student worker at UIP was definitely my favorite, but somehow I never made the connection that I should pursue publicity work! I did actually interview for an assistant acquisition editor position at the press, but didn’t end up getting it. A fact I am grateful for now, as I know it’s not the right type of work for me.

About two years after I applied for that job, I began to think I might want to pursue a library career, and had begun the process of applying to grad school. But fate intervened. I received a call from the marketing manager at the press, my former boss when I worked there as a student. The previous publicity manager had left the job, and because of the hiring freeze at the time, they were unable to hire someone full time. He asked me if I would be interested in coming to work for the press as an extra-help (the university’s temporary position designation) publicity associate. I agreed immediately, and five months later when the full position opened up for hiring, I applied and was hired. It was a very fortunate set of circumstances! I probably never would have gotten the job if I didn’t have the trial period beforehand to prove myself.

What do you like about your job? Where do you hope to go from here?

There is no thrill quite like a book getting a high-profile review, and knowing that I helped make it happen. I see my job as just getting to be excited about the books that we publish and finding the right place for them. It’s very gratifying when the work pays off. I believe deeply in the mission of university presses and believe that they play a vital role in advancing knowledge. The press is dedicated to publishing underrepresented voices and underrepresented topics, which is one of the reasons I enjoy working there so much. I believe in what we’re publishing, and that goes a long way at the end of a hard day.

I’m not quite sure where I want to go from here, but I could see myself working for a larger university press someday or working my way up to marketing manager.

How has your background in English helped you in your career? What skills that you learned in your college classes do you find yourself using now?

My background in English has helped me enormously in my career. The ability to write well and communicate effectively is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills a person can have. It’s been quite surprising for me in my professional life to learn that good communication skills can actually be an asset. As an English major, I also learned to think critically, and make connections; and how to match your communication to your audience. These are the skills I definitely draw on in my current position.

From your experience, could you tell us what qualities employers seek in a candidate and how English studies prepare students to attain them?

Diligence, a good work ethic, and the ability to manage multiple projects at the same time go a long way. I think employers are looking for people who think creatively and analytically, they don’t want someone who’s going to just put in their time and clock out. They want someone who thinks about the larger picture. As an English major, you’re constantly trying to make connections, analyze, and figure out how a piece of writing fits into the larger picture, whether that’s within an authors oeuvre or the larger historical time period. The ability to analyze those small details while still thinking about the larger picture will be immensely helpful in your career.

Would you give some suggestion to our undergrads regarding how to make the transition from college to working life?

Gain as much experience as you can, and take advantage of every opportunity. Be open to trying new things, and don’t be married to one idea about the path you thought your career would take. The type of work we think we want to do isn’t always the work that’s best for us. Also, don’t be afraid of giving up on something that’s not working. Learning that you don’t enjoy doing something you thought you would is very valuable information to have.

What are some of your future professional goals?

I’ve been in my position for about a year now and feel like I know what I’m doing more and more everyday. My job entails being on top of a lot of different things at once, and being able to manage multiple workflows and priorities. It’s a mix of both creative and administrative work; so I’d like to tinker with my workflow and improve my efficiency with the administrative work so that I can spend more time on creative tasks. Overall, I want to have more mastery over my position and be able to accomplish more for our books.

What advice do you have for students interested in exploring the field you are in now?

Getting your foot in the door in publishing can be really difficult. If you get an internship, make sure you’re the best intern they’ve ever had. They’ll remember you when they have a job opening. I think a lot of English majors only think of editorial work when considering a career in publishing. But there’s a vast array of jobs within publishing, so I would definitely encourage students to explore different areas and learn more about the business.

If you’re not having success getting an internship, try to get jobs in related industries. Working as a bookseller gave me skills that I draw on all the time in publicity work. As a bookseller, you pitch books to customers on a daily basis. In publicity, you pitch books to various media outlets on a daily basis. Same thing, just different audiences. Being a bookseller also gives you a really good idea of how customers interact with books, and the different things that draw people to certain books. This is really valuable experience to have if you want to work in book marketing. Also communicating with authors takes customer service skills, which you also learn as a bookseller. The same type of experience can also be gained in libraries too or other customer service based industries.  A lot of different backgrounds can work; so cast your net widely, and use your excellent English major communication skills to make a strong case for how your experience can be applied to publicity work.

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