November 10, 2006

How did I get here?!?

Posted in Work at 3:00 am by India

A long time ago, in a comment thread at his own blog, Derek asked how I landed in book design, despite my not having any formal training in design.

My initial response was, “Certainly! My pleasure! Pull up a chair.

“I was born in a one-room log cabin . . .”

But then I started actually trying to explain it, and the explanation got way too long—which comes as a huge surprise, I know, since I’m usually so concise, using just a few well-chosen simple declarative sentences.

So I’ve sat on the draft for three months now, and it’s still ridiculously long and overly detailed, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about that. Because (1) that’s the way my brain works; blame my >32 AQ, and (2) real lives are messy. When they write the third-grade-reading-level biography of me, it’ll probably read something like,

India was born in New York City. Her mother was an extremely famous artist. Her father worked in advertising and marketing. She became a very famous book designer, earning quadrillions of dollars. Then she won the first Nobel Peace Prize for Book Design. When she died, she had ninety-two cats. The end.

But in reality, there’s no straight line; it wiggles and blurs all over the place. I was one of those kids—or is it all of them?—who hated being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I only knew that I didn’t want to be an artist and didn’t want to work in advertising. But besides that, I had no clue.

So, let’s start a little later.

You can do anything with a BA in English! Except get a job.

I was an English major in college, because I couldn’t come up with any better idea—I liked reading, and I didn’t particularly like science or math (despite going to a specialized high school for science and math). When I graduated, the economy was in the tank, and I figured that if I was going to be living in a cardboard box, it would be better to do that in a warm place. So I drove across the country (in a stick shift! and I’m the world’s worst driver!) with one of my best friends and ended up, like Derek, working in a bookstore.

It was supposed to be a seasonal job, one I would just stay at through the holidays. Then, in the spring, we were going to move to San Francisco and get real jobs doing . . . something else menial. But winter and spring don’t come to Sacramento—there’s just rain, and then less rain, and then bludgeoning heat. We forgot to move to the city. My friend went back east to be with the cool guy she ended up marrying, and I stayed at my “seasonal” job, because I really, really liked it. I worked at that store—the Broadway branch of Tower Books—for about eight months, and then at the Queen Anne branch in Seattle for another eight or so. Then I moved back to New York, where after some flailing (author’s assistant, chef’s assistant, mushroom retailer, kitchen assistant) I got a job at PEN American Center, the writers’ organization.

Arts Administrator

I was initially hired there to assist in running a visiting writers program, but by the time I left, 2.75 years later, I was directing that program, handling the emergency funds for writers, and co-coordinating the Open Book Committee, whose purpose was to encourage people of color to seek and keep careers in publishing. It was during the opening let’s-go-around-the-circle-and- say-who-we-are thing at one of those meetings that I first articulated the wish to be a book designer. I’d had to look at a lot of books over the preceding five years, and I didn’t like a lot of what I saw—particularly the boring clichés on books being marketed to people of color. They all used the same palette (orange! brown! yellow!), they all had the same style of illustration, they all had to have a picture of a nonwhite person on the cover—preferably a very closely cropped headshot—so that you’d know that it was about Your People. So I thought I might try my hand at designing slightly less annoying book covers.

I did nothing of the sort, of course. Instead, I got a job at the Academy of American Poets, a few doors away from PEN, administering the awards program. That proved not to be a full-time job, so when Bruno, the webmaster/magazine editor, asked if I wanted to help with the Web site, I said sure. He taught me how to do some things with Photoshop and HTML, and I started helping to maintain our site, which was in the process of being redesigned and expanded. When Bruno left (a year later? two?), I took on more responsibility for running the site, and the magazine production was split between me and a new person. (If you’ve ever worked at a nonprofit, you know how that sort of thing happens.) She handled the editorial stuff, while I laid out the magazine. This was in PageMaker for Windows, which I learned by messing with it and from books. I like reading instructional books.

Layout Editor

I liked PageMaker and had learned how to rock it pretty hard, so it was with a lot of grumbling and grousing that a few years later I switched to Quark XPress (still on Windows). I had to do it because a real design firm—a big one that does mostly advertising, one headed by one of our board members—had offered to overhaul the magazine pro bono, and they gave us templates in Quark. Unfortunately, the templates didn’t cover half the kinds of material that actually appeared in the magazine, and the real designers didn’t seem at all willing to support the project past the initial hand-off. We didn’t like the design that much anyway (you get what you pay for, as you’ve no doubt heard), so . . . not too much later, we started interviewing designers to redesign the redesign. We ended up hiring the then-designer of BOMB magazine, who was recommended to me by a former intern from PEN who had become BOMB magazine’s managing editor and who is now an author . . .

(There are only eleven people in New York; the rest is done with mirrors and those widgets that let you use two SIM cards in a single cell phone.)


So that designer took over not only revising the redesign but also laying it out. In the meantime, I’d become the full-time webmaster of, which we’d just majorly redesigned and expanded, so I was glad to get rid of the magazine. At the same time, I also shucked off the awards program. I was a techie, leading a relatively book-free existence, unless you count all the books on SQL and ColdFusion and Windows NT and blah blah blah. But I was doing a little bit of freelance book design and composition for friends, and in my last days as the awards administrator I’d been pulling together an anthology of poems from our college poetry prize program. The new magazine designer created the cover for that, while I designed and typeset the interior. Mr. Designer also asked if I wanted to pick up some freelance work, and I started doing that on weekends, helping to typeset real books for real publishers. In Quark, on a Mac. I already disliked Quark, and I hated Macs. My moonlit hours were filled with cursing and the constant refrain, “Macs are stupid!” But I was learning stuff, and I did like seeing my name on the copyright page.

The Great American Lay-Off

Then, a year later, at almost precisely the moment when I finally got my own office!, with a door!, some nutjobs flew some planes into some buildings about a mile or so from the Academy. On that same day, we were supposed to have a meeting with the board president in which we would have learned that our highly esteemed boss had been forced to resign. There were suddenly no dollars going to any nonprofits besides the Red Cross, and our rent had just increased sharply (see above under my getting a new office, with a door), so it wasn’t much of a surprise when, two months later, half the staff of twenty was laid off. The senior half—you know, the half that was earning living wages. I’d been there more than five years at that point and was the second most senior person, so that included me.

We did get severance, though, and we did get unemployment. And because I’m that high-AQ sort of person, I played by the rules. On days when I did freelance work, I reported it and forfeited the unemployment compensation. And when I interviewed for a job that it turned out I didn’t want, and they looked likely to offer it to me, I became as obnoxious as possible, so that I wouldn’t have to turn it down; because if I turned it down, I would have to give up unemployment. But when I was offered what sounded like a very cushy job as webmaster at a very stable, well-funded community organization, in a great location relative to my house, at the exact same pay I’d left the Academy with, with similar benefits, . . . after a weekend of consideration, I had to turn that down overtly. I like working on Web sites. I like HTML. And I certainly like being able to walk to work, and earning enough money to support myself in the style to which I would like to become accustomed. But when I pictured the path my so-called career would take after the job I was considering, I saw more generic Web work. And when I pictured the path I wanted to take, it was more books.

I don’t give a shit about poetry, but I loved working at the Academy because it was a great place to work, with great people, and a great boss, and there were at least books around, even though I didn’t particularly want to read any of them. I could work on another Web site, but only if it had to do with books; I wasn’t interested in the Web for the Web’s sake, and I was even less interested in social services, even so soon after September 11, when everyone was still all glowy and wanting to help their fellow citizens. So I realized I had to hold out for a job working with books.

Book Geek for Hire

I removed myself from the unemployment rolls and joined the Editorial Freelancers’ Association to get health insurance. Then I bought a shiny new PowerBook that came with both OS 9 and OS X, and I started working for my designer friend almost every day. Sometimes I worked on his projects, and sometimes I worked on stuff for my own handful of clients. I took a copyediting class at NYU and discovered that I knew most of what was taught, having acquired—and read—my first copy of The Chicago Manual of Style nearly ten years before, while I was at Tower Books. I took a production editing class, and a class in electronic editing. And I took a part-time position as managing editor of PEN’s new literary journal, which had launched the year before.

I was the sole paid staff member at PEN America, working with an editor and a constantly shifting bunch of associate editors and interns. Our office was a converted broom closet, and I received a quarterly stipend that I tried to tell myself was $20 an hour but that really worked out to something more like $5. I tried to stay out of the editorial process as much as possible, and to beat the backend of the magazine into shape—production, subscriptions, distribution. I worked with a designer on one issue—the husband of a former colleague from the Academy; see above under “only eleven people”—and then typeset and designed the cover of the next issue myself.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I’m a lousy freelancer. I procrastinate, I stay up too late, I sleep too late, I spend half the day in my pajamas, I rush out finally to be late for a meeting, and then the cycle starts again. Through it all, I worry, and I fret, and I resist all the work I’m supposed to be doing. Also, I get lonely. And in this case, I wasn’t getting along with the editor of the magazine. And I hated working again at PEN, a place from which I’d run screaming not many years before. Finally I started saying, “I need to get a real job so I can get some fucking rest.

I applied for entry-level jobs in publishing. I never got a response.

Then my designer friend told me he’d just heard from one of his clients that she was leaving her position as managing editor at a small publishing company. He told me to call her and ask about the job. I got an interview right away. Then I got a second interview, by phone, with the guy in California who’d be my so-called direct supervisor. Then I was offered the job: managing editor at a scrappy independent press, earning the salary I’d started with at the Academy of American Poets nine years earlier. There was no other production staff besides the guy in California, who was about to have a baby. They really wanted someone who could art direct the covers, and I’d probably get to design a lot of the interiors. I had experience in administration, design, and dealing with kooky people, and I’d been working on the edge of the publishing industry for years; it sounded totally doable. I took the job.


Okay, I don’t really want to get into it, but let’s just say that my predecessor (whom I’ve since gotten to know and whom I adore) was on vacation for my first week and then came back for just two days. On the day after she left for good, my computer—the original blueberry iMac, I’m convinced—died. BEA was coming up, and the office manager didn’t want to order a new machine until that was over. So I worked on my own laptop for the next month.

The job went downhill from there.

But, hey, I did get to design and typeset half the list—twenty-two books, including several series designs. That was fun. And I did get to sort of art direct some covers, mainly by eliminating comps before the publisher could see them and pick the worst ones. Still, in little over a year, I was out—“quitfired,” as I like to call it. I’d been looking for a new job for months, but half-assedly. I was depressed and demoralized. After a vacation marred by absurd nightmares about work, I came back determined to get the hell out of there; a week after I returned, the publisher asked me to go across the street for a drink. “This isn’t working out,” he said. “No, it’s not,” I said.

As soon as I left that job, I lost five pounds—the weight of the misery that had been pressing down on my head.

Title TK

A month later, after waiting in vain to hear back about two possible junior designer positions that I’d applied to through a headhunter, I took a job with a small book production firm in Chelsea. The work was fast-paced, but it was also very straightforward—typesetting, entering corrections, and packing up files for the printer. Work that I knew I could do. Work that I could be good at. The boss seemed smart and cool, I had a fantastic view of the Empire State Building, and on my second or third day, the production guy with whom I mostly worked said, “Wow, you didn’t make any mistakes.” Yes! I can meet your low expectations! I got paid more than I had as a so-called managing editor. I didn’t have a title at the new job—“What do you want your title to be?” I was asked—and the benefits were kind of vague, but it didn’t suck. I thought I’d try to stay there for at least two years, since my résumé was becoming what the résumé people call “spotty.”

Six months into that job, we moved to a new building. This was a very positive improvement in general, but it also made the flaws in the office atmosphere much more apparent. I went from having an alcove to myself to sharing an office with two other people, which was wonderful in many ways, but which also made me aware of how much less respectfully those other people were treated. The work had become a bit monotonous, and the workplace was markedly more stressful. I was having more direct contact with clients, and I was being tasked with more managerial responsibilities—without being given any actual power or additional information. In March, my kind and competent production guy escaped to a very prestigious literary publisher, and everyone else’s job became harder. I talked some things over with the boss at various times, but it didn’t seem to me that anything was likely to change. It wasn’t worth trying to fix, so I looked for a new job.

Senior!! Designer!!!!

I’d seen the listing for the job I have now, and I’d meant to apply, but then I didn’t. I was having trouble cutting my résumé down—with all my career changes, it had bloated to three dense pages—and I wasn’t all that sure I was qualified. I mean, the title was “senior designer,” and here I am with no design schooling, and only having been designing books full-time for a year and a half. But then an acqaintance at the company called to ask if I would be interested in picking up some freelance work, and I mentioned that I was looking for work work. He immediately e-mailed a bunch of job listings, including this one, and when I said I was interested, he said he’d ask the guy who was hiring for it. He then sent word that the position had been filled, but that the hiring manager wanted to see my résumé anyway. I sent an abridgement that seemed reasonable, and then, not expecting to hear back, I made an appointment with a publishing headhunter.

A few days later, the manager called back: the person they’d offered the position to had accepted but then backed out. Would I like to come in for an interview?

Would I?!?

This interviewing-after-someone-else-has-rejected-the-job has happened to me twice now—it’s also how I got hired at the Academy—so I can confidently offer this analysis: When you’re a new interviewee after the first search has failed, you only have to be more appealing than the third most eligible previous candidate. Because they’ve already talked themselves out of hiring the second most eligible person, and they’ve already told that person why they did so, you have a considerable edge.

So I interviewed at lunchtime on a Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, as I was about to stick my thank-you note in the envelope (you always send a thank-you note, don’t you?), HR called to offer me the job.

And now here I am, a “senior designer” at a large and respected publishing house, with a heptagonal office that includes both a door and a window. It could happen to you!

“I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past—I think the past was not predictable when it started.”*

Am I going to design book interiors for the rest of my life? I dunno. It seems to me like I ought to get me some more edjimication if I’m going to do that—some kind of degree in graphic design? or maybe just specific classes? Or maybe I want to go back in a more editorial direction?

I still don’t have any idea what I want to be when I grow up, so the trick seems to be not ever growing up. That’s something I’m pretty good at, fortunately. Like David Sedaris, I have a tendency to say, “D’accord” to whatever comes my way, so I continue to freelance for friends, despite my better judgment, and eventually something interesting (though not involving public nakedness, I hope) may come from that.

The end.


[Cross-posted at clusterflock]


  1. Erin said,

    I love it! What a great story!

    Personally I am a huge believer in learn-by-doing.

  2. India Amos said,

    Oh, thank you, Erin! I woke up this morning with this sickening morning-after feeling: Should I not have finally posted that thing? Will anybody read it? Will they read it and mock me? Will they just ignore it and hope it goes away?

    But it had sat in “drafts” for so, so long.

    I don’t want to have a blog that’s just a constant stream of “Hey, look over there!” That’s what is for. But I feel even more stupid posting epics like this. You’d think there’d be some middle ground, but apparently I’m too long-winded for that.

  3. Alexis Leon said,

    It was a nice experience reading your career story. Really enjoyed it and your sense of humor. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. India Amos said,

    Thanks, Alexis! You’re very kind. (But I knew that already.)

  5. dylan said,

    Great story, India! I read it over lunch. I envy the way you’ve worked your way into a real live grown-up career. You have skills now, and experience, and a craft. What you need more education for?

    But, if you want to live up to that 3rd grade reading-level bio, you really need to start acquiring some cats. I mean, not even a single one yet? What’s up with that?

  6. India Amos said,

    Oh, I won’t need the cats until much later. And I’ll really only need two to start with, of course.

    Sorry I took up your entire lunch hour.

    The thing about my “skills,” and my “experience,” and my “craft” is that, yes, I have those things, but in one little tiny corner of a large discipline. I have almost no experience working with color, for instance, and that’s a whole other huge ball of wax. I have a limited range of techniques with which to solve design problems, and a nagging feeling that my method is not scalable. I’m pretty cynical about formal schooling—it’s not a format that brings out the best in me—and design school is no exception. But I would like to find more people to learn from/with. Schools are full of people, I’ve heard.

    The downside of my current job is that I sit in an office by myself all day, with very few interruptions and almost no interaction with any other designers. There are maybe twenty designers on my floor, but we don’t collaborate at all. Nobody else even sees what I’ve done, much less critiques it. The editor has to approve it, but not all editors have opinions about design. Some of them approve my samples without looking past the first page.

    This lack of feedback is liberating, but it’s also kind of depressing. I’m tempted to see what I can get away with. For a while I was doing increasingly graphical designs, and lately, having just read Oliver Simon’s Introduction to Typography, I’ve been doing the simplest, most stripped-down, traditional designs I can manage. It’s fun, but it’s all for my own amusement. If I submitted the exact same design five times in a row, I doubt anyone would notice. Maybe I’ll try that next.

    When I worked at Scrappy Independent Publisher X and thought I might be going crazy, I started a super-informal social group with some acquaintances who also worked for small publishing companies. We’d meet for lunch and talk shop—or not. But I knew I had a lifeline, and that if I needed to ask how something was done, or if I needed to find a freelancer or vendor who could deal with X, Y, or Z, I had people to consult. I called this group, oh so creatively, Production Lunch.

    The group is a bit biggger now, and we don’t all work for small presses anymore, and we meet for drinks instead of lunch, and at some point when we’d probably had a few, we dubbed ourselves the Royal Stet Lodge. But it still serves the same reality-checking purpose, and it gives me an excuse to hang out with smart people and eat fried things and drink beer.

    There are other designers in the Lodge, but we all do very different kinds of work (DVD packaging, textbooks). I suppose I could barrage them with PDFs anyway and say, “Tell me what you think of this!” but it’s not the same as being able to observe someone else solving a similar problem in real time; it’s not the same as having an ongoing discussion about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it that way. I’m not sure what’s a good way to have that kind of discussion—or even if there is a good way to discuss that. But I guess that’s what I feel I’ve missed by not spending some time in design school.

    Does anybody else have a good way of getting constructive feedback?

  7. Bridget said,

    Ah, wonderful, India. Some of us meander, especially book geeks. Thank you.

  8. Kara said,

    India! A friend sent me the link to your blog and I said, hey! I know her! I used to work with Jill at AB. Small world, this thing the innernet.

  9. India Amos said,

    Bridget: I do it for the kids, yo. Most of the jobs I’ve had are ones I didn’t know existed when I was in school. And if I’d known about them, I probably still wouldn’t have wanted them. I’m sure I didn’t want to do any kind of work at all.

    One of the great surprises of my life has been that I like working. I’m definitely one of those people who, if I inherited a billion dollars tomorrow, would continue working. Not necessarily at the job I have now, but I’d have to do something. Because otherwise I’d just spend the rest of my life sprawled on a hill of rubies in my pajamas, reading the Interweb.

    What’s odd to me is that there are educated people out there who’ve only done one thing. Like, how do you know that’s the thing you’re happiest doing? How do you get a sense of what you’re good at? You learn a lot more about yourself and what’s important to you by trying weird things and seeing what sticks. I have, anyway.

    Kara: Hello! I’m having tea with Jill today, supposedly, and I just met your successor on Wednesday!

    The Internet is very small—or, at least, the portion of Internet readers who have patience for this sort of thing is. Yesterday I got an e-mail from a famous podcaster who works at the same company as I do. It turns out that we went to the same high school, and we both lived in Seattle, though our stints in both places were about ten years apart. I told him he can expect to become a graphic designer in another ten years . . .

  10. Judith Astroff said,

    A great story of serendipity, the kind I thought only available to a prior generation. My Dad’s story would read something like yours, but 60 years ago.

    I was struck by how much you remind me of my sister, a librarian at Penn State with a passion for fiber arts (knitting, spinning, weaving), and excellent verbal skills. I wonder how she would rate on the AQ scale (took it myself – a not-unexpected 16 for me). Think I’ll send her your blog address.

    Thanks for sharing your journey so far. It’s inspiring to see how accidents can land someone in the right place.

  11. India Amos said,

    Hi, Judith!

    My own dad also had an odd “career,” which I only heard quite recently, just a few months before he died. Mom was out at some event so we were sitting alone at the dinner table, and I was looking at the “save the date” card for my brother’s wedding. “That’s an interesting choice of typeface for a wedding invitation,” I said, and to my astonishment, my dad—who had some never-identified but Parkinsonistic illness, and who spoke very little in his last five years—said, “Isn’t that Bank Gothic?” He went on, haltingly at first but with increasing steadiness, to explain that one of his very first jobs had been as a proofreader at a letterpress printshop. He told me all about the shop and what he did there. And then as I sat rapt, afraid to move or comment for fear that he would stop talking, he went on to describe every job he’d ever had, as well as his time in the army and in grad school. He mentioned street addresses, dates, coworkers’ names, . . . (Dad had a very high AQ, as well.) It was amazing.

    Of course, I can’t remember all that he said, and now I’ll never hear it again. But I understand now why there were so many type specimen books in the house when I was growing up. I remember poring over them when I was little, tracing letters. (What—didn’t everyone learn their ABCs in Bodoni, then Caslon, then Futura, then Hobo?) And I felt even more strongly that a large chunk of my brain is a direct inheritance from my dad. I share a lot of qualities with my mom, as well, but my dad—I’m like a little spazzy clone.

    Okay, except for being totally disorganized, and unathletic, and excessively talkative, and, and, and . . .

  12. kiki said,

    i’m always interested in how people wind up doing the work they do. thank you for sharing.

  13. margaretei said,

    What a touching story about your dad, India. Work is such a big chunk of people’s memories and the directions their lives take, so it’s really fascinating to hear other people’s stories. It’s one of my favorite thing to find out about people in the top of the field I’m interested in; not because there’s a step-by-step directions to becoming a Rock Star, but because everyone’s story is so different and personal, and very often unexpected. I was surprised and pleased to find someone at my new job who was excited to hear about my career path: an eager kid (probably a year or two younger than me, heh) who started out as a messenger and wants to work in graphic design (logos, photo/image manipulation, etc). He wants to know something about Quark and InDesign, so we’ll see what I can do once I get caught up.

  14. Schizohedron said,

    India: I chanced across your blog yesterday afternoon, and I am very glad I did. I am a graphic designer primarily engaged in layout of newsletters and journals, and I was informed a couple of weeks ago that I (and the rest of the designers here) will be laid off early next year. I found your career narrative very insprirational. I am trying to decide what I want to do next. I don’t have a formal design education — I and my own new English degree dove straight into the ’91 recession, and at my previous job, I was a production editor/copyeditor in addition to laying out journals (in Ventura Publisher ::shudder::) — so what I know, I learned along the way. Now I have to decide whether to seek additional training in areas where I am weak (Photoshop and HTML), what I specifically want to do, and whether I want to do it for an employer or on my own. So in many ways, your post was very reassuring!

    I look forward to digging into your archives, now that I have found your blog, and of course to reading it henceforth. This is a time of transition for me, and any war stories that prove It Can Be Done are priceless to me right now. Thanks very much for this post!

  15. Scott Levine said,

    Funny! I too went to a science HS (went to Bronx Science and then to Tulane) thinking I was going to be an orthopaedic surgeon or something of the like but I have been working in book and jacket design since graduating. One never knows.

  16. India Amos said,

    Very few of my friends from Stuy went on to do anything related to science. A couple are computer geeks now, which is I guess as close as we could get, but when I think of my friends off the top of my head, they include a minister, a news cameraman/construction worker, another graphic designer (pharma advertising, I believe), an artist/designer/web developer, a health administrator (or something like that—PhD, not MD), a Mac repair guy, . . . Then again, maybe it’s just that I’m only still in touch with the people who aren’t scientists; the rest probably went to large universities, maybe didn’t come back to live in New York, and now move in different circles. Of the two friends I can think of who went to Bronx Science, one’s an artist and the other’s a lapsed poet/academic and current mother.

    I do think there’s a link between an ability to grasp science and math, and an interest in design. Many of the graphic designers I know are computer nuts and gadget hounds who love to tinker with stuff. And I’ve met a few programmers—a guy at Google, for example—who started as graphic designers. Maybe it has to do with an attraction to patterns, or to artificial languages; maybe it has to do with an ability to visualize abstractions. I have no idea. Should probably think about this more. . . .

  17. India Amos said,

    Oh, other Stuy alumni friends include an actor/glam rock musician/home automation system programmer, a poet/translator, a filmmaker/screenwriter/mother, and a couple of investment bankers.

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