Advice From Pros: Allison Felus

Advice From Pros: Allison Felus

Allison Felus is a twenty-year veteran of the publishing industry, with experience managing workflows and creating efficiencies across editorial and production departments. She has edited and/or prepared for print scores of titles in a variety of genres and is currently a proud resident of Chicago. She is a fantastic, and multitalented human being, podcast host, member of the Felus Cremins band, and singer. I also recently discovered she was part of the editorial team championing my first published book. Meet Allison:

Have you always wanted to work in the publishing field? It was actually a surprise to me that I ended up in publishing! As an English and Film Studies double major in college, I was an aspiring writer and film reviewer. When I moved to Chicago after graduation, I knew I would need some kind of day job to pay the bills as I tried to make my way creatively. But when I landed my first job as an editorial assistant, thinking that it would just be a day job, I found myself pleasantly engaged by the work and surprised by how much I enjoyed participating in the publishing industry.

Starting off as an editorial assistant was a wonderful introduction to everything that publishing entails—which is to say, I quickly realized that it’s not just working with authors and agents! I discovered that there’s a host of jobs that go into the making of books, and I found that I really resonated with the production side of things. I liked the practicality and physicality of what the production department does; it truly is the place where the potential of a manuscript starts to turn into something that more explicitly resembles an actual book.

Production encompasses everything from working with the design team to make corrections to the typeset pages-in-progress to communicating with printers and gathering pricing for however many copies are going to be produced to keeping an eye on stock levels for books that are already in print and ordering reprints as necessary.

What do you like best about your work currently in the book production world? There’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with working at such a crucial nexus point in a book’s lifespan. I always get a kick out of helping traffic a project between the acquiring editors, the design team, the printers, and eventually the warehouse staff, all in order to get the author’s words and ideas out into the hands of readers. And even though I am definitely more of a words person than a numbers person, I’ve really appreciated learning over the years some of the ins and outs of budgeting for a title—eg, how many copies should be printed, what’s a reasonable unit cost per copy, should any given project print digital or offset (or a combination of both).

What advice would you give to someone wanting to succeed in YOUR professional industry? I feel like I was incredibly fortunate to just kind of stumble into publishing work in the early 2000s. I think that might have been one of the last-gasp moments when a person like me who had the qualifications but was maybe not actively aspiring to break into publishing could still land an entry-level job as an editorial assistant without any previous internship experience or other direct contacts. I think it also helped that I was living in Chicago and not New York; there were so many more mid-level publishing houses around at that time, so the job search wasn’t as competitive as it would have been had I been trying to get hired by one of the Big 5. These days, there’s simply fewer total jobs to go around, given the consolidation among publishing houses and the farming out of so much work to freelancers.

All that being said, I would definitely tell students who are interested in the industry to try their hand at an internship and consider enrolling in a publishing-centric certificate program like the Denver Publishing Institute. Having that imprimatur on your resume is always a very good sign that you’re serious about the business of publishing and aren’t just looking for a so-called easy way to get paid to read. Knowing even a little bit of how the industry divides up departments will be helpful for winnowing down what area you might like to specialize in. For other folks who have freelance-able skills and the willingness/ability to be their own boss, there’s always demand for high-quality copy editors, proofreaders, indexers, and designers!

What is one (or more) fascinating insight you’ve gleaned from working in the publishing industry? There truly is a market for pretty much any topic under the sun! If you’re interested in a subject, chances are that other folks will be interested in it as well. Don’t be afraid to get nerdy and specific with your work; it actually helps make your book more appealing (and search-able).

As an expert in your field, what advice would you give to published authors? Trust the process! I know that, especially for first-time authors, all the new details and deadlines and requirements getting thrown at you can feel overwhelming. But consider the fact that your publishing team is working on dozens of other books at a time. This is actually a good thing. It means that they have finely honed systems in place to help you make your book the best it can be, in everything from the editing to the cover design to the scheduled pub date.

What advice would you give to unpublished authors? It really is imperative for an author to have a robust online platform these days. That doesn’t mean that you have to jump on every TikTok dance trend that comes across your dashboard, but there is an expectation that an author will need to help sell their book. So, once you have a solid manuscript and proposal ready to submit, the next best way to assure a potential publisher that you’re invested in the success of your title is to show them that you’re engaged with some kind of community—with other writers, other subject matter experts in your field, other fans of the genre you work in. A nice subscriber base for your Substack, a good download record for your podcast, or a demonstrated ability to pack bookstores for your readings and events all go a long way toward assuring your publisher that you’ll be ready to rock if they opt to sign you on for a contract.

What is one (or more) cautionary “pearl” you’d like to share? When you’re dealing with your editorial team, especially in the early days of querying or placing a manuscript, try to find that sweet spot between being persistent and being annoying. Editors are busy people dealing with scores of manuscripts, in all stages of editing and production, at any given moment, so it can be easy for weeks to pass by before they’re able to comment on a submission or give other early-phase feedback. Truly, the radio silence is not personal. It’s totally appropriate to follow up with them if it’s been an egregiously long time since you’ve heard anything, especially if you’ve had some little bit of (positive, encouraging) communication previously. But keep it short and sweet, almost like you’re writing to a busy new parent.

What do you think is the biggest reason someone doesn’t get their book published? It’s generally that vague and hard-to-define matter of “fit.” You probably just don’t “fit” with the company’s publishing program or editorial vision. Again, this is usually nothing personal! You could have the most beautiful manuscript and proposal ever written, but if you’re writing into a niche that that publisher hasn’t had success with previously, you will most likely not be the reason they try it again. (Sorry!) Ultimately, publishing is a numbers game, and it’s often difficult for a house to branch out into a new area that they’ve seldom published in before (or, to publish yet another book in a genre that tanked in the marketplace for them previously). It’s best to focus your efforts on querying places that have already had a good track record in subject areas similar to yours.

What do you like to see on an author’s platform? Platform building is definitely not my area of expertise, but when I am reviewing proposals and looking through a prospective author’s materials, websites that are clean and concise always rule the day for me. I’m always drawn in by a simple layout that makes it easy to find important information. Don’t make me hunt around for a list of your previously written books and articles! Don’t hide your biographical details under a ton of excess verbiage! Don’t be afraid to proudly declare your successes and accomplishments!

How do you suggest authors (published and non-published) build their platform, including social media and website? Beyond the above recommendation to make sure everything is clean and concise and easy to navigate, just be genuine in what you post. I know there’s a lot of pressure to create material for the benefit of the so-called algorithm, but try not to let that psych you out if social media/branding doesn’t come naturally to you. Just be yourself! If you keep to a relatively consistent posting schedule and vary your content between promotional posts and slice-of-life updates, that alone will go a long way toward both keeping the practice sustainable and earning you genuine fans/followers that will hopefully stick around for a long time to come.

What conferences or events do you recommend authors and writers attend? The longer I’ve been in this industry, the more I see the benefit of committing to your local book scene. I know there’s tons of pressure (and FOMO) around attending or being on a panel at BEA, ALA, or AWP, but doing events in your own city’s libraries, bookstores, schools, and other public spaces is so important. Being present in community with your local fellow booklovers and people who are interested in your subject matter is not just a way to promote your own offerings or to save a boatload of money on airfare and accommodations to events in other parts of the country (or world).

It’s an investment in the unique beauty of what you can create (and discover!) in your own backyard. Your local scene shouldn’t look like anyone else’s; it shouldn’t just be a smaller attempted copy of whatever’s happening in New York or London. It should be vibrant and quirky and specific to the needs and interests and overall vibe of your locality. But the only way to ensure that your scene will thrive is to be bold enough to add your voice to the mix. And of course to support other nearby authors as well. We all know how tough it is to write anything, much less get that anything published, right? So show up for yourself and your neighbors! You’ll be amazed at the connections that will flourish in ways that you might never have imaged.

What book uplifts you? I love this question! That verb “uplift” is wonderful—what a fabulous way to reconsider what might otherwise be a predigested answer about what my “favorite” or “top” books are. The first two that spring to mind are recent favorites: Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. I think the thing that unites these otherwise disparate texts and makes them uplifting to me is their swing-for-the-fences audacity. These are books with big ideas and big emotions conveyed with supremely elegant writing and tremendous formal dexterity that never feels fussy or overwrought. They’re above all books brimming with life, books that make me feel grateful for the ways that words printed on a page can still feel absolutely astonishing.

Anything else you’d like to share? I’m so grateful that my work in the publishing industry has supported me financially and allowed me to feel intellectually engaged and grounded enough during the day so that I can continue to explore my own creative expression in my spare time. As I mentioned above, I’m also a writer, and though I haven’t been published in book form yet myself, I’ve been blogging since 2004, and have had essays published over the years on sites including PopMatters, Daytrotter, Maura Magazine, Public Streets, and Bright Wall/Dark Room.

I’m also a musician and have been making music with my husband since . . . well, since before he was my husband! After our first collaboration in late 2009 playing cover songs for a fundraiser concert, he showed up at my front door a few weeks later with a burned CD in his hands, saying, “Here’s some songs I wrote with your voice in mind. Come sing in the new band I’m starting.” Close to fifteen years later, after playing together in the groups Tiny Magnets and Pet Theories, we’re still making music, now as the Felus Cremins Band.

My latest venture is the podcast I’ll Follow You. It’s a show about creative process and what really goes on behind the scenes in an artistic life. I love talking to musicians, writers, visual artists, and other brilliant thinkers about their working methods, obsessions, and pet projects. I’ve been lucky enough to feature some amazing authors on the show since it launched back in 2020: Gene Kannenberg Jr., David Higgins, Tony Trigilio, Yuval Taylor, S. Elizabeth, Francesca Kritikos, Pascuala Herrera, Saga Briggs, Jerome Pohlen, Michael O’Donnell, and Jeanette Elaine Dubois.

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One Response to Advice From Pros: Allison Felus

  1. Richard Fox April 17, 2024 at 7:03 pm #

    Great interview (and advice)!


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