Looking back on three years of running my own business

Three and a half years ago, I left my full-time job at Penguin and moved to Austin. And then, three years ago, I launched my book development business, the Book Engineer.

The Book Engineer isn’t a single publishing thing—it’s not a publisher or an agency or another type of business that’s a common part of the industry. It’s a consultancy, I guess, but I am always reluctant to use that word because it’s so non-specific. (Like, if you meet someone and they tell you they’re a “consultant,” you are 0% closer to understanding what they actually do.) Really, the Book Engineer is just a catch-all for everything that I can do with books—which is a lot, as it turns out.

I never aspired to run my own business. I loved having colleagues and working in an office and collaborating (not to mention free printing, a mail room, and office snacks). I left Penguin not because I was tired of it, but because I was moving 1,800 miles away and remote work wasn’t an option. (Ironically, had I waited a few years to move away from NYC, my employer probably wouldn’t have batted an eye at this.)

So running my own business wasn’t my goal, but I am running my own business, and most of the time I feel like I’m doing it well. And while I would certainly, for the right opportunity, work for another company again, it’s pretty amazing and liberating to know that I don’t have to.

Three years in seemed like a good moment for me to enumerate some of what I’ve done as a self-employed publishing professional. Some of this enumeration, though, is pretty unspecific. This is because, even when a client doesn’t have an official NDA in place, I don’t feel right about broadcasting exactly what I’ve done for whom. I am always honored to be credited by creators, but the truth is that every book is the product of so many people’s contributions that it’s absurd for me to try to claim ownership. These projects all exist in their current states partially because of my work on them, and partially because of tons and tons of things that have nothing to do with me.

Still, there is something really cool about seeing a book I consulted on having success, and I want to honor that for myself a little (even if it is without naming names!).

In the past three years of the Book Engineer, I have…

  • Developed book proposals for and with big-name and up-and-coming influencers and brands.
  • Ghostwritten installments in bestselling series.
  • Edited lots of nonfiction children’s books for various independent publishers.
  • Edited a number of successful kids’ books on various Big Five publishers’ lists.
  • Managed the U.S. editorial process for a number of books in translation.
  • Adapted adult nonfiction books for young readers.
  • Worked with a number of authors on manuscript drafts for which they have since secured publishers.
  • Worked with a number of authors to improve manuscripts which have not found publishers.
  • Advised on marketing campaigns.
  • Created an interactive storytelling game, using social media to bridge the gap between readers and creators.
  • Consulted for a startup that’s building a kids’ storytelling app.
  • Started a listserv for other publishing consultants to share opportunities with one another.
  • Taught courses on the craft and business of children’s books for a number of different organizations.
  • Spoken to young readers and young writers at a variety of book festivals, schools, and camps.

…while also publishing two new books of my own (We Made Uranium! and The Campaign) and writing articles for Publishers Weekly, Supermajority, Points in Case, Brooklyn Based, Lifehacker, Mashable, etc. And editing a weekly events listing newsletter and running a weekly dance party, neither of which are technically related to books and make me no money, so I guess those count as “hobbies”?

I always feel like I can be achieving more. (For example, right now I could be achieving editing the bibliography for a nonfiction book, sending my intern notes on the flap copy that she’s been working on, or drafting my own next book, rather than writing this long post talking about myself.) But if you are a person who is usually focused on all the infinite things that you haven’t done (which I definitely am), it can be good to sometimes take a moment to celebrate those finite but beautiful things that you have done.