Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
Hello! My name is Lizzie Davis, and I’m an editor and translator. By day, I work at Coffee House Press, an independent literary publisher based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. By night, I translate books, poems, and stories from Spanish into English.
What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?
In my job at Coffee House Press, I wear many hats! The organization is small, so all of us have some involvement in various departments. The bulk of my work entails maintaining author relationships and reading, acquiring, and editing manuscripts. (“Acquiring” is publisher-speak for making an offer on a book and contracting it.) Apart from that, I work on selling translation and audio rights to our books: if we publish a book in English, for example, I might try to sell the rights to an Italian or Turkish publishing house that seems like a good fit for the project. I also make contracts, write and proofread copy, speak with agents, and do various less exciting things. Sometimes I spend all day corresponding via email, other times I get to work on an edit or read manuscripts. And usually if I’m not doing work for the press, I am translating or pitching a potential translation to publishers.
What’s great about your job?
I love interacting with authors, helping them sharpen their works, and then seeing those manuscripts become books and make their way into the hands of readers. It is endlessly rewarding — a privilege and an honor.
What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?
Nonprofit publishing is a risky endeavor. The small budget makes it difficult to pay competitive advances to our authors, and sometimes even to maintain talented staff. But being a nonprofit publisher also has its advantages. It gives us the freedom to publish works that we find socially and artistically engaging without having to rely on huge sales to stay afloat!
What are the highlights of your career to date?
The highlights of my career to date have been the relationships I’ve built with the authors we publish, and with the authors I translate too. Getting to coexist on the page with writers I deeply admire is such an honor — living inside and re-creating an artist’s imagination through translation is one of the most rewarding (and challenging!) experiences I’ve ever had. It has also meant a great deal to see some of our books have really exciting trajectories: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions or Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance come to mind as recent examples; they’ve been published in countless countries and reprinted countless times, and they continue to sell. We believe these books can change the world, and it makes me so happy to know that they’re being read, and read widely.
What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
I got very lucky and took an internship at Coffee House right out of college. I had never been to Minneapolis and thought I’d just be here for one summer. Right as my internship ended, an editor left, and I got to apply for the job. I’ve been here almost ever since, minus a one-year stint in Galicia, where I taught English. Prior to the internship, I had all sorts of jobs, from retail to service to arts nonprofits admin to lifeguarding.
Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?
My colleague Daley Farr sometimes says, “Working in nonprofit publishing, trends aren’t necessarily a big part of the business.” We’re in it for the long haul, publishing the innovative works that we hope will become tomorrow’s classics. I have noticed, though, an increasing openness to some of our longtime specialties: hybrid works, literature in translation, writing that engages politics on a truly thoughtful level, works by BIPOC artists. It’s wonderful to see.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
I think I would say, “Lizzie, don’t worry so much!” I used to feel like to choose anything was not to choose something else — which is a big problem for someone who loves a great many things! It takes a lot of pressure off to think that you can put feelers out in many directions and see what comes back to you. I applied for internships in various fields when I was in college, and I agonized over which field I’d ultimately enter. I could have spared myself the agony if I’d known that there’s only so much you can control: I may have applied to a dozen internships, but the one I got was at Coffee House, so that’s the one I took! And any of the dozen would have yielded its own set of enriching experiences.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?
My biggest advice: read widely! You don’t necessarily need an English degree to work in publishing; a genuine love of books and persistence are much more important. Publishing used to rely heavily on unpaid internships, but fortunately, that’s changing. Most internships, at least in Minnesota, are now paid. And an internship is a good way to get a sense of what the industry is like — but seek out presses that pay, because you deserve to be compensated for your time! Some presses also offer volunteer reader positions; we compensate our volunteers, who read and report on one manuscript per month, with free books. Finally, if you don’t immediately get a publishing job, don’t despair. So many of the skills you’ll learn in other lines of work are transferable to the setting.
To find out more about Lizzie and her work, click here!
For more information about Coffee House Press, click here!