Spotlights and Sound Bites: Tiffany Kim, Production Assistant at Penguin Group

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Tiffany KimTiffany Kim is a Production Assistant at Penguin Group. Her team produces books for several of Penguin’s many imprints, including Dutton, Putnam Trade, Blue Rider Press Trade, DAW, and Plume. I sat down with Tiffany one summer Friday afternoon to talk about her career path so far, what it takes to work in Production, and the nuts and bolts of making books happen.

EB: Production is sometimes a mystery to people in other areas of publishing. I’ve heard the production department referred to as “project management” as well as “the unsung heroes of publishing.” How would you describe your department’s role?

TK: My boss, Dora Mak [Senior Production Manager], says that we are like shepherds for our titles, and I think that’s perfect, because we sort of herd each book through the different stages: bringing the title through its life as a manuscript, and then to have it typeset, and into Design, and back and forth with Editorial, gathering everyone’s feedback to execute the final product. We’re the ones communicating with the vendors who print and bind the books. So there’s a lot of intersection, and we have to really think of the entire book, rather than just one part.

EB: What does an average day look like for you?

TK: The days can be really different, depending on where we are in the month. There is a Print Order meeting at the end of each month where Operations and Production get together and decide how many of what books to print and when, and what components need to be ordered. One of the things we do to prepare is to get estimated costs of production for the more complicated titles. Covers that have foil and embossing are more expensive, for example. I punch in all the numbers and see what sort of profit can be made at the quantities we want to print.

The work that comes out of the Print Order meeting, the actual ordering and scheduling, is a lot more stressful and time-sensitive. Sometimes I’m nearing the end, schedule-wise, and I have a manuscript that’s only in its 1st or 2nd pass between the typesetter and Editorial [it can take many passes back and forth to get the text perfect and error-free], and maybe the cover isn’t ready, so I can’t even cut the order to the printers to start. So there are a lot of moments where I’m stalled, waiting for the things that I need to move forward. It’s also really exciting, to see this whole batch of books through to the end.

EB: What is your background, and how did you end up here?

TK: I grew up in New York City, and knew that I wanted to come back here and do something in publishing after college. I studied writing and psychology, but I knew that I didn’t want to do any editorial stuff: I like reading and writing, but I didn’t want that to be part of my job. I’m really interested in the physical book—I love covers—and the history of the book as a physical thing and how it’s evolving. I also think Production is a good fit for me because I like working with numbers, and the sense of structure.

EB: What sort of skills does a person need to work in book Production?

TK: I think you have to really be on top of a lot of different things, but you also need to balance that with being laid-back and flexible when things don’t go according to plan. You’re counting on a lot of people to do their jobs, so you have to trust them, but because you’re responsible for the schedule, you have to be able to chase them down. Good communication skills are essential, and good organization and time management are integral to every part of the job.

EB: What sort of Production disasters can occur?

TK: I recently had a bad batch of covers; that was really stressful. The covers were printing on a special paper that needed extra time to order, so the delivery date for the books was already pushed back. Then I noticed that some of the cover samples had these black scratches on them. When we looked into it, we found out that the machine at the cover printer had some sort of issue, and every fourth cover that printed had the scratches. So, quality control issues can come up at the final stages of Production, and it’s our job to resolve them as quickly as possible.

Another time, I went to check on the status of a book that was approaching its on-sale date, and couldn’t find the order I’d sent to the printer to actually print and bind the books. I found it eventually, but I still have nightmares, because that could happen. What if I forgot to send the order? Then I’d be just waiting, thinking the books were being printed and bound and shipping out. [shudders].

EB: What is your favorite thing about working at Penguin?

TK: Definitely the culture and atmosphere. I feel like everyone here takes their job seriously and is smart about their work, but never too serious— they love books and this is their career, but nothing is ever life-or-death. It’s not a cutthroat environment at all. I think that ties in with the nature of Penguin itself and the range of books that we print, it’s like friendly accessibility is part of the brand and the culture.

This Q&A was contributed by YPG member Emma Brewer. To learn more, visit our Contributing Writers page.

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