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Supporting Stories, and Storytellers

Alum and recording artist Samantha Brown is a publicist for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
October 13, 2020

When Samantha "Sammy" Brown (BA 2017) was in high school, her mother, Anne Greenwood Brown, started writing novels for young adults. "My mom would ask if I could lend my hip teen voice" to reviewing her texts, Brown remembers, to make sure the characters felt believable. She enjoyed the editing so much she accompanied her mom to meetings with an editor, to learn more about how the process worked. At the same time, Brown was involved in a real life story that would deeply impact her community before spreading to affect people around the world. Her best friend and bandmate, diagnosed with cancer at age 14, in December 2012 uploaded to YouTube a song he'd written called "Clouds." Brown accompanied Zach Sobiech through the too-quick months from the song's leap into viral popularity to Sobiech's 2013 death weeks before they were to graduate from Stillwater Area High School. Fix Me Up, the EP by their band A Firm Handshake, charted in 2013, with Brown singing lead on its single. Sobiech's story is now a movie, with an actor playing Brown (a new song by Brown, "Purple Pink," is featured on the movie soundtrack). And Brown now works as the publicist for HMH Books for Young Readers, because "being a part of the process of bringing a story to readers" is the work she wants to do.

"I’m a book publicist, so
research, understanding
tone and voice, and
persuasive writing are
the English skills I use
the most."
       — Samantha Brown

What is your advice for current majors who are interested in a career in publishing?

I worked on staff at The Tower, the experience that best readied for me for a job in publishing. [The Tower literary magazine is produced by students through a two-semester English course.] Of course, you can attain this experience in other ways, too—working for a student newspaper, interning with a local press. . . . Working on any sort of staff that requires a lot of collaboration is so important.

Also, you should be open-minded to moving and to different sorts of careers within publishing if you want to land a job at a press. Though the book community in the Twin Cities is vibrant, it’s still fairly small, and the job hunt can be tough. It’s even more limited if you have your mind set on one job within publishing, i.e. an editor, which is what most people (myself included) have in mind going into publishing, simply because that’s what we have most experience in as English majors, and because it’s hard to know what other positions are available. The Columbia Publishing Course (CPC) in New York is a great route for expanding your options and your mind to how you want to get your start in publishing (especially if you’re open to moving to New York). But the most important thing is to get involved in the book world and meet real people working your dream jobs. Job fairs, interning, book clubs, chatting with your professors, and reading books from your favorite publishers/places you’d like to work are great bets for getting connected. [Since Brown graduated, the department initiated a "Business of Publishing" course that exposes students to the range of jobs within publishing and provides opportunities for networking with Twin Cities publishing professionals; in 2020, English began offering a Certificate in Editing and Publishing.]

What skills learned in English are helpful in your day-to-day work?

I’m a book publicist, so research, understanding tone and voice, and persuasive writing are the skills I use the most. A huge part of creating a publicity campaign is the matching game—you’re trying to find the best contacts and outlets to promote the title you’re working on. Once you find them, you need to mold each pitch to that recipient. If I’m pitching a YA thriller to both NPR and Cosmo, I’m going to differentiate the pitches with language that matches the tone of that outlet. With all pitches, you have to have your thesis set for why that place needs to cover your book.

What do you most appreciate about your time at the University of Minnesota?

I appreciated how many different contexts for learning there are. In my four years at the U, I got to study English via middle school classrooms, on the staff of a magazine, and with both classic texts and books published locally that year. Though I truly loved every professor I had in the English department, I learned most from Eric Daigre ("Literacy and American Cultural Diversity"), Jim Cihlar ("Literary Magazine Production Lab"), and Chris Kamerbeek ("Textual Analysis"). These instructors’ enthusiasm is contagious, making it easy to be engaged in your own learning while receiving their incredible insight and unwavering support.

What book(s) are you recommending these days?

The short story collection Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is truly essential reading. This collection of surrealistic stories discusses race and consumerism in a way that’s fresh, accessible, and unflinching. These stories won’t leave you.