Season 2, Episode 8: Finding Your Place in Publishing with Heidi Waechtler

January 10, 2024

Stacey Copeland: Welcome to FCAT After School. A podcast project from SFU's Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. Here on the show, we join student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation and gather advice for the next generation. In this episode FCAT student Genevieve Cheng catches up with SFU Master of Publishing grad Heidi Waechtler. From directing the association of book publishers of British Columbia to finishing her master's thesis later in her career, Heidi sheds light on her journey to finding a meaningful place in Canada's publishing industry. Here are FCAT's own Gen Cheng and Heidi Waechtler.

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Genevieve Cheng: Hello everybody. My name is Gen, and I'll be your host for this episode of FCAT After School. I'm a final semester Communication major and Publishing minor at SFU, and in this episode, I was joined by Master of Publishing graduate, Heidi. I'll let her introduce herself before we dive in.

Heidi Waechtler: Hi, I'm Heidi Waechtler. I am the director of sales and distribution at Figure 1 Publishing, which is a hybrid book publisher with headquarters here in Vancouver. Prior to that, I was the executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia.

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Genevieve Cheng: To anyone outside the world of publishing, it's not an industry that's well known. How it works, what careers it holds. Everything about it is almost a mystery to the uninitiated. So one of my favorite things to ask people who have done the Master is how did you discover it and what drove you to SFU MPub program. When Heidi finished her bachelor's degree in literature from UBC, she decided that editing might be the right path for her. But, publishing wasn't her first stop at SFU.

Heidi Waechtler: So, I did an undergrad degree at UBC in English Literature and obviously enjoyed writing, reading. And was working in various administrative roles that allowed me to sort of flex some of those communication skills and decided, you know, like, I really, I'm not a great writer, but I'm actually really good at helping other people shape their writing and find their voice. I gravitated towards the editing certificate, which gave me a lot of those fundamental skills, and-but it really set me up personally for a freelance career. There wasn't necessarily like a clear path to going to an in house role at that point. So, I was doing a bit of freelance editing a bit of volunteer work. But, I decided at that point was that I really enjoyed the business side of publishing as well, and-and that's what was sort of missing for me as a freelancer. I didn't have that insight into the convergence of uh the business, like the commercial side of publishing and the actual creative editorial work, an-and that sort of nexus of culture building that I felt was really drawing me in. So-so that's what uh, inspired me to look into the MPub program. I felt like that was kind of the place to go to set me on the path towards an in house publishing career.

Genevieve Cheng: Okay, so, then you did the Masters.

Heidi Waechtler: Mhm!

Genevieve Cheng: Did you find the editing certificate really helped your Master's experience?

Heidi Waechtler: It was a completely different experience, because the MPub is a cohort. I think we had 18 in my cohort, this was in 2011. And, uhm, so you were doing, you know, spending virtually the entire day sometimes the night with your classmates, as you know, from working on projects and go-really going through the experience together. Whereas, um, in the editing certificate, everybody was at a different stage in their lives, in their careers. And it was an, um Continuing Studies course, so we came together in the evenings and, you know, didn't really communicate outside of that class. So, it was a much more social experience in the program, um a-and you know, allowed me to develop a network of colleagues that I still keep in touch with.  When I think back to the program, what really sticks with me, are all those nights that we spent in the project rooms. Working on our group projects, whether it was the the book project, the magazine project, the tech project. I think that taught me that I was capable of pulling off really challenging time constraints, like you know, often we're writing about books that don't exist, or putting together marketing plans without knowledge of how it would actually play out in real life. And we just had to take a shot and think about what what in our minds worked best. At the time that felt really, I wouldn't say false, but it felt like it was a simulation. And, what does this necessarily have to do with the real world, because in real life we'd have a manuscript and we'd we'd have a budget and it would all be real. But actually, when I got out into the field, I discovered like often you are writing descriptions of books that are still in the process of being written. You're having to put together marketing plans without, you know, like years in advance before you know what's the world- if there's going to be a pandemic, or there's going to be in-person events. So, it just kind of opens your mind to the idea that you can do those things. And, that you-a lot of publishing is about imagination. What the MPub did, I think was give me that really solid groundwork of cultural policy, how the history of publishing design is – it allowed me to be more of a generalist, I would say in publishing. And that sort of, I think what I've found now is that I really am comfortable moving into different areas of publishing, and I think the MPub really reinforced that.

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Genevieve Cheng: Becoming a publishing generalist, this is something even I as an undergraduate publishing minor can relate to. Since I'm in my last semester, I found myself reflecting back on the courses I've taken throughout my bachelor's degree while working on job applications, and even my own Master application. Across my transcripts, resume and portfolio, there's always one common thread, the practical application of publishing courses. Almost every publishing course I've taken has contributed to my portfolio in some way. Whether this be written samples, graphic design work, or demonstrations of industry knowledge taking some other form, like creating a magazine business plan, or recording a sample of a niche podcast. I told Heidi but one of my assignments last semester from Publishing 411, a course called Making Knowledge Public taught by Professor Alperin. In this class, we got to demonstrate our knowledge and apply our skills through two very real world type assignments. The one I told Heidi about was an op-ed.  I wrote about how Arts degrees aren't useless, because I hear a lot of that, especially with Communication, and I'm sure you've heard about it with your Literature degree.

Heidi Waechtler: I have, but I didn't know that was still the prevailing thought!

Genevieve Cheng: Oh, it's still an issue. There's always these lists online about top ten most useless degrees to get. Communication is always one of the top ten: "It's useless, you don't learn anything? What are you doing learning to communicate?" So, my op-ed was just about how they just have really bad public relations.

[both laughing]

Genevieve Cheng: No one really cares too much about the theory when you're not in it. Like, I love talking about the public sphere. But, that's because I'm a nerd about it and I'm a nerd about my degree, but like, anybody else would probably be like, what?

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah, it's funny, you think about going to publishing school. Um, and you're like, I'm going to learn how to be a good designer, a good editor, a good salesperson, a good marketer, but I'm not sure that everyone goes in necessarily thinking I'm going to learn how to be a publishing thinker or publishing thought leader. And what I like about a publishing undergrad minor or a Masters is that it really gives you the space to think through all of the history and the current issues and the problems without constraint. And you can think about like, what might I contribute to the industry, and y-you don't have to be super practical all the time, you can dream a little more, I think, than in a more rigid like certificate program. Right? Yeah!

Genevieve Cheng: Right.

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Genevieve Cheng: After joking around about how to say the acronym for the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, the ABPBC, Heidi acknowledged how important the Master was in informing her decisions that she made while she was the executive director of the Association.  But, I'm sure that's informed your decisions in those because I think if you just had the editing certificate, and say you just worked your way up in McClelland and Stewart doing editing, would do you have the same knowledge of the industry to make decisions in those positions?

Heidi Waechtler: No! And you know, I'm, I'm not even sure I do now, to be honest, like. And so much of that, like those roles, as you know, th-the trade associations of British Columbia, so the Magazine Association and the Book Publishers Association, is about learning from the members like that you're serving and like hearing about what are the circumstances they're dealing with. And kind of putting all those little pieces together an-and giving that snapshot of the industry. Communicating that out to government, um to funding bodies, to media, and sort of being that spokesperson for the industry. Of course, you can never speak for everyone, and that was I would say one of th-the tensions in that role is you want to make sure you're representing everyone's interests. And for the most part, they're aligned, but I think just being willing to listen to, you know, just what kinds of challenges they're facing getting their books out into the world.

Genevieve Cheng: So what did your kind of day to day look like?

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah, I mean, it's like many jobs, it really varied quite a bit. But, a big part of what I did there was liaising with government and funding bodies to sort of let them know what's happening on the ground. How support programs like tax credits, project funding, operating funding was helping supporting the BC publishing industry. Growing it, gathering information, doing research, interviews, connecting with other like minded organizations. And finding ways to work strategically with those organizations. Um, and then of course, there were other activities like we would hold professional development events, organize marketing campaigns. So, a local initiative called Read Local BC, which galvanizes people around the idea of supporting BC publishing and books published by BC publishers. And also a program called Poetry in Transit, which, um you may have seen on the busses. So, just ways to get BC books in front of readers and kind of thinking about new activities, new projects, um new ways to sort of grow that community.

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Genevieve Cheng: Now, before we get too far into her career, let's jump back a bit before she was the executive director of the ABPBC. After finishing her coursework at SFU, she faced a sort of fork in the road. Now that she found her path into the publishing industry as she had hoped, what part of the industry did she want to dive into first?

Heidi Waechtler: After I did the MPub program, I decided to move to Toronto to do my internship at McClelland and Stewart – and I ended up staying there for about four years. After I did my three month internship, I actually had a month where I didn't know what I was going to be doing. Um, there wasn't a full time position for me there. And so I had been sort of informational interviewing with other independent presses in Toronto, and found my way back to Coach House where they needed publishing assistant to work uh-four days a week, basically doing everything like that needed to happen around this four person press at the time. I was there to update the website, uh help with marketing and publicity. And, um, I think the the most memorable part of that role was shipping. So, we had a onsite warehouse, very exposed to the elements. And we had a lot of squirrels and dare I say mice, and uh, they would sometimes find their way into our warehouse. And, um, I spent a lot of time in there packing boxes and sending out web orders and transferring inventory around. So, I really got to know those those creatures that lived in here. [laughing]. For better or for worse.

Genevieve Cheng: You just said there wasn't that many job opportunities available.

Heidi Waechtler: Mhm

Genevieve Cheng: But, were you looking for a smaller? Did you want to kind of try the smaller house?

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah, that was that was a really big decision point for me, um, when I was in-in the MPub and thinking about where I wanted to do my internship. There was kind of this question of where I felt like I fit in, um I had only ever worked at smaller organizations. But, I think what was really appealing about being part of a bigger organization was just having that sort of infrastructure in place the machine that comes along with a multinational corporation. At the time, um, McClelland and Stewart was transitioning to becoming uh-owned by Random House, which hadn't yet become Penguin Random House. So, there was an interesting sort of consolidation happening. And, as a publishing student, that was really interesting time to be there and to, you know, see how that was shifting the ways that they work and just th-the services that they were offering. But, it wasn't necessarily a great time to be seeking like permanent employment there, because companies were like, they were literally merging offices at the time. Part of my job, again, was helping to pack up boxes of books. I think what I really learned working at a larger company, you know, I was in the editorial department and we were very much... um, I wouldn't say operating in a silo, but we had limited opportunities to connect with other departments. Like we would periodically meet with, you know, production team or design team, sales team. I's not to say that we didn't collaborate, but I didn't feel I was getting the bigger picture of how all the pieces came together. And of course, I was an intern as well. So, what I found really appealing about moving on to a smaller press was this idea, again, we had four people, you're all sitting pretty much shoulder to shoulder in the same room. You get to hear what's going on, phone calls that are happening, you're meeting with authors... So, you're kind of exposed to everything all at once, whether you-you want to be or not. And, you get to learn a lot more more quickly that way, I would think.  You know, I went into the MPub program thinking I wanted to be an editor, like most of th-the people do, and... But you know, I wanted to stay flexible, open to whatever opportunities came along. And, even though I was first publishing assistant and then managing editor at Coach House, we were working on marketing, we were planning events, we were working on sales opportunities. So, there was no distinction between the different roles, I guess you could say, we all had our specific responsibilities, but we all worked together. And so um, I think that really allowed me to explore my interests and other areas of publishing while developing my skills as an editor. I would say I was exposed, well, certainly to the independent publishing industry more both um in Canada and the US. And, again, like getting to know more people in the industry. It's a, it's a very collegial and I would say tight knit industry. There-there's an Association of Canadian publishers, so I was, when I was at Coach House was going to meetings and connecting with people who are doing similar work and learning from them. Um, so I think it offered a lot of opportunities to kind of see what's happening in other houses. And I think in terms of hands on experience, I really got into the trenches like literally in, you know, in the warehouse, packing up books, going out and selling them at events. I'm not sure I would have gained that experience had I stayed at a larger company for another like 10 years like it would have really, you know, I would have dug in on the editing, but I wouldn't have seen mechanics of how those other pieces come together.

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Genevieve Cheng: These mechanics of publishing and lessons learned while packing books and planning marketing events at Coach House would go on to impact nearly every other career opportunity that Heidi would take. From being able to advocate better as a publishing professional running the Association of Book Publishers to taking her first head of sales role at Figure 1 publishing, her current position as of last March. Up until this point, she had worked in editing and done different levels of administrative work. So, sales wasn't necessarily an obvious choice, but it became clear just how much these other experiences have informed how she goes about her day to day job at Figure 1.

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah, it's a bit of a-a curveball, right? Like um, it wasn't something I necessarily saw myself doing. But again, I think wh-when the opportunity came up, I was thinking back to when I decided to go from the editing certificate into publishing, because I liked that business side of things. And, you know, I don't think of myself as an outgoing person. And-and you know, when you hear about a sales role, you're like, "oh, you're gonna be out there talking all the time meeting people." There is that element to it. But, there's also that sort of deep work of thinking about how to position a book in the market, how to talk about it, what are the key words people are going to use if they're gonna discover it, what cover is most effective to sell that book... So, it's all that kind of positioning, marketing, um, strategic thinking about books that I've been doing since I started, um, it's just in a more focused data and number driven way. I really, you know, I came around to the idea that it would actually give me some depth to the other skills I developed already in the industry, like if I'm- want to be a better editor, I need to know what books sell and how to sell them better. You got to be aware of, um, again the constraints that people are operating under like timelines, and that sort of author relationship is key, right? You want to be sensitive to their concerns, and you want them to like the cover of their book and how you're talking about it. So, just being sensitive to those really, those interpersonal dynamics, I think. And that comes from working as an editor, working alongside other publishers. Like, you get to know what kinds of experiences people have had with authors and how you can serve them better. And what is unique about Figure 1 compared to a traditional publishing model – we're a hybrid publisher, and that's really about partner-based publishing. So, you're, you're really listening to your client's needs and making sure that you're bringing your professional expertise to bear, but you're also listening to what they want. And that's a different dynamic than traditional publishing, although the goals are the same.

Genevieve Cheng: Right.

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah.

Genevieve Cheng: Sell books.

[both laughing]

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Genevieve Cheng: While selling books is obviously the goal of head of sales. There's another job that Heidi might be interested in returning to in the future, teaching. Back in fall 2020, she was a guest instructor for the MPub program teaching PUB 800. This was an enjoyable and interesting experience for her, but it was also during the early days of the pandemic, so there was a lot of additional challenges that she faced.  Running your first class on Zoom. Now, that is a challenge that you got to conquer.

Heidi Waechtler: For sure. And I mentioned, like the cohort experience was really pivotal for me in that program, and like just kind of being in the same space as my colleagues. And for this cohort, there were, I think, five international students who were zooming in from other timezones. So, we're all kind of different mental places at the time, but we would find an hour and a half each week to come together and talk about these articles. And, I felt like, you know, that was somewhat reassuring for me it certainly – and hopefully for the students just like this kind of consistency in our lives during a time when nothing felt consistent.

Genevieve Cheng: Nothing was consistent. Yeah.

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah. And it was challenging for those groups to find time to work together because they were in different time zones. The course that I taught would have normally been three hours a week in person and I was not prepared to sit on Zoom for three hours. So, we shortened it up uh to about an hour – an hour and a half. And a lot of the correspondence in that course happened online. We used Hypothesis, a tool to annotate the texts that we were reading. So a lot of the dialogue we were having was online. And I think-I think that offered an opportunity for students who wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable speaking up in class, whether in person or on Zoom, like, to share their thoughts.

Genevieve Cheng: Yeah. Actually, for that making knowledge public class I took we use that Hypothesis every week for our readings.

Heidi Waechtler: How did you enjoy it?

Genevieve Cheng: I loved it.

Heidi Waechtler: I liked it, too!

Genevieve Cheng: Yeah, the majority of my third and fourth years were online. Actually, I think the full third year, and then most of my fourth year was fully online. I have done how many courses with weekly discussion posts?  And, I was getting really tired of them. There's only so much y-you want to open a Canvas page and open the discussion tab and copy and paste the 700 word reading response.

Heidi Waechtler: Yes, hahaha.  Yup.

Genevieve Cheng: Do you see yourself wanting to teach more in the future?

Heidi Waechtler: That's a really good question. I think I'd be open to that. Yeah. And certainly, like, you know, I'm still learning about sales and the things that I'm doing right now. And I'd love to come back and share what I learned with students, I love the idea that I-I'll never feel completely comfortable teaching, it's always, it would always be a slightly terrifying endeavor. But I like that idea of kind of going on a journey alongside your students.

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Genevieve Cheng: To wrap up our conversation, I asked her about what I thought could be a sore subject, but thankfully, it wasn't. Nonly does this next topic make her journey unique, but it also certainly sheds a lot of light on what pursuing a Master degree might look like depending on what direction you want to take it. After completing her coursework for the MPub program around 2011, Heidi went off to do her internship and didn't actually return to finish her Master thesis until nearly ten years later.

Heidi Waechtler: So, I did the-the coursework component of the program and went off to do my internship and thought I would try to complete my project report um during that time, and shortly thereafter. And had a few false starts, had a couple of different topics I started writing about, and kind of got busy with my work and building my career and decided this just wasn't the time for me. And, you know, I was already working in industry, it was like, "do I really need that piece of paper?"  So, it took ten years for me to actually come back to the question of finishing the degree. And, again, that was prompted by the pandemic, having a little more time on my hands. And, I was actually teaching in the program at the time, as I mentioned, and that was the sort of trigger to get back into writing and put together a project report. And, I think I needed that time to think about what was meaningful to me. Um, what I wanted my commentary on publishing to be because coming fresh out of the program, it just, there wasn't enough there, I think, for me to get it all down in-in you know forty pages or whatever it was at the time. And, now that I've got ten plus years under my belt, it-it just felt like I had enough to say, I guess.

Genevieve Cheng: Mhm. Fair, fair. Yeah.

Heidi Waechtler: Um, I mean, there's a school of thought that just get it done.

Genevieve Cheng: Right!

Heidi Waechtler: And, that's all that you need to do and certainly I agree with that. So, I don't advise taking, you know, ten years to come up with the perfect topic and you know, the perfect time because it may never happen. But, I just think in my case, that's how it was meant to be.

Genevieve Cheng: But you still felt a need to finish it.

Heidi Waechtler: Yeah, I wanted and you know, like, again, it wasn't anything about job seeking or comparing myself to anyone else. It was just like I started this, I want to finish it.

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Genevieve Cheng: Well, thank you so much for sitting down. Wonderful experiences. Thank you for sharing a lot of interesting stories about your career and a lot of inside scoop.

Heidi Waechtler: Thanks, Genevieve. Thanks for inviting me and um all the best to you with your next career move as well.

Genevieve Cheng: Thank you, thank you.

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Stacey Copeland: Interested in learning more about the FCAT community? Stay tuned for another brand new episode of FCAT After School, hitting your feeds every other Wednesday this season. A big thanks to Heidi Waechtler for joining us here on the show. You'll find links to resources mentioned and more info on Heidi and the Publishing MA program in the show notes. Our host for this episode was Genevieve Cheng. Production by Gen Cheng and me, Stacey Copeland. FCAT After School respectfully acknowledges the Musqueam, Skwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, QayQayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo, and Tsawwassen people, on whose unceded traditional territories our three campuses reside and where many of the stories shared in the series take place. Make sure to rate us and subscribe to FCAT After School in your podcast app of choice so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. You can also follow us on social media @FCATatSFU. That's F C A T at SFU, on Twitter and Instagram. See you next time!