Expatland: On Working in Publishing in Switzerland, Australia

In Growth Markets by Daniel Kalder

Natasha De Bernardi

By Daniel Kalder

In part three of Publishing Perspectives’ series on publishing professionals working abroad, Daniel Kalder, himself a Scot transplanted to Texas via Moscow — talks to two Americans who discuss their experiences working in publishing abroad and how it has enhanced their careers. Read parts one and two.

Going Global in the Swiss Alps

Natasha De Bernardi is a foreign rights manager for John Wiley and Sons, who lives and works in southern Switzerland, handling Italian, French and Russian rights for the Wiley USA office.

I am Swiss-American (Swiss on my father’s side and American on my mother’s), grew up in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and lived and worked in New York for 7 years: first as an intern for the Agnes Krup Literary Agency, then as a Foreign Rights Associate for HarperCollins, and for the past 5+ years as a Foreign Rights Manager for John Wiley & Sons.

Two years ago, my American husband and I decided to move to Switzerland. I was looking forward to moving back to Europe, but I also adored my job in foreign rights. It was a time of career opportunities: only a few months earlier I had been given our biggest revenue-generating territory, the largest “For Dummies” series partner, and the supervision of our foreign rights assistant, so giving notice was not easy. But I was changing continents and starting a new life with my future husband. I was confident that I would somehow find a way to do something I loved, despite the fact that I was moving to a very small village (200 inhabitants) in the southern Swiss Alps, where my grandparents had left me a 250 year-old stone house with a breathtaking view.

I gave notice on Friday and on the following Monday the head of our department called me into her office: she had thought about it over the weekend and since Wiley is a global company, with actively collaborating rights departments worldwide, she wanted to find a way for me to work from Switzerland. After all, I would be closer to my customers and the Wiley Global Rights Department was already set up to function internationally.

The main challenge of working from home in a tiny village is that I do get lonely sometimes, but I’m a bit of a loner anyway and very disciplined so I don’t find it difficult to stick to a work routine. And I’m not interested in office gossip or politics. I travel several times a year and every two weeks we have department meetings, so there is quite a bit of contact with the central office in New York.

One of the advantages of being based in Switzerland is that I’m much closer to the European publishers I work with. Milan is an hour and a half away by train. As I’m here in Europe, I can see the books on sale in bookstores, and feel much more connected to what’s going on in the publishing scene here. The Italians and French love to know that there’s somebody close by and not far away in New York.

One difference I’ve noticed is that publishing in Europe is less hierarchical than in the states — that’s my impression at least. Somebody may have “assistant” in their title and be theoretically less important, but they have a wide range of responsibilities and are able to do more work in different areas. I also think that there’s a great deal of creativity in Europe. US publishers may have a sly sense of superiority because they’re so large, but here some of the publishing houses do incredible cover work — translations that are better than the originals and more thorough editing. Also, off the top of my head, I can think of five publishers in Italy where the name of the publisher is the name of the family that owns it — which is very different from the large conglomerates in America.

On the other hand, a lot of times it’s difficult for these smaller publishers to make a profit. There are 80 million people in Italy vs. 300 million in America, and there’s a lot of hand-wringing talk that Italians don’t read, and that the number of readers is growing smaller and smaller, from an already smaller pool. Another result of smaller firms is that the same people can work for years and years in the same position — there’s not as much mobility.

Who knows, I might move back to New York one day, but right now I’m happy to be here. There’s a real sense of community in the village, and I like the little things like watching nature change. Here I feel like I’m part of something larger, although I do miss the openness, the friendliness of Americans, and other aspects of life in the city. Then again, the other day we finally managed to get US radio connected in the house through an iPhone. So now we have Philly radio blasting through our ancient stone house on our surround system in our little Swiss village!

At that moment I thought that life is truly amazing. Instead of looking from Hoboken across the Hudson River onto Manhattan, I now look out from my window across the much smaller Maggia River down the valley. Yes, some days I miss the excitement of working in an office, in one of the world’s publishing capitals, but working from home allows me to concentrate more on doing what I love the most: talking to my customers and selling rights. And yes, my small village is not New York in many ways, but it is an amazing place nonetheless, and I still get to go on business trips, attend book fairs, and participate in meetings via phone. And I have a garden.

Learning to Speak Australian

AliAli Lemer is a native New Yorker working as an editor in the production department at Lonely Planet in Australia. In Australia, where she is currently coordinating the 5th edition of the LP guide to Tunisia: editing, assessing and preparing the submitted manuscript, and working on the layout.

I originally came to Melbourne in 2004 to visit a boy I’d met (the average expat story). I stayed for about 3 months and liked it enough to want to come back, especially when I saw that the University of Melbourne had a Publishing & Communications program. We eventually broke up (the average long-distance relationship story), but the next year I returned to Melbourne and started my studies, and in late 2006 I received a Master of Arts in Editing & Communications. I had done my academic internship at Lonely Planet and really enjoyed it, so when some editor positions opened up in 2007 I applied for one.

Lonely Planet was happy to sponsor me for a work visa. Being a travel publisher, it’s in their interest to have employees from as many cultures as possible, so we have quite a few expats here.

In NYC I’d worked on layouts for magazines and books, and done some freelance writing, editing and proofreading. Publishing in New York seems much more cut-throat than in Australia. If I left the office before 6:30 pm I’d get dirty looks and hear that I wasn’t a “team player”, whereas in Australia, people leave at 5 p.m. (or earlier, since we have “flex time”). There’s a lot more leave available here — pregnant employees can take a year of maternity leave and come back to their job, and everyone gets 4 weeks of annual leave, plus any overtime accrues and we can take another 12 days off per year from that.

The way people work in Australia feels a lot more easy-going, but people don’t scrimp on quality — editors anywhere can debate the usage of a single punctuation mark for half an hour — and we do, trust me! What I like about working at Lonely Planet is that people here are particularly proud of the company and its products, much more so than at other publishing companies I’ve worked at. But Australians really enjoy having a life outside of work, whereas in NYC for many people their work is their life.

Australia is very similar to America, so in many ways it seems almost the same, but then the little differences can take you by surprise. It’s definitely tricky for me professionally since Australian language sometimes uses British words (centre, not center) and sometimes uses American ones (zucchini, not courgette) — and sometimes it uses both (program and programme are both common). I have an advantage if I’m dealing with a guidebook targeted at an American audience, since I can instinctively pick up on anything amiss, but I often worry I’ll miss something that would be an error for Australians, whether it’s an idiom or a spelling difference.

It’s also a challenge living in a country where I’ve had to learn all the cultural references from scratch. In Australia I have to ask a lot of questions and look up references. Even then they still don’t actually resonate for me, it’s just a fact I’ve memorized. It’s an odd feeling being immersed in a culture but never really being a part of it, never quite understanding it intuitively and always feeling just slightly off-balance. But on the other hand, it’s challenging and different and keeps you from getting too complacent. It lets you look at your home culture in new ways, comparing and contrasting it to your adopted culture — finally understanding what alternatives are out there, how perhaps this way of doing things is better, and why.

DISCUSS: How rigid is the hierarchy in your publishing workplace?

About the Author

Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, currently based in Texas after a ten year stint spent living in the former USSR where he (more or less) picked up Russian. He has written two books about Russian life and culture and contributes features, reviews and travel pieces to publications around the world.