“I am in the Book Business”: You’ve Got Mail and Publishing

“You’ve got mail.”
– AOL e-mail greeting

Fall means a number of things. Back-to-school shopping. Trading shorts for leggings and flip-flops for boots. And if you’re in the book business, walking through the city with The Cranberries’ “Dreams” stuck in your head.


The 1998 film You’ve Got Mail was way ahead of its time. From predicting the success of online dating to addressing the difficulties indie bookstores face, Nora Ephron’s script is dated only by dial-up and Meg Ryan’s choppy 90s bob. On the flip side, the story is full of authentic details and wishful thinking for the publishing industry. Let’s discuss!


Publishing is an industry that can be hard to get into, but there’s also a lot of fluidity between jobs. Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen inherited her mother’s indie children’s bookstore and is known by other publishing professionals as someone with excellent taste. She’s offered a position as a children’s book editor because of it, which she turns down in favor of writing herself.

It may sound like the kind of dream career path someone who knows nothing about publishing weaves, but it really isn’t unrealistic. Employment in bookstores is valued in publishing houses as well, and working with customers directly is great experience for other book-related careers.

A professor of mine once said that bookstores don’t sell books, people sell books. Word-of-mouth and recommendations from trusted sources generate interest in books. Sales reps and booksellers are a tremendous driving force in garnering attention for authors and their work. Kathleen’s taste would legitimately be known and respected by publishers. Publishing is also an industry of connections; Kathleen’s relationships with authors and editors help her to bolster her store’s business and to shift into new careers, and that really is how it works.

One of my favorite details in the movie comes from the set designers. Kathleen’s apartment is full of decorations and knick-knacks relating to children’s publishing, like a mobile and framed pictures, and books and magazines are stacked and stored everywhere. This is what every book professional’s home looks like; maybe not exactly a spacious, sunny New York apartment with artfully messy stacks of books, but yes, our living spaces are full of books and book memorabilia.

Yes, publishing professionals have all read Pride and Prejudice. No, we don’t all swear by it. But also yes, we love taking our giant books into Starbucks to have a nice hot drink and read. No, this is not limited to fall. Yes, a bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils will win us over.

If You’ve Got Mail were made today, it wouldn’t be The Shop Around the Corner versus Fox Books; it’d be brick-and-mortar bookstores versus Amazon. Different players, same game. The movie perpetuates the stereotype that indies care and chains don’t, which is of course ridiculous (I shop at indies and Barnes & Noble and have experienced thoughtful assistance and love for books from employees at both). By the end of the film, at least, we’ve established that running a successful book chain doesn’t make Tom Hanks’ Joe a bad guy who never reads and cares only about profits. The book industry stands together, even when we have our favorite stores and genres and mediums. Print or digital. Indie or chain. Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.

Gosh, we just love books.

Happy reading (and viewing—if you haven’t seen You’ve Got Mail, hop to it)!

xo P



4 thoughts on ““I am in the Book Business”: You’ve Got Mail and Publishing

      1. I know, right! I loved the idea of owning a bookstore or small business. That’s always been a dream of mine … in this economy, probably not one I’ll pursue … and then her choosing to become a writer when it’s so rarely a “choice” to be published. Haha! She rocked the writing world.

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