From Wannabe Novelist to Wannabe Publisher
As a child I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote stories in my spare time working on my own ideas and on stuff I’d done in class; expanding it, improving it, adding clipart to it on word. By the time I was 18 I had fallen out of the habit almost completely and no longer knew what I wanted to do in life. I’d chosen English Literature for my degree because it’s a solid subject, I enjoyed it and I was pretty good at it.
I feel like I somewhat stumbled into my career path by luck. I attended a talk on publishing at Warwick led by the MD of Icon Books (Philip Cotterell). I had only really attended to catch a glimpse of a youtuber I watch who was working at Icon at the time; Leena Normington a.k.a justkissmyfrog. But that talk set my career aspirations in motion. Why not work with books behind the scenes? It was perfect.
I then went to an industry event called the London Book Fair (student tickets are free!) where I attended panel talks and discovered the plethora of publishing houses that exist.
I tailored my CV for publishing-specific jobs, I learnt how to write bad cover letters and then how to write better cover letters. I followed every social media account, signed up to every newsletter and joined every website known to man that might give me opportunities in the industry.
I applied for lots of work experience; I got some in the summer between my second year and third year of university. I graduated. I did more unpaid work experience this summer while all the time applying for entry-level positions or a long-term internship. I was ignored. I was interviewed. I was rejected. Finally I attended the Successful Interview. In October I was interviewed for a 12-month internship for a small indie Publishing House called I.B.Tauris. It involved a fairly thorough look through my CV and a proofreading test. I was offered the placement the day after my 22nd birthday. I think that probably wins out of all the presents I got this year.
It’s been a bit of a long journey just getting my foot in the door and I’m only at the beginning of my career. But I feel like I have plenty of knowledge to give; if you’re thinking of working in publishing here’s A Beginner’s Guide to Publishing (from a beginner).
A Bit of Background Knowledge
First thing’s first: the industry is certainly not dead, thank you very much. It is ever-evolving and adapting from selling books digitally to experimenting with new forms of books to crowdfunding books and potentially combining Augmented Reality and storytelling.
It’s not just editorial work. There’s publicity, sales, marketing, design and production. You could work for a literary agency and represent authors. You could work in the printing press side of things. You could work at a typesetters and put the digital book together. And, as it is a business like any other, there are always jobs in HR and finance. The world is your oyster.
There are two main kinds of publishers: trade and academic. Trade books are everything that you’d see in Waterstones. From your favourite cookery book to your latest celebrity autobiography to romance novels. Academic publishing on the other hand focuses on textbooks and essay books – the kind of books that you’d get in in your university library.
The trade industry is made up of a few big players – the “big four”- Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster.
All of these big companies own smaller imprints which I like to think of as “brands”. This is because they’ve either bought out a smaller publisher or want a separate place to produce a certain type of book. For example, the Puffin imprint of Penguin publish children’s books. This way each imprint can have a distinct identity whilst still being part of the big company.
When I first started researching the industry I was amazed to find out how many of these imprints exist and belong to the bigger publishing houses. All is not lost however – there are plenty of indies still bobbing about.
Big vs small publisher?
Apply for everything you can because there are benefits to WE at both. At a small place you’ll have the opportunity to work with people with a variety of jobs (you could brush shoulders with the Managing Director on your first day!). But there will also be times where you have nothing to do (even after asking!). At a larger place although you’re limited to one department you’re likely to be an integral part of the team. At Penguin they have two interns on at once and we were completely in charge of posting out books and restocking the stationery room for example.
In the UK the industry is based largely in London. Yes, there are publishers scattered across the UK, and Oxford and Cambridge both have their university presses and there seems to be a lot happening in Edinburgh but all the big names (and lots of little names) are here.
It is a competitive industry. If you’re working in publishing, it’s fair to assume that you’re not doing it for the money and so you really, really need to think about why you’re interested in working with books and how to prove it.
There are two direct paths into the publishing industry; the first is to get an MA in Publishing, the second is to get loads of work experience.
Work Experience & Internships
Doing lots of work experience is expected in the industry so most places will offer it, just check on the publisher’s website (it’s usually under the “Jobs” section or “About Us” section).
Internship lengths vary but most publishers offer one to two weeks. In my experience the long-term placements (two to three months plus) are few and far between. The former is fairly easy to get; they usually just want someone competent and have people in back to back – it’s a matter of your availability matching theirs. The latter is more akin to a job; it’s more competitive, they might want experience already and you’re likely to get interviewed.
Work experience is usually unpaid. I know, it sucks. Most places will cover expenses (travel/lunch) at either a flat rate per day or based on receipts. Even the smaller places can afford to cover expenses (I did WE in an office of 10 people where they covered £50 a week) so I would avoid anywhere that expects you to both work for free and fund your own travel.
As mentioned above, most of the industry is in London. I’m quite lucky to already be based here, other interns I’ve spoken to either stayed with family or friends. If it doesn’t look like you have anywhere to stay The Publisher’s Association is trialling a scheme called the Spare Room Project to help you out.
Your daily tasks will vary depending on which department you are put in. My work experience was almost exclusively in Publicity and Marketing. Be prepared to haul books across the office, post books (sometimes hundreds) and yes, make tea and coffee.
But how to get a coveted internship? It’s mostly sending out emails into the void with a cover letter and CV attached. I personally made Twitter my new best friend: some publishers have job-specific twitter accounts and sometimes publishers advertise work experience on their social media channels. Follow anyone relevant (see useful links below) and then switch your notifications on for these twitter accounts. My phone would not shut up for weeks when I first did that and I had at least two or three jobs or internships to apply to every week.
When you start your internship (you will get one, I believe in you!) ask lots of questions!
This is your chance to find out about the industry, about specific jobs, about how books get published and ultimately whether you want to work in this industry or not. A friend of mine spent two weeks in the same place as I did and we had totally different experiences; she hated it, I did not.
Creative Access & being a Brown Girl in Publishing
The creative industries, including publishing, have traditionally been white and middle-class. There is a myriad of reasons for that ranging from a lack of access to the creative spaces (it’s not what you know, it’s who you know) to people from BAME backgrounds steering towards more reliable jobs in other industries. And yes, I have been the only brown girl in the office, but rest assured the industry is changing.
HarperCollins have launched an exclusively BAME-only Graduate Scheme this summer and Penguin have made their work expereince completely randomised – your information is attached to a number, not a name. The biggest player in this game however is Creative Access.
I gained my current position at I.B.Tauris through Creative Access. They are a charity that works with creative companies around the UK to create 6-month or 12-month contracts for paid internships (yep, real cash money). These internships are about getting really useful experience – they’re in between WE and an entry-level position because you aren’t expected to know everything but they are willing to train you.
Creative Access is wonderful. I cannot emphasise enough what a huge difference it has been applying through Creative Access than applying for work on my own; they provide interview prep, they ensure that you are actually being trained during your internship (and not *just* put on coffee runs) and most importantly I am now part of a network where I see other BAME people succeeding in all sorts of creative industries. That’s really gratifying in a world where studies show that you’re less likely to get a job based on your race or ethnicity.
If you’re BAME then I highly, highly recommend that you check out their website (that’s not to say stop applying on your own, it’s just another channel to use).
Some Closing Points & A Summary
Here’s the sad truth: you will apply for way more jobs and internships and work experience placements than you will be accepted for. Your emails will be ignored, you might get promises that they’ll keep your information on file (but never get back to you) and you will probably get lots of rejections (if not, I am jelly). You’ll get there, I’m sure of it. Publishing as an industry has been fairly wonderful in my experience. You hear about jobs where there’s nothing but office politics and mind games and so far it has not been like that at all – everyone has been super friendly. It’s very chill; I can plug in my headphones and get on with my work, the dress code is definitely on the casual end of the spectrum and you’re surrounded by beautiful books that you’ve helped create.
Current role: Production Assistant
Job description: I get the impression that production means different things at different places. In my case it is the last bits of editorial work; I work with the finished manuscript, adding in author corrections, making sure the typesetters do their work correctly and generally making sure manuscripts match In House style. And I’m completely in charge of ebooks which is quite exciting.
Publishing House: I.B.Tauris (non-fiction, mostly academic but some trade crossover)
Work Experience Placements: Random House Kids (Penguin Random House); Icon Books; Kyle Books and Penguin Random House Children’s Division
(I might do a more in-depth blog post at my different work experience placements in future)
Number of Applications: Unknown. So many. Too many. At least 50 if my folder of cover letters is anything to judge by
Number of Interviews: 6, some for entry-level jobs, some for internships
It might seem overwhelming now but just remember…
Atwood Tate (Recruitment Agency)
Hachette – Work For Us
IPG (Independet Publisher’s Guild)
Inspired Selection (Recruitment Agency)
Penguin Random House Careers
Publishing Interns (Amazing blog with weekly updates and opportunities)
The Society of Young Publishers