Books and publishing · Life

Why do I work in publishing, and how did I get here?

I work in sales and marketing at a trade publishers, and I know how lucky that makes me. One of my monthly tasks is to analyse our website traffic, and without fail one of the most popular pages is Careers — even though, since the company is quite small, it has vacancies once in a blue moon. I know how hard it is, and I’m very aware of my privilege, because I got into the industry quickly. I didn’t spend months interning. I never did entirely unpaid work experience. I was in a job after a couple of months.

This is humble-bragging, and I’m sorry, but there is a point. I can’t say “This is how to get a job in publishing”, because I am not a recruitment person and I don’t know anything about the process. But I thought it was worth writing about why I wanted to work in this industry, and how it happened that now I do.

Why did I want to work in publishing?

When I was younger I wanted to be all sorts of things — doctor, nurse, artist, writer — and then for a few years it all sounded too remote and scary, and I didn’t want to be anything. I did Politics, Philosophy and Economics at uni as a hedge, because I thought that whatever I decided to eventually do, it was the kind of degree that couldn’t hurt. (I had ruled out anything scientific by my teens).

And then, in my second year, I went to a talk about publishing and journalism. Several people from different areas of those industries spoke, but the one that interested me the most was the gentleman from Penguin Books, who spoke about how Penguin were developing phone apps that people could read on, and that they had an internship programme to which we were encouraged to apply.

Listening to him talk about people really thinking about books, what people want from books, and new ways of distributing books to people? That was it. I decided publishing was for me. I know that that sounds trite or simplistic or whatever, but it really did happen like that. I realised that that was the industry I wanted to be in. And I’ve yet to hear of anything that I want to work in 10% as much.

So I knew that I wanted to work in publishing — but I thought that that meant I needed to join the editorial department. I thought that that would where I’d read the most books (true) and be closest to the author (sort of true, although publicity also gets a look-in) — and therefore it must be objectively the best. But just because you love reading doesn’t mean that editorial is the only place for you. I wrote this whole blog post about the different areas in publishing and how there’s so much more to any publishing job than just reading books.

What I hadn’t realised at that point was that the publishing industry is, at base, the same as the jam industry. You buy the raw material (words or berries), turn it into a finished product, market and sell it, and use the revenue to make more. It’s not about writing essays about books and thinking about how lovely the words are. You need to get them to sell. It’s a business.

(I wish my job was just reading stuff, but it’s not: I have to read the books in my spare time. I don’t get paid to read. I often moan about how much I have to read — but I know that at base I’m amazingly lucky.)

How I Got Into Publishing

I started applying for work experience and internships straight after that talk in my second year for the summer. I spent hours on one for the Children’s Editorial department at Penguin that the man at the talk had mentioned. (I had to write a piece about what I thought was the most successful children’s brand at the time. I interviewed booksellers, trawled social media, and said Angry Birds. I didn’t even get an interview.)

I managed to get a placement at David Fickling Books for two weeks, unpaid, which I did during the summer. I got lunch and travel expenses, and I lived nearby, so it was just about okay. It was all editorial: reading manuscripts (including this glorious book) and checking corrections and so on. I had to present my thoughts about each title to its editor, which was rewarding, but there wasn’t much brainpower involved.

After I graduated, I managed to get something that gave me a huge future leg-up: a place on a paid internship programme at Oxford University Press. To be paid is a rare and unusual coup. To this day I am not sure how I managed to get it, but I suspect that as it was based in marketing in the Law resources department, the fact I’d worked with my Mum at her law practice — something I bigged up on my CV — helped. Privilege.

I spoke to and worked with as many people as I could in as many different departments as would have me, so I was able to do lots more than just my main task. And it was while I was there that I discovered my most boring and geeky talent and passion: data and spreadsheets. I asked one of the editors to keep my information on file, and a few months after the programme had ended, I freelanced for him making manifests for their soon-to-be-digitised products. I found it easy, it was interesting to learn about Excel, and I was good at it. And it was CV fodder.

It was thanks to that freelancing that I got my first full-time, proper job in the industry, at Harlequin. It wasn’t in editorial or marketing or publicity or any of the things that people tend to think are the best areas in publishing. I got in through the back door, as a Data Supply Chain Assistant.

That job was entirely spreadsheets and metadata and working out ways of using Excel and other software to make things more accurate and more efficient. That’s something I liked, but in my spare time I kept writing. I think it was that that enabled me to get the job I have now, which is much more wide-ranging and lets me use both ‘sides’ of my brain. And it’s wonderful.

Here are five tips if, like me four years ago, you want to get into publishing but don’t know how.

  1. Don’t worry about which department you start off in. You can always move horizontally once you’re in the industry. And there’s no guarantee you’ll want to stay in the one you enter first.
  2. Try to get experience of, practise, or learn about something beyond reading books. Data is a good one, because it’s fairly unusual to find people who like it. But if you’re good at design, creative writing, business — all of that will give you an edge.
  3. Do stuff in your spare time that is relevant — it’s like applying to uni. If you’re working doing something that you don’t enjoy, do something you love in your spare time and work hard at it.
  4. Try to keep abreast of what’s going on in publishing at the moment. You can get a daily briefing email from The Bookseller, the industry magazine, which will help keep you aware of what people are talking about. It gives you interview fodder and shows that you are keen to learn more about the industry.
  5. Keep reading. Stretch yourself. Challenge yourself. Read what people are talking about, read what wins the prizes, read what people say is terrible, and try to work out what you feel about those books — and what could be done better.