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From the bottom of the [slush] pile
by Elizabeth on Jul 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm
Categories: Industry Insider


From the bottom of the [slush] pile

How to get your first job in publishing – an editorial perspective


After another debauched night discovering some of the seedier drinking establishments of my university city, my fate found me. Slightly nauseous and, most crucially, depleted of funds, I realised that I’d probably need to get a job. And after a whole host of jobs involving demanding customers, envelope-inflicted injuries and intimate dealings with photocopiers, I knew that not only would my future job need to earn me money, it would probably have to be interesting and challenging as well. Being an English Literature student, I looked around me and saw books, and that inevitably lead to the realisation that while I couldn’t write them, I could certainly help make them. Thus happened my eureka moment: publishing was THE ANSWER!

So far, so normal. But it was the part afterwards that was difficult. How to get a job in this highly revered, poorly paid and London-centric business? (Let’s be honest here.) Here are the few things I found out on my way, with input from many of my friends and colleagues:

1.       Qualifications

These aren’t actually as important as you might think – while you need a degree, and it should demonstrate that you can read and write to a sufficiently high standard, the type of degree matters less. Lots of people have English degrees, but I’ve met other people in the industry who graduated in History, Media and even Geography, to mention but a few. However if you know that you want to enter publishing before you start university, you should definitely consider doing a publishing BA, as this shows potential employers you have specific knowledge in the area (an English Lit. degree gives you surprisingly little insight into the world of cover meetings and production schedules!)

MAs and PhDs look great, and will undoubtedly put you a little bit above others with the same experience as you, but in general I find that further experience trumps further education. Which brings us to…

2.       Work experience

First, stop moaning! Yes, I know it’s impossible to get a job without experience, yet nobody wants to give you the experience to begin with! Catch 22, I know. But it is possible to get work experience (mostly unpaid), and the process is becoming a lot more open. There are often adverts online, meaning you no longer have to con your way into a publishing house pretending you are the post boy/girl, before begging the Editor to take you on. The clever thing to do is to get this experience whilst at university and getting money for free. After university, unless you have relatives with plenty of spare room and patience, it gets a lot harder.

I suggest trying two strategies:

  1. Apply for the big publishers’ work experience vacancies – go on their websites and search for ‘internships’ or ‘work experience’. You can find a list of the largest publishers here.
  2. Send off your CV together with a very brief but snappy covering letter to the smaller publishers. If they are very small, you can even try calling them. I shamelessly begged my way into some work experience with a small independent publisher purely by hassling them so much that it was less effort for them to simply employ me than to keep answering the phone.

Work experience can also be a good way to figure out what area of publishing you want to enter in the first place. You could try a few weeks in editorial, some in marketing, some in sales, and see what takes your fancy.

Once you have at least one period of work experience in publishing, preferably in your area of interest, you can then apply for jobs. However it is a good idea to keep on applying for work experience as well, as it tends to fill CV gaps well, and you never know whether it in itself may lead to a job…

3.       Other experience

Other types of experience count as well – there’s that old corker, the student union magazine, plus anything that shows your interest in the world of words and work: organising book events, writing articles, keeping a blog, running a website, writing reviews, etc. Get involved, if you aren’t already, with the Twitter scene, and any other social media site that shows what a buzzy young person you are! Shamelessly tweet the writers you like, and about the books you like. Potential employers will often Google you, and you should use this to your advantage. (Note: the disadvantage is if you’ve twoasted – that’s twitter boasted – about how many pens you stole from your last job).

4.       A Note on Location

A younger, more naive version of myself returned from a year’s travelling post-university and Googled: ‘publishing house, Birmingham’. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find – a publishing powerhouse just hiding in the backstreets of Digbeth? When only one – yes one – publishing company came up (that’s if you didn’t count all the B2B publishers of pamphlets advertising sanitary items), I realised that location could be important. Suffice to say, if you want to work in trade publishing, especially fiction, you almost without exception have to be in London. So if you don’t live there, get there, and if you do, then get out of the house and meet people in the trade. Try joining the Society of Young Publishers, and go to book events that are posted on the publisher’s websites and blogs.

However, there are other types of publishing in the UK, which takes us neatly on to…

5.       The pigeon hole: part 1

Contrary to the title of this section and urban myth, you won’t necessarily pigeon-hole yourself by starting in a slightly different sector of publishing than you want to end up in. If you don’t fancy moving to the big smoke yet, and are interested in publishing but not sure which type is for you, then I suggest giving the publishers of academic, educational and professional books and journals a try (often called STM publishers). They are largely spread around the university cities of Oxford, Cambridge and Bath, with a smattering in Bristol, Manchester and other main cities. There are a lot more jobs going in the perceived less-glamorous end of publishing, plus most are big companies with well-defined career paths. I found it relatively easy to forge my path in these academic publishers, and while the books weren’t exactly my idea of perfect bedtime reading, I learnt an incredible amount about the publishing process and strategy, whilst also being given a huge amount of responsibility early on.

You may find that you decide to stay with these publishers, or you could decide to transfer your skills elsewhere.  There is a growing trend in publishing to employ people from all parts of UK industry – people are now frequently recruited from other parts of the media, and from booksellers, literary agents and the like. Therefore if you come from another area of publishing you shouldn’t be scared of trying to switch direction slightly; you already have the key skills, it’s just a matter of developing your market knowledge and adjusting to new working practices.

The same applies to the department you choose to work in, for which see the next section…

6.       Choosing your pigeon hole: part 2

Again, the department you first choose isn’t so much a pigeon-hole as an open bird table… Many people just think of the editorial department when they think of publishing – tweed-clad and slightly batty men or women with a talent for midday boozing. Think again. In fact there’s a whole load of departments to choose from, any of which is interesting and book-obsessed – and if you don’t find they are the one for you, you now have that proverbial foot in the door, and can hop from Marketing to Sales, or Editorial to Publicity, or wherever your bird legs might wish to take you!

7.       Finding jobs

So how do you find that publishing job, be it editorial assistant, sales rep or publicity assistant? As with work experience, positions for the big publishers are now widely available online, and in fact many of them only advertise on their own careers pages. Other jobs websites are OK, but I find that with publishing it is best to go direct to the source.

The other option is recruitment agencies – again, I’d recommend going direct to the source, in this case specialist publishing recruiters; one general recruitment consultant kept trying to get me to go for a communications assistant role with a well-known risk assessment firm. Not exactly my cup of tea. Again, just Google ‘publishing recruitment consultant’ and you will find no shortage of companies begging for you to sign up with them. My other bit of advice in this area is to be quite specific with your consultant – tell them exactly what you want, while still remaining open to any slightly off-piste suggestions.

8.       Interviews

When you have beaten the 50 million other people who went for your job, and you finally have an interview, it’s easy to get lost in the general interview advice out there rather than focussing on the publishing side. As always, it pays to be clean, polite and fully dressed, but there are a few other things to consider too. The most important is to show your enthusiasm – you need to show that you want this job, more than, say, a trip to the Maldives with Daniel Craig and an unending supply of champagne. You should be able to see the glow of enthusiasm about books and the company coming off you in rays!

You should also make sure you research the company and the books they sell as thoroughly as possible.  Memorise a list of their books you genuinely like and be prepared to talk about them. Also be prepared to show knowledge of the company’s profile, competition and market.

Many interviews now involve a proofreading test and other tasks, for example prioritising a list of jobs, to prove you have an eye for detail and that you have a decent head on your shoulders. (And that you haven’t lied when you said you can read and write.) Just keep your cool and do what you think is most sensible.

The other basic thing they want to know is that you are a nice, friendly person, with the ability to conduct a conversation, and that you will fit in with their team. So try your best to be yourself, relax, and show them your wonderful book-obsessed self.

So here endeth the lesson. It’s by no means a definitive account of how to get into publishing, although I hope it helps you on your way. In fact, perhaps that’s the most important lesson here: there is no longer any well-trodden publishing path – no prescribed route through the manuscript dust storms – if you love books, and are willing to show it, then you will succeed.


by Katy Loftus, Assistant Editor at Transworld Publishers


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Your Comments (1)

I went to London (to be a novelist) when I was 19 (many years ago) and muscled my way into a part time job in the Dominion Theatre. Came home to Belfast because I couldn’t afford to live in the capital. It helps, as you say, to be in, or get in, the right geographical area. So, you’ve written a novel? I not, why not?

Posted on July 5th, 2012 at 4:26 pm by David Logan 
The What Shall I Read?