I’ve been asked by young people several times now at author readings to promote What a Way to Go how I broke into a career in publishing. I’ve been asked enough times for me to think that perhaps it would be worth doing a little blog post to explain, as the answer – like most things with me, it seems – is far from straight forward and, may I be upfront about this now, not in the least strategic... I’m thrilled to be partnering up with the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook with this post, and I'm running Twitter giveaway of the current Yearbook and my novel, What a Way to Go, between 1.00pm on Tuesday 8 March until 9.00pm GMT on Thursday 10 March 2016 (see the end of this post for details on how to enter). The bestselling Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and website not only offers industry advice on the journey to becoming a published author, but also – as I discovered in my early twenties – I found that the Yearbook was an essential resource as I started out in my career within the publishing industry.
It all began in May 2001.
I returned (early) from St Andrews where I’d been studying for a Masters in Creative Writing. I was that skint that I couldn’t afford to spend the summer there writing up my dissertation as I’d spent the vast majority of my student loan on whisky-laced hot chocolates and scones in an attempt to stay warm and insulated.
The day I dumped my suitcase in my childhood bedroom, I checked my overdraft: maxed out to £2,000.
On my bed, my stepfather had put a copy of the G2, the Guardian insert, turned to a double-spread in which there was a write-up about a new office opening in Bath. The publishers, Barefoot Books had just moved there (sadly, they’ve just closed their UK offices in 2016).
I borrowed my Mum’s computer and retrieved my CV from a dusty floppy disk. I re-formatted it and inserted information about the two-week work placements I’d recently completed at the journal PN Review and The Real World, a magazine which specialised in careers advice – none of it I had bothered to listen to, until that day.
The following morning, I jumped in my Mum’s red 2CV, peeled back the roof and drove the cross-country route from Bristol to Bath and buzzed the office of Barefoot Books. With my CV in my hot little hands, I walked up two flights of stairs and placed my CV on the publisher’s pine desk. Looking back, I can’t quite believe I had the nerve to do it.
As I got back into the car, my brand new (and first ever) mobile phone rang in my pocket. I was so new to the technology, I nearly dropped the phone in shock. It was the publisher, offering me a summer’s work experience, which then turned into my first full-time post.
Fast forward a year and a half, I’d left the company to research a novel set in New York and Venice and had returned – once again – to the family home and an empty bank account. While in Venice, I had tried to convince a gondola maker to employ me, despite my only experience of manufacturing something with my hands being an egg cup. And it being made out of red plastic.
Funnily enough, a job offer was not forthcoming from the gondola maker, but while I was in Italy, my CV had been circulating around Bristol and had landed in the hands of the publisher Alastair Sawday whose offices were then just a three-field walk from my Mum’s house. He needed a nine-month maternity cover in the trade marketing department. This was a natural next step after my year’s work in the consumer marketing department for Barefoot Books. I ditched my dream of working in Venice, and opted for Somerset, instead.
When that short-term contract was up, I moved to London, temped for an agency which specialised in placing temps at publishing firms while I researched my next steps. Someone had suggested I should work in a literary agency, and the idea appealed. Working in marketing departments, I felt I was missing out in that I rarely had contact with authors (I hazard a guess that this is probably less the case in 2016, as marketing has a far larger influence in publishing nowadays...). As a fledgling author myself, I was also intrigued to learn more about the creative process and I thought that a literary agency might offer some visibility into that aspect of authorship.
I bought a copy of the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and circled any literary agency that specialised in fiction – commercial or literary – which were within a commutable distance from where I lived in Peckham. I then spent a Wednesday afternoon working through the list of about thirty or so agencies. I phoned up and asked if any of them had any potential or actual openings, and whether they’d be happy to have my CV on file, if not.
My success rate was 13%: four out of thirty had either an opening on the horizon, a position currently vacant or were willing to meet me for a cup of tea and a chat. Within a few weeks, this lead to two job offers, and I then spent a happy two and a half years working as an assistant in a small Soho-based agency which had a diverse list of authors from around the world and a lovely boss who had a similar taste in not only books, but also (crucially) chocolate, coffee and Campari.
Although this was over ten years ago, I don’t think much of my advice would change today. If there is a common theme that I can draw out now, I realise that it would be that my first junior jobs in publishing were all job opportunities which I didn’t apply directly for – it was more a matter of having my CV out there, and presenting myself in a professional manner, not being afraid of being rejected and bouncing back from any rebuffs.
To conclude, I thought I’d draw up my top tips on getting a job in publishing:
- Take a look at the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, published annually by Bloomsbury. It gives you a complete overview of the publishing industry, including contact details of publishers (books; magazines; newspapers as well as TV, film, radio and theatre), as well as including useful essays and articles inside the publication. Read on for more details about how to enter my giveaway to be in with a chance of winning a copy of the current edition...
- Check out the Society of Young Publishers. Since 1949, they have provided a network for people advancing a career in the publishing sector. Initially offering support for people under 35, they now specialise in support for people who have worked in the industry for ten years or fewer. Membership, which starts at £24, offers networking events, a regular magazine and email bulletin as well as access to a jobs database and also a discount off the annual conference.
- Consider applying for a longer, paid internship such as the one at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire (this one also covers your accommodation) or at the Curtis Brown literary agency in central London.
- During your summer vacations, you could perhaps consider a shorter, one- or two-week internship at a smaller local magazine or press.
- Join the industry mailing lists such as the Bookseller Jobs alert, Bookbrunch and Booktrade info. Also follow their updates on Twitter.
- If you’re in Wales, check out opportunities at independent presses such as Honno Welsh Women’s Press and Parthian Books who take interns, and also have a look at the Welsh Books Council website and Literature Wales for an overview of the publishing industry and writing community in Wales.
- Think about setting up a little blog, such as Emily Walter’s, who works on Saturdays as a bookseller for Griffin Books in Penarth. On your blog, you can collate reviews or thoughts about books. You can then include this blog on your CV and in your job applications.
- Enquire after doing work experience at your local literary festival, bookshop or library, or even within the culture strand within a larger festival such as Festival No. 6 or the Wilderness festival. Local small-scale literature festivals are popping up more and more. Recent and forthcoming additions to the literary festival calendar in my area include Shrewsbury, Crickhowell and Cardiff. Stints volunteering for festivals like this bolster your CV and also give you visibility into different aspects of the circuit and industry.
- If you attend an event at a literary festival, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the editors, publishers or PRs attending at the end of the event and ask after opportunities for jobs or work experience.
- Look up Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication, a one-stop book on how to get published. It will also give you a good overview of how different departments in publishing work.
- Cultivate your taste in books. Read plenty, read diversely - and then some more! Be confident about the genres you like, but also be bold in trying new things. Being part of a monthly book club is an excellent way to read outside of your comfort zone, with the added bonus that you get to dissect why you liked or didn’t like something – and eat crisps at the same time.
- Literary magazines such as Granta, New Welsh Review or the Stinging Fly include shorter pieces by authors on the ascendant and as such give you a taste for what might be published in the future. I’ve got a regular supply of second-hand New Yorker magazines and even if they’re a little bit out of date, I feel like I’m keeping in touch with new writing from America through this magazine.
- Check out excellent blogs such as Mslexia, BookTrust or Publishing for Humans which is run by literary agent at David Higham Associates, Lizzy Kremer. You’ll find lots of different angles into the publishing scene through reading these.
- Consider doing a course at the Publishing Training Centre in London. I did a one-day course on ‘Negotiating in Publishing’ and it was really helpful and provided me with something to discuss in my job interview at literary agencies. If you’re still at university, do check out the lifelong learning prospectus and see if you can get on a course about editing or publishing. I did this while at Warwick, and ended up getting my first paid job for a literary agent (as a manuscript assessor) via this route.
- Pack some energy food and visit the London Book Fair. This year, it will be held between 12-14 April at Olympia. This is one of the best ways of getting your head around current publishing trends in a very visual and hands-on way, and there are also daily seminars which you can attend to learn more about different aspects of publishing.
If my experience is anything to go by, you’ll find your natural home in time, fitting in with the right culture – whether that’s working on mass market commercial fiction or a more niche strand of publishing, working for a crime imprint or educational publishing, working in design or in the accounts department. Most important of all, I think my top tip to someone keen to break into a career in publishing is to be yourself.
To enter my Twitter giveaway and be in with a chance of winning the current edition of the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook plus a signed copy of What a Way to Go simply visit my Twitter profile, follow and retweet the promotional tweet (which is pinned to my profile page) by 9.00pm GMT on Thursday 10 March 2016. This giveaway is open to residents of the UK only. Good luck!