To anyone on the outside, attempting to get a look in, publishing can be quite an opaque industry. I know for me personally, when I decided I wanted to get into the industry, I was daunted to say the least. I’d been told in careers talks that it would be helpful to know someone to get a foot in the door (which I didn’t), and failing that, I’d need to go to London, and take on some unpaid work experience (no thank you).
Thankfully, the industry is a little more accessible than it was when I was a student. Many more publishers offer paid internships or graduate schemes, more universities offering Publishing MAs and there are a huge number of events for aspiring publishers, offered by publishers of all sizes and other organisations.
The first thing I’d advise doing, as with any career path, is research. There are tons of resources out there – read around, head to YouTube, sign up for a few mailing lists and follow publishers on social media. Try and figure out what kind of publishing you’re interested in (for example children’s or academic?) and within that, what sort of role you think would suit your ambitions and skills.
Could you use your creativity our initiative in a marketing or sales role? Are you an aspiring editor with an eye for detail, or do you have a desire to travel that would suit a role in rights? Take a look at the spines of the books on your bookshelf; which publishing house’s logo appears most frequently?
I think many aspiring publishers make the mistake of assuming they want to be an editor, because the traditional ‘vision’ of publishing (from the outside) is that publishers sit in their offices reading manuscripts and submissions all day; this is very much an illusion, and publishing roles, particularly in smaller, independent publishing houses, are multi-faceted.
If you’re struggling to find or secure a first role in publishing, then sector adjacent roles, or jobs with transferable skills are just as important, and will give you more to talk about in your cover letter or interview. You could get a job as a bookseller, a librarian, copywriting or marketing, sales or design; all of the above and more will give you skills and insight that are greatly valued and sought out in publishing. Even if it’s ‘just’ office experience, the skills you’ll learn will help you get that first publishing role!
When you get to the CV or cover letter phase, then again, please do your research. No ‘Dear Sir’, and please don’t copy and paste and blanket ‘send to all’. Publishers look for cover letters that reference their ethos and current campaigns, and wider publishing trends. A passion for books is essential, of course, but will only get you so far when you’re up against someone equally passionate, so be engaged and make sure to specifically answer all the points in the job description.
I have found mentorships invaluable in my own career, and if you feel you would benefit from more personalised guidance, reach out to someone in the industry you admire. People in publishing are a friendly bunch and more often than not happy to help. Or seek out an organisation like the Society of Young Publishers or Arts Emergency who offer mentorship services.
Speaking of the SYP, you absolutely must seek out your regional branch! Whether you attend their great events programme, or volunteer on a committee to add to your CV, it’s a great organisation to get involved in to meet people in publishing, and other publishing hopefuls too.
Social media is also a great place to engage with the industry, particularly Twitter. As I’ve said, follow your favourite publishing houses and people in publishing, but it’s also very handy when job hunting in the industry too. Some essential reading for publishing hopefuls: The Publishing Post and The Bookseller (both free) – these will give you an insight into the industry, what the ‘hot topics’ are, and again may give you something you can reference in an application or interview.
Over the last few years, a number of surveys and reports have demonstrated that publishing needs to change, that it is too white, too middle class, that it needs to do more to make the workforce for diverse by making the industry more accessible.
It is changing, slowly but surely, and if you’re still worried that it isn’t for you, it 100% can be. You don’t have to have a degree, a London pied-à-terre or any previous experience directly in the industry to get in. In publishing we need new and exciting voices, voices for change, and that reflect the modern world we live in, and that could be you.
Becca Parkinson graduated from Lancaster University in 2016, and shortly thereafter joined the Comma Press team, where she is currently Engagement Manager. She has co-edited two anthologies for Comma, The Book of Tbilisi and The Book of Riga. She previously served as Chair of the Society of Young Publishers North branch (2018-2019) and in July 2018 received a Print Futures Award from The Printing Charity. She was longlisted for a London Book Fair Trailblazer Award in 2019 and 2020, and also took part in the first British Council’s International Publishing Fellowship (2019-2020). In 2021 she became a Trustee of Manchester Literature Festival.