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Tips on getting into publishing – Everything you need to know from industry experts

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‘What do you want to do with your life?’ A question often dreaded by students and graduates. It’s even harder to answer if you change your mind about your career path. But a switch in direction doesn’t have to be so daunting.

A year ago, when I started an MA in publishing our tutors asked what we studied at undergrad; as expected, the majority studied English. Although, some came from other backgrounds, like History. And if there is one thing studying a masters taught me, it’s that all skills are transferable. Each skill set learnt from studying a degree, like researching and analysing, are essential to many industries.

As a full-time student, I learnt the tricks of the trade within a year. MA publishing students were given priority access to events, like The Publishing Conference, hosted by Comma Press. Gaining a degree familiarises you with how this fast-paced industry works. You quickly pick up an understanding of the language, and the guidance from the tutors is unparalleled. Basically, a degree equips you for a job in publishing well.

While having a degree is a good starting point, it’s not the only option. Internships are a great way to get your foot in the door; it’s another way of discovering if publishing is for you. Although they can be very competitive. Penguin Random House offers both internships and The Scheme, which opens opportunities for those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic, or lower socio-economic backgrounds. HarperCollins also hosts an Early Careers programme where publishing hopefuls spend 18 months in various rotations across the business, including editorial, audio or digital.

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Still unsure if publishing is for you? Attend events says Key Account Executive at Bloomsbury, Josh Moorby. He recommends attending The Society of Young Publishers events and “reaching out to people in the industry”. Held across the UK, SYP events are a great way to network and get your name out there. Throughout the pandemic, we saw events move online, even so, you still get the opportunity to hear from professionals with years of experience. 

Moorby also suggests “looking into as many of these free resources as possible so that you can understand the nature of the industry before applying for jobs”. There are some events that are more specialised, like The Bookseller Children’s Conference. For news and events, you can also keep an eye on The Bookseller, SYP and What’s New in Publishing.

Looking to enhance your publishing CV? Founder of The Book Pitch Doctor and publisher, James Spackman says: “Applicants who stand out to me are those who are already engaging and taking action. Not just commenting on book-related stuff online but making a zine, starting a podcast, instigating projects that demonstrate their passion for books and their curiosity to learn.” 

Reflecting on what makes a CV stand out, Spackman says: “I tend to find ones which are honest and authentic quite attractive. Everyone has qualifications, but if I believe you as a person with interests and motivations that are relevant… you’re winning!”

Jane Johnson, Editorial Director at HarperCollins, shares her insight on what she seeks in a candidate: “When I was recruiting, the most important thing I’d look for on a CV was the applicant’s personal statement. I’d be looking for a passion for books, wide reading interests as well as an in-depth interest in the area I represent; literacy, clarity of expression, evidence of not being afraid of hard work; and a degree of humility.”

Johnson is honest about the process: “I’m not when seeking an assistant editor, looking for someone who wants to be promoted to being an editorial director ASAP and is looking for a quick step up. Ambition is all well and good, but promotions have to be earned.”  

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And top tips to becoming an editor? “Read, read, read, read widely,” says Johnson. “Hone your skills at writing different sorts of copy. Pick a favourite book and write a 2pp summary of it – a reader’s report giving a short precis of the plot, the good and bad points and the saleability; then write a three-paragraph cover copy for it; then a two-line elevator pitch: a very useful exercise!”

What are the most important traits that make a good editor? “The ability to read fast with attention and an eye to what the publisher is looking for; but also genuine innovation,” says Johnson. Another key trait that Johnson believes to be essential is, “the willingness to fight for your authors in meetings even if it makes you unpopular.”

When starting a career, it’s important to be open to any job that provides experience. That’s why Elizabeth Briggs, Senior Editor and Rights Manager at Saqi Books, advises to “cast your net a bit wider than editorial jobs with the biggest publishers”. She adds: “There are some brilliant places to work in the book/literature industry, so don’t rule out other avenues, such as literary agencies, arts PR firms and book festivals too! And pick up a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook.”

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Publishers are beginning to become regionally diverse. So, for those publishing hopefuls who aren’t keen on moving to London, there are other options. Harper North, an imprint of HarperCollins, opened a Manchester office in 2020. Hachette imprint, Orion, also has Northern offices in Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

“Traditionally, London has always been the centre of the industry, and that’s where most of the media, retailer headquarters, critics, movers and shakers live and work. Publishers are now setting up regional hubs, which is a good thing in order to improve diversity of experience and outlook, but I think it will always be necessary to make regular trips to the capital,” says Johnson.

Johnson elaborates on her experience, “Getting new writers established requires a lot of networking, both in-house and out in the world, and a lot of perseverance, and that means being in the same room with people.”

Tutors from Manchester Met’s publishing MA encourage new writers to get involved early and keep up-to-date with industry news, especially trends and concerns. Considering we’re all busy students, one of the brilliant ways to do this is by listening to podcasts. Bookcareers provide career advice and Inside Publishing, presented by The Society of Young Publishers, hosts discussions with industry professionals about different roles and topics, like diversity. Publishing Insight also features interviews with professionals from a wide array of roles, such as literary agents and editorial directors.

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Other recommended ways to make your CV extraordinary include following publishers’ lists. “Including a line in your CV/cover letter about what you liked about a publisher’s recent campaigns or titles shows that you’re already engaging with the content you’ll be expected to learn in the job,” says Moorby. “For me, that’s a much clearer statement of someone’s drive to work at a publishing house rather than more general points such as how much they enjoy reading or their favourite classic.”

When asked how someone could make themselves stand out, Briggs says: “It’s important to use what makes you unique. Think about what you have that other applicants don’t.  

Give the publishers a reason to remember you.

About the author / 

Debbie Alty

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