Publishing: An Impenetrable Industry?
Last week I spent my Friday evening with a gaggle of publishing students and ‘Stationers’ at the opulent Stationers Hall, tucked away beside St. Pauls Cathedral and just far enough away to escape the potent stench of the camp. The occasion was debate – an event titled ‘On the Job or In the Book: Knowledge vs Practice in Publishing.’ The speakers – in the ‘knowledge’ corner were Alison Baverstock, MA Publishing Course Leader at Kingston University (and my own recently ex-tutor) and Mary Ann Kernan, Program Director of City’s MA Publishing Studies. Both would presumably champion the veritable worth and merit that such a qualification holds and beat down any doubters. In the ‘practice’ corner: Amanda Ridout, Managing Director of Phaidon Press (and my current boss) and Meike Ziervogel, Publisher at Peirene Press, a relatively new publishing venture which focuses on producing beautiful English editions of ‘novellas’ in translation. Sounding the death knell of the book was Nicholas Lovell, Director of GAMESbrief, realist and self-confessed ‘gamer.’
The evening started with five short lectures from each member of the panel exploring issues effecting the industry but always bringing it back to the topic in question: how useful is a Publishing qualification in an industry which demands no specific qualifications, experience or skills – and one which prides itself on attracting people from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Students were craning forward in their seats hoping to be told that an MA – the qualification they were paying upwards of five thousand pounds to receive, most enduring the relentless struggle of London living on a minimal budget, all while juggling part-time jobs and internships with job-hunting – would be the welcome pass which would grant entry to this largely impenetrable industry. Most of them would leave with a heavy heart. As I was there as a representative of Phaidon, many students asked me how I got ‘in.’ I was in the privileged position of having done both, but in a rather roundabout way. I started with the practice part - after graduating from UEA with a BA English Literature I moved to London, started working in a bookshop full-time and interning during my paid holidays, something I did dutifully for two years. At the time, the thought of going back to University hadn’t even crossed my mind – I had always (and still do, to a certain extent) viewed an MA as luxury, a preserve of those with wealthy parents, savings and no particular career direction. As someone who was living a hand-to-mouth existence, I didn’t think for a moment that this path was open to me. Therefore, I continued to work my way up in the Bookshop, becoming a buyer and ‘merchandiser,’ believing that I would eventually break into publishing through sheer hard work and determination. In my second year, I was applying for almost any entry-level position which came up. I worked out (after around 30 applications) that I was getting almost two interviews for every ten applications made. Somewhat disheartening but at least I was getting interviews as opposed to some of my fellow publishing-wannabes. The interviews would always go very well, as a rule companies were always impressed with my bookselling experience and general commercial awareness (vital in whatever area you wish to go into), along with the work experience I had managed to squeeze in. However, this was not enough to allow entry through those golden gates. I had second interviews, even third in some cases but was always pipped at the post by someone who had more experience or – in at least two instances – someone who had an MA in Publishing.
So after numerous rejections, each one taking with it a small part of my soul and actually making me less confident for the next, I decided that something had to be done. I couldn’t continue with the grueling cycle of application (wait two weeks) > interview (wait two weeks) > second interview (wait two weeks) > rejection (usually by a formal ‘template’ style e-mail containing little or no feedback). I wasn’t ready to accept defeat, despite entreaties from my family and friends to try something different (most of them had suffered at the hands of my terrible black moods following another failure). I needed to actively do something which would better my chances, equip me with all of the necessary skills AND restore my confidence. This is when I began looking into an MA. Publishing MA courses are unlike many other MAs because they vocational and practical, the hours of teaching were intensive and the assignments and tasks set are hands-on and challenging. I chose Kingston because the price was reasonable (I took out a ‘Personal Development Loan’ – quaint name that - to cover the course fees) the University was in close proximity to my abode and I instinctively felt as if I would fit in there at the Open Day. I accepted my place and began looking for part-time work. I was lucky enough to land a part-time 3 days per week Admin/Receptionist job at a small publishing house called Anova which I could fit in around the course. This was ideal – it was almost like a paid internship and as it was a small company I was given the opportunity to help out with lots of different tasks – I was learning skills on the course which I could test out in a professional arena. I helped Marketing to write press releases and arrange mail-outs, I did the occasional Editing task but most of all it was useful to see how a real publishing house functioned. I was very fortunate to be in this position and I worked there for the duration of the course, in addition to undertaking a 2 week internship at a bigger commercial Publisher. Still, it was extremely difficult juggling this with the demands of the course – most of my weekends and evenings were spent doing the required reading, preparation and assignments. I had very little money (this is something which hasn’t changed since getting my first proper job– be warned!) It required time-management skills of an almost military nature and unwavering optimism that it was all going to be worth it. BUT I no longer felt utterly hopeless – I was doing everything I could to make myself more employable.
And what did the course provide I hear you ask? Well on a general level it meant I could continue my quest with the support and empathy of a group of wonderful and like-minded people, (who I know will be worthy contacts for the future) and I could absorb the advice given by those who had been through this wearying cycle before. On a more practical basis, I learnt about the less-romantic-but-vital ‘business’ side of publishing – the legal and financial aspects, the effects of the digital revolution and the challenges facing the industry in its fight for survival. It gave me the chance to thrash out these issues, to voice my opinion confidently in a measured and articulate fashion and furnished me with a greater all-round understanding of the industry as a whole. Furthermore, it restored my confidence in my own ability and ideas. The practical skills were clearly very useful (and are utilized in my current role) but confidence is what the MA gave me more than anything else. This summer I returned to the job hunting, another year older, armed with a finely-honed CV on which experience and qualifications were equally represented. And although I faced another handful of rejections, I did manage to land that first job. Was it because I had an MA? I’m not sure. In fact, many of the people in my office didn’t even know I had one until I asked their opinion on the debate. And I remain the only person in the company with a Publishing MA. Is my MA useful for the job? Definitely. I wouldn’t have the first clue about my position if I hadn’t taken a certain modules in Rights and International relations. Moreover, certain responsibilities and tasks which would have seemed daunting before are suddenly less terrifying when you have the knowledge behind you.
What an MA does give you is the opportunity to study something you love in glorious depth. It allows you the time and resources to explore your particular interest, become involved in it and maybe even further its development in some way. It can help you to realize your true potential and push you to the very limits of ambition. I never thought I’d be capable of writing a 15,000 word dissertation – I never imagined I’d end up interviewing publishing heavyweights such as Kate Mosse and Lennie Goodings because they wanted to contribute to MY project. I could never conceive of the possibility of feeling comfortable presenting a new idea to a room of thirty people. The MA pushed me out of my comfort zone in the best possible way. I know that for me, it was absolutely the right thing to do.
So to return to the original topic – the debate. Although the speakers all had slightly different opinions on based on their own very different experiences of the industry , the one point they all agreed on is that there isn’t a magic formula. No single thing can guarantee you a job in this industry. Alison Baverstock extolled the importance of curiosity and an inquiring mind while Meike Ziervogel valued the ability to correctly stack a dishwasher (because it shows a well-ordered mind apparently). Nicholas Lovell wagered that in the current climate, staying on top of technological developments and trends is vital while Mary Anne Kernan believe it was a mixture of all of these qualities. However all five agreed that passion, dedication, enthusiasm and ambition will serve you well, whatever you end up going into. Optimism and relentless determination are also pre-requisites. A bulging trust fund or wealthy benefactor wouldn’t go amiss – it might make the journey a little more comfortable - but is by no means essential. In fact, once you do break through you will be amazed by how many ordinary, down-to-earth people there are beavering away in publishing houses.