Growing up, I was the classic ‘child-that-loves-books’, continually accompanied by a paperback or two and finding time to read when I was brushing my teeth, eating dinner or walking down the street (ouch, lampposts). I feel really lucky to now work in an industry in which book obsession is a veritable asset, rather than a hindrance! I’m definitely an example of how working in retail can cross over into working in publishing and that it’s not all about ‘knowing someone who knows someone’ (which I think it can sometimes feel like from the outside…).
After finishing my degree at Leeds University, I was a bit clueless as to what I wanted to do – I wanted to work in publishing, but didn’t really have a clue how to start. I wasn’t brave (or knowledgeable) enough to have applied for internships, plus I was still living in Leeds, so the thought of moving down to London to work for no money was terrifying! Then I started working at Waterstones and I can truly say it was my first step on my path to publishing. I came out of university with a degree in English and Classical Literature, able to talk about Cheever, F.R Leavis, Juvenal and Catullus – but with absolutely no knowledge of what books were at the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list! Working on the front line of bookselling (fist-bumps to my fellow booksellers on the grind), putting twenty-five copies a day of Atonement and Harry Potter through the tills and advising customers on the latest Sophie Kinsella title, all helped me to gain a real awareness of current publishing trends, which helped me enormously when it came to applying for jobs.
I’d advise anyone wanting to work in this industry to always be aware of what’s in the bestseller charts – you may only want to work exclusively with niche literary fiction or hard SF, but you still need to know that Fifty Shades of Grey is breaking sales records and inspiring the re-emergence of erotica in the UK market.
One day I answered an ad in the back of The Bookseller (the publishing industry bible, and still one of the best sources of information, job adverts and gossip!), and after an interview in that there London, I landed a job as a buying assistant for crime/thriller fiction at BCA book clubs. I loved the thrill of meeting publishers, getting to see the upcoming fiction from all the major houses (my desk was always awash with proofs) and negotiating deals for our main selections with rights managers (as we bought the rights to produce our own World hardbacks and QPD editions. Yes, those oddly-shaped small editions you always see in charity shops nowadays.).
I eventually left BCA, having worked my way up to buyer for crime/thriller and literary fiction (even more proof copies on my desk), and was lucky enough to have my name passed on to HarperCollins, who were looking for someone for their fledgling Avon division to work across the board in sales and editorial. This was probably the best introduction I could have had to working at a trade publisher – I got to learn from two of the best in the business in retail and editorial and we were setting up a whole division with just three people so it was vital to be able to handle a variety of different tasks; from presenting our books to buyers at Sainsbury’s, representing HarperCollins on industry-wide projects with libraries, trying to secure review coverage with newspapers and magazines, to handling the editorial process from acquisition all the way to production stage. I think this kind of multi-tasking is more and more common in publishing and it’s important to keep abreast of innovations in the field, especially as the digital revolution has changed the landscape so much. Now editors have to be even more marketing-savvy to ensure their books stand out in a crowded market.
By the time I left Avon in 2011 I was a commissioning editor, working across women’s commercial fiction and crime. I now work as a freelance editor/proofreader for a number of major publishing houses, as well as people looking to self-publish. I was fortunate to have my name recommended to Darley Anderson when they were looking for a crime/thriller reader and I was leaving HarperCollins. I have been working here part-time since January 2012 and I love it! I do the initial assessment of the crime/thriller submissions, passing anything suitable on to Darley and offering editorial guidance to some of the authors we represent. I feel very lucky to actually get paid for reading and the thrill of discovering a manuscript with potential never diminishes.
While there’s no denying that editorial jobs at major trade publishers are definitely sought-after, if you’re passionate about books and are prepared to work hard across a variety of tasks, you’ll be rewarded with a fulfilling, dynamic and stimulating job that never really feels like work.
Use all the resources available – for example, The Publishing Training Centre in London runs industry-accredited training courses on editing and proofreading, and if you’re from a BME background, Equality in Publishing (Equip) offers advice, case studies and advertises job vacancies and The Bookseller carries current vacancies. And once you’ve got that foot in the door, network all you can and ask advice from those who are already doing your dream job. Most people will be happy to meet you for coffee and allow you to pick their brains. It’s a small industry and you never know who will have the perfect vacancy for you. And most of all, never lose your passion for books! I still read when I’m brushing my teeth and feel panicky at the thought of a journey without at least one book in my bag …