What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college
And plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
Opening lines of Avenue Q
As I sat in the Noël Coward Theatre part way through my first year at Royal Holloway University of London listening to these words I felt a cold chill run over me. I hadn’t even opted for the full English degree. I’d gone half and half with Drama of all things.
“What have I been thinking?” I thought. “What on earth am I planning to do with two halves of two frankly useless degrees? What am I expecting someone to hire me for? Is there much calling for someone who can convincingly look like they’re sword fighting while simultaneously quoting the opening lines of every Jane Austen novel? Surely not.”
So I did what any sensible grown-up trying to ready themselves for the sensible world of grown-ups would do:
I took a summer job at a trust fund type serious grown-up place.
You can tell by the fact that I can’t even remember the official title for this place of employment that I was not a great fit for it.
Seven weeks I worked there. Monday to Friday. That’s 35 days. 9.00am ‘til 5.30pm with a consistently full lunch hour. That means I worked there for a total of 262 hours and 30 minutes. I counted.
It wasn’t that the people weren’t all lovely. It wasn’t that I didn’t earn some essential office experience. It was just a terrible, terrible fit for me. An awful terrible horrible awful terrible fit.
The good news is it galvanised me. I knew that I had to avoid that place otherwise known as The Finance Industry. (In my mind ominous chords accompany those last three words, possibly followed by a crash of thunder.)
One thing I did with this galvanisation was to go on a proofreading and copy-editing course. It took up four days of my time and it was invaluable experience. It didn’t hurt my CV either.
After this, however, the problem was that I come from Jersey in the Channel Islands, home of (ominous chords) The Finance Industry (thunder crash). My first summer after university I got a job in Jersey handing out leaflets. For me this was preferable to the previous summer’s job to the extent that walking around with a small stone in your shoe is preferable to jumping off the Empire State Building and landing on a bicycle with no seat. Yet it still wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.
I needed to get out if I wanted to use my useless degree. I needed to head to (drum roll) London (jubilant chords). The place where the musicals lived and, as it happened, the publishing industry.
So I did what any less than sensible grown-up trying to ready themselves for the less than sensible world of grown-ups would do:
I moved in with my cousin and her husband in Croydon to look after their two toddling kids for them while they moved into and pretty much rebuilt their new house.
It was great. I spent my days watching Disney films and catching up on the latest picture books. My lovely cousin’s lovely husband even got me some proofreading experience where he worked. Ok he worked in The Finance Industry and it was unpaid work experience but there it went on my CV telling potential employers that I really, really wanted to edit, pretty please with a cherry on top.
When the wind finally changed I moved to extort hospitality off another lovely family member, this time my lovely Auntie Cathy. I rocked up at her Buckinghamshire flat in late November and didn’t leave for just under a year.
Thus began the time of sitting around in my penguin pyjamas and sending endless CVs off to every corner of the publishing industry I could think of. This earned me a total of not two, not three but one interview for an actual job. Which did not exactly go well. It was for a foreign rights position and this happened:
Interviewer A: “So you can speak Spanish and Italian, was it?”
Interviewer B: “And French, I think was?”
Me: “Um… actually just French and not exactly… fluently.” (I cannot speak French.)
Interviewer A: “Who speaks Spanish, Italian and French fluently then?”
Interviewer B: “Oh wait, that’s the next person we’re seeing.”
Do you ever get that creeping sensation that things aren’t about to turn in your favour? Yes? That.
Still it’s all experience. And that’s the point I’m gradually working towards here. It’s all experience.
Over the course of that year my lovely Auntie Cathy helped me get some work doing something close to editing for the Salvation Army and I snapped it right up. Someone very helpful who worked in publishing got me in touch with someone who needed someone to input information onto excel from what was effectively a phone book for musicians. It was a tedious job but someone had to do it, I needed the money and most of all I wanted that helpful person in publishing to know they could count on me.
As I say, I sent out about a gazillion letters carefully crafted for each individual who might read them, politely asking if I could come and do their filing for free. Sadly, there was a recession on and the best thing I gained from this was a lot of experience writing covering letters and receiving rejection. But hey, it’s all important experience.
The contact that finally got me my ‘in’ was actually a lovely friend of the lovely cousin whose lovely daughter I had sometimes helped look after while in Croydon. She knew two equally lovely people in top literary agencies to whom she mentioned me and gave me their contact details. I sent them each my most carefully crafted covering letter and by the New Year I had two unpaid internships set up at two of London’s best literary agencies.
The experience I gained there was worth the world. Both agencies were so helpful and gave me such great opportunities to learn what makes this business go.
Yet, the most important thing I learned from these internships was this one important phrase:
“Oh not at all, please let me know anything else I can do to help.” Preferably accompanied by the widest, most enthusiastic grin you can muster.
Your two main goals at an internship are:
- to extract as much knowledge and experience as you possibly can.
- to make yourself as useful as you possibly can. Ideally make yourself so useful that the thought of you leaving fills them with dread. Failing that, make yourself useful enough that they might think of you in the future if a job comes up, any job.
My first bit of paid work in the publishing industry was working in the accounts section of David Higham Associates. Yep, I’d stumbled towards The Finance Industry side of things again but I was so close to where I wanted to be and I was still learning things and being useful.
So I was there when they needed someone to cover reception for a few weeks. They knew they could count on me when they needed someone to keep the foreign rights department running during the London Book Fair. I was around when someone wanted a second opinion on a submission and when they liked what I came back with they started to use me as a reader from time to time.
It was the same at the Darley Anderson Agency, the place where I found my home.
I was there when Camilla Wray needed a bit of feedback on some opening chapters. I had just finished a huge stack of photocopying and was about to get lunch when Madeleine Buston asked if I could take a look at the children’s submissions for that day. And they liked my feedback and I found some exciting talent and eventually they gave me the opportunity to try my hand at writing my very own reader’s report on a full novel.
Interning in publishing can be tough and I am so lucky that I was able to keep my head above water financially and rely on the hospitality of various lovely family members for long enough to be available when my potential employers needed me.
On top of this, moving from an internship in publishing into a job in publishing can often be about doing both jobs at once. If you’re there to do admin you have to keep getting the admin done while simultaneously taking every opportunity to show off your knack for talent-spotting or what you hope are your keen editorial skills.
It’s hard work and you have to be in the right place at the right time ready to work hard on the off chance that this might be the moment when things will turn in your favour. But when they do, if you’re ready, it’s all worth it.
I don’t think anyone can ever really be that good at a job they hate. They certainly won’t be a joy to be around anyway; as I’m sure I wasn’t at that trust company type serious grown-up place.
That’s my second favourite thing about publishing; I don’t know anyone who is here just because they were pressured into it or they didn’t know what else to do or they just needed the money. (Incidentally, if you are going into entry level publishing for the money you might want to reconsider.) Everyone is here because they want to be. Everyone in publishing is here because they were at the right place at the right time ready to work hard and hopefully show off their talent.
So if you’re sitting in a crowded theatre somewhere thinking that it sucks to be you and worrying that you don’t have the right degree or experience or contacts then stop. All you need to get started is to want it. After that all it takes is to go out there and do whatever it takes to get all that other stuff so that when your moment does come you’ll be ready.
Oh and read. Getting and keeping a job in this industry requires an awful lot of reading which, as it happens, is my first favourite thing about publishing.