How to get into publishing

Emma Knowles, Editorial assistant
March, 2018

Graduate publishing roles are filled by confident, qualified and ambitious candidates, so bring your passion for books and knowledge of industry trends to your job applications and you'll find success

Breaking into a competitive industry is never easy, but with enthusiasm, knowledge of the UK publishing industry (thanks to some research) and the right combination of skills and experience, you could land your ideal role in publishing.

'Graduates should consider a career in the industry if they are passionate about reading and interested in what makes people read the books they do,' explains Carolyn Mays, managing director of Hodder & Stoughton.

Opportunities exist in editorial, design, production, marketing and sales departments and, with the popularity of eBooks, the growing digital market.

We asked the experts at two top publishing houses what you should expect from a career in publishing and how you can stand out from fellow candidates in this fast-paced industry.

Publishing courses

An undergraduate degree is the prerequisite for most publishing jobs, as is a good level of computer literacy.

However, it's a false assumption that English is the ideal degree subject for entry into the profession. For most publishing roles, degree subject is irrelevant, unless you'd like to work in subject-specific publishing, such as science, medical, history or art. In these cases, a degree in one of these subjects could improve your chances.

Postgraduate courses in publishing are becoming more popular, and while they won't guarantee you a job or a higher salary, they can help you to stand out in a crowd.

If your first degree is in a completely unrelated area, an MA in publishing can also provide you with industry-specific knowledge and skills, and a network of contacts.

Universities that offer Masters courses in publishing include:

  • City, University of London
  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Kingston University London
  • Plymouth University
  • University College London (UCL)
  • University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)
  • University of Derby.

Work experience in publishing

The number of applicants for publishing jobs far outweighs the number of positions available. Therefore, it's vital to give yourself an edge by gaining some form of work experience, either during your summer breaks or immediately after you graduate.

Internships and placements give you the opportunity to discover what it's like to work for a publishing house and if the career really is for you. Almost all employers expect to see this kind of experience on your CV.

For Carolyn, when it comes to being noticed nothing beats experience. 'Internships and work experience schemes are so popular because they give us a chance to assess the individual,' she says. 'Are they a hard worker, cheerful, enthusiastic?'

'If you impress the publisher at this point, they might think of you first when they have a suitable job.'

Most publishing jobs are based in London, where entry-level prospects are good. 'There are always opportunities in one department or another, but some areas, such as editorial, are more popular and competitive than others,' adds Carolyn.

The majority of companies advertise internship opportunities on their websites. Matthew Hutchinson, publicity assistant at Penguin Random House, recommends checking out industry sites such as The Bookseller, which is free to sign up to and sends out weekly jobs bulletins.

'It's important not to get taken advantage of by too much unpaid work experience. Penguin Random House and a growing number of other publishers now pay work experiencers a minimum wage.

'With any experience, paid or unpaid, make sure you get the most out of your time with a team by asking specific questions about their work, requesting experience in other aspects of their role, putting yourself forward to help out with a specific project, or asking to be introduced to colleagues in other departments. Two weeks will go by very quickly, so be proactive and show interest in the work around you.

'Social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and blogs are also great resources for finding out about entry-level programmes and connecting with people in the industry,' he says.

'Staying in touch with any people you meet face-to-face is also important. Sending a short email, just to say hi and to tell your previous mentors where you've gained experience recently could go a long way, and shows initiative.'

Alternatively, you could start your own literary blog and promote it via your social networks; you never know whose eye it may catch.

Getting a publishing job

Roles vary depending on the type of publishing and the department you work in, and while pay is reasonable you won't find top-level salaries in publishing, so you'll need a genuine love of what you do.

Areas of book publishing include:

  • academic
  • commercial or trade
  • educational
  • fiction
  • professional (finance, law etc.)
  • scientific, technical or medical (STM).

Digital publishing is also a growing field, especially in academic, educational and STM publishing.

Matthew explains why it's important for you to choose the right area to work in. 'Graduate responsibilities include supporting the publishing and creative process, so having an interest in, and passion for the kind of books being published is essential.'

As competition for jobs is fierce, it's important to keep an open mind and not discount any opportunities, e.g. if your end goal is to work in editorial, don't turn down an admin role or a job in the marketing department. You'll still learn about the company and make valuable contacts, and you never know where these jobs might lead and what internal vacancies may arise.

Opportunities differ depending on whether you work for a large or small publisher. Each has good and bad points. For example, the chance to meet and work alongside high-profile authors is more likely at bigger, well-known publishing houses, while access and exposure to other departments and experienced colleagues is more likely in smaller publishers.

'The best way to find out where you fit is to gain experience in both and then reflect on what you do and don't enjoy about them,' says Matthew.

No matter where you work, there's no denying that working alongside people who share your passions can be incredibly rewarding. 'You get the chance to work with a variety of creative professionals, all under the same roof and towards the same end goal,' says Matthew.

Increase your chance of success

Carolyn feels that winning candidates for publishing jobs can be easily identified. 'They're relaxed, enthusiastic, but not over-confident, with interesting opinions about books and the direction that publishing is heading,' she reveals. 'These are the candidates who will get the job.'

If you're determined to get ahead of the competition, don't overlook:

  • Doing your research - not just of the company you'd like to work for, but also the authors it publishes, its competitors and the wider publishing industry.
  • Sharpening your skills - 'demonstrate knowledge of spelling, punctuation and grammar. You won't get the job if you can't spell,' says Carolyn.
  • Targeting your applications - 'start your cover letter from scratch and do your research into the department's role within the publishing process,' says Matthew.
  • Speaking up - 'don't be afraid to have a view. Particularly with editorial assistant roles, the interviewer will be keen to know what you thought of the book you are discussing,' Carolyn says.
  • Thinking outside the box - 'don't just apply for the editorial positions that everyone else is applying for. Find out if marketing, publicity, rights or sales appeals to you,' advises Matthew.

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