Flourishing in Publishing

talks to publishing veteran Lorna Petty about the best ways to break into this competitive industry

Image: Paul Watson

Working in publishing is many a student’s dream – for some, it becomes a reality. Lorna Petty, a Cambridge English Literature graduate, initally worked for Amberley Publishing (a publishing house specialising in local, historical non-fiction) as an assistant editor and then as a junior com- missioning editor, before going on to work in Japan as a freelance editor for Darkhorse Manga. Plenty of undergraduates strive for such, but what’s the reality actually like?

Many people assume that getting into publishing is a case of “who you know” and not “what you know”, especially with the rise of London-centric unpaid internships which many graduates cannot afford. While major publishing houses such as Penguin do offer competitive graduate programmes, it’s easy to wonder if a starting salary between £12 000 and £15 000 makes it really worth pursuing.

Petty was eager to remind publishing-minded graduates that there’s not just one, standard route into the industry. After all, not all the industry myths are true; Petty hadn’t done a publishing internship before her first job, and she simply applied for it “on a whim” online. For her, highlighting different, unexpected skills made all the difference: “In the interview, they were most impressed that I had a fundamental level of digital literacy: I could use basic Photoshop and later learned to use other digital software to prepare images. I’d also been running and illustrating a literary blog of my own for about a year previously. It wasn’t so much that my blog was popular or particularly flashy – it wasn’t! It just demonstrated I had some aptitude for learning how to use new programmes and that I had been invested in my own self-development.”

Publishing is no longer about merely reading books and writing notes in the margins. As the world becomes more digitised by the day, so too does the publishing industry. Programmers with no literary background but a wealth of technology expertise are in- creasingly being recruited, and Petty believes that Humanities graduates should ensure that they’ve got similar skills. She was surprised by the level of variety in a junior editor’s role, from photocopying to digitally editing images yourself. “Be uent in social media,” advises Petty, a tip that will be a relief to many aspiring publishers. “Lots of older publishing houses have no idea so that really helps. Show that you’ve written in lots of different formats and have basic digital fluency – you don’t have to be excellent, but having a basic knowledge of how websites work is invaluable.”

Believe it or not, but the fact that publishing internships are so hard to find might not be such a bad thing. “Any experience which involves you writing and producing media is useful. Charity work is a really good one. For example, when I lived in Japan I worked for Stonewall Japan and produced a whole bunch of material with a Japanese editor on health- related issues in their community, which was not something that had ever been produced bilingually and it ended up having a very wide circulation. I never expected all that and I was able to put on my CV that we’d had this circulation of hundreds of thousands of people and this amazing print run. You can get opportunities anywhere.”

Wider experience in another field is definitely something Petty encourages, as “nowadays, they’re demanding way more from graduates in publishing.” A marketing background would never go amiss, but graduates shouldn’t keep their horizons too small. The people publishing houses employ can be just as diverse as the books they sell. “It’s an industry currently struggling to change its business model to maintain profitability. It’s worth trying to diversify yourself and make sure you’re able to do multiple different things so you have more exibility. You knowing how to convert and upload photos might be what gets you the job because that’s what they’re missing.”

Even when you land the publishing job, don’t just stop there. “Try to diversify your working portfolio. That’s something I didn’t do when I started out and I wish I had,” admits Petty. “The most successful people had various different jobs; they worked informally online while they worked their internships. Someone I know edited for mugglenet.com, and Pottermore’s the same. It might sound a bit strange and informal but they’re very popular and you’re editing content that millions of people will see so you can stick that on your CV.”

The people publishers employ can be just as diverse as the books they sell

The fact is, work in publishing isn’t consistent. Workloads vary depending on the sizes of the print run and the different stages of the process, but many are able to turn these lulls to their advantage and carve out the time to pursue additional work. “Some people study for foreign languages while they’re [working as a junior editor] so they can add something to their CV and could go into translation work. Other people, now they’ve got an inside look at publishing, write their own material just for entertainment. Other people worked in political activism – which is really useful given the high level of writing and marketing there. Work isn’t very consistent, so have something else to keep you entertained during an unpredictable workday schedule.” Having some time on your hands at work is no bad thing if you use the time right; it offers a valuable chance to build your profile and accrue as much experience as possible.

The publishing house that could provide your big break doesn’t necessarily need to be a well-known name. Petty worked for Amberly Publishing, a small company based in Stroud, Gloucestershire – not quite the cosmopolitan London location aspiring publishers dream of. “Pick your publishing house based on how you can live, not just the job itself – that’s why I picked Amberly,” Petty advises. Smaller companies often have more room for progression, offering a chance to develop your skills and improve your chances of landing that dream job editing fiction. Petty recommends “Aiming for non-fiction first”, especially since “Historical non-fiction tends to be more regional so there’s always a demand for it, it’s way easier to get into so you’ll progress faster and then you can move sideways into fiction.”

Petty’s greatest personal editing success came as something of a surprise: a book about steam tractors, proving that victories can come in strange places when working in such a varied industry. Her book sold four times its initial print run: “I was so embarrassed because it was about steam tractors!” Petty laughs, “But when you see the first thing that you edited on the shelves in a bookshop, that’s really exciting – even if it’s about steam tractors! It’s exciting to see that it’s yours, and you can get a bit possessive about it. Make sure you take the small victories because it’s never going to be big, nobody’s going to give you the new White Teeth to edit, or any other big novel. You have to start small, but that’s not a bad thing.”

Nowadays, many authors and editors are eschewing publishing houses altogether, instead moving into self-publishing. For prospective writers, this can actually be a truly positive aspect to a publishing industry that’s increasingly moving online. Petty’s noticed that “A lot of people self publish”. Surprisingly, publishers may be more interested in your teen fanfiction than you ever realised. “This can be done anonymously, for instance, via archiveofourown (a fanfiction website). It sounds unusual but a lot of published authors hone their writing skills that way. Also, it’s good because there’s a digital community there who comment on people’s writing with advice and it’s a good way to work out how you want to market yourself. Smaller companies and small magazines are useful as well, try short stories! Really, it’s worth starting small, say to yourself ‘I’m going to publish an article’ rather than ‘I’m going to publish a novel’ – a novel is a very ambitious starting point. And be aware that your work won’t necessarily be accepted first time around – that’s fine and that’s normal.”

However, with a bit of market research, those keen to bepublished might find their stride selling work online. “At the end of the day you’re selling a commodity,” reminds Petty. “If there’s no market for it there’s no point producing it. This might mean you end up writing on something you’re not particularly keen on, or in an area you find a bit ridiculous like romances, but if that’s what people want to read that’s what will sell. A lot of authors have honed their skills by churning out formulaic romances. It’s worth trying your writing out on someone from your target audience and seeing if it works. Have fun with it, try to enjoy writing it otherwise it probably won’t be enjoyable to read. That’s also a good way of making a boring genre interesting, – always a useful skill because publishing’s full of that!”

The publishing industry is growing exponentially and while there’s still room for traditional progression, it’s important to remember that the industry is constantly changing. “Gardening Weekly was a friend’s starting point in publishing, and now she’s working in fiction, because she’d done an internship at a greenhouse and knew what the owers were and could spell all the names. She had this random knowledge and was able to apply it,” remembers Petty. It’s the kind of story which sums up all of Lorna Petty’s advice: diversify your skills, don’t focus all your energies into getting into Penguin or Random House, and keep yourself busy. It might be a “who you know” industry, but what you know is becoming more and more important.