Kate McKellar is Senior Publishing Manager in Humanities for Wiley and has an enviable amount of experience in the industry. Here, she talks about her entry point into the industry, the value of gaining experience in a small publishing house, and how she started her career without doing an internship and – gasp! – without moving to London.
I landed my very first job in publishing by being relentlessly annoying.
Apparently, the defining trait of successful people (am I successful? I’m writing this in my pyjamas, which honestly could be a sign either way), is persistence. And while that might be difficult to remember after you’ve been ghosted in your fortieth application for an editorial assistant, it is key. The jobs are out there, you will find one – but how? And, more importantly, where?
Publishing, as with any creative/creative-adjacent industry, is desirable and therefore competitive. It seems like every young person with a love for books and a commitment to grammar is dead set on working in the industry, and while both of those things are important, there’s much more to it than correcting proofs for best-selling novelists with a lovely fountain pen while wearing fabulously bohemian knitted jumpers. If that fantasy sounds quite specific, it’s because that’s exactly how I pictured the industry before I actually arrived in it, all the way back in 2009.
After I finished my Master’s degree in Literature up north, I found myself at a strange loose end. The only positive was that I had a polished and professional career plan, which went thusly: "I like to read, I’ll do publishing." Genuinely, that was it. I was a stupendously stupid young adult and it honestly never occurred to me even to make use of my (excellent) university careers service. If you have the opportunity to do so, take it. They are very helpful.
I didn’t really want to go to London, as I’d grown up in rural Oxfordshire and was frightened by the Tube (very sinister energy, the Tube, all that dusty darkness and looking at strangers under fluorescent carriage lights). At 33, I am still frightened by the Tube, which I feel I can admit to you here. London wasn’t my dream, which of course made it much harder to figure out where I should be. I know you’ll have heard by now that trade publishing is very South-East focused, and it can feel like such a hurdle to overcome if you don’t want, or can’t afford, to be in London.
So, yes to publishing, no to London. What to do?
I was extremely fortunate to be within bus distance of a local, family-run, trade publishers called Carnegie Publishing. They did everything from walking guides, memoirs and recipe books, and they partnered with larger publishers such as Liverpool University Press, RIBA, and Bluemoose Books to provide typesetting and design services. I hounded the poor owners for a job, said I’d work for free, please oh please would they let me come in one day a week? And because they were kind people, they said "Good grief, yes, fine, you can come in one day a week if only you’ll stop going on at us. PS, bring biscuits."
And that’s exactly what I did, while working in retail to pay rent. I learned how to scan slides of trains on an enormous 1970s glass drum scanner, I learned how to use Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, I learned the full set of old-fashioned proofreader marks. I also, memorably, took off a good portion of the tip of my left index finger cutting galley proofs on the big guillotine, after which I was banned from using it. In the accident handbook, we noted the cause of injury as "overconfidence." Because it was a small company, everyone did a lot of everything. I worked with authors, created invoices, retouched old photographs, collated indexes, designed covers – I learned almost every aspect of taking a book from manuscript to printed object. It was an invaluable opportunity, and far better than being stuck filling envelopes for six weeks as an intern at a larger publisher.
After a little while I begged to come in for two days a week, and then I suggested that perhaps if they paid me I could buy everyone more biscuits, and then after that I said, "Look, can I just come here all the time?" And that’s how they ended up with a junior assistant that had, essentially, wormed her way in by gently grinding them down until I had a desk of my own. Persistence!
However, this method is not possible for everyone. I was fortunate that they had the power to make room for me – that’s not always the case in larger companies where the hiring process is much more formal. It was also the case that, happily and by complete accident, I enjoyed the operations of publishing. I liked scanning slides, and using Photoshop, and filing invoices. I was thrilled to talk to authors over the phone for hours about incredibly detailed corrections. It was satisfying to paginate the perfect index. It was completely different to what I had imagined publishing might be, and I loved it.
It is critical to remember that publishing is a business, and that you will be working with clients, products and data. Particularly at entry level, jobs are often very admin-heavy and assistants take up the burden of maintaining databases, creating reports, and focusing on the detail. Whichever path you choose, between trade or academic publishing, between publicity or marketing or editorial or events, this is an essential truth of starting in the industry.
With this in mind, where do we start?
While traditional internships at larger publishers can certainly be enjoyable and useful, they are not a possibility for everyone. Aside from being outrageously competitive, they are often unpaid and usually in London. This is a significant barrier to entry for many people, and although the industry is getting better at recognising this and providing payment, it remains that there just aren’t enough of these to go around.
A solution I like to talk about (sometimes I go around the place and give out career advice to poor souls who take time out of their lives to listen to me) is a two-pronged alternative focus of regional presses and fixed-term contracts.
Pros: there are lots of brilliant small presses all around the country, from Scotland to Brighton. Some of these you may have heard of, some perhaps not, but as they are often independent (i.e. not imprints of larger umbrella companies), they are usually listed on the IPG website. The Independent Publisher’s Guild is a brilliant source of information for small presses, and they have a jobs page! Perfect. Salt, Bluemoose, Comma Press, Verso, Dead Ink – all regional trade publishers putting out impressive books by impressive authors. A job at one of these presses may still require a move, depending on where you are, but they are generally in places where the cost of living is much more in line with an entry-level salary (side-eye here to London and Oxford). And, as demonstrated above, there’s more opportunity to get stuck into all aspects of publishing, where larger companies tend to silo their departments.
Cons: generally, these are much smaller entities. While they’re a great place to start, there may not be much room for upward advancement, however it’s still a great way to get a foot in the door. You may also find that the jobs on offer aren’t exactly what you think you’d like to do, e.g. they’re advertising for a marketing assistant, but you’d really like to do design. My advice is to apply anyway, especially if you’re going for entry-level. All experience is good experience, and you can always make a lateral move later if you need to. The point is to start somewhere.
Pros: less competitive than full-time positions. These are usually offered as a support on a one-time project, or to cover maternity leave, and are usually between 6-12 months. Publishing is a female-dominated industry, which means that maternity cover contracts come up frequently. Any FTC is a great way to try your hand at various aspects of the publishing business, and the benefit here is that if it turns out you aren’t so keen on events, or production, the role has a natural finish; it’s as valuable to figure out what you don’t like as much as what you do like! Sometimes, depending on circumstances, a fixed-term role can turn into a full-time role, or if the company has something else opening up then you may be their primary consideration if you’ve been doing a great job.
Cons: obviously, it’s a finite term. Depending on what your personal needs are regarding job security, FTCs aren’t always viable. But for entry-level candidates, they can be a wonderful opportunity to get a foot in the door and get some experience, plus you’ll get paid!
After my time in trade, I moved to Oxford to work in academic publishing (via a brief stint working for a publisher in San Diego, where I learned how to make both ebooks and lethal margaritas). I missed academia and I still didn’t want to live in London, so academic publishing was the natural choice. Oxford is home to many large academic publishers, including Oxford University Press (which also has a trade books arm, take note), Wiley, Elsevier and Taylor & Francis. There are also excellent university presses in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Cambridge, and Manchester. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so do have a google if you feel so inclined.
As with trade, you can work in academic publishing and do marketing, events, design, editorial, and so on. But do be aware that shifting out to academic makes it extremely difficult to get back into trade, despite so many of the skills being transferable.
And so, persist. I have applied for (literally) hundreds more jobs than I have ever been given, at all levels, across many different companies. You only need one application to go all the way. To the women reading this, who worry that they may not tick every box on a job ad: apply anyway. You never know what someone else might see in you.
It is entirely possible to have a long and successful publishing career without sacrificing your economic and mental health to unpaid internships, or to the competitive stress of London. I’d love to see publishing expand – both geographically and ideologically – to accommodate anyone who wants to be involved, particularly from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic or working-class backgrounds. All of us working in the industry have a responsibility to acknowledge that the structures we currently have in place, that the systems we are all part of, inadvertently and shamefully exclude a more representative workforce, and that we are the poorer for it. Hopefully, some of the information I’ve shared here has made it a little easier to figure out a way in. And when you get there, take biscuits.
Kate McKellar on Twitter.
Wiley on Twitter.