Life as an alumna: the publishing industry

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[Laura Slingo | News Editor]

I had the opportunity to talk to University of Hertfordshire graduate Gemma Leigh, about her experience in the working world as an alumna. Gemma has recently graduated with a first class honour in English Literature, and has truly excelled into a fabulous career as an editorial assistant at Palgrave Macmillan. We got talking about how she entered the publishing industry, how her degree helped her and her advice to students aiming to pursue a career in books.

Herts Alumnus and Editorial Assistant, Gemma Leigh.

TM: Have you always wanted to go into publishing? What made you decide that publishing was the career path you wanted to follow?

GL: If I’m completely honest, no. Despite loving English literature at school, enjoying reading and having an interest in language and grammar, a career in publishing never actually crossed my mind. I suppose I just thought it was another one of those extremely competitive industries that would be impossible to get into. So I left school unsure whether I wanted to go to university and I ended up working in an accountancy practice for two years. After a while I realised my heart wasn’t in the job. So when I hit a particularly low point in my life, I decided it was time to make a change and focus on something I actually enjoyed.

This led me to begin researching a career in publishing. After reading some books about the industry and carrying out some internet research, I realised that this might just be a career route I’d enjoy. I quickly became determined to realise my new goal and find an editorial position in publishing. As the majority of entry-level publishing jobs in the UK require a degree, I chose to leave my job and study English literature at university. I completed numerous internships in academic publishing whilst studying for my degree and on graduation I secured my first entry-level job as an editorial assistant at Palgrave. So being brave and taking a risk really paid off for me. I’m now pursuing a career I actually enjoy. And that’s a great feeling.

TM: How has your degree helped you enter the industry? Has it prepared you? Was it necessary for this career choice?

GL: I think I would be at a disadvantage if I didn’t have my degree. In fact, I doubt I would have been able to get the job at Palgrave without it. Whilst studying at university I was given an important insight into the world of academic publishing.

Researching literature essays, for example, involved reading a wealth of academic books from leading scholars in the discipline. This in turn made me more curious about academic publishing and gave me more of a respect for the scholars writing these books. My own lecturers, for instance, were not just lecturers; they were researchers too, collating new ideas and publishing books which opened up and gave new insights into the literary texts I was studying. So my degree sparked my interest in academic publishing and gave me the important basic understanding I needed to go away and research the industry some more.

TM: In your blog you write that publishing is a ‘notoriously tough’ industry to enter due to competition. How can graduates make sure they have the edge?

GL: I don’t think there is a formula that says ‘if you do X and Y you will definitely get your dream job in publishing’. But there are certain things you can do which will increase your chances. First of all you need to face the fact that every publishing hopeful is likely to have work experience or internships on their CV – this is a must. Although internships show a certain degree of commitment to the industry, I think it’s important for graduates to go that step further. You might like to consider joining the Society of Young Publishers, for example. They recently held their annual conference in Oxford which involved talks from a range of highly influential people in the industry, including the likes of Suzanne Collier and Catherine Clarke. They also run lots of events throughout the year and provide good networking opportunities.

Secondly, I’d advise graduates to thoroughly research the area of the industry they’re interested in. Whether that’s the editorial side of academic publishing or the marketing side of romantic trade fiction, research is a necessity. By far the most useful book I’ve come across is How to Get a Job in Publishing by Alison Baverstock, Susannah Bowen and Steve Carey. Thirdly, get involved in bookish events! Volunteering at a charity book sale or joining your literature society at university, for instance, would both look great on your CV. And finally, be aware of what the big publishers are doing by reading up on publishing news regularly. A good place to start would be The Bookseller’s website.

TM: How difficult was it to balance internships and work experience with the academic requirements of your degree?

GL: I didn’t find balancing this too difficult actually as I completed all my internships during my summers away from university. This is an approach I’d advise others to adopt for two reasons: 1) you don’t want interning to interfere with your studies, and 2) interning over the summer allows you to do a longer stint at the publishing house and gives you a much better insight into what it’s really like to work full time in the industry.

I completed a couple of two-month internships at a small academic publisher in Central London and this experience really was invaluable. It made me more passionate about the industry, gave me some important contacts, and provided me with lots of great experience to list on my CV. I think it’s important to use internships to your advantage: don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, be willing to help with anything that comes up and, more importantly, stay in touch with the publishing professionals you meet along the way – networking brings opportunities!

Books and notepad

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TM: How did you go about progressing from an undergraduate in your final year into your job at Palgrave Macmillan?

GL: By my third year at university, after already having completed numerous internships, I knew I wanted to go into academic publishing and work in editorial. I also had my eye on a handful of academic publishers who I was really interested in working for, one of which was Palgrave. So as soon as I finished my final exam, I began checking their websites daily for the latest job opportunities. I also sent out a few speculative applications to the smaller publishing houses. I made sure to spend a lot of time tailoring each one of my job applications to make sure my genuine interest in each publishing house shone through. I think this approach really paid off as I ended up being invited to numerous interviews and receiving numerous job offers. So I actually had a tough time deciding which one to go for!

TM: For undergraduates aspiring to enter the publishing industry but with little experience so far, how would you advise them to proceed?

GL: The most important thing by far is to build up a good amount of work experience in the industry. Aim to work at three different publishing houses for a month or two at a time. Not only does this help you to see whether publishing is definitely for you, it also prepares you for what to expect when working in the industry and gives you some important contacts.

TM: For those in their final year attempting to enter the publishing industry, should they be looking for jobs, work experience or internships and at what point in the year should they be looking?

GL: Great question! I think it’s entirely dependent on how much work experience you have built up by your final year at university. I had already completed three internships by my third year, so I felt confident that I had enough experience to start applying for jobs as soon as I finished university. However, if you don’t have that much experience and you’re not feeling confident I’d suggest interning for a few months, then start job hunting.

One other thing… I don’t advise completing unpaid internships for long periods of time (6 weeks +). It’s exploitative and one thing about the industry that really frustrates me. Perhaps limit yourself to how much time you’re willing to work unpaid and then spend your energy looking for paid internships. These are much less common but they do exist! Palgrave, for example, pays all its interns a good hourly rate.

TM: Is your job as an editorial assistant everything you had hoped it would be?

GL: Yes, I’m so glad I decided to take the job at Palgrave – it’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time. From contracting the book at proposal stage, to choosing cover images and handing the manuscript over to production, being an editorial assistant at Palgrave gives me the opportunity to get involved in all aspects of the publishing process. And it’s so rewarding to work with our authors throughout the full lifecycle of their book.

TM: What is your number one top tip for undergraduates hoping to enter the publishing industry?

GL: If you’re serious about going into publishing you have to fully immerse yourself in the industry: find internships, be aware of the latest publishing news, read the books that have caused a stir, go to networking events, join book clubs, connect with publishing professionals… The list goes on. But in short, my one top tip would be:


If you’re interested in more of Gemma’s handy hints, tips and nougats of experience, check out her or follow her on twitter @path2publishing

#Alumni #Interview #Publishing

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