BLOG: LBF 19 – Getting Ahead in Publishing

This year at London Book Fair, the Society of Young Publishers ran two panels – How to get into Publishing, and How to get ahead in Publishing. I have been to several of the SYP careers panels, and they are always very engaging and well-run, with excellent speakers, so I was pleased to be able to attend the next one – I’ve levelled up! – and get advice on how to progress my career now that I have managed to get my first role. You can find the tweets I sent on the day in a thread here, and from others by using the hashtag #SYPahead19.

As with all their panels, the speakers were excellent, and from a mix of backgrounds. Phoebe Morgan is an author and editorial director at Trapeze Books and perhaps has had the most traditional career route, working her way up from Publishing Assistant at Octopus; Aimée Felone is the co-founder of Knights Of, an inclusive children’s publisher; Alastair Horne is a PhD student and freelancer, who has previously worked on digital publishing within the academic sector; and Jo de Vries, the co-founder of Conker Books and lecturer at Bath Spa University.

One point which all the panelists were keen to emphasise was that openness to change and being willing to try an indirect route could provide unexpected opportunities for you in your career. Equally, all experience is good experience and whilst it might not immediately show results, it could pay off further down the line. This was certainly an approach I have taken in my attempts to break into the industry – the more I knew about different areas, the more well-rounded and adaptable I could be. The publishing industry is constantly changing, so assuming that you know everything is dangerous. You can always be learning and developing, and asking people for help with learning can be an excellent way to build contacts and develop networks!

Taking risks is important too, and making changes where necessary to help you move along can be key to ensuring your career progresses. Alastair Horne didn’t see real progression until he moved employer, whilst Aimée Felone jumped from Assistant Editor to founding her own publisher with support from her co-founder David Stevens.

As was mentioned at the Ageism in Publishing panel, a supportive network of other people within the industry can be invaluable. This shouldn’t include only people older or more established than you either, your peers and new people to the industry can bring important new perspectives to you, but also support you and help you. SYP events can be great for meeting people and getting advice, but if you are unable to attend these due to location restrictions then digital networks are an excellent way to engage with others in the industry.

A point I found particularly useful was that proactivity is key in moving your career forwards. Alastair said that “Your professional development is too important to leave to your employer”, and it really stuck with me. Pushing your professional development and engaging with the industry can be a key way to help you move ahead, but also not being afraid to ask for more responsibilities at work. By identifying trends and gaps in the market, things other publishers are doing which your workplace is not, you can present this as an opportunity which can benefit both your employer and yourself.

This was also noted as a way to progress your career if you were not based in London, by taking the initiative to exploit gaps in the market and make yourself a resource to other publishers. The practicalities of this may prove a little more difficult in practice however – whilst there are publishers outside of London, they may be limited in resources to fund anything new within their team. If you decide to set something up yourself, finding the capital to do so can be difficult for many, and breaking into the market on your own can be even more difficult. The panel also mentioned the potential of ‘slashie’ or portfolio careers, building up experience from a range of different roles, perhaps through freelancing alongside your current role.

They discussed working remotely as well, saying that it was possible to find roles where work could be done from home with the current technology available to the industry. In that respect, I feel things are not so easy to achieve – of the 80 jobs I applied for over the last 18 months, only two explicitly stated that they were designed for remote workers, and whilst many others have had a ‘work from home day’ within their weekly schedule, I expect that in this overcrowded job market not many employers would be keen to take on someone to work from home when they have a hundred other applicants willing to work in the office.

I wasn’t able to ask any further questions to ask them to develop this advice further, but it does seem that if you are looking to progress your career in the early stages then London is the best place to be. Outside of the city, you need to make the change you want to see. Whilst the onus is always on you to push yourself forward – taking the initiative, constantly developing yourself, and making sure you are up-to-date with the industry – people who want to work outside of London have to take on a lot more personal risk to do this, if the only way to gain experience and further yourself is by going freelance or starting your own company. There is a lack of financial stability and far more potential personal financial loss in any such endeavour, and while the rewards can be great so can the potential failures. It certainly makes for an uneven playing field for London vs the rest of the country.

It’s fortunate that publishing is a passion industry – I want to know what’s happening, I want to get in touch with people, I want to keep learning and developing myself, and I have the drive to keep pushing myself forward. If it weren’t for the passion, things would feel a lot harder to move.

If it weren’t for my personal privilege, it would be a lot harder too. Being commuting-distance from London (juuuust), having a robust support network, and having a partner to support me and split the bills has made it easier for me to take advantage of opportunities. That’s not going to be the case for large swathes of the country.

But we all need to keep pushing – the change won’t happen if we don’t make it; and we can’t make it if we haven’t made our way up. Keep learning, keep asking, keep taking the initiative. That’s how Aimee and Jo founded their companies, that’s how Phoebe got her roles and wrote her novels, and that’s how Alastair became one of the go-to men for digital storytelling. They asked, pushed and made change.

That’s how you do it.


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