My first job: Part One of Working in Publishing

Alongside my ‘Path to Publication’ series on the blog, I thought I’d start one up about how I got to work in publishing. A lot of the groundwork which inspired me to think of publishing as a career came from the time I spent researching queries.

I completed an English specialist degree at the University of Toronto, but I didn’t do anything particularly publishing-specific. I had a few friends who went on to do publishing MAs at Simon Fraser and Ryerson, but I wasn’t sure if that was the route for me. That being said, I’d heard plenty of stories of how hard publishing was to get into – especially in Toronto, which has a relatively small publishing scene – and that an MA is sometimes the best foot-in-the-door you could possibly have.

Still, after I got back from bumming around the world, I knew I wanted two things: a change, and a career. For a career in publishing, the two main centres are New York and London. I already had a British passport (and therefore no worries about immigration/work visas)… so my decision was made! Plus, I would get a change of scenery and the chance to live in London again.

Look, it's London! So pretty and full of history (and publishing houses!)

I arrived in London with the benefit of having friends and family here already. But what I didn’t have was a clue about how to get into publishing! I did some research, signed up for The Bookseller’s job board and contacted a few publishing-focused recruitment agencies. One of the agents called me up: what experience did I have? I yabbed on about my experience with the U of T English Student union journal, my research assistant experience, even my work as the editor-in-chief of my high school yearbook (yes, I was stretching!), but she repeated again: what experience do I have of publishing? The answer was, of course, none. I’d never stepped foot in a publishing house, or a literary agent’s office, or done any freelance work. I was a complete and utter novice.

“Come back to us when you’ve done some work experience,” she said.

I was confused. Wasn’t work experience what they were supposed to help me get?

The withering tone that answered reminded me that she knew she was talking to a complete newbie. “No. Work experience is where you work for a publisher for free, for a couple of weeks.”

Wait a second. Work… for… free? Yes, dear readers, this is how naive I was. This seemed different from work-for-free ‘internships’ I’d read about – for one thing, they seemed so short! Only two weeks… how much can you learn in two weeks?

I was still feeling quite can-do about the whole thing, so I googled ‘publishing work experience’ and e-mailed every single publisher I could with my CV and availability. A couple of weeks went by and… zip. Zero. Nada. My optimism was taking a severe dip and suddenly I was feeling really naive. Did I really just up sticks from Toronto to come to London and do nothing?

Then, a tiny beacon of hope! I got a two-week work experience offer from a really cool children’s publisher, to start three months from then. I figured I could do some temping in offices around London until then, and really try to make enough of an impression on that publisher to turn it into a more permanent position.

Luckily, like London buses, more offers came in after that first. One was a phonecall from a lovely woman at the commercial non-fiction publisher John Blake, asking if I was free to work the very next day. Of course I was!

I showed up the next day, bright and early (way too early in fact). My plan was to find some kind of coffee shop to chill out in before arriving, but it turned out that this was not Toronto (where there is literally a Starbucks within a 100 metre radius wherever you are) but North End Road which is… er, shabby at best. But their offices were lovely (and even came complete with a little courtyard), and I was buzzing with excitement to get to work with such a fun publisher – even if, being Canadian, I had absolutely no idea who most of their celebs were. John Blake’s bestselling title is by a buxom celeb named Jordan, aka Katie Price, who is a kind of phenomenon over here, but I had no clue!

As it turned out, I was in the right place, at the right time. One of their editors was leaving (funnily enough, to take a position at HarperCollins), and they had an opening for an editorial assistant. They offered it to me at the end of my first week of work placement, and I remember calling up my family on the corner of North End Road and Lillie Road, so happy to finally have a job!

My experience was definitely unusual, and I was lucky to land on my feet so quickly. But as part of my new role, I was in charge of guiding new work experience hopefuls through the process at John Blake’s, so tune in tomorrow for a few tips I picked up on how to make the most of your work experience experience!

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