Are Publishers Born or Made?

Jan 18, 2012

Are publishers born or made? Was the question asked at an insightful symposium at Kingston University where Course Directors, Lecturers, Publishers and Trade Associations (including the Publishers Association – Richard Mollet gave a brilliant presentation) and interested parties discussed the relevance of publishing degrees and education to the publishing industry. This was the first forum of its type and it was great to see it so well supported.

There are now 11 Universities offering publishing at graduate or postgraduate level and it was encouraging to hear how hard they work at ensuring the content of their respective courses was relevant to the industry. In particular, the universities consider an MA the equivalent of six months experience within the industry. Whilst on the other hand one publisher present said that they would prefer their employees to have a first degree in a discipline that wasn’t publishing, to give them a varied life experience. One University stated that they always told applicants to their MA course that ‘the MA will get you an interview; once you’ve got the interview it is down to you [ref] (you stand a better chance at interview if you’ve taken our interview coaching! [/ref] but it is no guarantee of a job’.

Skills were discussed heavily and it was interesting to hear that according to Skillset‘s research [ref] [/ref]51% of publishers have separate digital departments, rather than integrating digital skills into everyone’s job. I questioned whether it wasn’t a matter of time before all these skills are merged with our daily publishing functions? The key skills and areas that need to be addressed are:-

1. Digital. For a number of courses digital publishing is an option rather than a compulsory subject. Should this be the case?
2. Better grammar, spelling and punctuation. These skills are essential for a successful career in publishing, yet so many graduates are not of the standard required for publishing. (There are a number of courses available, one at Kingston and one at the Publishing Training Centre).
3. Sales skills. More emphasis needs to be given to sales skills and techniques, particularly as every department in publishing involves selling and negotiation – Editors have to sell titles to their colleagues at commissioning meetings, Rights is a selling job, Publicity have to sell titles to the media etc.
4. Publishing finance. This is addressed on all courses but it needs to be re-emphasised through and through: that publishing is a business; it is an industry and its main aim is to make money.
5. Bookscan. Students would gain an instant advantage and increase their employability by being trained in analysing complex Bookscan algorithms as part of their degree. However, the cost of Bookscan makes it prohibitive to the Universities. One delegate commented ‘the cost of Bookscan is more than the whole Department library budget’.
6. Student dissertations. A lot of work and thought goes into the student dissertations and a number contain information that could be valuable to the industry. The Association for Publishing Education are going to research how these dissertations could be shared.
7. Group/Teamwork. All courses encourage students to work as a group on a project or presentation. A number of students do not seem to like this but this group or team work is essential, as all publishing projects are a collaborative affair.
8. Networking. Networking is essential to anyone seeking a career in publishing. The Society of Young Publishers offers the best networking opportunities to anyone considering a career in the industry.
9. CV and Career Advice. That some of the students CVs and covering letters are not up to scratch. (We go to a number of universities and societies already to help address this problem. If you’d like us to come to you, please contact us, if you have already graduated we currently have mini-consultations available.)

Throughout the day we discussed internships, work experience and work placements and several employers presented to the audience details of their differing schemes. It was felt overall that an unpaid work experience placement should last no more than two weeks, during which time the student should be reimbursed for travel expenses and given a contribution towards lunches. Any placement that is longer should be paid. (In an ideal world all placements would be paid!) Hachette receive over 800 emails a year requesting placements, and throughout the year they offer 100 placements across the group, and the company does a lot of preparation for each placement, ensuring an official confirmation letter is sent, the manager and department are on board, they are briefed on health and safety, and there are enough tasks to keep them occupied. One of the things that disappoints and frustrates Hachette most is that the students coming on placements have not researched the company, in particular the imprint they are assigned to.

Diversity continues to be a major problem within the industry, (Bobby Nayyar from Dipnet was present, but many of us raised the diversity issue) and one publisher mentioned that they continue to attract white middle class females.

With so many companies irresponsibly requesting unpaid work experience over paid experience in other industries, this is surely set to continue. It was also raised that a graduate degree is now a prerequisite for the industry, and with the cost of education rising and the low salaries within publishing, that perhaps the industry needs to consider either paying staff more or looking outside the graduate workforce. I mentioned that I didn’t have a degree but had received almost 7 years ‘on the job’ training at one publishing house, and the concern must be that a number of unpaid placements are being used instead of employing salaried staff – no company employs office juniors anymore.

All in all, it was a thought provoking and interesting day and I hope that there will be more events like this in the future.

*you stand a better chance at interview if you’ve taken our interview coaching!