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Leicester conference

Publishing as a Career

University of Leicester 27 November 2009

Thank you very much for inviting me to come and talk to you today. I hope what I will say will prove useful; no powerpoint here, no bullet points, just a leisurely ramble through the thickets and byways of publishing today.

Although publishing houses contain their fair share of accountants, librarians, digital enhancement specialists and the like, it is best, for our purposes here this afternoon if I split publishing careers into three main groups;

Editorial; where decisions about what to publish are taken Publicity/marketing/sales: how books are promoted, sold, advertised Production; how the book is designed, laid out, produced etc

It is probably easier if I concentrate on the first and second topics in this session because most graduates from this university will want to choose these roads into publishing. Careers in book production usually demand a fair degree of specialist knowledge in design, print technology or photographic skills and many specialist courses exist for such needs. (cf the London College of Communication 1 ).

So before I talk about these two specific fields of entry, it is worth saying a little about publishing in the 21st century which has changed so much since Anthony Blond’s book 2 appeared. Then, in the 1950s, a strong-willed publisher like Victor Gollancz or Jamie Hamilton would encourage or cajole younger writers of weak political persuasions to stiffen their sinews and make a strong statement in their writings. Or else a charmer like George Weidenfeld, having met Antonia Fraser briefly at a party, would invite her to lunch simply to hear her talk enthusiastically about the rivalry between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. The next day he would send a contract for a book about one or the other and the rest is our wonderfully enhanced view of popular history. Allen Lane, before and after the Second World War, pushed the boundaries of popular knowledge with books for the layman about philosophy, mysticism, mathematics etc. Jeremy Lewis’s biography of Lane 3 is to be highly recommended here.

But nowadays, things are very different. A publisher can go to a university and find a young academic sociologist willing and able to write a popular book about family behaviour or someone from one of the university presses can find a mediaeval historian who can write that definitive monograph about the Bordeaux wine trade 1286-1293 but such developments are

rare these days. Such projects usually arise because an editor has been asked to commission such a book or the academic has a literary agent who will be hawking his client’s wares round the various publishing houses.

Editors in publishing houses usually have as their boss an editorial director who will oversee the mss arriving at the house. So when a publisher receives a proposal for a novel and the proposal is accepted, the project will be assigned to an editor whose job ideally is to shape it and supervise the various stages of the book’s design, production and its copy-editing (a task usually outsourced to a freelance nowadays).

As he or she rises up the chain, the young editor might be encouraged to meet a literary agent, a much more common figure in the publishing world nowadays. Literary agents are really middle men between author and publisher; their job is to place their client’s work with the right publisher, obtain as favourable terms (royalties, electronic rights, paperback royalties, foreign sales etc) as they can and then keep a % for himself, usually 10% although this is rising quite a lot nowadays. Agents have a roster of clients whom they represent to publishers. Certain agencies also handle the literary estates of writers like Grahame Greene, William Golding etc. If a young novelist is taken on by an agent, it is the agent’s job to hawk the novel round to various publishers until a deal is struck. Publishers often reject suggestions from an agent and it may well hinge on the editor’s likes and dislikes. It might also depend on the state of the publisher’s list at that particular moment; whether they need a potboiler, a crime thriller, a more literary novel or a truly groundbreaking work of fiction like Ulysses. The usual practice for the payment of royalties was to make an advance, say of £10,000 set against future royalties on a sliding scale (for example, 12.5% on first 5000 copies sold of a book at £18,99 {£2,38}; so the advance would “earn out” when 4200 copies had sold). But now agents often insist on much bigger advances such as £100.000 so the publisher has to radically alter his sales predictions or do something dramatic like sell serial rights to the Daily Mail to recover the advance. Some contracts stipulate that the unearned advance cannot be repaid until three years or must be repaid before or whatever.

It is probably fair to say that rescuing mss from the “slush pile” (the unsolicited mss which arrive daily in most publishing houses) and thereby finding a nugget like Watership Down or the first Harry Potter is bit of a myth; most mss on the slush pile are poorly written, sloppily presented and deserve to be rejected. Many publishers employ outside readers who may be given a weekly slew of mss to read and report on and this can be useful way of learning about the publishing process. But editors do have to be social animals and tend to like meeting lots of different people because sometimes a novel, or a story has to be teased out of a writer who may not have considered herself worthy of the name. The story of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss’s wonderfully dyspeptic look at the lapses in punctuation which disfigure our everyday wordscape) grew out of a conversation at a drinks party between her and her eventual publisher, Andrew Franklin. He then had to work pretty hard to persuade her to write the book

In many publishing houses now, the editorial board, the editorial director or the editor will pass judgment on the need to buy or reject a work of fiction or a political work. But increasingly, sales managers want to publish certain sorts of book, especially if rival publishing houses are being successful with similar offerings. About ten or fifteen years ago, political autobiographies were all the rage and they gave us such gems as Norman Fowler’s reminiscences and David Blunkett’s tear-jerking memoir, both of which were singularly unsuccessful. Such books were “sales-led” as opposed to being published because editors felt they genuinely had something to say about British politics and it is still true today, that sales and marketing managers in publishing houses wield much more influence over the sorts of books being published than before. A quick glance at today’s best-seller lists includes Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Jo Brand etc and a host of books all attempting to imitate these particular successes.

Several senior publishers left their houses in the early part of this century to become literary agents. Working with a writer was exchanged for working for a writer and although such changes have worked, some have come unstuck with two high-profile agents (formerly publisher’s editors) being fired by their agency for not bringing in more authors. But it is highly unusual (as happened to a young woman whom I recently advised) for a young graduate to start her career working as an agent. Most people will have worked for a short while in a publishing house before switching to a literary agency.

This brings me now to the second category of sales and marketing. Perhaps you have sometimes been in a bookshop and seen a young woman with a laptop and huge bag full of book jackets talking earnestly to the “history buyer” or the “popular science buyer. These are the sales reps from publishers whose job is to drum up advance orders for still to be published books. Publishers’ reps used to be looked down on in some quarters of publishing but they have a vital role to play and do have to develop good memories and a pretty encyclopaedic knowledge not only of his/her own publisher’s list but also of other publishers’; you need to know the competing books. There is a range of specialist reps who visit wholesale book suppliers, university departments (promoting academic books) or reps who visit libraries. Although a lot of selling is now conducted over the wires so to speak, publishers and their customers still value a huge amount of personal contact and here again, I would say that publishing types tend to be outgoing and happy to meet all sorts. Many senior job-holders in publishing started life “on the road” selling books so a rep’s calling can certainly be viewed as a way into the editorial jobs.

Closely allied to sales and marketing is publicity, the department responsible for making sure that literary editors take notice of new books, arranging television and radio appearances for authors, organising speaking tours, lectures and visits to literary festivals like Hay-on-Wye or Dartington etc. Publicists are often accused of being handmaidens to famous authors and certainly many publicists do accompany authors on tours but their behind the scenes work is just as important; if you think your skills lie in the art of gentle persuasion, maybe a career as a publicist would suit you. Another area of publishing which might appeal to university graduates is what is loosely called “rights”. Most publishers will seek to exploit their

intellectual property by selling serial rights to a newspaper (this inevitably happens with political memoirs), selling the paperback rights to a paperback house or selling translation rights to a foreign publisher.

These are the areas where you might seek to work. How to prise open the door? . One surefire way of getting a foot in the door is to apply to do work experience in a publisher’s office. I am none too keen on unpaid work experience (which is what many publishing companies offer) but even working for three or four months at the minimum wage can add lustre to your CV. It is worth remembering that when submitting a CV, you should highlight relevant experience, in other words by all means indicate that you have worked in a bar as a holiday job but that it not relevant to publishing. Women in publishing do hold many of the senior positions. The leading literary agents for example are mostly women and many of the leading editors and editorial directors are women. Part-time working is greatly favoured by publishers and many women have taken full advantage of this.

If you have a post-graduate degree in a particular field such as nuclear physics, you need to consider carefully about broadening your remit because to try and become a publisher of books or journals in nuclear physics does not give you much room for manoeuvre. Those of you whose interests centre only on nuclear physics would be well advised to seek a career there. But the large publishing programmes of the University Presses such as Cambridge and Oxford UP or serious scientific publishers like Elsevier who publish lots of journals do need specialist editors and readers and direct approaches to them can lead to employment. But beware of being considered “overqualified”; as the Harvard professor of English, Louis Menand, writes in a forthcoming book 4 , “the academic credential is non-transferable (as every PhD looking for work outside the academy quickly learns)”. I am not certain that I agree with this but it is a reaction you may come across in some publishing houses.

Publishers’ web-sites are where jobs are usually advertised and the weekly trade paper The Bookseller 5 does carry job advertising. But there is absolutely no harm in writing directly to named individuals. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 6 is a good reference book for such information. Your CV should of course include your education and interests etc but you should also write a persuasive, well expressed covering letter explaining why you want to work for Penguin or Faber or whoever. It is helpful too to demonstrate some acquaintance with that publisher’s list; it is no good writing to Faber, for example, if you are unaware that their authors are fairly regular recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is always worth spending time in a good bookshop to see what sort of things certain publishers bring out so you get some idea of their editorial policy. Nor is it much use saying in a letter (or in an interview) that you love books because it is bibliophiles who love books, publishers like ideas, minority fiction, naval history, or whatever and you have to demonstrate an awareness of this. It is also worth recognising that publishing is a commercial business and that if your inclinations, political beliefs or ideology do not sit comfortably with that, you would better off working for an NGO, or pursuing an academic career.

Many colleges and universities now offer publishing degrees (the University of Stirling 7 and Oxford Brookes University 8 are probably the best) and employers certainly pay a lot of attention to such qualifications. But so much of publishing involves the judicious application of what I would call an “enquiring mind” that a good degree, an ability to marshal your thoughts clearly and catholic tastes are just as useful. If you aspire to publish fiction, you do have to show that you have read widely and know your Martin Amis from your Rohinton Mistry. If you want to publish naval history, you have to show awareness of Arthur Marder’s many disagreements with Corelli Barnett. Sound judgment and catholic taste are the ideal criteria for an editor and it is no good being too opinionated. You might have hated Margaret Thatcher and all that she stood for but if a book proposal comes along which defines her in a new light, you may well want to publish it for commercial reasons.

Finally, it is always worth repeating that publishing is a business; especially nowadays, it is highly competitive and many of the practitioners are aggressive and hard-nosed. Publishing houses often form part of the portfolios of big conglomerates; the media baron, Rupert Murdoch, who bought up the old New York publishing house of Harper & Row before he persuaded members of the Collins family to part with their shares in the venerable British house of William Collins & Sons, formed present day Harper-Collins to sit alongside other parts of his empire, The Times, The Sun, Fox News and Sky TV. I understand that Rupert Murdoch interferes far less with Harper-Collins than he used to but if you are uncomfortable with that sort of ownership, then look elsewhere. George Weidenfeld’s eponymous firm is now owned by the French media giant, Hachette and Penguin is part of Pearson, a UK company but one with a mainly US shareholding.

I set out to offer a snapshot of publishing together with some entry routes signposted and tips for publishing hopefuls. I am more than happy to answer questions now, over tea or via e- mail in the coming weeks.

Thank you and good luck.



London College of Communication, (Postgrad DipCert, Publishing


Blond, Anthony, The Publishing Game, London, 1971


Lewis, Jeremy, Penguin Special, London 2006


Menand, Louis, The Marketplace of Ideas (forthcoming, W W Norton & Company




Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook


University of Stirling, (MLitt, Publishing studies)


Oxford Brookes University, (MA in Publishing)

R ALAN CAMERON Managing Director W W Norton & Company Ltd Castle House 75/76 Wells St London W1T 3QT Tel; 020-7323-1579 E-mail;