Publishing seems to be an industry that brings together people from a huge range of academic backgrounds. Perhaps this is because it is so important to all academic subjects (each has its own bustling area in the industry) and because it demands skills – such as attention to detail, precision of expression and clarity of thought – that can be honed in any field of study. At Prepress we have academic backgrounds in anthropology, engineering, geography, literature – to skip through the alphabet and hit only four – and, unsurprisingly, given the company’s specialisms, around half of us have degrees in medicine or science.
So, when all academic backgrounds can be valuable and competition is extremely tough, how do you break into the publishing industry? How do you escape that demoralising paradox: you need experience to get a job and you need a job to get experience?
My own academic background is in literature. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, I signed up for a teacher training programme and was on track for a career in secondary English teaching. However, as soon as I was teaching in a classroom it was obvious to me that this wasn’t the right career for me. What now?
It was time to reassess. I knew only that I was drawn to (1) day-to-day work that was somehow hands-on with language and/or literature and (2) the oh-so-lofty project of the dissemination of knowledge, and that teaching wasn’t the right fit. I decided to take some time to sincerely explore potential career paths, signing up for a postgraduate degree in a subject I knew I’d love for its own sake (an MLitt in Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee) while investigating career options, the first of which was bookselling. Because I was signing up for this degree I could apply for an internship/working bursary at Dundee University Press, which I was awarded and which proved invaluable: I gained an introductory working knowledge of all areas of a small publishing office, from editorial and production to marketing and finance, and, unexpectedly, publishing-adjacent areas such as events management (e.g. helping to organise literary festivals and book events). Meanwhile, I tried my hand at other things, including teaching poetry in primary schools, assisting a crime writer with a murder tour of Aberdeen and – not the most promising of career avenues – standing in a field and pointing lost people back towards a golf course.
My experiences at Dundee University Press, along with other things such as acting as editor of a student magazine, gave me a feel for the publishing industry and clarified for me where my career aspirations lay: editorial and production.
I’d realised at this early stage that freelancing was both a core component of the publishing landscape and a means to gain more experience, so I sought freelance work where I could. I felt by nature averse to networking for my own gain, but a simple commitment to quality, and asking people if they needed any editorial help, led to work, most significantly (via a fellow postgraduate student) to a couple of contracts with Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania.
My CV still contained no publishing employment per se, but it did demonstrate relevant experience, and this led to my first full-time publishing role: publishing assistant at the Royal Society of Chemistry. This superb organisation, located (inevitably?) at one of the three points of the UK’s traditional publishing triangle (Oxford/Cambridge/London), presented one obstacle: hands-on work with content required a chemistry degree.
This led to a move to Cambridge University Press, where I worked as a content manager on untransliterated Ancient Greek and Latin classics, music theory monographs and other ‘complex’ (i.e. difficult-to-typeset) books, but here there was again one obstacle: hands-on work with content was reserved for a pool of freelancers.
This seemed to confirm an impression I’d formed at the very beginning of my career: jobs in which you work directly with content – in which you copy-edit – are exceptionally hard to come by. But one company in particular had remained a source of hope.
Four years after leaving Scotland, I was back and working at Prepress Projects, first as an editorial office co-ordinator, then as a project editor and, now, as a project leader, doing work that has included copy-editing and proofreading for national institutions, copywriting for EU agencies and managing projects for international clients.
Three things struck me about Prepress when I first joined the company, and these things in particular have made it – and continue to make it – such a rewarding place to work:
- Training. Prepress is generous and thorough with its training, continually providing internal and external opportunities and sincerely investing in your professional development. Its Investor in People and Investor in Young People awards were an early indication of this.
- Technology. The company’s tech is impressively up to date, secure, user friendly and fit for purpose. IT obstacles to working life are negligible.
- Transparency. The directors and management team don’t foster the kind of divide between management and the majority of staff that can be all too common in working life; top-level decision-making is shared and open to scrutiny, company data (such as anonymised salary information and gender pay-gap statistics) are circulated internally, staff are empowered to contribute to the company’s strategy and direction, and the overall leadership style is in outlook and practice not distant but engaged.
To be able to work directly with content for a living, and to pull together so many of the various threads of my professional experience and employ them at a well-functioning organisation that does nationally and internationally meaningful work, has proved to be a destination worthy of any route into publishing.
Putting time aside to explore and assess my career aspirations, and seeking early-career learning opportunities such as internships and freelance work, were crucial for me to find a route into publishing, and I’d encourage anyone to do the same.
If publishing is for you, and you’re looking for those early-career opportunities, why not join us? Our much-sought-after internship has opened a route into publishing for many people (read our posts from Beth, Victoria, Claire and Kirsty, for example). So keep an eye on our careers page.