Catherine Milne on Getting a Job in Book Publishing

Words: Catherine Milne

I can still vividly remember the moment when I knew I wanted to work in publishing.  It was after my first and only visit to my university careers service.  I’d finished my arts degree and was desperate for a job, any job. I spotted an ad for something called a National Education Representative at Penguin Books.  Right, I thought. I can do that. Whatever that is.

Going for the job interview took me waaay out of my inner-city Melbourne comfort zone. I had to take a bus, then a train, then another bus, all the way out to Ringwood – it felt like the end of the earth to me. But the moment I stepped in that ugly, low-slung, sprawling building, I was done for. In love. Smitten.  There were Penguin books everywhere.  Those familiar orange spines of my childhood, the blue spines of the Pelican nonfiction, the sleek black spines of the Penguin Classics. I didn’t really care what the job was, I just wanted to work in this place, surrounded by these books.

Catherine Milne

Catherine Milne, Head of Fiction

Now, I have to confess I was a fairly terrible National Education Representative, which in effect required me, an introvert, to cold-call on academics, to convince them to set Penguin books on their text list.  You could reliably find me loitering in university corridors, reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa (I was going through my Latin American phase), in preference to knocking on academics’ doors.  But it was a start – and as anyone knows, when you want to work in publishing, you have to start somewhere – and it’s not usually where you hope you’ll end up. 

So that’s the first piece of advice: get your foot in the door, and work your way up.  You might have to start in sales, when you want to be an editor, or on reception when you want to be a publisher, but just bide your time, do your job well, and stay on the look-out for other opportunities inhouse when they arise… and they always do.

Second piece of advice: always be open to all the opportunities publishing offers.  When most people think of publishing as a career, I think they mostly think about being a publisher or an editor – but there are so many other jobs and ancillary roles in and around publishing – there’s sales, for a start, as well as marketing, digital marketing and sales, publicity, production, indexing, proofreading, typesetting, pre-press, picture research … just so many jobs in other areas, not to mention finance, IT, HR, etc. So consider what your natural skills are, and what you might be good at.  But the advice still holds – take any entry level job that’s going, then work your way into the job you really want.

As for getting your foot in the door, there is unfortunately no easy one way to get into the publishing industry. But there are a few things you can do to max your chances in a competitive interview or internship situation. Firstly, get prepared.  Follow your passion for books in every way you can.  Subscribe to Books and Publishing for industry news and job ads, join your local writers centre and subscribe to their newsletters. Follow publishing houses on social media, sign up for their newsletters.  Look for publishing house open days, when we talk about what goes on in a publishing house. Look for ways to meet publishers and ask about internships. Connect with your local bookshop – even if they don’t have any jobs going yet, make sure you go along to author events and launches if they’re open to the public.  Chat to the staff, communicate your excitement and interest in books and authors.

Be observant: notice things going on: what books are doing well, what different covers signal, what people are reading, what generally is doing well in the world – whether movies, tv, games, digital – read the news.

Go to writers’ festivals and/or volunteer at writers’ festivals. Get experience working in a bookshop – nothing will teach you about the book industry like a bookshop will. 

Read. Read. Read. Read everything, as much as you possibly can. It’s great to read widely across genres – that will always stand you in good stead – but also hone your taste and if you’ve got a speciality area, go deep, whether it’s YA or serious non-fiction.

Read the review pages in the papers, get a sense of the current trends in books. Blog about books or Instagram what you’re reading.  Tweet about books you love, and tag the authors.

And when you get an interview at a publishing house, please do your homework. Check out that house’s website. Make sure you’ve read – or at least know about – their recent bestsellers, their big authors. And if you get the job, put your hand up – show initiative and offer to help – so you can show your strengths and stand out. Offer to read the slush pile or write reports on manuscripts.  Offer to take in corrections – it’s really only by seeing structural reports or edited copy, that you get the hang of it.

Publishing is an industry that runs on energy, excitement, passion and genuine enthusiasm for books. I spoke to one of our fabulous Divisional Sales Managers, Kate Mayes – who positively radiates excitement for books – and she told me that in her 20-year career in publishing, she has never once applied for a job – she’s always been offered jobs. This is in part because she’s one of the best sales people around, and in part because of her infectious delight in communicating about the books she loves.

One of our senior editors, Scott Forbes, has this advice for people thinking about a career in editorial:

Obviously, you have to be an avid reader, excited about books and stories. A demonstrated interest in writing (i.e. doing it yourself) will help too. In terms of academic qualifications for editorial jobs, the traditional path would be studying literature, but that doesn’t have to be the case as a lot of publishers are interested in wider experience now and there are some great (often better-paid) publishing jobs out there for editors with a science or law or tech background (technical editors, academic publishers). Within the more traditional study areas, experience of studying languages (not just literature) is valuable, as it gives you a strong understanding of the mechanics of writing, particularly grammar.

Whatever undergrad course you do, it’s definitely worth considering one of the specialised postgraduate publishing degrees, like those offered by Sydney, Melbourne, RMIT, Macquarie, etc. A qualification like that really helps your application stand out and it certainly helped me get a foot in the door in the UK industry – I doubt I’d have even got to the interview stage in such a competitive field without it. Takes a bit of time and can be expensive, but considering the alternative these days seems to be to spend a couple of years as an unpaid intern, these courses still look like good value!

These days the more computer skills you have, the better, of course, particularly as many strands of publishing are now digital-only or may have online components, and also because many jobs now involve covering more than one role – editing and layout, for example, or editing and marketing, where social media skills are essential.

I’m going to leave you with the advice of our wonderful editors, Lu Sierra, who writes about the qualities you need to get into publishing far more eloquently than I ever could:

‘Qualities: insatiable curiosity across all subject areas; a love of reading, words and pictures, story-telling, art and design; versatility and flexibility; a love of working collaboratively with others; a commitment to high standards; attention to detail; ability to work hard and often without much recognition.

Don’t go into book publishing (editing, in particular) if you want to make a lot of money or crave the spotlight! But do, if you feel the sense of privilege that goes with creating something as holy as a printed book, and if you’re prone to tingles of excitement when beautifully crafted words conjure up a thought or image in your head that wasn’t there before.’

I love those words: ‘creating something as holy as a printed book’.  There.  That’s what you’ll be part of if you get a job in publishing. Pretty wondrous, hey?


If you are interested in employment or internship opportunities at HarperCollins Publishers Australia, please email our Human Resources Department: [email protected].

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Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Posted on August 6, 2018 by

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"Catherine Milne on Getting a Job in Book Publishing"

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