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From Comparative Literature to the Literature Business

uczjsdd19 August 2021

Want to know what a career in publishing looks like? We spoke to a Comparative Literature PhD grad turned freelance translator and editor to find out, and they offered up some great tips for getting your foot in the door.

This article forms the second in our series spotlighting PhDs who graduated during the turbulent times of the last recession.

Tell us about your current role

I used to be a commissioning editor in a UK publishing house, and am now a freelance translator and editor, working on fiction and non-fiction books for a range of publishers, both large companies and smaller independents.

How did you get from academia to here?

I seriously contemplated a career in academia, but having got to know the university world a bit better during my PhD – when I did some teaching alongside my research – I realised that what I really wanted to do was be directly involved with what’s being published. I decided this about halfway through my PhD, as far as I recall.

I then scoured my circle of friends and uncovered one who had contacts in publishing. That’s how I got my first work experience placement in an editorial department. Then I started cold-emailing people, and eventually got my second placement – someone had just dropped out of a two-week work experience slot, and they needed someone to start right away. I ended up staying on at the company, and getting hired as an editorial assistant. They were a bit wary at first, because they had a preconception about PhD students being more or less locked in an ivory tower. But I managed to convince them otherwise by showing that I was quick to learn the business, and that I wasn’t ‘just a geek’. You have to get into a different mode, which can be a bit difficult if you’ve gone straight from A levels to BA to MA to PhD, but if you’re keen you’ll pick things up pretty quickly.

Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

I was fortunate enough in that my partner at the time had a safe-ish job, which meant that I was able to pursue a career like publishing without having to worry too much about the bills. Publishing is a very competitive business, and jobs are difficult to come by even when the economy is healthy. Publishers don’t make as much money from books as you might think they do, when you hear about the six- or seven-figure advances some authors are paid. The profit margins are very small. In a way, publishing always feels a bit like an industry in recession! There’s a dark running joke, that no one’s in it to get rich – money, when it comes in, is more or less a happy side-effect. Of course, that’s an exaggeration: some publishers do make a lot of money. But many don’t.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Normal days are rare when you’re a freelancer, and the nice thing is that you can more or less have the working day you need or want. You may have children to raise or a relative to care for, or have time-consuming extracurricular interests such as sports or music – and freelancing allows you a certain amount of leeway when it comes to working hours. On an average day, though, I rise at a sensible hour, have breakfast, check my emails, deal with anything urgent (you do get the occasional editorial emergency), and then I get on with whatever book I’m working on at the moment, whether it’s translating or editing it. I work on a wide variety of things, so I might be translating a history book one month, proofreading an Argentinian thriller and editing an actor’s memoir the next… It never gets boring, really, unless you’re working on a boring book. Depending on how tough the book is, my working day can be anything between 5 and 15 hours long. I usually work on one project at a time, which means that I can focus properly on each one.

By contrast, a commissioning editor’s day at a publishing house is a bit more bitty, because you’ll be working on lots of books at the same time – it could be as many as twenty or so, all at different stages in the publishing process. You may start the morning off by checking out a few submissions from literary agents, then sit down with an author to finalise their manuscript, have a meeting with publicity and marketing about a book that’s about to come out, check the proofs for a book that’s just returned from the typesetter, interview someone for an assistant role… and in-between there’s all sorts of admin to do. And after work you may have a book launch to go to as well. Days can be very long sometimes, but boredom is one thing you’ll rarely hear people in publishing complain about.

What are the best bits?

In my role as translator, the best thing is knowing that you’re playing a part in conveying a great book to readers who would otherwise not be able to read it. I also love solving problems, and you need to do a lot of that as a translator – and as an editor. The best thing about being an editor is that you can have a tangible impact on what’s being published, and – I know this is a cliché, but it’s true – you do meet a lot of interesting people.

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is that the business of books – especially as a freelancer – is an uncertain one. I definitely recommend going freelance only after you’ve had a chance to make contacts in publishing. Most of the work that comes across my desk these days is sent to me by people I got to know when I was working for the publishing house, which is how they became my clients. Even working within a publishing house, though, it isn’t easy to make decent money during the first three or four years. However, things are improving: there are more properly paid internships around these days than there once were, and publishers are increasingly moving to, or opening up new offices in locations outside London.

Some people find it hard to reconcile their love of good books with the business side of things. Publishing is in many ways a business like any other, and the idea that a book is a product which needs to be sold and marketed just like, say, hosepipes, can be a bit of a shock. But you’ll very quickly get over it, because there is so much pleasure to be had from working in publishing. Who cares if a wonderful book by a brilliant new author is a ‘product’? It’s a wonderful book. By a wonderful author. And it will make someone, somewhere, happy.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

A PhD can be essential for certain jobs in academic publishing, but in trade publishing (i.e. fiction and non-fiction books for the so-called ‘general reader’) it can be something of an obstacle, because some people assume that you will have a brilliant mind, but also an unpractical one. The way to get over this is to show them that you know what’s going on in publishing, and that you’re aware it’s a living, breathing business. For example, when you apply for an editorial assistant role or similar at a press that does modern fiction, by all means tell them that you have read the whole of the Enlightenment canon and can quote Macbeth by heart, but also show that you know a few contemporary authors and have an idea of what’s in the bestseller list.

The most useful skills I acquired in the course of my PhD are:

  • Research skills – for us postgrads it’s second nature, so it’s easy to forget that research is an Actual Transferable Skill. In my very first job, my colleagues were amazed (and I’m not exaggerating) that I was able to find things out quite quickly, such as who owned the rights to an image, who the top 50 social media cookery influencers are, information on an author they were thinking of publishing… things that can take ages when you haven’t been spending half your life for the past three or four years researching.
  • Self-discipline and initiative: if you’ve written a 100,000-word PhD thesis, you evidently have stamina, you know how to manage your time and how to work hard. You will also have learnt how to be creative and innovative, and how to get down to work without someone having to hold your hand every step of the way.
  • Office skills: Word, Excel and PowerPoint – these are essential, and I found out about a lot of the tools and features as part of my PhD (writing my thesis, preparing presentations). A knowledge of InDesign and/or Photoshop also comes in handy.

What’s the progression like?

It depends very much on the publishing house. In some it’s very easy to get promoted, and you can go from editorial assistant to commissioning editor in two or three years, in others it’s much harder. If you work for a small indie publisher, you may find that even at entry-level, the person in front of you in the career queue is literally the owner of the company, so you have no choice but to move out to move up. Then again, it’s easier to make your mark and get noticed in a small company. You also have to be willing to put yourself forward. If you’re enthusiastic (and show it) and are good at what you do, though, you can move up very quickly.

As for my own future – I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, but if the right job at the right place were to come along (I have a very short shortlist of publishers I’d like to work for), I might go back to being a commissioning editor.

What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of work?

In no particular order:

  • Sign up to the Bookseller magazine’s morning email (go to their website and click on sign up/register). This is the trade magazine for people in publishing, and the morning newsletter has all the key news – career moves, big book deals, prizes, etc.
  • Read the book reviews in the Guardian and the Sunday Times – no matter what you think of them as newspapers, their books pages are the most influential ones in the country. Some titles become bestsellers off the back of a single rave review in one or the other.
  • Work experience: this is the big one. Even if your PhD is about books, you still need to prove that you’re committed to publishing as a job/business. Work experience slots can be difficult to get, but don’t lose hope: check out publishers’ websites, join the Society of Young Publishers, cold-email people in publishing (their email addresses are rarely online, but you can sometimes find out with some judicious googling), and ask around. Perhaps you’ll discover that your aunt’s neighbour’s grandson works at Hachette, or that your supervisor’s best friend has just set up a small indie press. Also, even if you think that you really want to become an editor, consider doing work experience in other departments, such as sales or marketing. You may find out that you actually prefer one of those other areas. Or try getting work experience with a literary agent. And when you’ve got your placement, work hard, be friendly, and make sure you talk to as many people as possible – once you have your foot in the door, networking is key. Finally, when your placement is nearing its end, ask if you can do another one elsewhere in the company, either right away or at a later date.
  • Create your own experience: start a journal – online or print – with your fellow students, organise a book festival…
  • Online research/take a punt: watch interviews / read Q&As with people working in publishing (check out publisher websites and YouTube), to find out more about the different jobs you can do in publishing. Get in touch with someone in the industry and ask them if they can spare half an hour to talk to you, or would be willing to answer some questions via email. If you can, invite them for a cup of tea or something at a café close to their office. They may say no, but no harm in trying!
  • Do other book-related things: blog/vlog about books, work in a bookshop, help out at literary events/festivals, start a book club, ask the Book Trust or Reading Agency if they need volunteers, ask your old school if you can run a reading group or help out in the library, offer to copy-edit or proofread books for UCL staff for free… basically, show them that you’re more than an avid and intelligent reader, that you’re aware that publishing is an actual business, and that you’re not choosing it merely because you can’t think of anything better to do.
  • Learn how to make a good cup of tea or coffee. I’m not having you on: as a rule, people in publishing love hot drinks, and it’s a brilliant way to break the ice when you’re doing work experience, and get to know that intimidating-looking-but-genius editorial director sitting across from you in the office.