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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.

Reflecting on Finance & Consultancy Careers for Researchers

uczjipo30 October 2019

Finance and Consultancy Month… let’s reflect:

As Finance and Consultancy month comes to a close, we are reflecting on what has been an insightful and engaging collection of events. Whilst taking the leap out of academia can seem like a daunting and unfamiliar prospect our alumni and professionals have given us plenty of reassuring and motivational messages throughout the month. The first key area of reflection for this month is therefore on transitioning.

Transitioning out of academia and into a corporate role…How do you deal with any attached stigma?

  1. It’s your career path! Everyone takes a different route to find their thing – don’t be afraid to acknowledge that academia may not be for you. Check out our previous blog post on this
  2. There is a world of research beyond academia. So many roles within finance and consultancy are research-focused – Check out our post by economist Keith Lai for ideas
  3. Your interests can be applied across the sector. Branching out and exploring other options can broaden your horizons, make you more employable and expand the practical reach of your research expertise. Consultancy is a great way to do this, offering your expertise to support businesses to grow.

Moving between academic and non-academic arenas, is it possible?

  1. Yes! Many people still contribute to academic papers alongside their roles, if publishing is your passion there are always ways to continue…
  2. Some organisations hire for roles with this in mind, creating and publishing research can be part of your job! Check out a previous blog on this
  3. Balancing the two may not be your thing. Many finance or consulting roles require strong research, writing and publishing skills – just utilised in a more corporate setting

The best and worst parts of a non-academic career, is it really for me?

  1. Stability, consistency and great benefits. The biggest response to this from both our finance and consultancy panels was the increased stability, lack of stress around funding, working more collaborative and less sporadic work schedules.
  2. It all depends on what you want… teamwork, deadlines, short projects and managing client needs are central to careers in finance and consultancy, so, if this isn’t for you, it may not be the right career path. Don’t Panic! There are plenty of industries where other skills are more suited. Key an eye on our blog for more case studies.
  3. Longer more intense working hours and less autonomy. Despite this, many of our contributors mentioned the increased satisfaction from shorter lead times and a better work-life balance.

So, what does this all mean fo you?

After hearing from professionals working across roles as consultants, economists, data scientists and traders the biggest piece of advice about their industry is to decide if it really is for you. Map out your skills, your interests, what drives you, how you like to work and see if that aligns with a career in the Finance or Consultancy worlds.

For example, in consultancy the key skills required are:
Teamwork, problem-solving, creativity, confidence under pressure and adaptability

Often consultants are working towards:
Fast-paced project delivery
managing a diverse portfolio of clients
and engaging a variety of industries

Roles are more structured and strong commitment is needed:
Core working hours mean more stability but overtime is frequently required to deliver projects
Consultants may work client-side within a given week, so travel is important
Managing projects within cross-organisational teams mean flexibility is key

These are the key aspects to explore before diving into applications. Is this for me? and what kind of working lifestyle do I want? 

Finding an industry where your skills as research are valued and utilised may seem tricky but you can find roles across all sectors and industry. This is where our themed months come in to play, if you’ve decided finance or consultancy organisations are not for you, join us on another themed month and hear more about careers in UK & Global Health, Data Science & Data Analytics, Communications and Research, Government, Policy and Higher Education…. the list continues! Our speakers have come from backgrounds in physics, biology, maths, humanities and more ending up in completely different industry utilising those same core skills they learnt in research.

Come along to our events and find out how your skills are so transferable across the sectors and explore how you could branch out to support an organisation to develop!

Check out our full programme of researcher events on our website today!

 

NEWSFLASH! PhDs can come to media week too!

uczjsdd26 November 2015

Image from Griffith College Marketing team via creative commonsNext week’s media week events are open to all UCL students – including you PhDs. We have lots of great speakers from the worlds of publishing, journalism, broadcasting, and PR and marketing. And if you don’t see yourself as a ‘media type’ you might also like to investigate the growing field of Media Analytics, discussed on Thursday 3rd Dec, where your analytical skills will be valued.

“But I’m a scientist, is Media Week open to me too?” I hear you ask. Yes! We welcome even you scientists, and you may be particularly interested in hearing from the Freelance Scientific and Medical Editor speaking at our “Getting into Publishing” event on Tues 1st Dec, and the science graduate who now works as a BBC radio producer (she worked on ‘The Naked Scientists’!) who will be answering questions at our “Get into Broadcasting” event on Wed 2nd Dec.

See the full line up of events below.

 

UCL Careers Media Week

1st-4th December 2015

Come along to our selection of panel discussions, interactive workshops and presentations to find out more about opportunities across this popular sector. Gain tips on routes into the media industry from experienced media professionals and learn what you can start doing now to increase your chances of success!

All of the events below are now bookable through ‘My UCL Careers’. Event venues are confirmed on booking.

Get into Publishing: Panel Discussion, Q&A and Networking

Tuesday 1st December, 5.30pm-7pm

Want to get some key tips on how to break through into this notoriously competitive sector? Come and meet panellists across editorial roles and academic publishing. Confirmed panellists include:

 

> Marta Kowalewska , Editorial Assistant, Sage Publications

> Dr.Nina Buchan, Freelance Scientific & Medical Editor

> Claire Palmer, Editor, Harper Collins Publishers

> Allie Collins, freelance editor (former Editorial Director at John Blake Publishing)

> UCL Press representative

 

Journalism Workshop with News Associates

Wednesday 2nd December, 1pm-3pm

Students interested in pursuing a career in journalism can enrol on this two-hour practical workshop run by the press agency News Associates. They will get you writing an article in a mock, ‘real-life’ breaking news exercise. Feedback will be given on your work and time is set aside for careers advice. News Associates are the UK’s leading training provider of the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) Multimedia Diploma.

Please note that this is an interactive session aimed at those looking to pursue a career in UK-based journalism. Attendees will need to have excellent skills in both verbal and written English to ensure that they can engage effectively with the demands of the workshop.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Due to the group size and nature of this workshop, a returnable cash deposit is required to be paid in person at UCL Careers after registering to guarantee your place. You will also need to bring a laptop/tablet with you to be able to participate in this event.

Get into Broadcasting – TV, Film & Radio: Panel Discussion, Q&A and Networking

Wednesday 2nd December, 5.30pm-7pm

 

Want to get an insight into working in and with the broadcasting industry? Come along to this event to hear directly from professionals about some of the various roles in these sectors! Confirmed panellists include:

 

> Alex Snelling, Film Director/Producer/Editor, Slack Alice Films

> Anya Saunders, Editorial Lead, BBC Make It Digital

> Matt Pelly, Freelance Series Producer, Director and Cameraman

> Kate Lamble,  Assistant Producer, BBC World Service

> Eduardo Leal, Account Director, Precious Media

 

This panel discussion is chaired by Leiah Kwong, President of the UCLU Film and TV Society

 

What is Media Analytics? Presentation by GroupM
Thursday 3rd December, 1-2pm


Media is changing. Today we are in a space where data, creative content and technology collide, where audience insight sits at the heart of the creative process, and where extraordinary intelligence and state of the art trading models help us deliver tangible output for our clients.

 

GroupM is the world leading media advertising group. We plan advertising campaigns for some of the biggest and most renowned brands globally, and based on rich consumer data we buy the media space that reach the right target audience.

 

In this presentation we will discuss how data, audience insight and analytics help us deliver successful media campaigns. What data do we collect? What do we know about you? How do we use this information to target the right audience? Where is the future of media taking us, and what does this mean in terms of our future talent and career opportunities?

 

Get into PR, Marketing & Advertising: Panel Discussion, Q&A and Networking

Thursday 3rd December, 5.30pm-7pm

 

Professionals working in the industry will be discussing their career paths and ways to get into the sector. The panel will also be sharing tips on how to progress your career. Confirmed panellists include:

 

> Christy Madden, Ogilvy Fellow, Ogilvy

> Kari Shephard, Consultant, Claremont Communications

> Sophie Orbaum, Account Director, Gerber Communications

> Caroline Cody, Media Relations Manager, Lloyds Banking Group

> Tom McCarron, Periscopix
CVs/Applications for Media Careers: Panel Discussion, Q&A and Networking

Friday 4th December, 1pm-2pm

 

Get top tips from industry professionals on how to make your applications stand out and what you can be doing now to increase your chances of securing a role in this industry. Confirmed panellists include:

 

> Sally Hunter, Head of Commercial Marketing, The Guardian

> Jackie Fast, Managing Director, Slingshot Sponsorship

> Graham Russ, Careers Co-ordinator, Creative Skillset

> Sonia Cason-Zeif, Recruiter, Sapient Nitro