A degree of thought

So Penguin Random House is to open its doors to bright non-graduates seeking a career in publishing. About time! Publishing isn’t brain surgery and the skills it requires are not exclusive to graduates. Down the years, there have been many significant figures who have made important contributions to our industry without the benefit of a degree, among them Simon Master and Ion Trewin, Patrick Janson-Smith, Hilary Hale, Gill Coleridge, Kyle Cathie, Joanna Goldsworthy, Jane Gregory, Suzanne Collier and Carole Blake.

It’s harder to name young people in the trade today who skipped uni and it’s notable that the above list is mostly female. Master, Trewin and Janson-Smith entered the trade via ‘connections’ (still an excellent route to an internship!) but the women gained their entrée via the tried-and-tested secretary-cum-editorial assistant route which meant new entrants were effectively apprenticed and learned about publishing in the round. Today, of course, everyone is mentored, a word which (like curate) has become a debased coinage.

PRH has also stated that it will send ‘a clear message’ to jobseekers who have been through higher education that the university they attended will not impede their chance of success. Again, about bloody time!

The moves come on the back of HR director Neil Morrison’s experiment last autumn to "attract new voices, different perspectives and fresh creative talent", regardless of age, experience or background. The acknowledgment that non-graduate applicants have hitherto been excluded is troubling, even though it confirms what many assumed. The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by the explosion of publishing postgraduate courses – all of them expensive, not all of them distinguished – which executives mine for work placement candidates who might then slide seamlessly (and cheaply) into a permanent job. Even the humble BA(Hons) have found life difficult.

Nevertheless, publishers have always been flexible when it suits. In 2009, at the height of the recession and publishing’s love affair with celebrity, Ebury Press placed an ad in the Guardian. "Amy, Lily or Cheryl - who would you choose?" it asked, explaining that "experience within a book publishing environment" would be "an advantage" but "not essential". Applicants for "this exciting commissioning editor role" had to answer three questions, each in less than 100 words: "1) Why are you the right person for this job? 2) Who you believe is the most influential pop culture figure of 2009? and 3) What do you think is the next big thing?" The salary was £36,000.

Publishing has always had its fair share of posh boys and girls who don’t know the price of milk. As with music and acting, the more meritocratic sixties had begun to change all that, though when I (comprehensive school, red brick uni) joined the trade in 1984 I was astonished at how public school and white it still was. As in politics, the pendulum has now swung back the other way and both agent Carole Blake (who left school at not quite 17 and joined packager Rainbird as a secretary) and Suzanne Collier of Bookcareers.com (who left at 16 and secured a job with Andre Deutsch) admit they would never get a foot in the door today. What a waste that would be!

Part of the problem is that technology has meant fewer secretarial positions, a real loss because working with an editor was a great way to learn. It was a passing of the professional baton, and the best editors (Philippa Harrison, Peter Carson, Geoffrey Strachan, Kaye Webb among them) took as much pride in the nurturing of new editorial talent as in their authors. Eager young editorial assistants could sit in on meetings, be given manuscripts to assess and be quizzed on their reports. Talent would out, whatever the background, promotion gradually followed. Today’s newbie editors are given chequebook power too early.

Julie Walters, who made her name as the ultimate autodidact in "Educating Rita", has observed that talented working-class kids are no longer able to try for the stage, while Eddie Redmayne (whose half-brother presides over HCUK) recently revealed that he has contributed to the expenses of drama students less privileged than he. A degree is a fine thing but, for many of us fortunate enough to go to uni in the time of government grants, the experience itself was important – socially as well as intellectually. Degrees are now expensive and there’s a lot to suggest that cost outstrips benefit. As fees increase, many will begin to question the value of a humanities degree if it means they graduate with huge debt and no reasonable prospect of a meaningful job, let alone a home.

Publishing, except for a handful of big names with directorships and generous bonus payments, is not a route to riches. Once a trade apart but now simply another branch of the media, it is in danger of becoming like music and acting, effectively off-limits to anyone lacking affluent parents – particularly since it is overwhelmingly London-centric. Jane Gregory, who also took the secretarial route in, had an early job at Chatto where she had the temerity to ask the legendary Norah Smallwood for a pay rise. ‘Well, darling, get your parents to increase your allowance!’ she was told. Even today, few pay the London Living Wage.

While lack of a degree may no longer be an official barrier to application for a post at PRH (we need to wait and see what happens during the interview process), there are plenty of other barriers to surmount. Anyone wanting to ‘get on’ in publishing will need to come to London (or Oxford). But making the move from Newcastle or Liverpool or Plymouth is a forbidding prospect if you’ve nowhere to live and no way of paying the city’s exorbitant rents. (BTBS aims to offer a helping hand to one or two lucky individuals with accommodation at the Retreat.) Money is also the reason work experience and internships are available only to those with supportive parents and – if they don’t live in London – a couch to crash on.

Publishing is inbred and inward-looking. It angsts constantly about the need to sell more books but it doesn’t seem to consider that employing and promoting a more diverse staff would help in that regard. For its own good and for the good of society, publishing needs to widen and deepen the gene pool. It needs to be less up itself.

Liz Thomson has been reporting and commenting on the international book trade for more than three decades.