One of the great joys of publishing is the fact that it is an inherently collaborative, team-focussed industry. From the ground up, we are built on an interlinked web of strong, consistently nurtured relationships. The importance of community and networks cannot be overstated – it is our creative lifeblood.
In 2020, however, the ability to create the essential space needed to cultivate community has been upended by our need to be physically distant from each other. Launch events, prizegiving ceremonies, network meet-ups, coffee catch-ups – our usual tools of community-building are out of reach. This undoubtedly affects all of our work, progression and well-being: but junior colleagues and those of us from underrepresented groups are disproportionality affected.
Re-locating from Manchester to London to start my first publishing job in 2018, I came armed with approximately zero knowledge about how the industry was constructed, and my attempts at research yielded very little. I was astounded at how opaque the industry was from the outside, and felt entirely out of my depth walking in on my first day and seeing no-one who looked like me.
A combination of very lucky factors allowed me to fill my life with role models, who helped me to put down roots and feel grounded. My first role was as an Editorial Trainee on PRH’s The Scheme - which immediately provided me with a network of nine other new-starters from similar backgrounds to mine. I also had the incredible fortune to live with a publisher on the Spare Room project as I started out, and these foundations have been imperative in combatting creeping imposter syndrome and giving myself room to grow.
Finding like-minded peers is critical to surviving and thriving here. It is so important to have people to help disentangle the intricacies of the trade – to give you tips on how to progress, how to be heard in meetings, and to give you an insight into the way things work in other companies and departments, so you can understand if your experience is typical or not and seek support.
Wonderfully, a huge roster of existing networks have responded with real resilience and stepped up to try to fill the hole the pandemic has left in our ability to build community. Speaking from the experience of operating in these spaces, networks such as Hachette’s Thrive and PRH’s Colourfull network have continued to bring colleagues together through all the highs and lows of this year. The Spare Room project ingeniously rebranded as the Spare Zoom Project, connecting aspiring publishers with seasoned professionals for a virtual coffee, and The Society of Young Publishers have continued to organise outstanding events. Creative Access collaborated with Penguin Random House to organise an ambitious mentorship project involving hundreds of people. Additionally, some brilliant new networks have sprung up this year, with BAE - the Black Agents and Editors group – being a real beacon for the ways in which we can lean on each other in extraordinary times and help bring the ladder up after us.
I’m sure we’re all trying to find some positive glimmers in 2020, and I do feel that in some ways, this enforced distance has allowed us to be innovative in the ways we connect, and has also allowed historically inaccessible spaces to open up. Many publicists have noted high attendance at virtual events, for instance, with lots of people tuning in from across the UK and internationally, who would have been unable to attend the (unusually London-focussed) events trail in person. We’re hearing opinions and perspectives that rarely get to take centre stage, and I’m hopeful this will be a permanent shift in our collective focus.
Ultimately, finding connection in this year of solitude has been especially invaluable, and we need to continue prioritising reaching out and supporting one another, taking extra care to include those less likely to feel that they belong.
Hannah Chukwu is editorial assistant at Penguin Random House UK, working across Hamish Hamilton and Five Dials. You can find her on Twitter at @HannahChukwuu.