No doubt you’ve heard many times about how competitive publishing is - and I’m not going to say otherwise. However, as someone ‘on the inside’ who recruits new employees for entry-level roles in the ebooks department at Penguin Random House, it’s part of my job to hold open the door for newcomers. Who might just be you.
So who are publishers looking for?
- Readers. No matter what your job in publishing, reading will feature. It could be fiction excerpts, parts of a cookery book, or proofreading a whole non-fiction title about, say, the French Revolution (proofreading on a screen and without paper - if that sounds terrible maybe stop now).
- Grammar nuts. Chances are you won’t need to know proofreading symbols before the interview, but understanding them only strengthens your application. A lot of roles involve working with editorial, meaning you can expect to receive manuscripts covered with marks like this. At the least you should have an excellent eye for errors and a head for good grammar.
- The digital- and tech-curious. Maybe you read Futurebook (hello!), or, say, The Verge. Maybe you’re a big Twitter user. Knowing the difference between an epub and a PDF is is a solid start. Knowing the difference between fixed-layout and reflowable ebooks is even better.
- Diversity. Publishers want to hire people from a range of places with a range of backgrounds (don’t forget that degrees are no longer a requirement for at least one publisher).
- Passion. In the words of my colleague Leah Stolzenberg, QC manager, we need people with ‘a grain of idealism.’ Not too much! Not too little. Belief in the possibilities and powers of books. Digital publishers deal in ebooks but we love print books too. Whether rendered in pixels or printed on a page, books are books. Show us you care about literature: are you a member of a book club? What was your dissertation about?
Digital publishing is somewhat more skills-based than traditional publishing, so it's worth taking some time to invest in your skill sert before you apply to work in the industry. So what are the skills you should prioritise - and how can you develop them without going broke?
- Coding. The language of ebooks at present is XHTML/CSS. Like many in-house digital folk, I train new starters to help them with ebook specifics - knowing your way around HTML is handy - but do I expect them to, for instance, know beforehand that a page in HTML ends with </html>. While this will change in the future, it’s what most publishers use for now. You can find short and free interactive tutorials on websites such as Codecademy which will give you the basics in a couple of hours.
- Design. Photoshop and InDesign aren’t cheap, but there are programs such as Gimp which are free and share a lot (not all) of Photoshop’s features. If you can use Gimp, you're already a fair way towards being able to use Photoshop. InDesign has a free 30 day trial which you can use to practice. There are free tutorials for both online: a good entry point is the Adobe website for videos. It’s also worth checking high-rated Youtube videos, but be sure to look for recent tutorials showing tips for newer versions of Photoshop.
- Hardware. Familiarise yourself with devices - it doesn't matter which device, if you can use one (or more than one) you have an advantage. Kindles, iPads, Nooks, the now-deceased Hudl, whatever it may be. If a friend or family member has one, borrow it, mess around with it, see how ebooks work on it. If there's no-one, download different reading apps to your phone and see how they work. If none of your friends or family have a tablet or device and your phone isn’t capable of using apps, you might be my long-lost twin.
- Software. Software digital publishers use includes Adobe Digital Editions, iBooks, Kindle for iOS, Kindle Previewer, Readium, and more. Here at Penguin Random House we check ebooks on iPads, Kindles, Kobos, Nooks, Google devices and others. We edit files with Notepad++ and Oxygen XML Editor. Being familiar with any of these devices and programs is a plus for most publishers: being app-savvy is another plus. You know what else is good? Knowing how to put an ebook on a Kindle. Seriously.
Got those? Here are three final things to remember if you aspire to a job in digital publishing.
- Keep trying. You’ve already heard this, but remember most applications are rejected. I know this from personal experience. Don't stop at the first hurdle! Few are those in publishing who got the job they wanted first time.
- You don't have to live in London. Location should not stop you from applying. I applied for my first job at Penguin Random House - an entirely London-based position - when I lived in New York. I’ve interviewed (and hired) someone when they were all the way in Edinburgh (not that far, but you get the idea). If you have a strong CV, are in a position to move, and have a good cover letter, the recruiter will find you on Skype. Good eye contact will make up for the lack of handshakes.
- Check Twitter. Something I wish I’d known years ago - publishers post jobs in The Bookseller and The Guardian, but it’s also worth checking social media accounts of publishers you admire for direct updates.
While nothing here guarantees success, I hope some of these pointers will help illuminate - at least a little - the rather mysterious way in. Even if you don’t see yourself as ‘right’ for publishing, give it a go. As publishers we’re trying to be more inclusive, and our work can only start when we receive applications from people like you.