What does the publishing industry look like from the outside?

What does the publishing industry look like from the outside?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot, lately, as I work on a new conference, called Get a Job in Publishing, which I’m helping create with The Literary Consultancy, along with colleagues Jason Bartholomew and Jessica Killingley.

We’re trying to give people from all backgrounds a clear view of the industry, and the practical tools they need to get their first job in it.

When engaging with potential new entrants to publishing, it’s impossible not to notice how little they understand it. For example, and put crudely, most of them think publisher = editor. But that’s not because they’re all idiots. No, as an industry, it’s totally our own fault. Publishing, for all its good qualities, is opaque, elitist and confusing to outsiders.


Thought #1 We don’t talk to civilians

Because our business model has traditionally been very B2B, communicating with retailers, journalists and agents is fully in our comfort zone. But communicating with the general public? Potential readers and employees? That’s just not what we’re used to doing. It’s all a bit awkward. Most publishers are trying to talk to the public, but generations of habit take some shifting and we don’t have the ease of voice talking to our user group that we’d like to. So it’s no surprise that they don’t feel welcomed and embraced by us.

Thought #2 A pseudo-academic elite?

Is publishing intimidating because it seems like an entitled-kids-only extension to an English degree? Looking at the way many of us start our careers, it’s almost a pseudo-academic postgraduate avenue. No wonder non-English (or arts) graduates feel uncomfortable with it.

Related to this - though I’m hesitating to open the (huge) can of (huge) worms marked “publishing salaries” - over the years I’ve heard several people say that when they got their first job and were just about scraping by, they assumed most of their peers had independent means, and were doing publishing as a sort of post grad finishing school (one for which, in an inversion of luxury-retail wisdom, if you have to ask the salary, you can’t afford to do it - hence the need for #BookJobTransparency by the way). This is clearly not an accurate portrayal ... but the perception itself is telling.

Internships - the next can of worms on the shelf - play into this perception too, and act, on a financial and cultural level as “opportunity hoarding”, as Amalia Illgner notes in the Guardian. They seem to “reserve highest-status jobs for the elite”.

Thought #3 Smug culture

Are we just too secure in the knowledge that Books Are Good; do we feel a general and rather dangerous sense of cultural justification? Publishers are making progress in changing the way they present themselves to the world as employees (the PRH website, for instance, is astonishingly different to how it was say five years ago), but it’s taken a while for the industry to get proactive, and not just rest on the knowledge that we’re providing something of cultural worth, ergo: we’re the good guys. The result is that we subconsciously expect people to come to us, understand our ways and fit in, if they want a career.

I’m a huge fan of, and indeed part of, the independent sector, but are indie publishers (and, dare I say, booksellers?) particularly guilty of seeing themselves on the side of the angels, fighting the good fight, thus not examining their habits and what they project to the world?

Thought #4 We’re just weird

Try explaining advances, imprints, discount, SOR, territorial rights, subscription, out-of-print to a newcomer and you’ll realise how peculiar some of our conventions, and our language seems. It’s been around for aeons, so of course it does. But hermetic “insider” language is a barrier to entry (why one of the key elements of our conference is jargon-busting) And that’s before you start trying to explain the rationale behind the hardback/paperback sequence, with its accompanying and contradictory practice of discounting new product. And why it takes quite so long to make a damn book.

We have the habits and the language of an ancient industry, and that doesn’t help people feel comfortable jumping into it.

I suppose what this all boils down to is that for all the good work being done with diversity programmes in publishing, there’s a subtler, cultural shift we need to undergo, where we don’t assume that bright people should find this industry attractive, and bust their guts to get into it, even though it’s confusing and weird. We need to explain ourselves to the world.