Update 15/4/11: I've been offered my first paid job, doing some freelance work for Melville House. Yessssssss!
I want to work in publishing. Seems so simple, doesn’t it? This week I attended the London Book Fair, to look around and soak up the wonderful atmosphere of my future work environment. However, one of my main reasons for going was to try and rouse myself into remembering why I turned down this career path in the first place, and to give myself a little hope that one day I’ll end up with a job that pays me a wage I can live on.
The first and most important thing I’d like to say is that I am hugely grateful to the companies that have hosted me, especially Melville House in New York. Just as important, I’m immensely grateful to my dad for supporting me financially and mentally. What I’m about to say is not in any way an insult to them, nor is it an expression of ingratitude. I know I’m very fortunate, and that not many people can do what I’ve done.
A little background: I’m 25, female, British, middle-class (in upbringing only), and white. I graduated in 2009 with a useless 2.1 in English Literature, and no idea what I wanted to do. I had worked for Blackwell’s for several years, then at my University library, before migrating to a full-time position at Waterstone’s. All the while, my love/slightly disturbing fetish for books was fed more and more, and yet I still didn’t know what to do with my life.
Like many people from my background, I had ‘always loved books’. What a cliché, right? But when I said it, I really meant it. It occurred to me that I had never considered publishing as a career choice, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed not only obvious, but exciting, too. Whilst at Waterstone’s, I’d been saving up money with half-hearted dreams of going ‘travelling’, and I started to think about whether I could combine my desire to get out of England, and also experiment with a new career. I boldly decided to give publishing a go.
I’d been to New York only once before, and had fallen in love with it. I also knew that it’s broadly considered to be the heart of publishing in the US. What better reason did I need to go back than to work for a few months in an amazing place? I flippantly began to contact publishing companies in New York with a hopeful and enthusiastic covering letter, armed only with a background in Bookselling and an English degree. I must have contacted over fifty companies. Some of them I knew and loved already, and others I contacted just because they were there.
Months passed. Out of dozens of companies, I heard back from three. The first were uninterested as soon as they found out I was British. The second rejected me for the same reason. The final company was one I had been desperate to hear back from, but held out almost no hope. However, they liked me and my Bookselling background, so I went with it. They interviewed me by phone, offered me the position and within two months I was living in a shared room in a crappy Salvation Army hostel in New York and working for free, but at least I was there. At least I was doing it.
I spent four months in total at Melville House, and learned immeasurably more than I had dared hope, and I also had an incredibly enjoyable experience working for them. Now, months on, I’m still reeling on a daily basis from the things I learned there, and the opportunity to work with such amazing people and books.
On my return to England, I foolishly thought that the addition to my CV would make it relatively simple for me to find a job. I thought I would be a great catch for any company. That’s true, by the way. I am a great catch. But it turned out that there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of other people who are also a great catch. I furtively began looking for more work experience placements and applying for jobs, that even with the amount of experience I had, I still had no hope in getting. Some entry-level positions require a year’s worth of experience. Others don’t specify, saying that a background in publishing is ‘helpful’, but the implication is that you have AN amount of work experience behind you. I was so naïve!
I managed to secure a further three placements, one of which I’m still doing as of now. I had an amazing feeling of fortuitousness and gratitude. There are many people who haven’t even been able to make it as far as this. Again, I think: I’m so lucky. I’ve also been fortunate with the kinds of placements I’ve been offered. All the companies I’ve worked for, without exception, have been staggeringly lovely. However, loveliness doesn’t pay the bills. Some offer travel expenses, others offer nothing. Talking of paying bills, whilst I’m indulging in what some might call a whim, I’m living at home with my dad. He doesn’t ask for any rent. He also lets me eat what I like from the cupboards. The little money I’ve been able to make recently has been from selling old stuff on eBay, but that still doesn’t cut it. My monthly commute from Reading to London costs me £400. That’s more than my rent would be if I weren’t still living at home.
I see my time in New York as different from what I’m doing now. I had prepared for it and had saved enough money to live on while I was out there. I had assumed that when I returned, I would soon be working. Now I’m running on someone else’s money, and that feels shitty. My dad has not for one second begrudged me the money it costs him to support me. He has never uttered a word against my continuing unemployment except to say that he wishes that someone would recognise the work I’ve put in and pay me a wage. I am incredibly lucky.
At the London Book Fair, I attended a talk hosted by the Society of Young Publishers on how to break into the industry. The hall of 200 seats was overflowing, filled with my competition in the job stakes. The speakers were interesting, and the most striking talk of the hour came from Danuta Kean, who had some rather radical views about work experience, many of which have been echoed recently by others. She was eager to point out that a lot of the work we were doing on our placements is actually illegal if we’re not getting paid. She also prompted us to call work experience by its real name: slave labour. Inflammatory? Maybe a little. But I have to admit; I can see where she’s coming from.
What are the ethical implications of work experience? Kean rightly pointed out that aside from the ‘slave-like’ environment, my demographic is really the only group of people still able to enter publishing. If I had rent to pay, there’s no way I could afford to work for free for months on end. What this means for publishing is that it’s losing its diversity. As the competition mounts, the only people who can afford to stay in the running are predominantly middle class white people, and this system perpetuates itself. That doesn’t feel good to me. That feels slimy.
The problem is, I don’t feel like anyone is taking advantage of me. As I’ve said, I feel lucky to even be considered for these free placements. Is that fucked up? Maybe. In any other position it would be considered slavery to work for so long without a wage. In my position, you could even call it indentured slavery; I am PAYING to go in to work every day. It’s incredibly stressful to work so hard and only take home the intangible trophy of ‘experience’. It’s taken its toll on my well-being, and I even withdrew early from my last placement - combined with unrelated problems at home, I couldn’t face going to work every day and had started to lose hope.
However it’s also really important to acknowledge that at least in the book industry, the internship system is inexorably tied in with its struggle to stay afloat. Distributors like Amazon demand huge discounts from publishers, which mean that they make less profit and can’t afford to pay their staff as much, and by extension, can’t afford to pay their interns. In addition, I’ve never felt under-valued as an intern. In all my placements, paid staff have been incredibly grateful for the effort we put in and the time we’ve taken to be there. I have never had anyone make an unreasonable demand or chastise me for needing the odd day off. Presumably a lot of them know what I’m going through.
What else can I do? I wish there was a concrete answer. I know that the internship system is not going to go away overnight. I know that if I, as an individual, stage a protest by refusing to work for free, that there are literally hundreds of other candidates who will take my place. So do I work to my own advantage, or shoot myself in the foot by opting out of a highly flawed system? Part of me still believes that there is value to the system, probably because I’ve had such positive experiences. I can only speak for myself when I say I don’t feel that I’ve ever been exploited.
Perhaps I’m just bitter that I haven’t been offered a job yet. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for publishing, and I haven’t yet realised it. Maybe I’m making a terrible impression in my interviews, or maybe the quality of my work is dreadful and everyone’s been too kind to say. However I suspect that the real problem is that there is so much competition. Like any Arts jobs, I am one among thousands of people applying for a tiny number of positions. If I don’t stand out in an incredible way, I’ll be forgotten and overlooked.
It’s easy for me to look back on my work experience and criticise the system. It’s hypocritical of me, really. The only thing I can offer in my defence is: I didn’t know what I was getting into. If I’d known a year ago that I’d still be unemployed, would I have made different choices? Either way I’ve invested so much time and (other people’s) money into this path that I will persevere. I’ve also invested so much of myself into learning and working that I’m determined to see it through, and I’m now convinced that this is the right career for me.
I’m ready for a paying job. I feel like I’ve done my time and that I deserve to be paid, not only so I can live my life without sponging off my dad, but so I can make a place for myself in this industry. The rest of the effort will now be down to how willing I am to learn new skills that I never envisioned needing, in order to make myself stand out from the crowd. Mostly, I just want to do what I set out to, which is to love, read, absorb, share and obsess about books. I’ll get there eventually, I hope.