More like this

What I Wish I’d Known is a regular series where we ask some of our favourite people in the book industry to reflect on their careers. In this instalment, publishing workers share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned along the way.

Image: Impressio Librorum by Jan van der Straet (c. 1580-1605). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Annie Zhang – Editor, Hachette

I was very naive when I started my first publishing job. I was genuinely shocked to discover that publishing was a business and that books were commodities. I had lifted the curtain to a huge industrial machine that produced and promoted the stories I consumed, and I was working in a world of publicity budgets and projected sales figures. I have had to shed much of my romance around the industry, but that has allowed me to find meaning in new ways.

I am constantly learning from my peers and their wealth of knowledge about written forms. I am inspired by concerted efforts to change the industry and the types of stories we tell for the better. And I am grateful for the immense privilege of working with writers as they put language to ideas, emotions and human experience.

Louise Swinn – Journalist, Australian Education Union / Co-founder of Sleepers Publishing, the Small Press Network and the Stella Prize

I wish I had known that there is a degree to which the publishing industry gives a false sense of itself. It is a chronically underpaid industry, and a great number of people who work in the industry are only able to do so because they have someone else paying the bills.

 

 

Chris Feik – Publisher, Black Inc. / Editor, Quarterly Essay

‘I wish I’d known’ has an ominous vibe, but nothing I know now counts as a reason not to get involved back then. Je ne regrette rien.

If I’d known the super-rich use the law as a weapon, I might have been more timid. If I’d known what a game of chance and hunch publishing is, I might have followed my hunches even more. But Louise Glück puts it well:  ‘Ignorance / wills something imagined, which it believes exists.’

 

Ariane Ryan – Publicist, Text Publishing

When I became a publicist, I had little understanding of what the job would really entail. Pitching, event planning, festivals, yes. But what I didn’t necessarily expect, and what has been the true joy, is the relationship with authors. Building a level of trust to ensure that you are running a campaign that will not only sell books but that the author feels comfortable with and that aligns with their vision of their work, is incredibly rewarding.

I cannot imagine how overwhelming it would be for an author to share their work with readers, let alone get up on stage to talk about it, and if I can provide any kind of support and reassurance, then I know that I’m doing my job well.

Elena Gomez – Editor

I was extremely lucky to have met senior editors and publishers early in my career who seemed to see some kind of potential in me. It took me a long time to find a balance between trying to show people what I could do and paying attention and listening quietly to my mentors.

I wish I’d known that it’s better to focus on my own development and not compare myself to others. I wish I’d known exactly how little the work of editors is valued by companies, but if I had, I probably wouldn’t have set down this path. It’s strange to think about what I wish I had known because the entire process of learning was often exciting and rewarding, and I love seeing what happens from a place of not knowing.

On a practical level, I wish I’d known how much time and effort it would take to bring a union presence into the publishing industry, so I could have started earlier.

Dan Hogan – Publisher, Subbed In 

My advice to anyone starting a small press or DIY publisher would be to start with a plan for distribution and work back from there. You likely won’t be able to gain an account with any of the main distributors in Australia, which presents obvious challenges, so use it as an opportunity to develop a grassroots distribution/promo campaign.

Independent booksellers keep small presses alive and building relationships with them is key. I have found that one of the best ways to do this is to make stocking your books as easy and flexible as possible.

 

Lauren Draper – Publicist, Pantera

I wish I had known that setting boundaries didn’t mean I wasn’t passionate about my job, and that I wasn’t letting the team down. I love working in publicity—I love the events, festivals and travel. But it does come with a certain schedule that blurs the line between personal and professional, and it’s okay to set clear expectations about how you choose to delineate between the two. I think we also owe it to the next generation of publishing staff, who are young and eager to prove themselves, to create a healthy working environment that sets up these boundaries and enforces them. Showing them that we don’t answer midnight messages means they won’t have to, either.

A great boss (and a great team!) will also support you in this. You don’t need to flounder alone, and it’s okay to close the laptop lid and walk away at 5pm. In an industry where so many of us are working ‘for the love of books’, I think we have a tendency to give absolutely everything until we have nothing left in the tank. Leaning on your team, speaking up and being clear when you’re at capacity is not failing: it’s caring for yourself and your authors. You can’t champion them when you can’t even champion yourself.

Camha Pham – Editor & Proofreader 

Working in publishing is experiencing the highs (I get to work with books! With the most exceptional people!) and the lows (Wow, look at how chronically overworked and underpaid and undervalued everyone is!) in equal measure. I think it is important to have regular check-ins with yourself —Is this workload sustainable? Does this salary realistically pay the bills? Do I still want to do this?—to avoid burnout, fatigue and dissatisfaction from culminating.

At the risk of sounding woo-woo, more than just surviving in this industry, you also need to thrive. Stay true to your values and make decisions that best suit you and your specific set of circumstances. And if it’s a choice between working an extra (unpaid) hour or doing something for yourself, always pick the latter.

Terri-ann White – Publisher, Upswell

I wouldn’t have minded some training in how to let people down gently when I said no to their manuscripts, or how to present first sales results if my answer had been yes. It’s painful.

When I started in the industry in 2006, expectations were much lower for writers than they are today in this frenzy that celebrity culture creates. I explain how precarious this business is, how important it is to always focus on writing that stands the test of time. Books are not fast-moving consumer products but cultural objects capturing both the zeitgeist and the geological-historical layers of where we come from.

 

Michael Earp – Account Manager, Affirm Press

I’ve worked across bookselling and publishing my whole life. Both sides have their joys and challenges. So much of this industry relies on passion, so it’s important that you love the books you have to sell, as much as possible. If you’re going into publishing, try to make sure they’re books that make your heart sing.

 

 

 

Meredith Curnow – Publisher, Penguin Random House

One of the things that I learned along the way is that you can’t be intimidated, you can only let people intimidate you. I wish I’d known that. I would approach so many things thinking, ‘I’m just some chick from the country, who hasn’t been here very long, and I don’t know anything’. But, in fact, I’m someone who has read all my life. I love books. I love reading. I want to bring better books to the world. I want writers to be treated better. And everyone is actually here with the same purpose, so you should just never let anyone intimidate you.

 

 

W.H. Chong – Book Designer / Artist

1. Luck: the secret ingredient! If you get a break, enjoy it and don’t waste it!

2. Opportunity: when it knocks, at least get up and see who’s there.

3. Friends: try to collect at least one mentor and one confidante.

4. Bubble: break it. Instead, ponder the street, museums, foreign stuff, nature…

5. 100: go flat out, don’t hold back. Paradoxically, it’s more energising : )

 

Andrea Johnson Marketing & Community Manager, Ultimo Press

If I could go back I would give myself permission to take advantage of the abundance of entry-level jobs and to try a variety of roles early on. Each department that makes up a publishing house provides a unique perspective on the industry, and those perspectives will always be useful wherever you end up in your publishing career.

For someone just starting out, I would recommend following your curiosity, not just the linear progression of your degree, when applying for roles. This will help to develop a well-rounded understanding of the industry, the issues and challenges it faces, and will help you to ultimately discover your place within it.