Meri Paterson

The ideas business and other interests

Publishing is an employers’ market

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(c) MSMcCarthy Photography

(c) MSMcCarthy Photography

The other night, my friend was telling me about a get-together for young IT professionals he went to. He met several interesting people with various orientations and specialties. Someone had a business idea about doing A, and another one was really good at B; a third was pitching his side project to venture capitalists.

I listened and compared this to how events for young publishing professionals sometimes turn out. There’s usually more women, for one thing, and they’re more light-hearted occasions somehow – you often end up part of a comradely chat with a group of people quite like you, talking about your quite uniform experiences of working as an assistant.

Would that be fair? Those evenings are fun and lots of names and numbers get exchanged, but they’re not usually very productive in terms of new partnerships or businesses getting the first spark.

Well – thing is – no one really expects that to happen, and you may be thinking, so what? If you, like me, describe yourself as a young publishing professional, you probably don’t find much cause for concern here. Because what do you expect? If we were that business-minded, we wouldn’t be in publishing. We just like books! We’re not looking to start new ventures, because we’re too busy being relieved about finally having landed a job, and focussing on keeping it.

Training vs education

There’s nothing wrong with all this, but I do think it’s curious that two sets of young professionals should dance to such different tunes at their parties. I’m interested in what else characterises new starters in publishing and why.

Educational background is a big factor. My friend and I both have BAs from universities and are on our first permanent jobs, but I’m still much more of a hatchling than he is.

That’s because in three years of university, he learned a trade. I may have been educated, but he was trained. Give him a desk and a computer at almost any IT company, and he’s ready to go, like a carpenter who just needs some wood and a chisel to get cracking. The same is true of doctors and other highly specialised professions.

Most people starting out in publishing, however, have some non-practical humanities degree. English and other languages are typical, or perhaps History. These subjects don’t really train you for anything, though, and that’s why most newcomers to publishing spend their first couple of years on the job learning. Unlike an IT graduate, who is a laptop away from being a productive employee, a new publishing hire can, at first, do very little independently.

On the other hand, the learning curve is steep. Nothing you learn in the first two or three years is very complicated or so technical that you would have to study in the evenings to keep up. You learn some publishing-specific skills, such as using InDesign, and start to understand production processes, but it’s not rocket science. The actually hard stuff, like knowing which books to publish and how, comes later.

When I started at my first job, I had one useful skill, and that was SPAG. Apart from that, anyone who knows how to use email could have done my job. I flatter myself that my education made it easier for me to master the basics, but the truth is that the basics in publishing are quite basic indeed. (That’s good – in theory that makes it an accessible industry.) But imagine the things you could devote your working hours to if you had the basics down the day you started.

One attempt at supplying publishing with skilled workers is publishing MAs, but for reasons I don’t really understand, those don’t tend to get you better-paying or higher-level first jobs. (This observation is admittedly based on a small sample.)

An employers’ market

A non-practical education often means that when it comes to finding your first job, your employer can benefit you much, much more than you can benefit them. You depend on them for the experience you didn’t get in school and bring quite a meagre contribution into the bargain. IT graduates, in contrast, can have their pick of employers, since companies know that even junior programmers bring a set of valuable hard skills into their team.

But publishing is an employers’ market. Publishing houses take on apprentices, essentially, and painstakingly (and time- and money-takingly) train them up, and these apprenticeships are understandably like gold dust. Entry-level jobs attract hundreds of hopefuls, but as employers can only invest so much time and money into new starters, and as people tend to spend more than a year in those entry-level jobs, not enough positions are available.

Humanities graduates depend on on-the-job-training so  when they finally do get a job, usually after months of interning, they’re too preoccupied with learning the ropes to be very entrepreneurially minded. The importance of that first real job is exaggerated by how difficult it was to attain and, I think, can implant a rather prohibitive sense of gratitude towards your employer. The idea of starting out on something new is preposterous.

It’s easy to interpret this in a way that’s rather unfavourable to publishers as employers. Those evil patronising tightfisted exploiters! But unskilled candidates are a problem for employers as well. When everyone is equally unskilled, you have to hire based on something else, and that’s almost no better than putting on a blindfold and picking someone at random.

This is especially true when you’re selecting candidates for work experience. When you’re hiring permanent employees, you at least get people with a few internships on their CV. They’ll know something and they’ll have been primed to work in a publishing environment, but work experiencers often have no practical training and no relevant skills.

The vicious circle starts when you pick the candidate who professes to be organised, a self-starter or a fantastic communicator. You have to favour someone, so the soft skills come into play, and the end result is that new entrants to the industry are forever gaining access because of something other than relevant skills.

So what?

So what’s the point of all this? Publishing must have been this way for a long time, but it’s still managed to turn a profit and generally still be around. Perhaps I’m seeing a problem where there isn’t one.

There’s just two things I wonder about. One is – is this model of starting out in publishing going to be good enough in the future, which is promising to be quite different than the past few decades of peace?

The other is, what manner and number of other things we new publishing hatchlings could be doing if we weren’t busy learning and so preoccupied with our new jobs?

What do you think?

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