So I’ve been keeping this under my hat, in my typically superstitious fashion, fearing it would turn out to be a total disaster, but since it seems that everything went quite well (I think), let me tell you about how I spent the last two weeks working for Penguin Books, and how, at 31, I think I’m ready for a career change.
A little background: those who know me will probably already know that when I’m not writing, I work as a quality manager and sometime technician in a medical laboratory. I fell into laboratory work by accident – I needed a job, I was offered a job, I wasn’t terrible at it. Fast forward seven years and one morning, I wake up and realise I’ve spent the best part of a decade in laboratory work. It’s a good job, and it’s good work, and it’s given me something close to financial stability when I needed it most.
But. (There’s always a ‘but’.)
Last year, I decided it was finally time for me to do a Master’s – ten years after I graduated from university the first time round. Taking that step seems to have been something of a catalyst, because it also occurred to me that perhaps I ought to start taking other big steps. When I saw that Penguin were opening their work experience programme, I applied almost immediately, despite a few misgivings – was I too old, at 31, to be applying for work experience? Would I be able to get the time off work to do it? In the end, the possibility of obtaining valuable experience in editorial seemed too good to turn down. (Did I mention it’s a paid work experience programme too?) And besides. There was no guarantee they’d pick me.
It turns out, they did. So, two weeks ago, I found myself standing at the reception desk at Penguin’s Strand office, trying not to look too much like a rabbit in headlights. (And trying, probably unsuccessfully, to look ten years younger…)
I needn’t have worried. I’m a naturally anxious person, and meeting new people in new situations is a bit of an ordeal sometimes, but from the very start everyone was pleasant, and the working environment is a lot more laid-back than I had expected. That’s not to say there’s not a lot to do – there is a lot to do. The editorial team at Viking & Penguin Life kept me busy for the two weeks I was there, which is a good thing – I’ve always preferred being busy, and the variety of tasks meant I had the opportunity to learn a lot, both about the inner workings of publishing and editorial, and about the day-to-day tasks crucial to the successful running of a publishing imprint. (As a small aside, it was also really interesting from a writer’s perspective to see what happens once an agent fires your novel out into the ether – the sheer scale of submissions received, and the comparatively small number that go on to become books).
This work experience placement was a bit of a test for me; I wanted to see if editorial would be a good fit for me (you can never be sure that a dream job is actually a dream job until you experience it). But also, I wanted to see if I would be a good fit for editorial in terms of my skills, abilities and general temperament. I’m pleased to note that, at Penguin at least, the work environment is friendly and supportive, and everyone seems genuinely invested in helping one another – a very useful thing when you’re a nervous work experience trainee with only the faintest inkling what’s expected of you.
So, what did I do there? The quick answer is: lots and lots of printing. So much printing. But there was a good level of variety in the tasks I was given. So, one day I might be compiling a list of agent addresses, or researching Oxbridge historians specialising in modern European history, followed by compiling a list of references to specific countries in a non-fiction manuscript. The next day, I might be tasked with packaging promotional copies of a new thriller so they look unique (and Instagrammable), or reading a submitted manuscript with a view to reporting back to the editorial team on its good and bad points. There’s a lot of mailing out books (and so. much. printing.) There are a lot of other tasks too: transcribing sections of radio interviews for promotional quotes, creating ‘end-ads’ in InDesign (these are the adverts that appear at the end of books, promoting other titles in the series). Basically, there’s no opportunity to get bored, which is perfect for me – I love to be kept busy, and the editorial team were very generous with their time, willingly explaining anything I wasn’t sure about. It felt like a very supportive environment, and by the end of week 2 I was making plans to burrow under the desk and never leave.
(Also, three words: hot chocolate machine. Technically coffee machine, but free hot chocolate on tap is an absolute luxury and I dread to think how many cups I downed. You don’t get that working in the NHS, let me tell you.)
By this, you might surmise that I decided editorial is, in fact, an excellent fit for me. And you’d be right. Am I a good fit for editorial? Feedback was positive, and it didn’t take me long to start feeling comfortable in that environment – so, tentatively, I’d say yes. It’s not a simple change, though – editorial is a very competitive area, and for someone like me, who isn’t a fresh-faced graduate, nor carrying much in the way of industry experience, it’s going to be difficult to get my foot in the door. Still. Watch this space…
(For anyone else looking to apply for the Penguin work experience scheme – the best advice I can give is this:
- Be organised, keep on top of your workload and don’t be afraid to ask for help prioritising.
- Be willing to try anything, and do everything to the best of your ability – yes, even printing.
- Other departments might offer you the chance to learn how they work – jump at the chance if it’s offered. It’s a great way of learning more about how publishing works, and it might open up other avenues to you. (One of the most interesting things I learned was how the production team work.)
- Free hot chocolate. You know it makes sense.
And if you happen upon any of Penguin’s ‘European Writers‘ collection – pick them up! They’re great little reads (I should know, I got a sneak peek). And you might get to see the end-ads I helped with…..
For now, though, it’s back to the day job. For now….