Around a year ago I was working part-time in retail, spending all my free time working towards an online degree in English with The Open University. Little did I know that the job application I had sent off on a whim was about to land me a job in one of the UK’s top publishing houses.
In December 2016 I was hired for my current position as Editorial Assistant for Penguin Random House Audio UK through an experimental blind hiring process. Before then I had never considered publishing as anything more than a dream. I thought that the only way to access the industry was to complete work experience, often unpaid. This wasn’t an option; I was from the Midlands and taking on unpaid work in London would be costly.
When I saw the job post on Facebook I felt it was written for me. Rather than an overwhelming list of requirements, it focused instead on two elements: a love of audio and an organised mindset. Though I had both those traits, what convinced me to apply was that it explicitly stated a degree was not needed.
To apply for the role, I had to submit a CV. Yet instead of a cover letter I was given five questions to answer. The first few asked to me to explain why I liked audio and the remaining two were scenario tasks to demonstrate my organisational skills. I had so much fun answering these questions and I later found out that my answers were all my manager saw at the first stage. She scored these with no other indication of who I was, not even my name. She didn't even see my CV until I had already been selected for the in-person interviews.
Before the face-to-face interviews I had to record time-limited answers to selected questions. Talking to a camera rather than a person felt strange, but it did allow me to focus on my answers as I could record them in the comfort of my own room. The in-person interviews were the most traditional part of the process and the most nerve-wracking. Suddenly I had to look employable from head to toe. I'd never worked in an office before which meant buying a whole new outfit. The interview was at 9am so I had to stay the night in London. Thankfully, my sister was a student in the city so I had a place to sleep and was able to get a bus directly to the office. When I got there, the interviewers were welcoming and the questions were similar for jobs I'd had in the past. I left feeling confident. The second interview was scheduled at short notice: the week of Christmas, otherwise known as the biggest week for retail. I had to beg my co-worker to switch shifts with me so I could make the interview. I had no time or money to buy yet another interview outfit so I had to borrow a dress from my mum that didn't quite fit. My now manager escorted me to the second interview and we clicked instantly, but as we entered the room I saw my CV on the table and started to panic.
Embarrassingly the formatting on it had gone haywire and it looked a mess. The other interviewer than asked me questions about it. All I could think of was my zero-publishing experience, erratic job history and the fact that I had not completed my online degree. I left feeling like they had finally realised I didn’t belong. Little did I know that out of 350 applicants, many of whom had more education and experience than me, I had just secured the role.
Publishing is often presented as an exclusive community that is only accessible to a select few. If that image doesn’t change many people, like myself, will never see it as a viable career possibility. On an incredibly simply level, companies need to look at the language they use in job adverts, particularly at entry level, and understand where they are alienating possible applicants. Existing mind-sets should also be challenged in what is expected from entry-level workers. Office skills can be taught and any role should factor in on-the-job training. A greater focus needs to be on how applicants can challenge a company rather than how well they can fit it. Progress also needs to be made to show that publishing exists outside London. Many smaller publishers are based in affordable cities and freelance work can be done remotely. These different paths into publishing should be celebrated and shared to highlight that the university and work experience route is not the only option. On a larger scale, careers in the arts should be framed as any other career would. There are areas with limited roles yet there are skills that you can learn with hard work and practice. It is an open field to anyone who can put in the work.
This is why I'm personally so passionate about hiring in publishing becoming more inclusive. I wouldn't have been hired on my CV alone, but I've brought a fresh perspective to our team exactly because I didn't come from the traditional publishing route. There are hundreds of others like me not considering publishing because it feels like it’s an industry that’s not for them. We're getting the same ideas, the same books, the same audiences because the same people are being hired. If publishing wants to survive in an increasing technological and more diverse world it needs original mind-sets brought to the table. What's shocking is how slow many are to realise that many companies, including the ‘Big Five’, still don’t pay for their work experience. Penguin is definitely making these changes, but there are still issues with interviewees not being able to afford to get there, stay the night before or afford appropriate clothes.
There is a whole range of voices out there that are still unheard. Something has to change and fast.