Essays

If You Want to Work in Publishing, Consider an Indie Press

Claire Handscombe

Contributor

Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

I used to live just behind the Penguin Random House building on Vauxhall Bridge Road in London — back when it was just Random House, the name of which was etched in stone on the building itself. And since then, I’ve oscillated between dreaming they’d publish my book and dreaming of working there. It looks so swish, with a glass front and neatly displayed books immediately visible in the entryway. And thanks to TikTok, I’ve seen the inside, too: everything is very smooth and tidy, everything in its place and laid out to impress. 

Maybe that Insta-glamour is one of the reasons why, when people imagine working in publishing, what they’re imagining is the Big Five — helped, most likely, by films like Bridget Jones’s Diary or The Hating Game. Or maybe the lure of working for a company that publishes some truly big-name authors is irresistible. And I get it! I do. 

But, if you’re looking for a job in publishing, my advice would be to consider the indie presses. After working for one for six months myself, here’s why I’ve come to that conclusion.

Specialisation

Some indie presses specialise in niches of the market that particularly appeal to you: LGBTQ+ reads, or the horror genre, or experimental fiction. I work at Gallic Books, which focusses, among other things, on books translated from French. I’m half-French and passionate about the importance of reading beyond our own borders, so it was a natural fit — and one that helped me write a convincing application letter that was truly tailored to the job itself. It’s not just that I love books; I love the particular books that we publish. Even a great job is not sunshine and rainbows all the time, but if you’re passionate about the mission, and you’re working with others who are passionate too, it can really help with day-to-day motivation.

A Small Team

I was pretty overwhelmed on the first day (first week, even first month) of my new job. But one thing I mastered immediately: everyone’s names. There’s something really lovely about feeling like you know everyone in the office, and it helps build team spirit when you’re sharing cups of tea and biscuits among everyone. (This may not apply outside the UK, of course.)

A Small Office

Because we all sit in the same space, most people are present for most conversations. So, even though I don’t get to design covers, I get to overhear conversations about what goes into making them. Even though I don’t choose how we price our ebooks, I get to witness that decision-making process. And even though I don’t get to decide what we acquire, I get to see how our books are chosen. That’s really useful for getting to know the different aspects of the publishing world and the different cogs that make up the wheel.

Getting to Dabble in Everything

That last paragraph was a bit of a lie, though. It’s true that I don’t get to design covers or choose how we price our ebooks or decide what we acquire, but I do get to give my opinions. And sometimes, my opinion is actively sought. For example, I’m one of just two people who speak fluent French, so if we’re considering the translation of a particular work from France, I read it too, so I can give a second opinion. I love being part of those conversations. 

Thinking Creatively

Smaller presses are more nimble, more able to change how they do things. There aren’t as many hoops to jump through to get something approved. If I want to try something a little different on social media, for example, I just mention it to my boss over Gchat, and he’s the Managing Director of the company, so there are no more hoops beyond that. And while it must be lovely to have the kinds of budgets that the Big Five get to play with, there’s something scrappy and fun and even freeing about having to think outside the box when it comes to marketing strategies.

So my advice, if you’re looking for a job in publishing, is to not discount those indies. It might well be that there’s less competition for those jobs in the first place, since so many people are seduced by the shiny glamour of the bigger publishers — and it might well be that, when you get the job, you discover that there’s nowhere you’d rather be.