Heather O’Connell has more than 20 years experience in the publishing industry working her way up from controller to senior management positions at Penguin and Harper Collins. She recently launched the Get into Book Publishing programme which provides expert, accessible training for those new to the industry. Here Abbie Headon interviews Heather about the course and working publishing.
1) What would you say are the barriers to entry facing people who want to break into publishing? Is it harder now than it was 10 or 20 years ago?
Publishers can pick and chose the best and brightest, which is fantastic for the industry but makes it harder to stand out when you’re trying to get your first job.
I certainly think there are barriers to working in publishing. One of the biggest (and one that didn’t exist 20 years ago) is the expectation that candidates will complete internships and work experience. If your parents aren’t based in London and/or can’t afford to support you, it can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible. It is possible to get a first job in the industry without this but it is harder.
2) What steps would you like the publishing industry to take in order to make publishing more accessible?
I think the industry is working really hard to improve things. There are lots of schemes and outreach programmes that publishers are running and/or supporting, which is great. We need to tell people about publishing and show them what a terrific industry it is.
Overall I think we need to take more recruiting risks and resist the urge to recruit people ‘like us’. This is a tough thing to do and is just the start as once we’ve recruited people who are ‘not like us’ we have to adjust to them and not try to make them adjust to the way we do or say things – we have to listen to them and not declare the programme a failure because they ‘don’t fit in’. This all takes time and patience – we just need to keep going.
3) Tell us about the Get into Book Publishing course – who is it for and what does it cover?
Get into Book Publishing is a unique taster course that gives an overview of all the roles within the industry. It gives delegates the opportunity to meet and talk to real publishing people, the ones doing the jobs, and gives a first-hand insight into their roles. It will also help explain how publishing works and what role best suits them and their skills.
4) Why do you think a course like this is needed?
There’s a lot of great publishing training out there but it’s often very expensive. These courses are designed to be accessible and affordable. We’ve also secured funding from supportive publishers to provide free places for those who couldn’t afford to come along otherwise.
Do you think the current subdivisions of editorial, production, marketing and so on are going to stay relevant to entrants as the industry evolves? And do you think your course will always be needed?
Yes, I think the roles will remain relevant for some time yet. Whilst there are core skills that everyone should have, we still need expertise and each of these roles requires different skills and knowledge. You can be an incredibly creative editor for whom scheduling is a chore and equally a great production person with a fantastically ordered mind who couldn’t spot a bestseller in a million years.
5) Finally, the million-dollar question: what are the three key skills an applicant needs in order to get into the industry?
Wherever you work in publishing you need to be able to pitch/sell an idea, negotiate and be numerate (publishing is a business that sells words and everyone has to understand the numbers). Perseverance and tenacity help too – you’ll need both of those to get your first job.