Lots of books stacked on top of each other

Taming Dragons – a Glimpse Behind the Scenes in the publishing Industry

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Running from the end of May to mid-June, UCL’s Reimagine series offers an exciting variety of short courses, masterclasses and workshops that encourage participants to reimagine their future. UCL academic staff, film-makers, writers, digital experts, journalists and other successful industry experts make up the company of speakers and facilitators, offering inspiring insights into their chosen fields.

The series began with ‘Taming Dragons – a Glimpse Behind the Scenes in the publishing Industry.’ Award-winning author Dr Liz Flanagan joined leading bookseller Tamsin Rosewell (Kenilworth Books) and Commissioning Editor Rosie Fickling (David Fickling Books) for an insightful and honest reflection on the industry.

Tamsin opened the discussion by asking what advice the panel would offer for future editors, writers and booksellers when preparing for a career in the industry. To combat the lonely experience writing can become, Liz advises us to find our ‘tribe’ by joining writing development organisations, sourcing a writing mentor or forming a critic group. Finding friends to share your work with – including booksellers, librarians and people who care about books – will offer support on the journey. For Rosie, being able to survive and thrive on criticism and failure is vital; editors have to give criticism constructively in order to help writers in a positive way. This resilience was a recurring talking point throughout the event, something Tamsin tapped into when advising us to gain retail experience whilst waiting for your first job or recovering from rejection; learning about trade discounts and how stocks/returns work in a retail environment are heavily transferable skills for the publishing industry.

A particularly interesting angle of the discussion was debating the ‘glamorized’ nature of the industry: how different is the job in reality from the ‘Hollywood’ depiction of it? Liz commented on the lack of the ‘nine to five’ nature of her work, and how being a writer involves many other responsibilities than simply sitting and writing all day. Taking us through a ‘day in the life’, Liz writes in the morning before turning to emails, doing her own accounts, and mentoring other writers; creativity is balanced with the reality of earning a living. Although Rosie’s job involves extensive re-reading and often having to turn writers down due to the influx of promising drafts she receives, she painted a wonderful picture of the job when commenting on the lovely people she gets to work with, Liz being one. 

When asked to define what she looks for in a first draft, Rosie told us it is very much about ‘trusting your gut’, as well as seeing the possibility of a book and where it could go. For Rosie, storytelling was embedded within her childhood, and she saw from a young age how a book is constructed; early drafts should not only be well written, but have the possibility to go somewhere exciting. For Rosie is both an editor and a reader, and the process is about helping the writer create a book their readers will love. Tamsin claimed that choosing a draft to work with is a personal decision; it is not just about choosing a draft that is great, but a draft that is great for you. She also spoke of how being excited about a book will be filtered into the way booksellers promote the book via word of mouth, making a comparison to this form of promotion and being recognised by an accolade: whilst literary prizes sell books on scale for a short period of time, there is a pattern of major award winners becoming unavailable within 18 months of their win. Tamsin stressed the importance of having enthusiasm for selling the book.

Another refreshing discussion the panel had was on the commercial aspect of the industry. For Tamsin, commercial success is important for an effective industry, as it cannot thrive on passion alone. Rosie agreed, referring to it as both a passion and a financial goal; reminding us that the money is necessary to facilitate the creation of more books, she advocated for championing people being able to make a living from writing. Liz offered a potent reminder that failing to pay people within the industry properly limits who can immerse themselves in the publishing industry: ‘if only independently wealthy people can work in publishing, that’s a real problem.’ 

Questions of accessibility led into a deeply through provoking discussion of what changes can be made within the industry, and the panel reflected on the journey it must go on to ensure it remains diverse, inclusive and welcoming for all. For Rosie, promoting diversity involves promoting more writers and characters from minority backgrounds, as well as reducing ‘celeb’ books and instead supporting debut works and writers who have not had an easy route into the industry. Liz said there is ‘no excuse’ for the industry to remain London centric. For people on low incomes, disabled people and people with caring responsibilities, London events are difficult to access; she advocates for a more ‘hybrid model’ and advises we maintain the innovation of the pandemic to help achieve stronger accessibility, such as retaining an online option to establish accessibility. Tamsin reflected that the desire to open up the industry means ‘something deeper’ has to change, commenting on how diversity is misunderstood through the promotion of referral schemes and job advertisements that target people who have ‘always wanted to work in books’; as Tamsin explained, there should be no assumption that people have been brought up in a reading family, as this places a limit on who is attracted to the role.

The panel offered inspirational reflections on accessing the industry. Whilst Rosie does not have a degree, having gone down a different path before deciding publishing was the career for her, she demonstrated that the skills we learn in unrelated jobs can be fundamentally influential. Drawing upon her work as an office manager, whereby she exercised organisation and learnt how to support people, whilst her job as a chef instilled hard work within her, Rosie supported Tamsin’s reflections on accessibility by evidencing that successful publishers do not need to be long-term book lovers, and we should instead champion people of all backgrounds and experiences who want to enter the industry.

The enriching event closed with a Q&A session, offering the audience a unique opportunity to ask their burning questions. When asked whether a book series is something an author has in mind from the inception of an idea, Liz spoke about how she did not envision Dragon Daughter as a series, which Rosie attributed to ideas unfolding into further books once a world has been created. Tamsin’s advice for starting one’s own publishers was simple: ‘go for it.’ Such captures the spirit of the evening and the panel’s warm and encouraging attitude towards an audience of budding writers, editors and booksellers. If anyone was unsure as to whether a job in the publishing industry was for them, the panel certainly tamed any doubts.

Overall, the event and the discussions within it represents how much passion and energy the publishing industry thrives on through people like Liz, Tamsin and Rosie who are committed to upholding the integrity of and advocating for the respect of its writers, editors and booksellers. A fascinating and hopeful insight into the industry, balanced with a recognition of the flaws that can be remedied by an acknowledgement that change needs to be made, the event was a privilege to attend.

Watch the recording

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