Books have, in one way or another, dominated my life so far. I was taught to read embarrassingly early, and growing up, I had the reputation of being a daydreamer: I read constantly and existed half in a world of fiction. I never stopped being amazed at the way in which books could exist as portals into new worlds and experiences, and I imagined friendships with the characters I met there. The written world has always been important to me, and been something that I wanted to share .
As a teenager, I started telling my friends that I wanted to work in publishing. I think people expected me to want to write myself, but the truth is that other people’s words have always interested me more than my own. I think the most interesting thing about my teenage ambitions were other people’s reactions to them: I was often warned that publishing was a labour of love and little recognition, that it was competitive, and probably would not exist comfortably within the boundaries of a normal 9 to 5. I would like to be able to say that this did not put me off, but when you’re young it’s hard to be discerning about the advice you are given. In any case, I decided to concentrate on my immediate future first and my ambition to work in publishing was shelved for the time being.
So off I went to university to study English Literature. People are often dismissive of this degree, or they ask you if you’re going to be a teacher, but the course teaches its students a great deal of valuable, though sometimes intangible, skills. Here I learnt to really focus my arguments, and view the books I loved in an analytical light. I studied the ways in which authors use language to frame the reader’s experience, I learnt about the way in which people have read and reacted to influential texts, and how the cloak of fiction can allow authors to circumnavigate censorship and effect social change. I loved it. I’ve never been one for letting go of my interests, so when it became clear to me that the study of literature was also the study of people, society, and history, I fell in love with fiction all over again.
Reflecting back, it is perhaps ironic that though people warned me about publishing, I was encouraged to pursue academia; it has many of the same pitfalls. Still, my interests fuelled an MSc in Postcolonial Literature . By the end of this degree, it was clear that I wasn’t immediately interested in an academic career, and it was time to make new decisions. Somehow, it was only then that the option of a career in publishing reoccurred to me. This is something I now regret: some of my friends decided what they wanted to do from an early age, and they had a lot of relevant work experience by the time they graduated. This definitely gave them a head start: if you are a student wanting to work in publishing, I cannot recommend internships enough.
But I had no experience. Instead I had a willingness to learn and a rather academic approach to my new career choice: I embarked upon an MSc in Publishing. This was a frustrating, yet rewarding experience. In the publishing industry, opinion seems a little divided on whether a qualification in publishing is useful. People find it hard to see how direct experience of the industry can compare to modules, lectures and assignments. My experience is that it didn’t always try to. My MSc gave me a good understanding of the industry in general, of the issues and technological challenges it faces. We learnt about the history of the industry, and how it had responded to previous upheavals, but we also studied various roles within the industry and the questions different departments of a publishing house need to consider. Probably the most directly useful thing the course taught me was how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. For this alone, the course was worth it, but I had also picked my course because it offered direct experience of publishing. Every year, the Edinburgh Napier publishing course becomes Merchiston Publishing’s new publishing team and publishes a handful of books and a couple of magazines. Here, it quickly became clear that I was in my element: I founded and became production editor of Publishers Inc.magazine, tried my hand at designing for Buzz magazine, headed the editorial team on one of the books we produced, and proofread another. This freedom to learn by doing, to make our own publishing decisions (and occasionally mistakes), gave us a sort of experience that internships could not, though it is true that the course didn’t provide the experience of office culture and corporate structure that internships do.
Running live publishing projects as students was often frustrating though: we were all keenly aware that none of us had prior experience of publishing. A Masters cannot replicate the wealth of knowledge you are exposed to within an established company, surrounded by professionals with years of practical experience in the industry. Many of us, myself included, found it necessary to supplement our degree with internships before we were able to find a job. At the end of the day, the most valuable thing this degree brought me was a network of friends who are every bit as passionate about books and publishing as I am.
And here I am now, Managing Editor at Sweet Cherry Publishing. As an editor, it is the skills I developed as an engaged reader, and while studying English Literature that I draw upon the most. Editing and writing to authors is probably the most active form of literary criticism you can have, and my enthusiasm is something that I love to be able to share with my authors. In my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than helping a book to convey the vision that exists in its author’s mind’s eye.
Finding a job within a small young independent publishing company was an incredible opportunity: working here, I’ve been able to apply my skills and knowledge in a way that wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else and work my way up to a position of responsibility very quickly. At Sweet Cherry, my degrees have served me well. My love of learning feeds directly into what I can bring to the table. As a self-confessed publishing geek, it’s great to see my ideas and hard work help shape the infancy of a company I hope will go far. At the same time, I am aware that that the route I’ve taken is one of many that can lead to the position I am in now: it’s possible (and common!) to be an engaged and analytical reader without a literature degree, and no course can quite replace the value of experience in the field.
My advice, then, for anyone who wants to work in publishing is simply this: act on your ambitions as soon as you can. Do internships and embrace anything that can give you relevant experience, whether it’s working for a community newspaper, or offering your editing services to fellow students. If you’re passionate, don’t let other people’s opinions put you off – it’s far more pleasant to love your job than not. And finally, choose the path that’s right for you: I spent a long time at university, but academia isn’t for everyone and it’s not essential to a job in publishing.
 My earliest experiences of publishing involved a story I wrote about a bear and a hot air balloon when I was five, which my mum sewed together when I decided I wanted it to look like a proper book and that most proper books didn’t have staples.
 I’m as confused by this degree classification as you are.