More than ten years ago I did a couple of weeks’ work experience for a major London publishing company. Around that time I was temping and trying to get my own writing career off the ground, having written a novel and sent it around without any success, and I figured that if I couldn’t actually be a novelist then maybe I might have more luck behind the scenes. Without even being aware of what an “intern” was, I wrote off to a publisher whose books I admired and asked if I could come in and do a few days’ unpaid work, just for the experience. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to get a reply inviting me along to do just that. I honestly had no idea that, as it turned out, the company (and doubtless most others in the industry) were practically run by people like me.
While I do occasionally have flashbacks to that time, I’ve never written about it, at least in public, and during a dull day off today I came across a few pages of a diary I kept at the time. Here then are some extracts from my first week’s work with the company, with any incriminating details removed.
Induction meeting with another work experience person who’s also starting today. She and I are called “workies”. Both the other workie and our inductor are in their early 20s; at 33 I feel positively ancient.
I am installed at a desk wedged into a corner of the paperback/editorial department. I am answerable to M, a 20ish editorial assistant with butterscotch hair, a “Bewitched” nose and a fair amount of mascara. She in turn appears to be answerable mainly to B, an editor also in her 20s. The chief editor/director is A, who works in a corner of the open-plan office which with a dressing table to one side looks more like a woman’s bedroom. There are bookshelves of old paperbacks on the walls and a table covered with a stained velvet tablecloth laid with cakes, biscuits and tea and coffee-making equipment. Milk has slopped out and the sugar bowl is encrusted. I am asked at the start of each day to bring up four pints of milk from the fridge on the ground floor and fill the coffee percolator: I mean, I didn’t expect glamour but I’m not sure what this teaches me about publishing.
I offer M a chocolate digestive which I brought to make an “impression”, or rather make friends. She turns me down with a blush and a smoky laugh.
For my first proper task, I am astonished to be asked to read through the unsolicited submissions (aka the slush pile), deciding – on my own and without any training or previous experience – which of the poor sods to reject and which to take further. “We reject about 99% of all slush submissions, so it shouldn’t be too difficult,” says B. Feel uncomfortable with the responsibility but once I start to read I quickly see why they give this job to the workies. The first thing I pick up is a completely incomprehensible letter from an Indian poet, telling his life story and enclosing many poems, all typed on foolscap with a manual typewriter. It’s fascinating but doesn’t seem especially publishable, and we don’t publish poetry anyway. I am using a clunky PC running Windows 95 and on the desktop are template rejection letters, one called “standard.doc” and the other “kind.doc”. The former is not exactly unkind but consists of only two sentences, while the latter adds “I found your MS very engaging” and suggests the author buys a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and/or contacts an independent editorial consultancy for more detailed guidance.
Almost every time I start to read a submission someone gives me something else to do, which is by definition more urgent. Asked to photocopy a MS of a new biography of a famous ceramicist, I head down to the dingy post room in the basement. This is piled high with shelves and books and occupied by an American guy of about my age called L, who is so far the only other man I’ve seen working here. One wall is covered with photos taken by L of previous workies (all girls). Another wall displays many other photos of company parties, one a fancy dress do with L as Jules from Pulp Fiction. The post room has a back door onto an outside stairwell and staff repeatedly troop through for a smoke. A sign on the door says “This area is often used by drug addicts. Please be extremely careful when going outside as the inconsiderate fuckers often leave syringes on the ground.”
The photocopier jams. Having a background in (if nothing else relevant) office work, I make several attempts to fix it but to no avail, not helped by there being no room to fix it with people squeezing behind me for fags the whole time. Eventually give up and ask L for help. “No way, man,” he says, “I ain’t into that.” I am referred to another office across the street with more photocopiers, where I continue with more luck. The stairs down to this room are steep and have no hand rail. Health & safety issues are everywhere, in fact – boxes of books litter the place, cables and wires trail around.
L commandeers me to “help” with the recycling. This amounts to him taking me to a floor and asking me to pull vast sacks of paper into the lift while he holds the doors open. “I can see you’re no stranger to manual work,” he says. Then: “Where you comin’ from?” I say Twickenham. “I know Twickenham,” he says. “Where you go to school?” I say near Twickenham. “Where near Twickenham?” I say Teddington. “I know Teddington,” he says. “Where d’you go to university?” I say I didn’t. “No?” he says, surprised, “why not?” They wouldn’t have me, I explain – I was no good at exams. “Hey, same with me, man!” he says, smiling. “We got something in common.”
Back in editorial, a woman brings a big box of muffins in and sits talking to one of the editors for half an hour. When she leaves, all staff on the floor dive into the muffins. “These aren’t muffins, they’re works of art,” says M. I am invited to partake but they turn out to be all savoury. It turns out the woman who brought them wants to write a book about muffins and this is some sort of bribe to get us to publish it.
At some point the chief editor can be heard to say on the phone, “It’s going to be cream with red spot varnish. I’m going to have to find out whether we can emboss or not. I’ll be having a meeting about it in about half an hour.”
M accepts a chocolate biscuit.
Attempt slush pile again. Almost immediately go off to weekly company meeting in a big posh board room in an office across the road – chandeliers, grandfather clock, cornicing, long shiny table, mantelpiece, incongruous framed modern Rothkoesque paintings. All the “important” people sit around the table, while everyone else sits on benches around the perimeter of the room. Pleasant winter sunlight and trees outside the window. At one end of the table is a posh bloke, one of few men in attendance and the only one in a suit. At the other end is another posh bloke in a fleecy sweatshirt who goes through sales figures for the week, of which we were all given a copy as we were filing in. It’s the first week in several years that the company’s main title hasn’t been on the bestseller lists. A blonde publicity woman with a cultivated smoky voice goes through the weekend press cuttings and reviews. One venerable editor talks about a fat new book coming out by a moderately famous academic.
Back to the slush pile. Get another page read and I’m off again, this time to the weekly editorial meeting. The other workie takes me down to the “library room” and produces two folding chairs for us to sit and observe as the chief editors and their assistants and the sales head talk business. A slightly camp man in a leather jacket talks a lot about books we’re buying, one of which is about an important politician from the JFK administration whom nobody else present has ever heard of. The editor with the smoky voice queries his enthusiasm given that the bloke is not a household name. He says, “Kissinger – does that work?” She nods. “OK,” he says, “this guy was the Kissinger of the Kennedy era.”
Another editor then gushes about a new book, insisting that we all read it over the next week. “And please read it to the end,” she says. “This isn’t one of those books where you read the first 100 pages and say ‘OK, I get this book’ – the way he ends it is just absolutely incredible.”
Sums of money for advances mentioned seem quite modest to me considering how rich the firm is – £3k here, £10k there. An editor talks about a new anthology of bird writings by the husband of a famous novelist; there is much laughter about “twitchers”. She also produces page proofs for a new book about cats; “Face it, cat books sell,” says the fleecy sales head. On the minutes of the previous meeting is a reference to a biography of a famous writer of pornographic Californian potboilers with “sex” in the title. One editor has been trying to email the info about this to the States for three weeks but they’re not getting through because any message with “sex” in it gets blocked. M suggests changing “sex” to “sox”.
Following the meeting, M asks me to do 25 copies of one 280-page MS and 10 copies of another book of 350 pages and distribute them to various recipients throughout the building. Takes me most of the afternoon.
I am given a very dull filing job to share with the other workie. We kneel on the floor by big boxes, taking out suspension files and putting the contents (details of paperbacks by various authors) into slightly smaller files, and putting them back into the big box. It seems an utterly pointless exercise. After a while I go and get my chocolate biscuits and have one. Put them to one side, go off and do something else. Get back and find one of the editors has eaten some. Feel a bit miffed.
Return to the slush pile after my co-workie decides to postpone the filing job. I am constantly interrupted by silly requests: M hands me a water bottle and asks me to go downstairs to fill it for the chief editor. I do it in silence. Are these people so busy they can’t get their own fucking water? Filing is one thing, even making the tea is OK. But filling up someone’s water bottle? Fuck off.
At lunch I turn on my phone to find a voicemail from a writing-related company confirming I’ve not been shortlisted for a job interview. Feel despondent. Also get a text message from a temping agency asking to contact them about availability for work. Go outside and call them. Tempted to say I’m available from next week and cut short the work experience.
Spend afternoon doggedly piling through slush. Couple of interesting things including a chick-lit-type novel called “Violas at Dawn”, the first MS I’ve read from the slush pile which made me laugh out loud. The narrator is a 15-year-old viola player who hates everything and swears a lot – too much really, but still very funny. The chapters are short and there’s a great little story called “And God created the orchestra” ending “and on the seventh day He needed a shit, so He created the violas.” If the author is also 15 she’s pretty good for her age and even if she isn’t it’s still interesting. Write requesting she send us the full MS. [Note April 2016: A quick Google for the title returns zero results, so evidently my instincts were incorrect. I did try though.]
On way to tube home I pass a bloke covered in blood on the pavement surrounded by a little gaggle of onlookers. Someone has helpfully given the bloke dozens of serviettes to mop up the blood.
There is a big editorial promotional party planned at a famous London media club next week for a new collection of short stories about, basically, fat people. With infinite subtlety I am sent out to buy Hershey’s Kisses at Selfridges and Whittard’s hot chocolate to give to bookshop sales reps along with a copy of the book. On my way out L says he’ll need me in the post room for “about a half hour” later. Nod and go out. Find Whittards for the hot choc but get lost trying to find Selfridges, which I’ve never been to in my life. Feel stupid and irritated; I’m a Londoner all right but this isn’t a London I either know or care about. Too embarrassed to go back and ask how to get there, I call in to see my dad who works in the West End, who gives me directions. Jump on a Routemaster to Marble Arch without being asked for a ticket. When I finally arrive, I can’t find the food hall.
Get back to the office having spent an hour and a half on my “fat mission”. L sees me and moans about my disappearance. I am also expecting to be torn off a strip by B for being so long but she’s disappeared and M instantly gives me about 10 jobs to do in the space of as many seconds, giving the instructions for each in machine-gun fashion. Usefully one job involves sitting down and typing, so I do that while drinking a cup of coffee with no sugar and chewing a stale Danish. L appears and tries to haul me out to help him. M tries to keep me there as she needs me “desperately”. “I only want him for five minutes,” says L. I go out after him. He takes me upstairs and says something unintelligible while pointing vaguely to piles of boxes. A tall bloke called J appears.
J: “What are you doing, L?”
L: “Nothing, man, don’t worry.”
J: “No, tell me what’s going on.”
I’m thinking J is defending me from being given crap jobs to do by L, but it’s not that at all. The boxes are J’s contracts and he wants to know what L is doing with them. L ignores him. I follow L. L is halfway down stairs. J is behind me shouting after L.
L: “Look, J, it’s nothing to do with you, okay?”
J: “For fuck’s sake!”
L then proceeds to defend himself to me as we walk away. I still have no idea what this is all about. It all seems very superficial and pointless. Get to the reception desk and L asks me to put four big boxes of books onto the trolley. While I do this he stands there and relates the whole “argument” between him and J to the receptionist.
I also help take some freestanding radiators to a couple of floors. There are three men in suits in the sales department. One of them looks at a radiator and says “What’s this – are people cold in here?”
I get back from running around to find M and another assistant editor leafing through Hello! magazine at M’s desk, and a huge MS on my desk requesting two copies. Hmm, so sorry to take up your precious time, girls.
In the afternoon I’m in the post room again. L always has music on down here; today 50 Cent is singing “I smell pussy, I smell pussy” while I photocopy publicity clippings for a famous literary author.
At the end of the day the editor who stole my biscuits says “Thanks for your help today” and I feel much better. Change my mind about quitting work experience early.
Manage to get into work on time, get the right number of bottles of milk, cups and glasses, fill the coffee percolator without dripping water into the four-way adaptor behind and even voluntarily replenish all the women’s water bottles. Whether it’s because it’s Friday or what I don’t know but everyone is looking and sounding very friendly today.
Read a slush proposal for a book purporting to be a study of the terrorist minds behind atrocities such as 9/11. The writer, a Canadian, has already had a book on management published in the US, which, he mentions in his cover letter, “has been described as a masterpiece”. He claims to have been offered a contract for the “criminal minds” book but adds pretentiously that “I haven’t yet signed it”. He encloses just the preface to the book, which opens with two epigraphs, one from a criminologist and one from “Dahmer”. The criminologist is given his full name but the notorious serial killer seems unworthy of his own first name. Apart from one chapter on Nazis, the book has nothing to do with genocidal maniacs, appearing increasingly to be another tacky volume on hackneyed serial killers like Jack the Ripper and Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, “who committed the notorious ‘Murders on the Moors’ [sic]”. Again he mentions Dahmer, but despite giving every other killer their full name, Dahmer is still Dahmer, and not only that but also, suspiciously, the “homosexual killer” Dahmer. Get a strange feeling that this guy might not be best placed to write this book. As M says when I mention it to her, if he really was a published writer of any merit his agent would have sent the MS, not the author himself.
My diary document ends there. My recollection is that I did another week’s work which involved a lot more photocopying and humping boxes of books around. I was placed in the marketing department for a few days and got on well with one of the staff there. For the “fat people” book party I was roped into loading a trolley with the books and promotional materials and was then the only person not invited to the actual party. “It’s just a shame you can’t come,” I remember the other workie saying as they went out the door. I was also given some task which involved copying and pasting some graphics using Photoshop which singularly failed to make any impression whatever, and sent out into the West End again for a sheet of red card for some promotion. I found some card at a Ryman’s but when I brought it back the woman who’d sent me turned her nose up at it. “Oh, no,” she said, and sent me back out to get a refund and get something else. The same day, my fellow workie was offered a job at the company.
A month or two later I was called back to do some paid temping at the company which I think was slightly more interesting, as being paid I couldn’t be roped into post room drudgery with L and had the opportunity to work with a couple of the editors. The atmosphere was regularly tense though: I applied for a permanent job in the department and was invited for interview on a scorching hot summer day yet wasn’t offered so much as a glass of water by the two women interviewing me. So much for filling their water bottles, eh…