Things I have learnt: from becoming a Design and Production Assistant

This is the first post in a series of ‘Things I have learnt’ – I have no idea where this series will go but this is the first post and therefore it is worth celebrating – cue Kool & the Gang.

It’s my workiversary! For the last year (wow, that went by quickly!), I have been working at Jessica Kingsley Publishers (and Singing Dragon) as a Design and Production Assistant. This is my first real job and my first official, really real paid job in publishing, and since I have now been there long enough to have had a little publishing baby (that didn’t sound quite as weird in my head), I feel I am ‘qualified’ to tell you things I have learnt from the experience so far.

1. Paper is possibly one of the best things ever invented

I realise how incredibly nerdy this is. But I stand by my guns. While I was doing my Masters, I may have casually scoffed at all of the lectures on paper, not because I didn’t find them interesting (I did!) but because to me paper was just that: paper.

In March, I was able to visit a printing press with my manager for a day’s workshop on paper and printing and ink and the effect light has on said ink – this, I think, was where it started. Even though I have been using (and unintentionally collecting) stationary for years, and reading books for the entirety of the remembered part of my life, I’d never really thought about the paper. Sure, I’d notice if something was thicker or felt different but that’s as far as it went.

While at the printers, we were shown various different samples and asked to guess what they were and what they might be used for. I got a few but mostly failed horrifically. After the subsequent tour of the press, and the return to work, I started to pay a lot more attention. (As well as bugging my co-workers with a lot of possibly stupid questions, sorry guys!)

I got a box of paaaaper

I got a box of paaaaper

Fast forward to now: I have been asked to gather paper samples from all of our printers and it’s stupidly exciting. I received my first sample pack a few weeks ago. There was squealing. Before now, I didn’t know how many possibilities there were, how many different looks and feels you could get, how what a book was printed on could drastically change the way people react to it. It feels powerful. Paper feels powerful.

2. There is a certain sense of pride in wandering around a book shop and knowing what the books you are looking at are made of

I am pretty sure I drive my friends mad when we visit book shops together. Or elicit the ‘nod and smile, nod and smile’ response. Where I used to just pick up a book because it looked pretty or interesting, read the blurb, put it back (or hold on to it because I really had to buy it and it was necessary to my continued existence), I now pick up books which look like they have been produced in an interesting way (or have hand-drawn waves on the cover but that is an entirely different blog entry) and react accordingly.

I pore over the paper, look on the copyright page at the type face if it’s listed (and try to guess what it is if it’s not), work out which finish is on the cover and which fun things have been done to it to make it look more pleasing (my current obsession is uncoated covers with foil details, yummy!), and then, naturally, shove the book in the face of whoever I’m with and tell them all about it, adamant that they should be just as excited as I am. (My best friend tends to pat me on the head, smile and move on to the next interesting book she finds – unless the one I’m shoving at her looks really interesting or has a super matt cover.)

Book shop experiences, for me, are so much better now. I connect with the books in a more material way and I think that is amazing.

3. Nothing is better than seeing a book you have designed in print

This point does not require much commentary – I remember how I felt when my first bit of typesetting arrived in the office, my first cover. Heck, every cover and every bit of typesetting. The reason I wanted to work in Design and/or Production in the first place was so that I could truly be involved in how a book was made. I’d thought about Editorial, or Marketing, but nothing quite appealed as much as being able to work on the book as a physical thing. (By this, I mean creating the physical thing.)

4. Production is the best department

I am horrendously biased. I should say that right now. Absurdly biased. However, there are several reasons that Production is the best and a few of these are as follows:

  1. As I said above, you get to work on the book as an actual, physical thing.
  2. Presents! We get sent things from our printers every so often (the most recent was a box of post it note books, I was perhaps a little too happy about it).
  3. Adobe CC. Beautiful.
  4. Occasionally getting to work on things outside of Production – we have been known to work on things for marketing, I have been known to work on videos. I have no idea if other departments get to do this but we do, so it’s a valid reason.
  5. Gloriously nerdy ‘field trips’.

5. You probably won’t get mentioned in the book

BUT, if you designed the cover, your name will probably be on the back. Woohoo!

I didn’t sign up for the publishing life with the want or expectation that I would be thanked in the books I work on – I get paid to do what I love, it’s awesome. But if your dream is to have your name printed on the acknowledgements page of a book, the designing side of Production is probably not for you.


So, there you have it. Five things I’ve learnt in my first year as a Design and Production Assistant. All images are from my Instagram.

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London Book Fair (part two)

My second day of the London Book Fair was mostly made up of wandering around and talking to various publishers with a seminar, and a meeting with Nosy Crow and other of my coursemates in between, followed by the Phaidon Book Party (which I was very excited about).

The London Book Fair is a great place to gather career advice from people who are actually in the industry; it is not a fair to go to with the notion that you absolutely will get a job in publishing while there (it is definitely not that sort of a fair) but I found that publishers were more than willing to give me advice in the small lulls between their appointments. It is in these lulls that I learnt that it was definitely a good idea for me to hastily have assembled a business card before the fair, they were everywhere! Being given, being taken, being asked for, being offered and I am so glad I didn’t have to awkwardly announce that I didn’t have any when asked.

I was on a mission; my dream, if I were to be asked about my career aspirations (which I was), is to work in design but I did not have this foresight before my first degree so I did not go to university to study design. I catered to my other dream of becoming a published author/poet and studied creative writing and while it is an experience I would not change for the world, part of me wonders whether I should have studied graphic design as my other subject rather than English literature. My mission was to find out how achievable that dream is without being formally educated in design since A Level.

Luckily for me, the overwhelming response I was given (particularly by independents) was that in comparison to a good body of work, a degree really wasn’t that important. Larger publishers, due to the sheer amount of applications they receive, may opt to making a degree part of their criterion but I was assured that my lack of a degree would not prevent me from getting a design job from a smaller press. Once the first job is out of the way, the experience becomes all important.

It was a very heartening experience and those I spoke too were brilliantly enthusiastic about the books they produce; I love the industry even more because of those conversations.

The day’s seminar was titled ‘The Digital Generation: The Future of Children’s Storytime’ with Ed Franklin (of Booki), Geraldine Brennan, Babette Cole, and Nathan Hull (of Penguin). It explored the children’s book in the digital context, particularly in regards to illustrated works.

It is a worry among parents and grandparents that the move between print and digital may lessen the sanctity of the children’s book and the experience of reading with a child, an experience treasured long before the first tablet. The talk explored how this can be combated, it was remarked that ebooks should be just as beautifully produced as print and treated with the same respect; digital is just a varied format and should not detract from the work it presents.

A positive of digital, which has been expressed in various talks, is that digital can attract children who may not otherwise read. For some children, reading is just not exciting but with the addition of interactive content these children may find in them the home they never found in print. However, there is an issue of balance, too many animations, games and the like can be distracting; any additional content, therefore, should not be detrimental to the story. It is, afterall, a book.

I think it was Babette Cole that expressed that reading is an investment whereas apps and games just pass the time. It was an interesting look into the thought behind the illustrated ebook concept though success in the medium depends entirely on how tech-savvy the parents are.

In this talk, I even had my own little star-striking experience; not a few seats away from me was Suzy-Jane Tanner, a figure who coloured the reading of my early years, whose own works are being converted into e- form.

Talk of digital was rife at the fair, it was very hard to find a spot where you couldn’t hear someone talking about digital opportunities even just in passing. It is not surprising with the wealth of new products that are appearing. One of our modules at OICPS was testament to this, every group had a digital option for their projects and some projects, like my own, were almost entirely digital.

The day ended with the Phaidon Book Party, which was lovely. It was nice to see everyone again and it’s amazing how much my life has changed since interning with them before the MA had started.

The whole London Book Fair experience was brilliant, as I said in my last entry, it definitely affirmed my love for the industry and my future within it. I cannot wait until next year, and I cannot wait until I finally have a proper foot in the door of publishing.

Working in Publishing Day, 2013

Every year the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies hosts a Working in Publishing Day (#WiP13) for its postgraduate and third year undergraduate students. It is a day of networking, starting with seminars on prospecting employers, interview techniques and covering letters, then moving on to ‘speed-dating’* with various publishing professionals and finally cresting on a keynote speech. (And then, because it is publishing, wine and more networking.)

My day started with a mad dash to the bus, without my normal hat and instead with my hair up – if you know me, this is a big deal; my hats are my comfort blanket and putting my hair up is something that I find daunting. But this blog is not about me and my head-related anxiety. This is a digression.

After the mad dashing whilst thinking I’d missed the bus because I could hear bus sounds (it turns out the one before, which doesn’t go to Oxford Brookes, was late), I arrived two hours early. I did this on purpose so I could sit in the canteen and read and not think about what questions I might ask the professionals. If I thought about them any more I might have forgotten the ones I already had.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I was excited.

I opted to take the seminars on prospecting employers and covering letters, while I didn’t learn anything too new or ground-breaking it was reassuring to confirm what I already knew. I took that as a sign that I was doing things correctly, at least a little. Then came lunch, cake was had, cake was good.

We were all (read: I was) pretty nervous as we waited outside for the ‘speed-dating’ to start, what would we ask? What would they think? Would we be able to find the companies we signed up for? (Why you ask? Helena Markou summed it up brilliantly on Twitter: ‘Today we will be testing publishing students ability to alphabetise under heat and time pressure in our pm speed-dating #WiP13‘)

I filled all of my nine slots by visiting:

  1. Barefoot Books
  2. Felicity Bryan Literary Agency
  3. Oxford University Press (Digital/Web Marketing)
  4. Inspired Selection
  5. Bookcareers
  6. Redwood Publishing Recruitment
  7. Atwood Tate
  8. Garnet
  9. Osprey

I originally left my last two slots free so I could sneak around and see if there were any companies without booked appointments – I got lucky.

It was great being able to talk to professionals in an informal manner, get to know what they did and ask for much-needed tips and tricks for getting a foot in the door of the publishing business. Everyone was encouraging and offered brilliant advice (you may have seen an abundance of ‘thank you’ tweets to them all – to my followers: I am not sorry). I feel a lot more confident about venturing into the working world once my degree is over. The advice I was given mapped out exactly how to start climbing for my ideal-I-could-live-on-a-cloud-and-laugh-gleefully-for-the-rest-of-my-life dream job, something which I was struggling to work out before today. The niggling doubts have lessened and I am feeling that little bit more like an adult; an adult who can.

After the ‘speed-dating’ sessions we studenty-types carted a chair each across the hall ready for the keynote speech with Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury. I loved this talk. I was buzzing from the ‘speed-dating’ but by the end of the speech I couldn’t stop smiling. It was funny, there was a lot of laughter but it was also very real. He talked about some ‘mega trends’ including the flight from the high street worldwide; the dominance of companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Sony; globalisation; the idea that information should be given for free; and the fact that publishing isn’t solely limited to publishers any more.

My favourite quote from the talk was probably this one: “I stole a laptop once, from Google, to make a point.”

You can read about why here. Charkin was incredibly quotable and it was a pleasure to hear him speak. I might be wrong but I think the speech may have been recorded, if it was I will endeavour to find the link and post it here in a later entry.

So that was WiP13. It was brilliant. Many thanks to Sheila Lambie, the OICPS team and the publishing professionals for making this happen (and, for some of them, ducking out of IPG13 to see us!). I had a wonderful time.

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* I am putting it in quotes because I was not actually trying to woo these people, but if I managed it and they love me and want to employ me, well, I’m here and waiting. (It is at this point that I feel I should parody A-ha’s ‘Take on me’ but I won’t.)