The business behind the book – an experience of publishing at Pan Macmillan

20th March 2018

by Rachel Calcott

As my last year at the Academy drew to a close in a flurry of results, celebrations and goodbyes, I prepared to embark on a gap year that I hoped would answer a frequently asked and increasingly pressing question: what field of further study and career path did I want to pursue? With this in mind, I decided to throw myself into as many of my different spheres of interest as I could in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of my passions and what subject I wanted to dedicate the next four years to. As all my teachers can testify, I have had a conspicuous passion for literature from a young age, so in my first months of freedom I decided to investigate the world of publishing and editing – the fascinating journey from author’s pen to reader’s bookshelf. At first the path to securing a work experience placement at one of the big publishing firms seemed fairly simple; many companies offer two week placements for young publishing enthusiasts with no previous experience, and applying was as simple as filling out an online form. Of course, the reality was a bit more complicated.

The volume of applicants for places at big-name publishing houses is vast; without an insider connection or incredible amounts of luck, its unlikely to get accepted on your first attempt… but I was only going to be in England for two months, so deferment wasn’t a option. Feeling this opportunity slipping away, I decided to call the publishers, publishing assistants and receptionists of all the firms I had applied to in an attempt to explain my situation. After a few weeks of unsuccessful badgering, a human relations assistant finally got back to me with the good news: there was an opening for an intern in the editing department of Pan Macmillan in Islington, London.

March in London is cold, windy and predominantly grey. On the first day of my internship, after an hour-long commute through central London, I arrived at Pan Macmillan’s glass-walled office building and  stepped into a book lover’s daydream – the trendy foyer displayed old classics and new releases from famous authors whose books had shaped my childhood and loaded my bookshelves. Here I was met by Jane, a bustling editors assistant who gave me a brief overview of life at Pan Mac and my humble place within it while sipping her Latte and herding me into the elevator.

A trip to the fourth floor of Pan Macmillan London reveals the true face of publishing – the continuous hum of lowered voices discussing punctuation, reader markets and cover designs, editor assistants frantically typing out release schedules and publicity meetings and, of course, the potent aroma of strong coffee. Having been ushered cheerfully to a spare desk and given a company laptop, I was eager to dive into this world of words. Within a few minutes an email ping announced the arrival of my first official task – writing a manuscript report.

Big publishing houses receive hundreds of manuscript submissions from prospective authors and agents, and from these submissions the wheat must be separated from the, well, less publishable pieces… Of course the editors don’t have time to peruse every submitted work, so that task often falls to editors assistants and interns. Jane briefed me on the intricacies of report writing, handed me a few examples, and set me to work.

Writing my first report felt like the greatest responsibility I’d ever carried – my words would be used to justify the acceptance or rejection of an unpublished authors manuscript – but I soon found myself caught up in analysing and appraising the writing. The report required me to weigh in on the writing style, syntax and grammar, storyline and characterization, similar titles that might be saturating the genre, consumer attraction, and relevance regarding current events, among other things. As soon as Jane had scrutinized my first attempt and given me her stamp of approval, the submissions began pouring in from overworked editors in genres ranging from Sci-fi to Historical Romance. In my ten working days I read and wrote reports on ten manuscripts, and helped out in other editing tasks such as compiling quotes for social media campaigns, updating release schedules and writing potential blurbs for new novels.

A high moment was when an editor stopped at my desk to tell me that a blurb I had written was being used for a big upcoming release. During company meetings I was exposed to the real mechanics of publishing – the choices between illustrators and designs, and deciding which countries should be sold publishing rights. Watching publishing veterans discuss sales strategies and marketing agendas was both impressive and unsettling; the meetings revealed the mercenary attitude that’s required in a multi-million pound business with competition on every side. Commercial publishing is often less about the quality of the writing or the beauty of the literary idea, and more about reader appeal and saleability.

My love of profound, transformative writing would have to take a backseat in such an environment – this experience hastened my conclusion that if I ever returned to this industry, it would be in a Literary (the more intellectually stimulating books that often sell fewer copies but change more lives) rather than Commercial publishing role.

Overall, as a first experience of the world of work, interning at Pan Macmillan was very rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the reading and processing of books, and working with avid book-lovers. It gave me realistic insight into the good, bad and ugly of the publishing world, a taste of London life and a deeper understanding of my own passions and abilities. Not to mention a lot of free coffee.