(With apologies to Douglas Adams . . .)

When I started my Publishing MSc at Edinburgh Napier University last year, part of what excited me most was knowing this particular course offered professional placements. March of 2020 had left me jobless and listless, so when my studies began in September, I was delighted knowing I would gain at least some professional footing through this degree.

But would the lockdown situation have made a substantial shift in time for placements? I knew not to be too hopeful. In May 2020, the atmosphere of uncertainty led the Institute of Student Employers to predict a 40% drop in internship opportunities, and with many publishers either cancelling their work experience schemes or being unable to factor placements in at all (due to small teams and the added stress of Working From Home), I knew this would be a bigger challenge than I had expected.

On top of this, I strongly disliked job hunting. I know myself to be anxious and self-critical, so it’s difficult conjuring the confidence to really put myself out there, and stay unshaken in the wake of rejections.

I knew it would be far too easy for me to say that there were no opportunities available at all: there were. You don’t know until you try. But when introversion wants to keep you in your comfort zone and lockdown discourages you from taking risks . . . well, you have to conquer the ‘trying’ part.

” . . . any man that can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As I see it, your ‘towel’ is your strengths, your weaknesses, your abilities and your resources. Knowing what they are and how to use them is essential in working life. In such a competitive industry as publishing, I felt I was facing “terrible odds” and, at times, had no idea where my towel was, because I wasn’t confident in myself and what I was ‘supposed’ to do in this situation. But I knew I wanted to make the most of this opportunity; I had to dig in and find a way.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com [Image description: There is a stack of three pale cream towels on top of a white stool, in front of a white background. End description.]

“The Guide says there is an art to flying”, said Ford, “or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe and Everything

When I began sending emails to publishers asking for placements, most of the time I was throwing myself at the ground and, well, hitting it. But even within these rejections, there were industry professionals who were willing to talk about their industry and offer encouragement and guidance, even if they couldn’t offer me a placement.

One of the best pieces of advice I received was from a friend that worked in publishing: “Be really clear about what you can do for them. Imagine you’re a busy, stressed Editorial Director, looking over at your new intern, and not knowing what to do with them. They don’t always have the time to think of jobs. So give them options.”

Essentially: don’t just say that you can be helpful, show exactly how. In my case, I wanted to work in editorial, so I offered to read manuscripts, to copyedit texts, to do free proofreading. I even offered to monitor social media, write blogs, or assist in any ad-hoc admin tasks.

Most of all, I had to understand that it goes both ways: it wasn’t simply about what I wanted to gain, but about what I wanted to offer. The publisher should feel a benefit, not a burden, in having you work for them.

“Be really clear about what you can do for them. Imagine you’re a busy, stressed Editorial Director, looking over at your new intern, and not knowing what to do with them. They don’t always have the time to think of jobs. So give them options.”

Although I know correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, after I changed my email to show exactly what tasks I could help with, I had two publishers who were interested in taking me on, and I managed to secure my placement with Flame Tree Press.

I’ve understood Adams’ quote as learning and expecting to fail so that you can pick up the techniques to eventually succeed. As a perfectionist, knowing that I had to fall before I could fly was a difficult mindset to get into. But if I hadn’t had all those crash-landings, I would not have gained invaluable advice from professionals, or learned to perfect my email and adapt my CV.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Of course, I wish I’d had the chance to do my placement at Flame Tree Press in real life, rather than entirely through emails; it would have been wonderful to meet colleagues face-to-face, and even just to knock on someone’s office door to ask questions.

But while I am very lucky to have secured a placement in the end, this experience of working from home has given me an understanding of how I stay organised, productive and curious, and how I set boundaries and goals.

Organisation and time management were essential. I kept track of my deadlines, as I often had several tasks to complete simultaneously, in addition to my academic work. I even picked up some new software to help me manage my to-do lists!

I made sure to stay open and communicative with the Editorial and Project Directors too, asking them questions, plucking up the courage to request feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, knowing when to say no. Although the work was so exciting I wish I could have done all of it, I knew this would cause conflict with other responsibilities and put me under stress.

Even when tasks with a tight turnaround came up, I felt willing to help because I had a clear idea of how to use my time, be kind to myself, and that my superiors would be understanding about the pressure. This was something important to me, as I knew that working from home could potentially make it difficult to switch off, which was something I had experienced before.

I’m grateful that I learned to ask questions, request feedback, and even take the leap in the first place. My confidence would not be where it is now had I been completely intimidated by the industry and the possibility of rejection. The placement is intended for helping us students gain practical insight into the publishing industry, but because I learned how to approach and engage with that opportunity, I’m also amazed by the insight I’ve gained about myself.