Nerdism, Escapism and Low-Quality Entertainment – A Fantasy Reader’s Foray Into the Publishing Industry

I’ve been a great admirer of the fantasy genre ever since my mother first read Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to me back when I was still a wee bairn (as they say in this beautiful country).

Growing up, I had a lot of friends who shared my enthusiasm; not all of them identifying as “geeks” or “nerds”, who are often stereotypically associated with fantasy literature. While not everyone enjoyed those strange tales about magical objects, far away countries and foreign creatures, it was never something I felt the need to keep a secret. It was merely regarded a matter of literary preference or personal taste.

So when I walked into class on my very first day at uni (probably wearing a Lord of the Rings jumper or something of the kind), I was quite surprised to discover that being a recipient of fantasy literature was a seemingly shameful thing to be as a “serious” member of the publishing industry.
Words like “escapism” and “low-quality entertainment” were uttered by both my Book Studies peers as well as my tutors, and I quickly realised that most of them had never even read a fantasy novel.

Rather than continuing what seemed like a fruitless debate, I decided to choose an academic approach (this was uni after all, not a high school playground) and dedicated numerous term papers and essays to my cause.
Tolkien himself had addressed the issue in a number of academic papers such as his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which proved to be most insightful.

At the same time I began to wonder whether that view was specific to my course, or the German publishing industry in general.
Science Fiction and Fantasy literature makes up roughly 5,9% of the German book market (2014), which may not be a very impressive number, but is still the equivalent of several thousand new titles per annum – titles that have to be published by people who do not share the opinion of my Book Studies peers.

The question was: Where were they and where did they come from?

I decided to continue my research and found Frankfurt Book Fair to be one of the most peculiar events imaginable.

Unlike London Book Fair, it is open to the public and has become an annual gathering of CosPlay enthusiasts who use it to honour their favourite writers by dressing up as their beloved fictional characters – something I had always enjoyed doing myself.
But all of a sudden I found myself caught between two worlds: The grateful fan who came to honour the artist’s work vs. the Book Studies student who was on a mission to secure a job and gather relevant information.
The irony was – in a lot of ways it was a typical fantasy novel situation.
Choose to keep or destroy the ring. There was no middle way. All of a sudden I had to live in fear of Elric of Melniboné (one of my preferred costume choices) having an encounter with the editor of Rowohlt (one of the most renowned publishing companies out there). Or worse: a tutor.

When I moved to Edinburgh to study publishing, I was a lot more wary of people’s reactions and opinions, but to my great surprise they were a lot more open-minded. Whether this is due to the great success of Scottish works such as Harry Potter I do not know, but it filled me with hope.
I was also very much surprised to discover that quite a few talks at London Book Fair were dedicated to fantasy-related topics, and while the opening statement of the person giving the talk on “RPGs – The Quest for the Real Fantasy” (“I don’t really know anything about RPGs”) may not have been terribly encouraging, I am beginning to think that I may have finally found a place where I can be both – a publisher and a fantasy reader.
 

 

My Placement at Luath Press

Over the two-week Easter break, I was given the opportunity to complete a work placement at Luath Press, a small but established publishing house based here in Edinburgh. Named after Robert Burns’ collie Luath, the press is located just a few steps away from Robert Burns’ first lodgings on the Royal Mile. For a small, independent publisher, Luath publish across a diverse range of genres; they cover fiction and poetry in their titles, as well as art, history and guidebooks — their sole aim being to publish well-written books worth reading.

On my first day at the placement, I was greeted by Jennie, who has been taking care of events and publicity at the press, while also running a second-hand bookshop in the nearby West Port area. Jennie guided me up to the office, which is based on the top floor of the building, and is brimming with stacks of books and paper. After allowing me time to get settled into what was to be my working environment over the next couple of weeks, Jennie explained some of the work I might expect to be doing during my time on the placement, before setting me off on my first task as an intern. I began with some design work on some bookmarks which were to be used for an upcoming launch event for Anne Pia’s Language of My Choosing. With guidance from Jennie, I tweaked the text and layout of the bookmarks in InDesign, and checked that the measurements were correct before they could be sent to print. This allowed me to put some of my InDesign skills from the course into practice in the publishing workplace, while also receiving useful feedback and advice along the way. After the bookmarks were approved by Jennie, I was then given a manuscript to proofread. As I have a particular interest in the editorial aspects of publishing, this was a brilliant opportunity for me to practise my skills and learn as much as I could about the process in a hands-on way.

For the rest of my first week, I continued proofreading the manuscript between other tasks that required more immediate attention. Alongside continuing my editorial work, I also drafted an invite for an event taking place the following week, and collected the required contact information to which the invites were to be sent. After the invites were approved by Jennie, I then emailed them out to the list of contacts I had compiled, including a link to the Eventbrite page to allow recipients to register to the event. I was also given a poetry manuscript to proofread by Jules, a former Napier student now working at Luath who always made the time to answer any questions I had. As the poetry manuscript was to be sent out to the typesetter that day, Jules asked me to check for any possible minor errors before it was sent out. Therefore, I checked that the page numbers in the contents page matched up to the corresponding page numbers within the body of the text, and likewise with the titles of the poems. In the run-up to the events taking place the following week, there were also several smaller tasks that required immediate attention in between my ongoing editorial work, such as delivering books and posters to the venues in which the events would be taking place. Through this variety of tasks, I began to better understand the importance of prioritising workload in the publishing environment; it can often be a balancing act in which the most immediately urgent tasks must be given priority over less pressing work.

As I began my second and final week on the placement, I was introduced to Luath’s director, Gavin MacDougall, along with a fellow intern who had just started at the press. After providing an overview of Luath’s history and development, Gavin checked up on my progress on the placement so far, and provided me with a checklist of tasks to focus on for the remainder of my time there. As this was a lengthy checklist considering my limited time at the press, it was agreed that it would be most useful for me to focus on certain tasks based around the manuscript I was currently proofreading. Over the course of my final week, I finished my proofreading of the manuscript (helped along by continuous one-to-one feedback with Jennie), drafted a press release for the title, as well as an AI sheet and a blurb. I also wrote a reader report for the manuscript in which I detailed what I considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the work, and any improvements I thought could be made going forward. By focussing the majority of my work on this one particular manuscript, I felt I gained a well-rounded, practical insight into the various elements involved in the pre-publication process of a single title.

Over the course of my time at Luath, I was given the perfect opportunity to put all I have learned so far on the publishing course into practice. I feel I gained a well-rounded insight into the day-to-day dynamics of a small, independent publisher, and learned that no day is ever the same — adaptability is essential. And also, you will get used to the sound of bagpipes everyday!

Many thanks to everyone at Luath Press for this wonderful opportunity.

Advice on your new publishing world!

I applied for MSc Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University pretty late on last year. I had graduated with an Honours in English Literature and was a bit stuck on what to do. This course was suggested to me by a careers advisor. I applied after doing a bit of my own research, and was accepted to the course to start in September 2016. Initially, it was daunting, as any would any masters course would be, and in the run up to my start date I began looking online for some more information about what I would be doing.

It’s hard to go through blog posts and material that may not be relevant by the time you start, so here’s a list of what I believe to be important and that won’t change in the near future. Hopefully this will give you a bit of help if you are about to embark on what’s, no doubt, going to be one of the quickest years of your life.

Take notes. There’s a significant amount of information to be absorbed and I took a lot of notes. I managed to get myself into some sort of order, with thanks to my dad who bestowed upon me a diary that he wasn’t really using (in which I found my birthday wrongly recorded. Cheers, dad!). I gave this diary a new quality of life and used it constantly, making sure I wrote down all deadlines and dates. Coming to the end of the first trimester I was so glad I had dedicated a bit of time to getting myself sorted, as it gets hectic. A diary is also great for looking back on if reflective essays are required of you, and it’s nice that past you is taking care of present you in these moments.

Attend events. Go to everything you can. It’s all experience and a great way to meet people, get to know classmates, and begin to understand this massive industry that you’re getting into. I took up work experience in the Scottish Poetry Library, whose events I recommend greatly because they allow for some mingling (wine) before and after the event. It’s a great way to meet people as well as hear some poems in a really beautiful part of Edinburgh. Go to book launches: Waterstones, Blackwell’s, The Edinburgh Bookshop. Look for free events on Facebook and Twitter (if you haven’t already – get a Twitter!). Go to ALL the SYP events and meet publishing people outside of the course. There are SYP conferences, advice seminars, talks, mixers, socials, throughout the year. They are worth going to. Familiarise yourself with the people speaking at these things, you’ll see them around more than once. Finally, go to London Book Fair. You’ll be told about this on your very first day and it’s an important experience. Research this.

More than anything, enjoy it! A year is not a long stretch. The course requires a lot of work, which is difficult at times, but worth it when you get to where I am now. The industry can be intimidating and making sense of it in your own way takes time, but hopefully you’ll enjoy this year as much as I have.

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Can You Be a Parent and a Publishing Student?

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That’s lovely, darling. But wouldn’t you rather read a book?

When I applied to do the Publishing MSc in June 2016, I had worked in various forms of publishing as a journalist, copywriter and editor, so deciding to study it seemed like the logical next step in my career. However, unlike the average student, I had been out of higher education for seven years and I also had a daughter (the spirited creature above) who had just turned two.

Now that I’m at the end of the second semester of the course, I have some advice for any parents thinking of making a return to higher education, because I know from when i was researching courses that a lot of the information I read was tailored towards students who didn’t have any dependents.

I was not the first parent to go to university, and I will not be the last. I hope this blog post helps someone thinking of returning to university after a long break, or someone who is thinking of applying for a course for the very first time.

Be Realistic

The biggest mistake I made when I started the course was thinking that I was the same as all my peers. The reality was, that at 31, I wasn’t the same person that I was at 23, and I had very, very different priorities to the ones I had before.

I had to manage my time effectively and decide what to prioritise. It was no use comparing myself to anyone, because we are all in this together, and I just had different things to deal with.

I had to sacrifice going to a few parties, and I’ll admit it, I did a few all-nighters before big deadlines. (Don’t do this) And yet, after submitting my assignment, I still got my daughter to nursery, and got myself to university, which was on the other side of town. All by 9am(ish). (I’m not entirely sure how I managed to do this on more than one occasion).

Ask for Help

I can’t stress this enough: ask for help, and ask for help EARLY. When I started the course, I mentioned that I had a child, but I didn’t ask for extra help because I didn’t think I needed it.

It turned out that I really did need a bit of support, especially as after having my daughter, my short-term memory was totally unreliable – if you have trouble recalling really vital things, like  “What is a paragraph style?” and get the cold sweats every time someone starts a conversation with “You will recall…” then, take my advice, and write EVERYTHING down – and I was very tired a lot of the time.

There is no shame in asking for a little bit more support. Don’t be proud, be selfish! The lecturers and my colleagues were very helpful throughout the course, and other students would often pick me up when I was feeling down with a few much-needed words of encouragement.

Routine

Trying to build a routing around a toddler can feel a bit like stapling jelly to the ceiling; it’s messy, it’s endless and throughout, you’ll also be questioning just Why On Earth you’re putting yourself through it.

I had to be strict with myself and ensure I went to bed at a decent hour, and that i got up when my alarm went off around 6am. It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t always manage it, but having a good routine throughout the course meant that I could (usually) manage to get to class on time.

Support

I couldn’t have returned to university without the help of my friends and family, who offered to take my daughter at least once a week, and when I had impending deadlines. And I couldn’t have got through the course if my colleagues and lecturers hadn’t been so supportive.

So, yes! It is possible to be a student and a parent. You need to be realistic with your time and priorities, find the strength to ask for help if you need it, create a routine that you can stick to and use the support of anyone and everyone who can give you it.

Returning to high education has not been easy, it’s meant that I’ve had to be very strict with myself and re-learn how I work best. However, I’m at the end of the second semester, my daughter will be three next month, and I’m really glad that I applied to the course. Remember, if I can do it, then so can you!

Featured event: Magfest

One of the first events I attended after starting the MSc Publishing course was Magfest, a self described ‘international magazine festival and conference’ that is held in September every year. Organised by PPA Scotland, the Professional Publishers Association Scotland, the event is attended by magazine publishers and enthusiasts, featuring a range of international speakers.

Having just started my course, this was an excellent opportunity to meet other publishing professionals while hearing from some excellent speakers.

Held at the Central Hall, Edinburgh the event was attended by professionals from around Europe.

The first speaker to make a real impression was Vanessa Kingori MBE, the first female head of a male focused brand in over quarter of a century at GQ Magazine. Speaking about how change is a constant in life, embracing technology and how a magazine brand must reflect its audience, it was a fascinating presentation. You really got a sense that all at the organisation were involved in taking GQ forward creatively.

Another to really make a mark was Ernst-Jan Pfauth, Co-Founder and Publisher of De Correspondent, a Dutch language online journalism platform. Providing alternative and indie news, this exciting and successful site offers background analysis, investigative reporting and engages its 46,000 subscribers by consulting them on the news stories being written.

‘We don’t write about the weather but the climate,’ ‘informing readers in the best possible way’ and ‘journalists as conversation leaders’ were just some of the impressive things Ernst said when speaking about the forward thinking De Correspondent. They also use social media sparingly, engaging their audience directly.

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Some of the excellent titles I bought at Magfest (from left: Ladybeard, Counterpoint and Delayed Gratification).

If you’re studying publishing or journalism, embarking on a career within media / the creative industries or you’re already established, then Magfest is definitely something you should attend. The insight of the speakers, the opportunity to make contacts and to hear about developments within the industry is incredible. And I haven’t even mentioned some the amazing presentations from Terri White, Empire Magazine, Hannah Taylor, She Is Fierce and Espen Brunborg, from design firm Primate.

The only thing I regret is making an idiot of myself when speaking with Vanessa Kingori. ‘I sound like Alan Partridge, don’t I? I’m going to go…’ I say. ‘Yes you do, and no, don’t, you’re hilarious,’ says Ms Kingori as Terri White stops laughing too. I hang my head in embarrassed shame… my networking skills have certainly improved since then!

John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, completed the day with an energetic and hilarious presentation which he freestyled.

Keeping an Open Mind

At the start of the year I began the MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University with the idea that I wanted to work in editorial, more specifically on Young Adult works. In order to get there I figured I get  work in a the rights department as a stepping stone. In fact, that had been my plan since I was 19: get a job in a legal department and move over to the editorial department.  This plan came when I realised that publishing was an option as a career choice. Thanks to an article by Julie Strauss-Gable at the time about working at Penguin, I realised this was a path I could follow and therefore set my eyes on that path. That was the plan, but within a few weeks of beginning this course I realised that this path was not the one I wanted to follow. Having had a plan for five years it took a lot of courage to decide to go a different route.
Often people overlook the other sides that make publishing a successful business. If you were to ask a member of the public what they are to think of when it comes to publishing they would probably say editing. It’s what people know, yet there are so many more departments involved in the production process of books. Between the marketing and the design department there are so many ways to help make a book just as beautiful and as appreciated as you can, and discounting any of these roles is just a terrible way to start a course, something I learned very quickly.

I’m sorry to say that while I knew that other roles in the publishing industry existed before I joined the course, I never really considered them in a meaningful way. I had my plan so I stuck to the plan. Logically I knew that there were other sectors of publishing that existed, and obviously there were other departments, yet at no point had I considered I could work a design or marketing position. As two fascination sides of publishing, I only now wish I had studied them before I came to the course: just think of how much I could have learned in those five years. Yet, surprisingly the aspect of the course that made me happiest, was the legal side, something I never thought I’d want to pursue as the end goal. It had always been a stepping stone in my mind, something I would endure not something I would want.

This new pursuit added to my already deep love and experience of working in theatre has lead me to paths I could never have imagined five years ago. As it is right now, I am hoping that someday I will work with the rights of both performing and publishing theatre. Thanks to the studying I have done over the course, I realised that this path was an option, from talking to Samuel French for my essay in first semester to a wonderful talk by Susanne Collier who helped me to realise that there are options out there you never would have thought of, even weekly lectures with Alistair McCleery in first semester which helped me rediscover my love for law: this course has shaped my path in ways that in September I never could have imagined and in ways I never want to forget.

Making the Most of Your Student Days: Advice I’d Give to Future Publishing Students

After making it to the end of the second trimester of the publishing course here at Napier, I’ve already found myself starting to reflect over the past nine months that I’ve spent as a publishing student. With a dissertation still to tackle alongside job-hunting over the summer, things are far from over yet. But following the end of taught classes and the first signs of summer weather, there’s one question that I’ve found keeps popping into my head: where on earth has the time gone? It’s been a whirlwind of a year in the most brilliant way possible, and so I thought I’d share my top three simple pieces of advice I’d give to future publishing students so that they can make the most of their time on the course.

  1. Say ‘yes’ to as much as possible

The MSc Publishing course at Napier will provide you with a thorough understanding of the publishing process and give you the opportunity to practise the skills you learn through live projects. However, it is also important to pay attention to learning opportunities outside the course so that you can develop your experience and knowledge of the industry on an even wider scale. Become an SYP member, attend industry events, and take on as many work experience opportunities as you can manage. It may seem like a lot, and at times it will be, but once you’ve found your own balance and way of managing things, it’ll all become worth it.

2. Never stop asking questions

One of the greatest things about being a publishing student is that the industry is full of lovely people who will go out of their way to help you in any way they can. Make the most of these opportunities and never be afraid to ask questions. Reach out to people at industry events – the word ‘networking’ is one which strikes fear into the souls of many (myself included), but simply by asking someone a question, not only will you further your learning, but you may also find yourself ‘networking’ without even realising it (gasp!).

3. Look out for each other and enjoy it!

Amidst all the stresses of deadlines, placement applications and part-time work, it may at times be easy to forget what a brilliant position you’re in as a student surrounded by so many like-minded people. Never forget to help each other out along the way, and never forget to take the time to enjoy all the perks of being a student, as the time will absolutely fly by, and this may be the last time you can enjoy ‘the student life’ before entering the big bad world of work.

Best of luck to all future students on the MSc Publishing course!