Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Why Publishing Is Better Than Banking

(originally written for the Hodder blog)

When I was upgraded from Work Experience to Postroom Boy, my first paid job in publishing, my best friend delighted in teasing me about the career I had chosen: "tha' can't eat bukes, son" he would state, in unconvincing Yorkshire-ese. And he had a point. The pay was crap. Clearly there was something else that made me, and all of us, stick with bukes.

But what is it, since it's clearly not just that "we really like reading"? I think the answer is half laudable and half ... slightly tacky.

Laudable first: If you love books, and have even the tiniest impulse to share your love of books with the world, what could be more inviting than the opportunity to engage with a book – a text as they'd have said at college – and attempt to add whatever publishing Right Stuff you may have to the thing, in an attempt to get it widely read?

From editor to rep, and beyond, to bookseller, everyone gets a shot at (if you'll forgive the horrid phrase) adding value. It could be creative, it could be nakedly commercial, but it all contributes to the enterprise of making the book popular.

And now the tacky bit; our less classy reason to stay in books: we get to show off. When we go for drinks with old school friends who have been cutting a swathe through the City, say, or billing fortunes at the Bar, we know we can't compete on the financial front. But just try asking them what excited them at work last week. Specifically what bit was best. Chances are your week sounds more fun. Discovering a stunning new author, maybe meeting them and persuading them that your publishing house is their creative home. Puzzling out how to get the public to respond to their book. Even the bad bits are pretty great. Consider the "nightmare" of a steaming row in a cover meeting or a "real struggle" selling a brilliant book to a book loving bookseller. Many people would give their right arm to get paid to do either.

To address, at last, the book in hand: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet sums up exactly what makes me love the business. I started reading it on a family holiday, alongside four people all reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Nothing against Stieg, but by God I felt smug. When you're reading a story no one has ever told before, or even come close, when you're absorbing page after page of prose which makes you grin with its wit, with the delightful surprise of the character's actions, with the sparkle of the ideas being playfully chipped your way by the author ... you're feeling happy. When you pause to reflect that you get to join in, be it with the cover art, the blurb, the text design, or the way it's conveyed to the booksellers and the public, well, then you feel privileged.

And that sums it up. It's a privilege to work on a book like this.