Back in September, I applied for a publishing event at Hachette UK. It was said to give an insight into publishing for those who were unsure and tried to reach those that otherwise hadn’t considered a career within the industry. The application process was simple: send your CV and write why you deserved to attend. After that, you simply wait for an invite.
I waited a little too well; I completely forgot all about it. I was so convinced that I wouldn’t get accepted that I removed the idea from my brain (and the ‘thank you for applying’ email from my inbox). I thought this was a prestigious event that was aimed at graduates and people with relevant experience (especially as I had to submit my CV and write a short essay!) I thought this was for people who spend their lives in libraries and can recite every Harry Potter spell. Not silly old me. In the last three years I’ve probably read 3 or 4 books. One of them a favourite reread so not even anything new. I write. I love writing; I love stories and I love knowledge. I love words, but I do not love books. Not the physical object. So when I applied, I had thrown my hat into the ring to let it burn, then walked away. Or so I thought.
When in early October Hachette released their email invites into the world, I didn’t know. I was lazily in bed with nothing to do so decided to clear out my inbox. Lo and behold, an obscure email. Click. Holy fucking shit. I started shaking and couldn’t really believe it. I messaged everyone something along the lines of, “Holy shit, I’ve been invited to this thing!” When they asked what that thing was my only response was, “…I’m not really sure!”
I ran myself a nice hot bath and googled. Annoyingly, I could find very little. Tweets about the opening and closing date for applications. Tweets about the emails being sent out. An old review from 2014 and some YouTube videos of attendees’ responses. Where the entry site used to be was now a simple notification saying applications were closed. Great. From this, I pieced together a little of what I thought was going to happen, why I was attending, and the mission of the day. But it wasn’t exactly clear. When I reread the email, the agenda was attached which may as well have been gobbledygook and again didn’t mention the aim of the day besides hashtags everywhere of #insightintopublishing and #insidestory. I went in a little blind.
I was overwhelmed, excited, terrified and confused. Graciously, I accepted their invite and they in turn graciously told me they pay attendees travel expenses (for those outside M25) which was a big bonus as I was looking at an £80 train ticket. I tried to do some preparation; I looked online as I knew nothing about Hachette – I hadn’t even heard the name before – and tried to take information in. They are so big and so varied with houses and imprints and God only knows what that I got too confused and somewhat gave up. Turns out I did know a bunch of the books published by them so there was that at least. (I thought I knew the name Little, Brown Books from somewhere… I did. They published ‘Twilight’. You can make of that what you will.) My homework now somewhat consisted of stalking people on Twitter using #insidestory to find out who was going and pre-emptively make friends so I wouldn’t be super lonely. Not sure how effective I was. Maybe came across as a bit of a creep.
Finally, the day came in the form of an abrupt 04.50 wakeup call after a dazed and worry-fuelled sleep, followed by a packed commuter train, during strike action. Across from me sat a resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn only with whiter hair and years of hard work worn heavy on his face. Next to me sat some young prep that kept putting her elbow in my face as we sat three abreast whilst she tried to do her contour on the rickety train. Across and next to JC was a commuting version of Danny Dyer, and next to him was a South Asian woman snoring loudly. Unknown, book-reading, commuter number 5 was next to make up girl. It was a long, and uneventful, journey that mostly consisted of window-staring. After a near two hours on the train, I reached the bus stop with the kind help of Google Maps. Shortly after, I hopped onto a red beast, hoping it was the right one but not indeed knowing.
Luck so far had got me a place on the event, got me a seat on the packed train and now on the right bus. Someone was looking out for me. I jumped off in the middle of who-knows-where London and walked as guided by Google. Aching for a fag, I tried to stop in the least annoying place and roll up quickly before carrying on. It turned out to be a much shorter walk than I thought as I soon arrived at this grand, London building overlooking the Thames, Eye, OXO building and who knows the other landmark’s names. I felt very out of my depth.
I lingered out the front of the building and finished my cigarette. There were no bins – never are in London – and I couldn’t see any fag butts on the floor. I remember hearing stories of people’s friends who had been fined for dropping their cigarettes in London, and I also didn’t want to litter in front of the very fine building I was entering. I stubbed it out, put it in my pocket, and walked in.
It was a modern, perhaps typical London office, with glass, wood. and marble. Minimalistic and modern; receptionists on ostentatious Apple Macs. Bookshelves and book displays were apparent, although not cluttering. My name was ticked off the list by a uniformed lady behind the low desk and I was directed to sit on one of the grey, L-shaped couches opposite. A few people were already sat down, but quickly more filtered in and lingered awkwardly. By the time it appeared we were all present and correct, a few small conversations had started but mostly it was awkward eye-contact, slight smiles, and silence. I guess that’s to be expected when you put 60 introverted book-nerds together in a new situation.
We were lead to the lower ground floor: checked in; given name badges and expenses forms; offered tea and coffee. Bookshelves lined the walls with lightly stacked books. A line of Stephen King. A table plan awaited us at the doorway into the conference room. I was table six, and saw a name I potentially knew: maybe my twitter stalking had paid off.
The rectangular tables seated 10, each chair laden with a black canvas goody bag stuffed with information, leaflets, newsletters and a new book. In the middle of the table was a plastic pack containing details of our group project, a laptop, thesaurus, marker pens and a variety of books. A live twitter feed following #insidestory was on the TV screens on one side of the room. An agenda and notepad were in front of each attendee along with biros.
After a chance to get to know our table mates, the day soon started. An energic, smiling lady from HR seemed to be leading the day, introducing each speaker and trying her best to keep the day on track. In quick succession our speakers began; an overview of publishing and editorial started us off. We were then introduced to our task for the day: Pitching a Book. As a table, we were allocated a genre and had to create a new idea for a book and think of all the elements that go into publishing it. After each department’s speech, we had a little time to take the knowledge we’d learned and apply it to our pitch.
Lunch was a spread of sandwiches, crisps and fruit, with juices, tea and coffee. I took a moment to pop upstairs to get some fresh air – and ironically a cigarette – as the lack of natural light was a little draining.
The afternoon session felt long. Perhaps from the food, the early start, the lack of windows or no real break. Probably a combination of them all. We were behind schedule, and our allotted 10-minute afternoon break was run into and not properly announced. Certainly not enough time for another much-needed cigarette. I could feel myself yawning and zoning out in the afternoon. There was also the impending pressure of our pitch that we never seemed to have enough time for and kept falling behind with. After the speeches were done, we had a quick 30 minutes to “perfect” the pitch we hadn’t finished and practice our speech.
Our table went second. We had assumed it would be more of a one-to-one pitch, not in front of all the other attendees. The criticism wasn’t held back. Whilst useful, it was intense and also harsh, expecting us to understand a complex brief that kept changing, and aspects of publishing we hadn’t been taught. The comments were heard by all, so each table that went after made sure to include those points, which felt unfair to the poor table that went first. Having the pitches take place in a separate, smaller room would have been a fairer representation of the group’s ideas and strengths rather than copying the feedback of the judges.
Now over an hour behind, the CV and covering letter talk was quickly rushed through, with no CV clinic. Everyone was tired, shaken from the pitch and desperately in need of a drink. We were taken to the rooftop of the building where they had set up a bar of beer, wine, and soft drinks. Doors opened out to a rooftop garden with a view that was breathtakingly beautiful. The cold air was a stark contrast to the suffocating, staleness of the conference room. My body woke up to take in the sounds of the busy city. The lights that followed the path of the water were set against the empty, black sky. It took my breath away and cemented the idea of how far from home I was. How unattainable it all seemed to be.
The twitter compadre who I had been sat with all day, lingered awkwardly with me back inside the warmth of the reception room. We felt out of place, lost and confused by the day. Whilst we were laughing about how much we wanted to go home, take our uncomfortable clothes and makeup off, get into PJs and settle in with a bowl of pasta, a man who we had seen throughout the day came over to us. It was Jamie Hodder Williams.
Jamie Hodder Williams is CEO, Hodder & Stoughton, John Murray Press, Headline and Quercu. He’s a bigwig, and he was talking to us. Heat bloomed across my cheeks and it had nothing to do with the alcohol. We knew the evening session was an opportunity to network, but I hadn’t expected a near on one-to-one with this guy! After stuttering our way through the conversation trying to think of important, intelligent questions for him, he politely excused himself and we left shortly thereafter.
The 04.50 start was really starting to get to me, and the bus and train journey home felt like a lifetime. I couldn’t wait to get into bed.
People keep asking what I thought of the day; how it was. I’ve been struggling to respond, to be honest. There were positive and negatives of the day which makes it hard to come to a conclusion. Here are some of the things I’ve thought of.
Critiques of the day:
- Too many attendees or not enough – it felt as though the event wasn’t sure what it wanted to be.
- – If it was aiming to be a prestigious, invite-only event then there should have been fewer than the 60 attendees. Reducing numbers will give it the magical feel that you are gaining special insight into the industry. It would give attendees a chance to meet the names and faces inside and likewise the company and its employees a chance to meet the future of the industry. A real network opportunity for people to get their foot in the door, have job/work experience/internship offers and generally be a more personal experience.
- – If it wanted to get more people talking about the industry and create wider appeal then it should have been more of a conference. Invite more people: 150+. Put stalls up, have books and brochures out and have it more relaxed: people drop in and out of talks they’re interested in.
- Too much packed into one day – my brain felt like it was going to explode and I had almost forgotten it as soon as it fell out their mouth.
- – There were so many talks by so many speakers packed into one day. All trying to give so much information about their specific area. Meanwhile, we’re tweeting; trying to come up with a book idea and plan the pitch; asking questions and making notes. All that had to be squeezed in around lunch and breaks. It was just all too much.
- – Reduce the content, or make it a two-day event. Attendees can relax, enjoy the content more, take time to learn what they want and ask all the questions they need to. It will give them a chance to digest the information and come back with more questions.
- Time management sucked – maybe that sounds a little mean, but the agenda overran by an hour, plus running into lunch
- – Departments were allotted 10 minutes each to do their talks. In those 10 minutes, they had to talk about how they got into publishing, describe what their department does, and take questions from 60 attendees. Many questions didn’t get a chance to be heard, speeches overran, and it was all a little rushed. On top of this, the task to be completed through the day was linked to the talks, and not enough time was allocated to this task after each speech – it was squeezed in where there was no time.
- – I think excepting to hear a life story, an overview of complex departments, questions and tasks in 10 minutes is silly. The hashtags that are stuck all over the event are #insidestory and #insightintopublishing. It’s impossible to get that in 10 minutes. This links to my previous point of reducing content or split it. This will give people more time to speak and allow for open discussion between attendees and speakers.
- Choose your speakers carefully – the speakers make or break the event if you’re wanting these attendees to choose your company or choose this industry.
- – It felt as though some of the speakers were encouraged, coerced or forced into talking at the event. Like an email went out to each department: “Inside Story is next Wednesday. We need one person from your team. Reply with the name.” and everyone goes ‘no’ until some poor soul gets the short straw. This is entirely speculation but based on the apparent nervousness and anxiety of some speakers. There were no microphones in the room, and to reach the back and all the delegates meant a strong, confident voice. A few of the speakers had very quiet, unsure voices that meant the entire speech and valuable information was lost.
- – If people are hesitant to talk, don’t make them. It adds nothing to the event. Get a higher manager or outsider to talk about what goes on in the department if they’re aware. If people are eager and simply softly spoken, make sure microphones are available and working.
Positives of the day:
- Meeting the big chiefs – people who came in and out throughout the day came to each table.
- – After each departmental talk, the speaker came around to each of the tables to speak to attendees about any questions they had. That was really useful as not all the questions had a chance to be answered earlier. Twitter was also a great medium. For example, many people, like myself, fell in love with Sharmaine Lovegrove and tweeted her. She came back down from her office to spend more time talking to the tables.
- – As I mentioned, Jamie Hodder Williams came over during the drinks reception. For a big chief, he was incredibly approachable, friendly and endearing. A young woman joined my twitter-friend and I whilst we were talking to him, and she mentioned that Jamie had accepted her Linked In request. He appeared to blush and said, “You sent a lovely message. I wasn’t sure if I should reply or not.” Whilst he had a fire in his eyes that could only come from the power of hard work and passion, he was easy to talk to. I had noticed him on his phone a lot during the talks, and he’d name dropped a few times the celebrities and top-authors he works with so it was apparent what an important and busy man he was. But in that moment, as my eyes narrowed in analysis over the top of my corona, he just looked like a regular, somewhat awkward guy who loved books. Seeing that, having that moment of realisation made the whole day worth it.
- The inspiring few – There were two particular individuals from the day I felt truly inspired by.
- – During the morning’s editorial speech, one lady spoke about her zig-zagging route into publishing. It appeared as though she had done anything and everything relating to books: bookseller, Berlin bookshop owner, community builder, book-to-movie scout, business owner, and publisher. Sharmaine Lovegrove became my hero. She spoke about her passion: publishing minorities, people with disabilities and those who wouldn’t usually get looked at. The unheard voices. She said she wanted to “start conversations” and at that moment the comical love-hearts sprung out of my eyes. I encourage everyone to follow her on twitter @SharLovegrove to see what she’s up to.
- – I had never previously considered the role of a literary agent. I certainly hadn’t thought of it as a career. But when I heard Lizzy Kremer (@lizzykremer) speak about her job at David Higham agency I felt like a door opened for me. She was funny, endearing, excitable and most importantly human. As a non-Londoner but not-quite-country-bumpkin, seeing someone with a little more humanity and a little less perfect-London-publisher made the idea of a career in the industry more attainable. She was passionate which made me impassioned.
In summary, the day was not quite what I expected or hoped. I think improvement could and should be made. But did I think it was worth the trip? Definitely. Would I go again? Yes. Would I recommend others to go? Yes.
For someone who has never worked in London, and knew little about the industry, it was a valuable day. I did the commute, I saw the office building, I met the people. You can’t put a price tag on that. Inside Story could be a lot better, but I think anyone interested in publishing should apply for the next event. Good luck to all.
I would like to thank Hachette for the opportunity to attend the event. Thank you to everyone who helped put it together and to the people who took the time out of their busy days to speak to us.
All opinions expressed in this blog are just that, opinions, and entirely my own.