Publishing: Theory vs. Practice

Picture for blogA few weeks ago, our intern Jaclyn Swope wrote a bit of a reflection on the difference between what she is learning in the classroom, and what she has seen in practice at Hot Key. Jaclyn (@jaxswo) is currently pursuing her MA in Publishing at Kingston University and trying not to spend all of her tuition money on books. She reads nearly as much young adult fiction now as she did as a teenager and is looking for any opportunities to gain additional experience in children’s publishing.

On my publishing course, we spend a lot of time talking about the future of publishing, and at the core of our studies, the functions of different roles within the industry. Interning at Hot Key was my chance to see this in action at a REAL LIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY, and it definitely changed my perspectve. I came into it with knowledge afforded me by my tutors and from our lectures and projects, but as with anything, there is major difference between doing something theoretical and actually applying it, especially when there is more to think about than just my grade.

A few of my textbooks...

A few of my textbooks…

Last term, in our Product Development module, we had to come up with our own product, physical or digital, and pitch it as if we were working in a publishing company: we had to have the numbers to support it, the how’s, the why’s, the who’s, etc. I learned terms like P&L and TCM and how to use Nielsen Book Scan in my sleep, and then I had to stand in front of my class and present my idea before handing in a formal, written proposal.

It was quite daunting.

There was so much to think about, not least of which was whether my idea was completely terrible or not. It was like how I am with my own writing: I can’t edit myself, but I can edit others. I can’t recognize the validity of my own ideas, but I was sure that when the time came, I’d be able to recognize the potential, or lack thereof, behind a manuscript written by someone else.

Hot Key gave me the opportunity to test my previously theoretical manuscript-reading abilities and to see what happens when an editor proposes publishing a new book. From my first day here, I was reading manuscripts that were being circulated around the office or that had been emailed to the company. Rather than judging my own ideas, I was presented with other people’s, allowing me to test my instincts and my ability to see future greatness in a submitted book. I didn’t have to be the creator—I had to be a reader, which is really my natural state, bookworm that I am. When I liked the manuscripts that were being pushed forward, I got a little thrill from knowing that I would have made the same decision. I’m also good at saying no when I don’t like something – it’s good to know I won’t be inclined to buy everything that comes my way.

I was struck by how collaborative the consideration process was—every department received certain manuscripts, rather than the decision relying on a convincing document filled with facts and figures. The numbers are always important and the business side needs to be considered, but things progressed more like a conversation instead of a presentation. Developing and presenting my own product in class was a useful exercise, but I enjoyed experiencing another side to pitching, with less reliance on formality and more room for enthusiasm.

Having the opportunity to sit in on Hot Key’s publishing meetings really highlighted to me the difference between studying publishing and actually working at a publishing company. In class, we discuss sales, social media, contracts, production, but these meetings really showed me how everything comes together across departments. My lecturers always stress that, even though most of us on the course are English lit graduates and resistant to maths, we need to be aware of how much numbers play a part in publishing—not just the numbers themselves, but how they fluctuate and compare. Interpreting sales, royalties, blog stats and plenty of other figures can define success, and numbers cropped up plenty in the meetings. The discussions were a merger of the creative and the quantitative, with thoughts on cover designs being shortly followed by e-book download numbers, and I am growing more and more used to seeing everything in publishing that way.

My MA course has taught me so much about the publishing industry, and now my experience at Hot Key has given me an up-close look at a publishing company, allowing me to see how general responsibilities and information covered in class can morph and adapt depending on the company, or even on the book. My enthusiasm for books and everything that goes into them continues to increase with everything I learn, so I think I’m definitely in the right business. Now if only I could get over the terror I feel when I think about my looming dissertation…

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One response to “Publishing: Theory vs. Practice

  1. A really fascinating post – as an outsider I don’t really think about the numbers and just how much work and thought goes into publishing a book!

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