Reflections on an imprint: Or, what does a publishing intern actually do?

Recently, Fincham Press interviewed four candidates vying for a paid internship, and I got to play co-interviewer alongside my colleague. This was the hardest thing I’d ever had to tackle during my time at Fincham: because I knew how these people were feeling. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel authoritative enough to help decide who should join us, and who shouldn’t. I’ve been working here for over two years, and it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was in the same position as these four. With this in mind, and the fact that this piece should have been written at least a year ago – though perhaps that’s appropriate, when I think about the delays and pushbacks you’ll always find in publishing – I decided to write about my experience as an intern, and subsequent progression to managing editor.

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Purple Lights launch, December 2016: Reading by Nanou Blair-Gould

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sent my CV off two years ago. I wasn’t expecting to get picked, at any rate. I had visions of the interviewers, if I got that far, humouring me to fill their equal opportunities quota. I hadn’t had much experience, besides one publication to my name and fiddling with a hospital radio magazine. I don’t do posh talk, which I’d always thought was a prerequisite for working in books. I’m a council estate girl, and my way with words is still a bit more profane than might be acceptable in a regular office. Even now, I try to rein it in when talking to colleagues.

I did have enthusiasm, though. And I was hoping for some interview experience in “books”. The interview experience would be something to work on when stepping out into the big wide world, doing proper adult things, and going through a number of other interviews. The ideal scenario would be nailing one, resulting in that ‘real’ job that so many people had been pressuring me to get, real networks, and a real mortgage. Well, maybe not that last one. I’m a would-be academic and writer working two part-time jobs – get real.

My internal reaction, then, when they told me that I’d been successful went something like this (cleaned up for blogging purposes):

“Bloody hell, really? No. No. Brilliant! Nobody look at me, I could be the next Max Perkins! Oh. But I’ve still got so much to learn. Ah.”

I’d forgotten the whole point of doing an internship before I’d even started – you learn on the job. I did, however, feel that I needed to prove myself to my lecturers, who were now going to be my colleagues, so that they felt that they hadn’t ballsed it up. I admired them, and continue to do so – perhaps more so now after working with them and realizing just how much goes into working in their field. I needed to prove my worth in that environment, to which I wanted to dedicate a considerable portion of my lifetime.

A few things initially drew me to Fincham. It was a small, independent press using the university as a base. It was run by a couple of my lecturers, with a designer who was brought in from outside to make everything look pretty – though I’d soon learn he does so much more than this, as we all do. They had already put out two anthologies of student work, and at the risk of sounding like a bit of a mercenary, I thought I might have a better chance of getting published if I was “in there”. What drew me most, though, was its goal – this wasn’t a money spinner. It was just a small bunch of academics who genuinely wanted to put the work of their students out there – to get it read. This unorthodox business model came with a far more informal approach to the submissions process – no cover letters required, just send in something you’ve written that you’re proud of. Some of the works were also competition winners, and others put forward by lecturers so that more modest students could have a chance to see their work in print. I’m sure you’ll agree the result is eclectic.

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Publicity stunt, April 2017: Purple Lights and London lights

There was a lot of admin at the start. There still is. I don’t think I’ll ever stop having to gently (and not-so-gently) remind colleagues, both in-house and out, to do things so that production/promotion/target of choice can progress. This can be irritating, but such is the nature of the work: everybody has their own little jobs, like components of an engine. And if you’re waiting on oil, then the pistons can’t function correctly, and that engine will eventually seize. Everything gets held up. In this way, plans fall through and some deadlines will get pushed back. Nobody in the team is able to work for Fincham on a full-time basis, and there have been a few times where complications in our everyday and professional lives resulted in delays of some description. These things are, sadly, inevitable. This realisation is possibly the most practical thing I’ve learned during my time here.

However, the blow can be softened. The only way to tackle a number of little things, which will inevitably build up into HUGE things, is to be as efficient as you can be. In reality, I’m bloody lazy – but in work, writing or otherwise, I’ve always written everything down. Longhand. This might just be how I function – I take things in better when I have an actual thing to read or write with, and not a screen to ogle at. Regardless, if there’s one tip I would give to anyone who asked me, it would be to write everything essential to you down. You’ll absorb the information better, and have a record of it – remember that a piece of paper can’t get wiped along with your hard drive (as long as you don’t lose it, duh!)

Production continues to be the most fascinating process for me. I know that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to see it from two perspectives: as writer, and as editor. This has proved exceptionally useful to both sides. Proofreading has become second nature, and I pay far more attention to formatting my work than I ever did before working for Fincham. Potential editors will be grateful for a nicely formatted piece, free of spelling and grammatical errors. It’s disguised as common sense, but, having worked on three anthologies of student work, there are always a few that manage to sneak past the writer’s guard and onto the page, only caught by the careful combing-through of editor and production assistant. Sometimes not even then – we did a promotional stunt to coincide with April Fool’s Day. You might argue that the joke was on us. We’d left one hundred misprinted copies of our third anthology, Purple Lights, all over London, and invited the public to spot the error and tweet it. The public were far more discerning than we could ever have imagined, and threw up a whole bunch of other little niggles that all of us had failed to spot during production. (FYI: the error we were looking for was a piece that had somehow vanished entirely, yet the author was listed in the list contributors – no, we still don’t know how that happened, either.)

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Pre-tweets, April 2017: Managing Editor Charlotte Byrne, Anthology Editor Leone Ross, and writer Steph Elliot Vickers preparing to distribute books

While fascinating, and often finicky, every new publication that comes along forces my brain to work that little bit harder. Last year, the Fincham production schedule was increased twofold as we launched two new open access academic journals. I felt lucky to be part of them – the International Journal of James Bond Studies is the first in its field, and RoundTable was cutting-edge in its make-up, edited by research students at the university. In theory, it should have been easier to compile a journal issue than an entire anthology. The reality, though, was that putting a journal together was way more complicated than compiling a book. There was a whole new legal side we had to familiarize ourselves with. Which was the correct Creative Commons licence for our open access journals? What’s with the alien hosting platform? How do we get our journals indexed so they will actually reach people likely to use them? Not to mention there were a number of additional technical hitches and a lot more of that chasing up business – and we are indebted to Ubiquity staff who held our collective hand through it all.

It makes sense, then, to conclude by rounding up what I’ve learned in all of this. The short answer: everything. I used to suffer with telephonophobia. This went undiagnosed since childhood, but I’d always experienced chest pains and frequently tripped over my words when forced to answer a call, even to family. Necessary, lengthy phone calls with our printers and other outside entities ensured that this was cured for good. I can organise volunteers for events. I can organise actual events, for that matter. My fondest memory comes from the very first launch I was involved with. It was for the second Fincham publication, Screams and Silences. We were all sitting on the floor like hippies in a commune, having listened to the final reading of the night. My lecturer-colleague got up and gave an end-of-event speech, thanking everybody in attendance for their support and warmth. She then proceeded to invite me up to stand with her, claiming that the event wouldn’t have been possible without my input. I was humbled; yet the applause told me that maybe I could do anything I set my hand to. Or at least have a pretty good crack at it.

I also have also learned what goes into making not just a book, but also an academic journal, and a website. My eye for design and perception of “how things look” has been altered forever after working with our fabulous designer. I’ve also learned a great deal about people – working with our two senior editors, both with their own distinct personality types and work methods, has given me even more practice in human interaction. You can get on with anybody – you need only find the right communication.

I’m now entering my third year with Fincham Press; my second as managing editor. We’ve just welcomed a new Publishing Assistant to the family, and I’m looking forward to working with her. I know that I can empathise with and support her as she, too, has her own, unique learning experience. Perhaps it will be a bit like the one I’ve just described, or perhaps not. Two things, however, are certain:

We will continue to share the voices of Roehampton with the world – and in that endeavour, we’ll never stop learning.

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