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The bizarre career choice of publishing

March 26, 2012
Image of Ken Dodd

Comedy or discipline? It takes a level head to work in today's publishing industry.

I was interested to read this recent post by Mitch Joel called “Embrace the Squiggly“. It talks about the pleasure of a varied career over one which is single track and, to me, his blog seemed to sum up the bizarre career choice which is publishing and what those taking this track need to do to survive.

Indeed, we might ask, is publishing really a career choice or just somewhere where people with nothing better to do simply end up?

Certainly, if I think about it, I never intended to work in publishing (some might argue, of course,  that no-one works in publishing) and that it is something I drifted into. There’s no doubt about it, I could never have predicted that what I do now for a living was my aim at the beginning. But, as Mr Joel advocates, where I’ve ended up is not something I’d planned for – instead it seems I’ve often allowed my curiosity, rather than a pursuit of kudos, status, an office with a door or a company car, to take me where I’ve been.

In my time, I’ve spent years copywriting, running telesales operations, restructuring teams, undertaking complex account management assignments, analysing profits from every sales and marketing channel imaginable and have constructed and implemented countless pricing models for different publishers. I’ve designed complex websites, e-commerce tools, data capturing models and written numerous strategic plans both at a business level and from a marketing point of view. I’ve tried to keep a level head and a sense of humour.

And all this from someone whose first piece of written copy was returned from a commissioning editor at legal publishers Butterworths with a line through it and the word “No!” scribbled alongside by way of coaching and mentoring. Hardly an industry apprenticeship where honed skills were passed on through the generations…

There’s no doubt that if I’d let what often stands for career structure at a publishing company shape my career then I’d still be writing bad copy for books that never sold. So what I did instead was learn for myself. I read all the marketing and management texts I could. I studied the words of great masters like Ogilvy, Drayton Bird and Bob Bly. I studied for my marketing and pricing qualifications in my own time – and paid for them with my own money.

Along the way, I met interesting people who opened my eyes to new ways of thinking – often with the unforeseen consequence of sending me into a tailspin as I realised that many ideas and thoughts I’d had were obsolescent or, worse, obsolete. Not forgetting the many mistakes I made – as well as the successes. Squiggly indeed.

The truth about a career in publishing is that for an industry which for the last 20 years has been in a state of transitional chaos, prospective employees now need to be prepared for constant change rather than the cosy somnambulance of the commissioning editor’s office and an ashtray full of spent Player’s Navy Cut. Stability cannot be guaranteed. So it takes an open mind to succeed.

In the past, where club membership and alumni connections combined with academic prowess and intellectual narcissism to deliver the badge of honour which was the publisher’s lunch, today this boozy prandial apogee is instead a way for the overstressed to avoid a nervous breakdown. The unpredictable environment of a business always on the brink is now taken to a new level as the digital revolution, commoditisation and online retailer power conspire to shake the entrepreneurialism of the unprepared.

Today in publishing, it takes a strong mind and a good strategy to make a success of it – and fortune favours the brave. My steer for anyone today seeking a career in publishing is this: accept change, be prepared to change, and always accept that today’s solution is yesterday’s old hat. Publishing may be a bizarre career choice but to survive it best, it pays to be curious and never to look back.


Image of Ken Dodd – courtesy of Pumpkin FM

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