I was prepared for it to take a few months. What I was not prepared for was the thirteen months of uncertainty that followed, the long hours, the lack of sleep, the stress, the dramas or my depleting bank balance.
For anyone considering the work experience route into publishing (or a similar sector), here are my top tips to consider before you take the plunge:
- Have savings ready in your bank account
Money is a worry for anyone who doesn't know where the next pay cheque is coming from. You may have some money in the bank when you decide to opt for this route but the longer you spend as a workie, the more time will pass with money going out and not coming in. If you can, get a weekend job to supplement your income, but this may only add to your stress levels so it's always wise to do some forward planning and have a back-up sum ready to use when needed.
- No job is too small
As you are not getting paid and are coming in at the very bottom, be prepared to do the jobs nobody else wants to do or has the time for. These jobs are not made up just to annoy you. They are all necessary, whether they be photocopying, scanning, putting names into a spreadsheet or posting out book after book and receiving a million papercuts for your efforts. These jobs help the team you are supporting. Do them and they are far more likely to help you out in the future. Moan about them and nobody is going to be recommending you for anything but a deletion from their list of potentials employees.
- Build relationships wherever possible
The saying goes “It's not what you know, it's who you know.” This is never more true than the publishing sector, where one person's recommendation can mean the difference between a paid placement or no placement, an interview or no interview, a job or no job. You are likely to move around a lot as a workie, from department to department and company to company and it pays to keep in touch with the people you meet along the way.
- Make yourself known
Many departments have a new work experience person every fortnight, especially the busier ones. That's twenty-six people over the course of a year. Make them remember you. And by that I don't mean start a fight with someone or leave photos of yourself on everybody's desk. Talk to people. Engage with them. Be more than just another face passing through. Make an impression – and make it a good one.
- Ask questions
As well as talking to people and making yourself known, it's incredibly important to ask questions. Don't worry about bugging them or being a nuisance. Have questions ready prepared, think about what it is you want to know about the industry and how they can help you find the answers. Chat over lunch, or while you grab a cup of tea in the kitchen. If you're worried that the person is too busy all the time, send them a quick email asking if they'd be able to sit down with you at some point and go over some questions you have. If you don't ask, you don't get. Of course, it's probably best not to harrass people on your very first day.
- Enjoy the perks where you can – you've earned them!
You may not be getting paid but there are perks to be had as a workie for those able to prove their worth. The biggest perk is the books. If you are offered any, take them without feeling the need to check “Is that OK, are you sure?” Many companies, especially the larger ones, have shelves covered in books that can easily be re-ordered. Always ask, of course, but take what you can get. They'll be happy to give you something as a thank-you. There may also be invites to events – book signings, launches. These are all part of the industry so go if you can. Offer to help out. It shows dedication on your part and will probably be lots of fun!
- Prepare for the long haul
The uncertainty is the hardest part of being a workie. You could get a job in a few months, perhaps – if you time it beautifully – even less. It's more than likely though, especially in the current economic climate, that you will have to wait a lot longer. Prepare yourself as much as possible for the possibility that you may be doing this for a while. It's a marathon not a spirit. You have an end-goal in sight and it is highly probable that you will, at some point, reach a wall and just want to pack it all in. You need to really want this if you are going to be able to stick it out for the long haul, so make sure you've really thought about it beforehand.
- Have a break
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And all work and no play makes a workie a cranky, volatile shell of a human being. Take it from me. It's important to pace yourself and have some downtime. See your friends, have a night in watching mindless TV, spend an afternoon cooking. Whatever you do to relax, do it – at least once a week. Or you will go mad with the stress of it all.
- Be prepared at interviews
The longer you work as a workie, the more job offers will come your way. You will probably have an idea of where you want to work and will be checking the websites weekly, possibly daily, to see if new jobs have come up. You will probably be applying for any job you feel is remotely relevant just to get your foot in the door. To a workie, a job interview really is the be-all-and-end-all because it is your lifeline. It is your goal. The last thing you want to do then is be so excited at actually making the interview stage that you panic, talk too much, forget what you wanted to say and completely mess it up. Focus on all the skills you have learned to date, research the company and department thoroughly. Read up on the authors and have some questions ready. It's easier said than done, I know, but go in there calm and prepared, show them why you are the ideal candidate for the job and don't let it destroy you if it's a no.
- Be strong, don't let people take advantage
Overall, everyone I encountered – both as a workie and beyond – in the world of publishing was supportive. If you proved you were a worthy asset they would do what they could to help you. Many have gone above and beyond for me without me even asking. However, there are always going to be exceptions to that rule and you need to be very careful not to be so helpful that people end up taking advantage of you. There is a reason workies are given the menial tasks – they are unpaid staff. It's great to be given a bit more responsibility – it shows they have faith in your abilities – but this responsibility can become too much too quickly. I had one placement where I was effectively doing somebody's job while they were on holiday – something I should have been receiving a temporary salary for. I had clearly been placed there because I was an experienced workie. They saw my abilities and sought to exploit it. I didn't even get a reference or any thanks at the end of the three weeks and nobody ever stopped long enough to answer any of my questions. Work experience should be a two-way street. Don't let them walk all over you.
Good luck, and may your journey be worth it!