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Unlocking the Industry: Publishing at Penguin

Elizabeth Walsh looks at how Penguin are trying to make the industry more accessible.

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Image Credit: Penguin Random House, 2020

When thinking about what I want to do as a full-time job after university I have been interested in the idea of Publishing for a while now.  I have always loved books (no surprise there with being an English student.) However, like many people I have never been sure as to how to go about getting a ‘foot in the door’ so to speak. From the outside looking in, the publishing industry can seem exclusive and simply inaccessible. At Penguin Random House they are aware of this common perception and are trying to open the industry back up.

Penguin is running a series called Penguin Talks that is aimed at young people and allows them to listen to and engage with Penguin writers and employees. As with many events during the pandemic, the series has now been converted to an online platform. The new virtual talks focus on the pressing issues of the moment that may be affecting young people, such as how to prepare for the world of work.

On Thursday 9 July, the talk was led by Simon Armstrong, Publicity Manager at Penguin Random House Children’s and Hannah Chukwu who is the Editorial Assistant at Penguin General. The duo discussed different aspects of the industry including what it’s really like to work for Penguin and the steps to take to gain experience in the industry.

Hannah began by running through the different ways that people can gain experience at Penguin. She explained how there are 450 work experience placements on offer each year in London, which was a lot more than I had expected. Penguin is unique when it comes to  work experience as they were the first publishing house in the UK to offer fully paid placements. Offering participants the national minimum wage is just one way in which they are trying to make publishing more accessible - by breaking the often disheartening cycle of unpaid work many young people face.

It was  revealed that 82 young people secured paid roles in the company last year. These included 10 week internships  over the summer, during which participants were tasked with a real business problem to work on. The speakers emphasised that in order to secure  work with Penguin you do not need previous experience or to have connections in the business. As part of their attempt to level out the playing field, the company have now banned personal referrals. They are more interested in what you can bring as a unique individual.

If, like me, you don't live in London, the idea of doing a placement in the capital may seem  out of the question. However, Penguin currently has a system in place to combat these restrictions. They are working with The Spare Room Project which matches interns with somebody already working in the industry, living in London and who can offer  accommodation. Last year the project helped over 122 people. Hannah detailed how she had used this project herself while on a placement,  as she didn't live in London before joining the company full-time.

As well as working to make the industry more inclusive for those looking to join, Penguin are also striving for greater inclusion internally. Hannah admitted that the industry does have a non-diverse look to outsiders but that more diverse voices are making their way through. In 2016 Penguin committed to the goal of ensuring that new hires and authors reflect UK society by 2025. Hannah explained that their accelerated inclusion programme launched on the 8 July. The aim of the program is to work towards making publishing a truly representative industry.

Penguin encourages and funds the creation of groups that allow employees to connect with each other outside of work. Hannah explained that she is part of the group Colour[full] which runs regular socials for black employees and is a space in which they can talk about any issues they may be having.  Other employee-led groups include Penguin Parents which is an LGBTQIA community and Be Well a mental health and wellness group.

When asked what advice they would give about getting into the industry both Simon and Hannah honed in on the idea of just being yourself. Simon focused on the concept of reciprocity and the idea that the industry deserves to make you  want  them just as much as them wanting you.  He insisted that you just need to, “believe that you belong in this industry”  as you can bring the diversity they are looking for.  Similarly, Hannah outlined how you don’t need to change to fit a mould. Her advice was to, “ stay curious and passionate about what you’re already passionate about”.

Although the  publishing industry still has a long way to go in achieving the true diversity society needs, they are actively working towards change. I hope that as the industry continues to grow and work towards their goals of increased diversity and inclusion, that more people will see that working for companies like Penguin is in fact an achievable goal and not just a far fetched dream.

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