Ten ways to get ahead in publishing



I’m Alastair Horne, and I work for Cambridge University Press. I started out at Cambridge ten years ago as a project developer, testing educational software for primary schools; then spent three years as a project manager, working with internal and external teams to deliver that software on time and to budget. After that, I had three more years as innovations manager, prototyping new types of product, and investigating new ways of doing business as the industry became increasingly digital.

These days, I divide my time between two roles. I spend half my week as Social Media and Communities Manager in our English Language Teaching division, running our professional development webinars and blog for teachers, Cambridge Conversations. The other half of my time I spend working on our Eureka innovations team, crowdsourcing solutions to some of the challenges publishers face: how we can find out more about our customers, for instance, and how we can use that information to offer services and products that better match their needs.

I’ll be talking about what I’ve learned from these different roles, and from the jobs I’ve had outside the industry – teaching English in Japan, researching for a PhD, and working in a glue factory for a year after graduation. (Spoiler: the main thing I learned from working in a glue factory was NOT to work in a glue factory.) I’ll also be discussing what I’ve learned from the things I do outside the day job – teaching classes on publishing at universities from Falmouth to Stirling, writing articles and blogposts on the industry for organisations including the Bookseller and Media Futures. And I’ll be talking a lot about Twitter, where I tweet – way too much – as @pressfuturist.

In the style of the listicles that currently dominate web content, I’ll be suggesting ten ways that you can get ahead in publishing. With ten minutes to speak, and ten points to get through, we’ll be going quite quickly, so hold on tight.

Half of my day job – the community manager part – involves commissioning professional development content for teachers looking to improve their skills and increase their employability. Language teachers take their professional development enormously seriously: most of them sign up on their own initiative, and often at their own expense too; they take courses; they attend webinars; they read articles – they’re highly motivated and determined to improve.

We need to learn from their example. By all means, make sure that you get the most from the training your employer offers, but don’t rely on that – keep an eye out yourself for courses and conferences that might benefit you, and ask if your employer will pay for you to attend.

Your employers may not offer the training that you need, though; and you may well have a better idea than they do of what skills are going to be required in the future.

So, you need to take control of your own career development: you need to work out what you need to learn, and find out where you can learn it.

You can do a lot for yourself, and for free. The internet is full of ways to develop your skills. If you want to teach yourself how to use a certain piece of software, for instance, then a search on YouTube will most likely find you videos that will cover all the things you’ll need to know how to do. So why not use those resources to teach yourself some skills that will complement those you use already: teach yourself how to format and upload a book to Amazon’s Kindle, for instance, or build yourself a website using free tools.

If you’re looking for something more theoretical or professional, why not try a MOOC, a massive open online course, like those offered by universities and companies like Udacity or Coursera. For most MOOCs, you only have to pay if you complete the course and want certification, so you’re not risking your own money upfront on something that may or may not prove useful.

One of the most important things we should learn from those language teachers I mentioned earlier is the concept of the personal learning network: an informal group of people you learn from.

Like language teachers, your personal learning network will probably have two parts. The first will be your colleagues. Watch what they do, and take the time to ask their advice.

The second part of your PLN will be found online.

If you’re not on Twitter already, sign up; if you are, then start taking it seriously. First of all, social media skills are increasingly important throughout the publishing industry, whatever job you’re doing. Secondly, social media are a great way of developing your publishing career.

How many of you attended the Digital Minds conference yesterday? Congratulations: you’re working for a publisher sufficiently interested in your professional development – and wealthy enough – to pay £3-400 so that you can listen to the wisdom of some of the best minds in publishing. You’re very lucky.

But if you’re not that lucky, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t benefit from that wisdom too. How many of you followed the conference via the #PMDC15 hashtag on Twitter?

Particular congratulations to you: you took the initiative for yourself, and you’ll probably have picked up almost as much as those who were actually there.

Twitter offers amazing opportunities to learn from others. Use Twitter to find out what people are talking about – particularly people in the area you want to move into. Use it to get better informed, and then join in the conversation. It’s a great way to connect with influential people. 90% of the people I know in publishing I met through Twitter, and I learn so much from them – they share what they’re reading and thinking about. Follow people like Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) and Jose Furtado (@jafurtado); organisations like The Bookseller, Byte the Book, Bookmachine, and of course the SYP.

For many of you, this won’t be new. Not only is there an enormous crossover between people who work in publishing and the type of stationery fetishists who can’t leave a bookshop without buying at least one new notebook, but also half of us are would-be writers who never leave home without a notebook in our bag to jot down that spontaneous idea for a character or story. So carrying a notebook with you at all times won’t be something new or challenging. But it’s vital to remembering, reviewing, and repeating what you’ve learned.

Whenever you feel you’ve learned something new, or had a new insight, take a moment to write it down. That way, you’ll be much less likely to forget it. It’ll also prepare you nicely for the next stage of the learning process.


To make the most of your learning, you need to reflect on it: to think about what you’ve learned, and how you’re going to apply it to your work.

Take time out every day to review what you’ve learned, whether it’s a keyboard shortcut for Photoshop or an approach that really worked in the meeting you had before lunch. Think about how you’ll implement it in your own work, to improve what you do. And check back later – after a week, then again after a month – to remind yourself of what you learned, and to make sure you’ve tried it out in your own practice.

Ultimately, though, learning how to do new things isn’t enough. You need to be able to show what you can do.

If you’re looking for a job, it’s far more effective to show someone what you can do than just to tell them.

Those of you who came into the industry via a publishing degree may well have had to write a blog while you were studying – you’ll certainly have had to write essays. Writing then served two purposes – it forced you to reflect on what you’d learned, and it provided evidence that you’d done so.

Both those purposes apply as much to people working in publishing as they do to publishing students. When you’re applying for a job, you want to put evidence out there of what you’re capable of; it’s one thing to state in a covering letter that you can do X, Y, and Z – far better to demonstrate it.

So, write a blog about the industry, and what you’re learning, tweet about it, and build up a profile around your professional development. Then put a link to your blog on your CV.

If you’ve taught yourself how to code, or to use social media for marketing, don’t just add a line on your CV to say that you can do it: share something that proves you can. Ask a local charity if you can set up and run a social media account for them, or build an app and upload it to an app store. Showing what you can do is always more effective than telling.

A few weeks after I’d started in my previous role as innovations manager, I was asked by my boss if I would mind temporarily looking after a project that potentially involved collaboration with the Williams Formula One team: because it was a new project that hadn’t been part of our publishing plan, there was no-one available from the regular publishing teams, so what was needed was someone who could steer the project past the concept stage until a team became available.

I jumped at the chance; I’d not been involved in developing a product concept before, but this looked to be an exciting project. By taking it on at the concept stage, and demonstrating that I was capable of handling that stage effectively, I got to lead from the Cambridge side a project that eventually won us a BETT award for the best digital product for primary schools; I got to stand in the pit lane at Silverstone during final practice, introduce driver Nico Rosberg to a class of schoolchildren, and – as you’ll see from the photo – wear a set of driver’s overalls to promote the product.

So, if someone asks you to take on a task that might develop your career, even if you’re not sure how you’re going to do it, just say yes.

Later on in the project, post-publication, when my counterpart at Williams phoned a teacher we were meant to be visiting the next day to discuss how she might use the software, he was asked by the teacher whether we wanted to speak to her or the children – if we wanted to speak to her, then we’d need to postpone as she was madly busy; but if wanted to speak to her children, then we could go ahead as planned.

A short conversation later, and the next afternoon, I found myself teaching a class of 30 ten year olds about teamwork, pit stops and air resistance. We ended up visiting about ten schools, and at each one I taught a lesson using the software. I learned so much from that experience: about what worked in the classroom and what didn’t, about maintaining the attention of an enormously demanding audience of thirty ten and eleven year olds. I learned that I actually enjoyed teaching, and without that experience I probably wouldn’t have started teaching publishing students in my spare time.

So, don’t be afraid to say yes when you’re asked to do something outside your comfort zone: you can always work out how to do it later, and the skills you gain may serve you well in future – they may even set you off on an entirely new career.

As I mentioned before, although I’m now Social Media Manager for Cambridge, that’s not all I do – I do a bit of teaching on the side, the odd talk here and there, and write the occasional article or blogpost. One of the key reasons I do all this is because it offers me a reason to keep up with what’s going on in publishing, and it gives me a chance to do something useful. It also helps keep my profile reasonably high, so if I did ever want to change jobs, I’d be in a better position.

Don’t necessarily expect to get all the fulfilment (or pay) that you need from the day job. If there’s stuff that you want to be doing but you can’t at work, start doing it somewhere else. (You may need to get permission from the day job, but provided that you’re sensible and don’t want to start working with a competitor, they should be cool with it.)
This is important not just in terms of personal satisfaction, but also because it may unexpectedly change your life. And that’s because…

What you do in your day job may not be what gets you your next job. What you do in your supposedly spare time may turn out to be far more important.

When you got your first job in publishing, it most likely wasn’t because of your vast experience within the industry; it would most likely have been because of what you’d shown yourself capable of outside of work. As new jobs in publishing increasingly require new kinds of skills, this will increasingly be true not just of entry-level roles, but more widely too.

My last two jobs in publishing both came as a consequence not of all the stuff that I’d done as part of my job, but from all the things that I’d done that weren’t in the job description. I got the job of Innovations Manager because I’d shown an interest in the wider publishing industry – and in technology – that went beyond what was required in my job as project manager.

I was offered my current role as Social Media Manager not because I’d got any experience of running social media accounts for business – I hadn’t – but on the strength of having built up a personal following on Twitter of nearly three thousand.

And now I’ve been seconded onto the Eureka innovation team at the Press because I’ve kept up my interest in innovation despite moving into social media.

So, by all means do your current job as well as you can, but don’t be limited by that: focus also on the things you do outside that role.

Thanks; I’ve been @pressfuturist. If you’d like a copy of my notes for this talk, go to my blog at http://www.pressfuturist.com, where you can read it all. And if you’d like to discuss any of this, chat with me on Twitter.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Laura Patsko says:

    Great post! But where’s the pic of the driver’s overalls?

      1. Laura Patsko says:

        Great look! 😉

  2. Jo Williamson says:

    Nice list, thanks!

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