For three months this summer, I have been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to work as an intern at Stairwell Book Publishing, a small independent publishing house located within the heart of York.
Owned by husband and wife team Alan Gillott and Rose Drew; operating both here in York and from the couple’s second home in the US, Stairwell Books publishes a wide range of poetry anthologies, memoirs and non-fiction, recently expanding into novels. It aims to inspire and support new authors, and likes to publish books with a strong social justice bent. Recent projects include Lou’s Letters, a memoir of a British soldier in the Second World War, a book of photography charting the experiences of the traveller community in Yorkshire and a novel about teenagers dealing with mental illness. Furthermore, the creative writing magazine, Dream Catcher, is also run from Stairwell Books’ Office. They also organise a huge range of events, from monthly Spoken Word poetry open-mikes to book launches to events in conjunction with York’s libraries and schools aimed at promoting literacy within the local community.
The first major careers lesson that I was to learn was the important of being versatile, especially when working in such a small company. In my first week alone, I was asked to complete tasks which went well beyond my preferred skill set, such as accounting, coding and even hauling incredibly heavily boxes of books to the local post-office. Although I was initially anxious to be taken so far out of my comfort zone, this was ultimately a very useful experience, especially as it is predicted that the modern workplace will require us to inhabit less clearly defined and differentiated job roles. Another aspect of my internship experience which definitely prepared me for a world of work in the 21st century was the irregular hours it required, whether it was working from home on weekends or fraught email conversations with various authors at three O’ clock in the morning.
In terms of my understanding of books and how they are published, I feel like this summer has taught me a whole other language. I now know what “AI”s are and why Waterstones needs them before it can decide whether or not it will stock your book, how to source an ISBN number for your manuscript and the correct buzzwords to use in an arts grant. My computing skills also underwent a revolution: no longer will I be ignorant of how to set up a prototype for a novel using the different styles in Microsoft Word, or of how to program a scanner and printer so that they churn out hundreds of mailing labels, all with Stairwell Books’ logo in the top right-hand corner.
But by far the most exciting task was getting to choose which manuscripts we took on and which we rejected. Moreover, as Stairwell Books is trying to move into young adult fiction, I was often called on to give my opinion of what a 20-something would say or do in this or that situation, and enjoyed being termed the “youth translator”. Learning to write tactful rejection letters was another useful tool of the trade. And with the books we did choose to take on, I enjoyed working one-to-one with the authors to improve their work. A little known fact about the publishing industry is that most novels are read through ten times by a single editor prior to their publication, as I was set to find out when I prematurely declared myself to be finished with one text after a mere two read-throughs. Yet, exhausting as this process was, I enjoyed having the chance to gain such an intimate knowledge of these plots and characters, rivalled only by that of their authors. The wide range of genres which I was required to work with also led to me adopting a more open mind to different types of books which I would not usually pick up. For instance, I’m no fan of crime novels, but thoroughly enjoyed editing one, which made me reflect that I should try to broaden my literary horizons.
That is not to say that there weren’t times when the seemingly endless correction of a certain author’s poor punctuation, long hours and considerable commute, all by foot, thanks to York’s lack of direct buses, didn’t dampen my enthusiasm slightly. I also endured my fair share of embarrassing intern blunders, from absent-mindedly printing a whole wodge of envelopes with the company logo on the back, so that they all had to be thrown away, to sending an irate customer the wrong book and having to write a grovelling note of apology. Nonetheless, I finish the summer with some important contacts made in the publishing world, my name as the editor of several novels and having had a fantastic and memorable experience.