What’s it like being a skilled immigrant in UK Publishing?
I’m Naomi Barton. I’ve an English name, I speak dexterously in the language as it is my first, and I’ve been raised in a privileged, progressive home. I’ve been a part of the internet since I was a child, and as such, can pass easily for a global citizen — I watch the right shows, love the Beatles, and dutifully hate Jersey Shore.
I’ve lived my entire life in Bombay, India.
I moved to London to UCL in 2013, aged 21.
It seemed like the obvious thing to do. I’ve known I wanted to work in the book industry since I was 10 years old. At sixteen, I interned with literature festivals and hobnobbed nervously with our publishing hoi polloi, at eighteen I spent two months at Penguin Books India, and when I finished my English degree from one of the best liberal arts colleges in India with a blessedly high GPA, I decided to get a Masters in Publishing because I’m privileged like that.
I was the kind of student who sailed through work at home, and yet, my first paper at UCL received the lowest grade I’d ever encountered as a student. The style of academics was one that didn’t reward my particular flamboyance (I remember a note on the side saying ‘too excessive’- must keep a stiff upper lip, chaps) so I adapted and did better. I had friends whose grades suffered for that they weren’t fluent English speakers. They had to become better too. It is after all an English speaking market.
When I was in my third term, I got a coveted month long paid internship at the Blake Friedmann Agency, to work with one of publishing’s greatest women ever — Carole Blake. I was a decent enough candidate that they asked me to stay on an unprecedented second month. This ought to have been a moment of untarnished, untouchable glee, and when they asked me, I said yes, delightedly, and then went to the bathroom and cried for half an hour.
You see, I’m Indian. So while all these amazing things were happening, I was also working a second job. That job required for me to wake up at four am on the three days a week for the term I had class, and the weekends for the term I had an internship. I worked at a place that supplied things to eat and bits and bobs at tube stations. It involved stocking shelves, standing for eight hours at a stretch if I was at the counter, scrubbing floors and being elbow deep in filthy dishes at the diner. I came home with the smell of stale oil and glove latex clinging to me, bone tired. I’d have a shower. Then I’d sit down to do assignments. I spent those two precious paid-internship months exhausted, burnt out and depressed, but there is no space for failure when you are an international student. There is no safety net. You have to prove yourself, or go back home with egg on your face.
My mum bankrolled my degree by going into the kind of brutal debt that buys homes in India. I didn’t want to tell her — I’m sorry, if I have to network here they only do it in pubs, which are expensive. If I have to live someplace safe, it’s expensive. If I want to buy new boots because my old second hand store ones have worn out so the leather is hitting the road, those are expensive. So I worked, a shitty job which paid shitty money. These are the bootstraps you pull yourself up by, I thought. You work hard and it pays off. Right?
The month before my dissertation was due, I quit all my jobs so I could work on it. I’d moved into an attic shoebox of a room in Walthamstow which was blessedly cheap, not realizing that the radiator wasn’t functional, there was no insulation. I’d go to sleep under my single summer duvet (do you know how expensive a duvet is, if you don’t know if you’re going to stay another year) in a pink flamingo onesie I bought at Primark, with my coat on top of that. I’d wake up and go to the UCL Library (it was such a glorious library), stopping at the Tesco’s on Tottenham Court Road on the way to pick up a four-pack of sausage rolls for a pound — one for breakfast, one for lunch, one for a snack, one for dinner. I’d leave at eleven to catch the last train back to Walthamstow. Rinse and repeat.
See, the thing is, UCL gave me exactly what they promised. After I finished with Blake Friedmann, I started an internship with the digital marketing department at Hodder and Stoughton, and learnt a lot and met all the important people. I found out about a project Hachette was doing then, volunteered myself, and assisted with their research in what would contribute to my thesis. I was put in touch with the people at Kobo and Faber, who came to teach our guest lectures, and did original research with their data as well. I was that horrible child who always had questions at the end of class and followed up on email. I had a little pile of business cards I pinned to my desk that I would beam quietly at.
My dissertation was on something that hadn’t been analyzed academically before — how digital metadata and marketing contributes to e-retail, viz, what are the fiddly bits that make people buy books online. There were some very interesting results too — fun fact, there is an exact number of words you ought to put into a blurb for books that sell well.
I was going to be giving presentations to important people. I was assured by many that my work, by virtue of being innovative and uniquely relevant, would ensure that I’d get a job. Nobody else was working on it, see, and it was a sector of information that publishing was quite excited at the time for people to find out more about. I knew it was hard to get a job in the UK, but I’d worked hard and I’d worked smart. The day after I submitted my dissertation I took the wild luxury of getting a ticket to Brighton with my then boyfriend, and I sat on the beach with salty breeze in my hair and it felt like it would be the start of the rest of my life.
Unfortunately, I’m Indian.
This meant, in the old, pre-Brexit days, that you could only get a job at an industry level that was well above entry level (I imagine it’s going to become an order of magnitude worse now.) I only know of one international student who got a job in my cohort and she was a wonderful American who candidly admits it was hard work but also pure luck.
It also meant that every time you went for a job interview, you’d have to open by saying that you were an immigrant, and you would need a visa to work long-term. I found this out the hard way. I’d gone for an interview for which I was singularly qualified. It was a short term role. I showed up, and was greeted by surprise. “Oh,” they said, “but your name!”
I’m Indian. My name is not.
I didn’t know then that I’d have to tell them about my visa — like disclosing to a lover that you have a disease — before they took the time to get to know me. When I mentioned that I was an international student, they expressed dismay. They did, the dear, dear people, immediately take the time to go consult with their boss (small publisher) who told them categorically that they simply did not have the funds required to make an investment into an international candidate. They would have to get a license to supply a visa. They would have to sponsor said visa. It was not an option.
Another place called me back, for again, a role I was very qualified for given both my research and my history with them. See, I knew these people well. They are absolutely some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the privilege of working with and they have helped further my career enormously with the active role they’ve played in recommending me as well as how much I learned from watching them in their element. Bless them, they didn’t know how the visa thing would work for me, and after a stellar interview, they asked me what they’d have to do. As I outlined the process, their faces fell. It wouldn’t be possible. You can’t even hold it against them because I know they tried, and tried hard.
I went home without a fuss. I was not good enough for the UK publishing industry. Fair enough.
So if I would give you tips, international students, it’s these basics. Decide what you want to do and don’t deviate — if you’re starting off an internship in one segment, you can’t decide to change to another. You have a limited amount of time to spend in the job market. Don’t decide to do something that doesn’t involve a big publisher. Don’t pfaff about doing things that you like but are not relevant to the industry right this minute. Meet people as much as you can, and hustle hard — literally the only thing you have going for you is the relationships you build, so networking is critical.
In general, it’s tough getting a job in publishing, because everyone knows everyone. If you are an immigrant, you are playing against people who went to Cambridge and Oxford, and who have a friend of a friend who was at the same private school, and who can tell where people come from based on the sound of their vowels — you do not have those vowels, and you never will. You are playing against people who go on summer holidays together and will give their friend’s sons six month long illegal unpaid internships through every single department of a big publishing house because it can’t hurt, surely, he’s just helping around.
To quote our god and queen Shonda Rhimes: you have to work twice as hard to be half as good.
But on the other hand — and this is my biggest tip — think about going home.
When you go home the level of expertise you have will be nothing like anybody else in your markets (except perhaps New York.) When you go home, your insight into publishing will be comprehensive, forward facing, internationally influenced. You will understand things better, you will know more, and you will rise faster, because you will have come out someone who knows everything there is to know about publishing, and no simple English lit grad can hold a candle to that kind of insight.
I got hired at Penguin Random House India a month after leaving the UK. I started off as a Senior Executive, Digital Marketing. It’s been little over a year now. I’ve just been promoted to being their first Digital Merchandiser. It’s a role they’ve never had before, and one that has come into existence because I did this course. I’m responsible for local and international titles for all our imprints, as well as those publishers we distribute in this territory. (This includes a publisher that didn’t hire me because they thought I was too pushy, btw — hi guys! Looks like I’m going to be working on your books anyway!)
It’s something I wouldn’t even begin to do in the UK, and something I couldn’t have done without UCL.
I would consider, now that Brexit has proved to us that literally one in every two people in the UK is a racist, that the likelihood of my every having been hired there was slim at most, and invisible now. I would consider that in this our bastion of progressiveness where publishing lies, London, 84% of publishers and 97% of agents feel publishing is either only a little diverse or not diverse at all.
I would consider that they are trying to change, but change moves slowly, and sometimes when the world around you is more and more racist, will it really have to move at all? Books will still sell without you and the people in power are whiter than the eggshells you’ll have to walk on if you get in.
I would remember my shame when I was told casually at a party that everyone in One Small Publishing House came from Eton when I came from a school in India that even people in India didn’t know of. I will remember that it is considered unseemly to want too much, and you feel like Oliver Twist at the window, begging, “Please sir, can I have some more? Can I have a visa? Please?” and that your shame can turn into tearful frustrated rage, but by then it’s too late, because nobody’s going to like you when you’re being angry.
Would I do UCL again? Without a shred of a doubt. I’ve even been considering coming back for more. But I wouldn’t be so naïve as to forget for a single moment that I was an immigrant in a hostile, hostile land, and would make sure to organize my dreams accordingly. There is no failure in coming home — it is not your shame if the UK will not let you stay.