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15 August 2022

Is an MA in Publishing worth it?

The MA Publishing course at the University of Derby was set up in 2016 by Alistair Hodge. Alistair had been running his own small press, Carnegie Publishing, based in Lancaster – but had spotted the lack of any Midlands-based publishing courses. There were (and still are) very good courses at universities such as University College London (UCL), Oxford Brookes, University College Lancaster (UCLan), and Stirling and Napier in Scotland, but nothing remotely local for any students who might be based in the East Midlands, West Midlands, or South Yorkshire.

The first intake of students arrived in September 2016 and I joined as Senior Lecturer in February 2017, having recently left my role as Publishing Director at Bloomsbury Academic. Having never worked in Higher Education before, I was immediately struck by the energy and enthusiasm of the students. What I love about teaching publishing at Masters level is that the students come from different educational backgrounds: as undergraduates, they’ve studied subjects as varied as history, journalism, creative writing, marketing, fashion, psychology, medicine, English and politics. What unites them, however, is a passion for reading, a love of books, and a desire to work in the industry in some capacity.

That desire leads to an interesting debate around our MA Publishing course at Derby (and at other courses around the UK): to what extent should our teaching be vocational and skills-based, as opposed to more “academic” and theoretical? There is no clear answer to that, as different students have different needs. Some genuinely enjoy the challenge of tackling marketing theory, book history, and of engaging with the growing body of scholarly literature in the field of Publishing Studies, while others are more focused on learning about the dozens of imprints at PenguinRandomHouse (PRH) or Hachette, getting to grips with using Nielsen BookScan, and becoming proficient InDesign users.

Choosing publishing as a career

When I interview applicants for the course (I do about 40 of these interviews every year, via Teams or Zoom), I’m struck by two things: the fact that no careers advisers ever mentioned the publishing industry to them at school or even during their undergraduate degree course; and how many of them express a desire to work in editorial. Young people who are seen as bookish, and who are avid readers, are often pointed in the direction of either teaching or creative writing – and they only stumble across the possibility of a career in publishing through their own curiosity about how books are made, or via bookish content on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube. And once they do start thinking about working in publishing, most applicants are initially drawn by the allure of reading manuscripts as editors (more often than not in their favourite genre of Young Adult fiction).

On the teaching team at Derby, we see it as a key part of our role to disavow our students of the notion that working in editorial is the obvious path to follow in publishing. (Despite the fact that I spent 21 years working in editorial, and obviously think it’s a great way to earn a living!) Our role is, as far as we can, to demystify the industry, to explain and define the many different roles and departments within it, so that students end up with a sense of the many options available to them – whether that’s working as a regional sales rep for an academic publisher, in a metadata role for a big commercial house, as a publicity assistant at an independent children’s press, or working in production for a university press.

The course and after

Studying for an MA Publishing degree is intense. (We hear this from our students all the time!) Because nobody has studied publishing at undergraduate level, we have to pack a lot of knowledge and learning into the first teaching term, and then consolidate and expand on that in the second semester. And when so many students have part-time jobs on top of their studies, it can become a crash course in managing deadlines, prioritising tasks, and coping with a seemingly never-ending workload: all of which are skills very much in demand in any entry-level role in the publishing industry. (Whatever one’s views on how realistic or sustainable those workloads are…)

However, the rewards for most MA Publishing students are, from what I have seen, worth it. Not all students who take these courses end up working in the industry. We have former students at Derby who now work for hotel chains, medical companies, even the police force – all doing interesting roles and making use of the transferable skills from the course. But for those students who do end up working at PRH, Bloomsbury, Oxford University Press, Taylor & Francis or Pan Macmillan, in whatever roles, they have forged lifelong friendships and connections which can help them as they grow in the industry.

David Barker

David Barker is Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby, where he runs the Publishing MA course.

Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @DavidBarker33.