In this short blog series, we ask BAME creatives working within the industry to share their paths into publishing. Today we are joined by Freelancer Yen-Yen Lu.
'My first job working with books, technically, was a very brief period at a small bookshop while I was at university. After a few weeks working there, the manager sat me down and told me that they were letting me go, with the reason being that I “didn’t look like the kind of person people would buy books from”. I don’t know for sure what part of my “look” wasn’t right, whether it was my ethnicity, age, or gender and whether my thoughts and feelings about this were even justified (it could have just been a coincidence that the majority of staff were older white men, right?), but of course this comment bothered me. A lot.
A couple of years later, I was graduating university and starting an internship in book sales and marketing. The problem was not with me and my “look” after all.
I studied Creative Writing at university which, yes, is a real course that people can study at university and no, does not consist of making up stories all day. Before my third year had even started properly, I was starting to worry about finding a job after graduating. I knew I wanted to work in publishing but I also knew that it was very competitive. I started applying for all kinds of publishing jobs, work experience, and internships, paid or unpaid, and got very few responses, let alone actual interviews. Then, just after my graduation ceremony, I got an interview for a paid internship at Inpress, a sales and marketing agency for independent publishers based in Newcastle.
I spent eight months in Newcastle working as an intern at Inpress and also getting a lot of colds. It was a small company but very close-knit and welcoming, and I feel that I learned a lot more at this internship than I would have in a large publishing house, where I probably would have easily faded into the background.
I applied for the internship through Creative Access, an organisation focused on opportunities for BAME people in creative industries. All of their internships are paid, which is rare but extremely important and it was a factor that definitely impacted my decision to apply for an internship with them. Creative Access believe in the importance of inclusivity in creative sectors – “how can the media reflect society, if society is not reflected in the media?” My thoughts on organisations like Creative Access have varied in the past: on one hand, organisations who take affirmative action are creating some really great opportunities aimed directly at people who find it more difficult otherwise to enter into certain industries; on the other hand, I’ve had so many people say to me that it’s no more than “special treatment” to the point that I start to believe it too. At the moment, however, my feeling is that until there is clear inclusivity and diversity in industries like publishing, until there is no majority of only one type of person in these industries, then of course there will be importance for organisations like Creative Access.
After I moved back to London, I applied for a lot of jobs at larger publishing companies but I didn’t get past the interview stage. It was still a very competitive industry even though I now had a bit more experience. I kept in touch with some of the publishers from Inpress and one day, I had an email from Banipal, who publish a magazine dedicated to English translations of Arabic writings, to say that they were looking to hire someone on a freelance basis to work on marketing. I started working with them for a few days a week and found that I enjoyed freelancing – there was more freedom and flexibility to work on different areas of publishing with different publishers if I wanted to, as well as free time to work on my own projects as well, writing, proofreading, copyediting, and trying to catch a Dragonite on Pokemon Go. This year, I started working with The Emma Press as well, an independent publisher based in Birmingham who are also represented by Inpress.
I hadn’t given freelancing any serious consideration before I worked with Banipal – I thought that I would have to be much more established in the publishing world, know all the important people, join some secret societies and win a dance-off or two – but it has been a lot easier than I anticipated. The only big secret, I realised, is simply to talk to people. Most people I know in publishing are very friendly and lovely to talk to (a revelation that would have shocked nineteen year-old Yen-Yen) but I know now that if anyone says that I “don’t look like the kind of person people would buy books from”, they’re probably not people I want to work with anyway.'
Yen-Yen Lu is from London. She studied Creative Writing at Roehampton University and now works as a freelancer in publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @CastleFeather for rants about Gilmore Girls.