30 Bedford Square, where Harry Potter was transformed from the splendid imagination of Rowling to the printed and published page. The prestigious publishing house of Bloomsbury is currently a mecca of creation for the new, illustrated editions of Harry Potter, amongst dozens of other books, by both the well-established and the up-and-coming.
Founded in 1986, Bloomsbury now has offices in London, New York, Sydney and Delhi. I was lucky enough to spend three weeks of my summer doing work experience in the adult editorial department of their London office. Whilst I wasn’t at the heart of the ongoing Harry Potter franchise, it was hard to feel the sting when surrounded by internationally leading literary giants Khaled Hosseini, William Boyd, John Iriving, and Donna Tartt, to name but a few.
I received the placement through a contact of a relative so knew little about what the experience would entail. Foolishly assuming I was the only intern starting that day, I announced my presence to the receptionist and was quickly directed to take a seat alongside several others who were – I now realised – all about the same age as me, and all exhibiting that same air of slight apprehension. In our welcome talk we were encouraged to introduce ourselves to each other, and it didn’t take me long to gather quite how sought-after this programme was: everyone else had also found themselves at Bloomsbury through some kind of contact, even though the company seems to imply they are keen to offer equal opportunities to everyone who’d like experience. With limited placements available (typically one in each department) and, of course, a higher number of applicants for the summer months, it felt thrilling and a little heady to be in this building.
The offices themselves are delightful. Located in three terraced town houses in Bedford Square, they’re full of wide staircases, dark wooden bookcases and full-length windows. My impression of the staff was of a relatively young crowd, verging on female-dominated (not so noticeably in the higher roles, though I won’t delve any deeper into the politics of gender issues in the workplace), and undeniably well-educated, well-spoken and well-read – also white, I might add. What could be more predictable in a prestigious publishing house in central London?
My mentors, who were the three editors’ assistants in the adult editorial department, filled these criteria precisely, partnered with an obvious passion for books and high-quality literature. I was struck by the general aura of determination and the constant pressure to impress, to go above and beyond what was required to climb the ladder of this competitive career. They knew full-well that they would fight through years of admin before gaining significant interaction with authors or any hands-on work with a manuscript, and that they would do it for very little pay.
I, of course, was at the bottom of the heap and, though I wasn’t forced to take hourly orders of tea and coffee, was something of an errand girl, and each day was tasked with ferrying book jackets or feedback from one office to another. I also had the great responsibility of collecting the post each morning and afternoon, though I found it quite satisfying when I knew enough names that I didn’t have to awkwardly interrupt someone to ask who was who (and where was who). On top of this, I probably packaged, labelled and posted about a ton of books to various journalists, authors and reviewers (such irrational excitement when I wrote out a label addressed to Khaled Hosseini) – a therapeutic if repetitive task.
But they were true to their promise of providing a true experience of what it was like to work in this department: to mention a few things, I did internet research for reviews of books published by Bloomsbury, I learned how to use the publishing software Biblio (apparently a big one for the CV), I wrote up reports on potential manuscripts, I put together some eBook covers, and I even worked my way through and took decisions on the ‘slush pile’ (a stack of manuscripts sent in by people without an agent – let’s hope I didn’t send a rejection letter to the future J.K. Rowling).
It’s certainly not all glam, but there’s a reason so many are drawn to this career; in a place like Bloomsbury, each individual is a cog in an enormous machine of creativity, and part of a wave of talent that has the potential to effect tremendous social and cultural change. After all, everyone likes a good story, and Bloomsbury knows where to find them.