January 13th was President’s Night at The Book Industry Guild of New York. We were addressed by Niko Pfund, President of Oxford University Press, New York. He started off by telling us that once a year he talks to recently employed staff, under the heading “25 things I wish I’d known when I was 25”. The first piece of advice Niko mentioned was “Embrace the conversation you dread”. People who work in publishing are by and large decent, and they are always eager to talk about the business they all love. So go ahead and talk to them.

It all got me thinking about what I wish I’d known when I was 25.

I suspect I was an unbearably cocky young twerp when I was 25. Although I knew I didn’t, I behaved as if I pretty much knew it all. In extenuation one might argue this was merely a defense mechanism. I wish I’d known then that it was actually no defense at all: just a transparent advertisement of my nervousness. In so far as people cared or even noticed (and that isn’t nearly as much as the young employee might fear) they saw straight through the pretense. And of course, why would you know it all after a couple of years in the business?

Probably the most important thing I might wish to have known then is: It wasn’t always like this. When you join any group you tend to assume that things have always been the way they are when you first learn about them. And because you think they have always been like that, you may conclude that they will always stay the same. This is not a fear of change: it’s a failure to recognize that change is possible, nay inevitable — indeed on-going as you sit there looking at the business. I didn’t fear change: I just never considered it as a possibility. The problem with this is that if you think the system is immutable, you will repress any impulse to suggest, even force change. And as Niko pointed out, there’s nothing publishing people like to do better than talk about publishing — so they might actually welcome fresh insight into how things might be done differently, or more probably, relish explaining why your idea won’t work.

One of the few pieces of sage advice I have uttered every now and then is “When you make a mistake, own up quickly and loudly”. I rather think I knew this by the age of 25, as I must have discovered it very early in my career at Cambridge University Press. (Actually I suspect that I really learned it at school.) If you tell everyone (your boss and upward, most importantly) “I made a horrible mistake. I did x instead of y, and as a result z happened. I am so sorry”, you will find that far from being blamed for the error, you will be sympathized with. Managers tend to be so overwhelmed by a repentant employee that their focus will be on comforting rather than reproaching. You’ll be congratulated on your honesty in owning up. This phenomenon makes the giving of that advice verge on the cynical — but I guess if you become a serial self-blamer, people may eventually see through the ploy and actually decide that reproach is the appropriate response. After all, you should want not to do things wrong!

“When you come in in the morning, look at your desk and review all the things that need to be done. Chose the one you are most reluctant to do, and do it first” — is something I have often told people. Once you’ve dealt with the unpleasantness, everything else will seem so much better; whereas if you leave the awful task undone, it’ll infect all the others and make your day a misery. However this is advice that probably wouldn’t have done me any good at 25. Back then everything on my desk was new, exciting and different. There really were no tasks I didn’t want to undertake; though it was often trying to have to adjudicate the faux-bitter disputes of the two elderly spinsters who reported to me, selling University examination papers, The University Reporter, and other University publications. But of course that sort of thing didn’t permit of delay as we all worked in a large open-plan office.

One thing you aren’t aware of at 25 is the power of the paycheck. When you are young and haven’t been on the job long, jumping ship and moving elsewhere seems an altogether anodyne idea. Indeed the uncertainty of getting by without a salary can even seem sneakily enticing. But stay a little longer and you’ll find you have an investment in the very idea of the company you work for, and an insistent need for the money they pay you. Most people start work unmarried. Having a wife and child makes your relationship to your paycheck rather different. Not that there’s anything wrong with this — it’s just a fact. But if you’re uncertain, and young, make the change. It’ll become harder and harder the longer you leave it.

Sorry I can’t find a full hand of things I wish I’d known. My first job was an ideal training for book publishing. Dealing with a wide range of things, including, almost explicitly, “everything else”, meant that I got an excellent introduction to the business both on its education and its trade sides. From minute to minute I might be discussing mathematics textbooks with a school teacher in Scotland, justifying our trade terms to a bookshop in Surrey, sorting out trouble with an order in the warehouse, arranging the sales conference, digging out an old book “lost” in the basement back-up warehouse, doing a window display for a local shop, arranging credit for a returned Book of Common Prayer, analyzing sales representatives’ reports, talking to a bookshop messenger at the trade counter, attending an educational conference or book show, outlining the advantages of this or that Bible to a drop-in customer. In addition, in those days, copies of the letters written by all my senior colleagues circulated in a big box which we were all expected to peruse. I was very lucky.

Advertisements