Diya Gupta


Job offer: try-before-you-buy

Written by Diya Gupta
Date of Publication: Friday, 29th July, 2011
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An activist with a penchant for comic writing; projects for television; cinematic adaptations of famous novels; enigmatic royalty statements from publishers. For a small literary agency in London, this is all part of a day's work. But could it be right for you? And how would you know until you tried?

Publishing and its corollary industry, the literary agency, is a popular destination for graduates, but, particularly with the latter, hardly any available jobs are advertised. The advice everywhere is to apply for work experience. So that's what I did.

It requires an investment of as much time and commitment as applying for a paid entry-level job in a sought-after industry. I spent hours researching literary agencies listed in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, tailoring cover letters to suit agencies of all sizes, and presenting my office skills and abundant enthusiasm.

It didn't work the first 14 times. Some never got back. Others had already filled their quotas for the summer. One said it no longer took on candidates because it couldn't keep us occupied. I was about to start penning letters to the remaining 160 agencies, when a small London literary agency agreed to have me for a week.

"Good work experience should provide bright and capable graduates with a taster of what's involved in working for a professional organisation," believes Charlie Ball, deputy director of research for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (Hecsu). "It's a try-before-you-buy offer. Candidates should be properly managed so that they get an insight into what their sector of interest is like. The experience enables them to build networks and contacts, which helps enormously."

So how did I benefit? The agency was inundated with manuscript submissions, and delving into the "slush pile", choosing those with potential for agents to consider in more detail, whet my literary appetite. It was reassuring to find that all those manuscripts are eventually assessed, and surprising to discover how quickly I could tell whether someone was able to write. Through informal chats with the agent, I started learning how to make editorial evaluations of promising submissions. What kind of voice did the writer have? What style? What sort of feedback could we give them?

Five days is not long, but being part of a small organisation enabled me to get more hands-on. Ball estimates that over 40% of graduates take up placements with small and medium businesses. While large organisations can be easier to access, with more structured opportunities, smaller businesses offer more variety and greater breadth of experience.

Cambridge University's careers service now offers internship bursaries – the first of its kind in the UK. £500 is awarded to undergraduates for vacation work with not-for-profit and "public interest" organisations. "We want to equip students with practical skills in the field, and encourage them to write comprehensive reports for the next cohort," explains director Gordon Chesterman. The scheme is popular, with over 90 applications for 20 bursaries each year.

But do organisations find work experience candidates useful? The agent I worked with felt that the benefit was more for the graduate. However, taking on competent and engaged graduates helped the agency decide whether to recommend them to other literary agencies and work with them in future. It's a trial run for both.

With only a hazy idea of what literary agents actually did, I found my experience valuable. Now I'm thinking of going back for more.
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