How to work in the arts: Annette Brook (Royal Society of Literature) & Ali Lewis (Poetry London)

In the second feature in our series of arts careers profiles, we hear from Annette Brook (Communications Manager at the Royal Society of Literature) and Ali Lewis (Associate Editor at Poetry London). They speak about their varied paths into working in literature, and offer some excellent advice for young people thinking about arts careers.

Photo of Annette Brook, a Black woman with an afro, wearing a v-neck top and blue earrings, smiling
Photo: Adrian Pope

Name and current job title: Annette Brook, Communications Manager, Royal Society of Literature.

Length of time in the arts: 14+ years

Could you tell us a bit about your current role? I’m responsible for the external communications of the RSL this includes: website, e newsletter, social media, press, publicity, advertising etc. I also manage our team of Volunteers (who help out at events). I work 4 days a week and am, in effect a department of 1 which can be challenging. However, we’re a small team at the RSL and everyone helps out where they can. At the moment we have a fab Creative Access Trainee (Jess Allee) who assists me with many comms tasks.

Could you tell us about how you got into this role? My mum’s a great reader but no one else in my family worked in the arts. I didn’t know it was really a career option until in my early 20s. I was the first person in my family to go to university (I studied English at Goldsmiths) and I decided I’d like to work in theatre marketing afterwards. Whilst at uni, I volunteered for then worked (minimum wage) as a Theatre Steward in Catford (at the Broadway Theatre). It was excellent customer service training and taught me how to think on my feet. The Duty Manager asked if I was interested in an opening in the town hall sports team (who worked above the theatre) and I did a data entry role for a little bit. The Arts team, who sat nearby, suggested I sign up to a mailing list for local arts opportunities – I did and saw the Graduate Traineeship in Communications at the dance school Laban listed – I applied and was lucky enough to get the role. I knew nothing about Contemporary Dance but I knew this was a good opening to learn about communications and marketing (and it was). It didn’t pay enough but I learnt a heap about brand, the elements that make up communications and office politics(!).

After that, I completed MA Arts Administration and Cultural Policy at Goldsmiths (when MAs were reasonably priced) and scrabbled about a bit on graduation after before getting a job at Arts Admin (again I knew nothing about live art), then the Arts Council England (London office), then Spread the Word (at last! Creative writing – an artform I understood) and I’ve been at the RSL since 2013. Mostly I found jobs via Arts Jobs or Guardian Jobs, though Linked In is also a useful place to be these days (so I’m told).

Photo of a large cinema/theatre, white walls and built in the 1930s
Broadway Theatre, Catford, London. Photo: Ewan Munro via flickr

Could you share some advice for a young person interested in getting into the arts?

  • The real kick-start to my career was simply being keen. When I was a Volunteer Theatre Steward the team knew I wanted a career in the arts so considered me for a role when it came up.
  • All of your work experience is transferrable (cash handling shows responsibility, bar work show customer service)
  • Your opinion is valid – so if you’re going for a job in a literature organisation have an opinion about a book you last read for example.
  • Don’t lie on your CV.
  • Do volunteer but DO NOT work for free – there is a big difference. Volunteering is done on your terms. Working for free just perpetuates an unfair system in which some get ahead in the arts and some don’t which is unjust. For me the difference between volunteering and working for free is that volunteering is on your terms – there should be no contractual obligation for you to work a certain amount of hours for example and any money received should be a reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses rather than a fixed amount per week – the old paying someone £5 a day for lunch (common practice when I was starting out) is not only illegal, it’s entirely unfair.
  • Your career is unlikely to be linear, do not despair if it is and sometimes doing one thing leads you to something more fruitful.

Is there anything you wish your younger self had known about working in the arts? I wish I had considered literature from the off – but then having said that I’m also pleased to have experience in other art forms. Otherwise I’m quite happy with the journey I’ve taken.

The Royal Society of Literature logoFind out more about the Royal Society of Literature: Founded in 1820, the Royal Society of Literature acts as a voice for the value of literature, engage people in appreciating literature, and encourage and honour writers. Today, alongside their events programme, the RSL supports authors both established and emerging with awards and grants, and manages an Outreach Programme to inspire the next generation of readers and writers.

What other jobs are there within literature organisations like this? Depending on the organisation and its aims, you’ll usually also find:

  • Director
  • Membership Manager
  • Education/Learning & Participation Manager
  • Events Manager
  • General Manager
  • Finance Manager
  • Executive/Administration/Office Assistant

Poetry London logo in a green sans serif font on a white background

Name and job title: Ali Lewis, Associate Editor at Poetry London.

Length of time working in the arts: I got my first little bit of freelance work in the arts almost exactly 5 years ago, in July 2015. It was helping with social media at the Forward Prizes.

Could you tell us a bit about your current role? My current role is freelance and I fit it in around my PhD research, so it’s not a regular 9-5. Some days I might not do anything for Poetry London at all, and others it can be non-stop. I split my time between editing, marketing, and something between admin and project management.

The admin involves things like running our annual poetry competition, staying in touch with our readers, and keeping on top of important data, like the diversity monitoring we do to make sure we’re being fair in who we print.

For marketing, I might spend the day writing newsletter campaigns, or pestering bookshops to stock the magazine. But sometimes it’s important to get my head up and think more strategically: we might need to change our pricing structure to reach more people, or advertise somewhere differently to talk to a new audience.

Most of the editing is done by our Reviews Editor and our Poetry Editor, but I do lots of proofreading (that is, checking for mistakes), take part in editorial meetings where we decide what we’re going to publish, interview poets for features, and occasionally – especially at competition time – dive in to read submissions.

Photo of stacks of white envelopes piled on top of each other

Could you tell us about how you got into this role? I studied Politics at university, and – although I was involved in student newspapers and comedy – I didn’t know anything about poetry. It wasn’t until three years after graduating that I started working in the arts. In 2015, I took a course at the Poetry School, then, inspired, applied to join the organisation as an Administration Assistant. I didn’t get the job, so I took a short vocational qualification in Arts Administration at City Lit (they have good concessionary pricing), and then, when a similar job came up six months later, I got it.

After that, I was promoted to Marketing and Administration Coordinator. I trained for that role by persuading my boss to sign me up for the Arts Marketing Association’s mentoring scheme, which paired me with a senior marketer at Sadlers Wells. I then spent a couple of years as Editorial and Special Projects Manager, and gained some additional editorial experience by, among other bits and pieces, volunteering for Koestler Arts, and judging submissions for the Creative Future Awards.

Cover of 'The Pocket Book of Proofreading, a guide to freelance proofreading and copy-editing by William Critchley. There's a bear on the front cover and a quote saying "Do you mean bear as in Archie, or bare as in trees with no leaves, as in "bare, ruin'd choirs"?"'The last thing I did before my Poetry London interview was plug a gap in my CV by teaching myself copy-editing with The Pocket Book of Proofreading, YouTube videos, and a style guide called Hart’s Rules. About a year into the job (so very recently), I moved over to the Associate Editor role, having worked on digitisation and general modernisation of the magazine.

Aside from the AMA and City Lit, some other organisations that have been helpful are Toast Poets, who run low-cost poetry workshops, the National Poetry Library, who have amazing resources and archives, the Society of Authors who provided some financial support, and Spread the Word, one of England’s six literature development agencies, who were kind enough to give me lots of informal advice after I missed out on one of their formal opportunities.

Could you share any advice for young person getting into the arts?

  • You don’t have to wait to be given experience: you can start your own magazine with nothing but a free website. Look at harana poetry; look at Poetry Birmingham. You can do that.
  • Being an artist and working in the arts are different things: they require different skills, and they’ll take you to different places. Think about what you actually want. You can be an amazing writer without working in publishing, and vice versa.
  • It’s rare that privilege and low pay go together, but in our industry they do: people from wealthier backgrounds can afford to ‘stick it out’ for longer and therefore end up ‘making it’. Volunteering can be great in the right circumstances, and I’ve done it, but think carefully before working for free. You might be taking a paid opportunity off someone else (or yourself). Of course, this is really the industry’s – our – responsibility to fix, not yours. On that note, I applaud what Aki Schilz of The Literary Consultancy is doing with her campaign for pay transparency in publishing.

Find out more about Poetry London: Poetry London is an arts charity and leading international poetry magazine. Published three times a year in February, May and September, each issue contains new poetry by more established voices as well as emerging writers, incisive reviews and features. Poetry London holds an annual poetry competition and launches each issue with readings from distinguished poet contributors to the magazine.

What other roles might you find at a poetry magazine? Poetry magazines can vary wildly in size and (importantly) in income. Some magazines are one arm of a publisher’s work – for instance, Under the Radar is run as part of Nine Arches Press. Some magazines are part of the work of a bigger poetry organisation, such as The Poetry Review. Some magazines are funded as separate entities, or manage to generate their income through a combination of sponsorship, subscriptions and sales, such as Modern Poetry in Translation. Some magazines are run for free, on sheer love, such as harana poetry, and the editors have to pay for website costs as well as working unpaid.

So, depending on all this, you might find:                                                                                                                          

  • Editor/Senior Editor/Managing Editor
  • Poetry Editor(s)
  • Reviews Editor(s)
  • Assistant Editor(s)
  • Contributing Editors (who might be employed, for instance, four days a year)
  • Production Editor/Design and Art Editor
  • Administrator
  • Digital Content Editor
  • Marketing and Communications Manager
  • Finance Manager
  • General Manager

Keep your eyes peeled for more Young Poets Network features about careers in the arts – and let us know in the comments what you’d like to see next. Find our first careers feature with Arts Council England Literature Relationship Manager James Trevelyan and Ledbury Poetry Festival Manager Phillippa Slinger here, our third feature with Verve Festival and Press’s Stuart Bartholomew and Spread the Word’s Bobby Nayyar here, and our fourth with harana poetry‘s co-editors Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante here.

Annette Brook has been Communications Manager at the Royal Society of Literature since 2013. She previously worked for Spread the Word, London’s writer development organisation for five years (working her way up from Administrator to Audience Development Officer). She has also worked for Arts Council England and Arts Admin. Her responsibilities at the RSL include digital communications, press and publicity. She is a playwright and her play how we love was on at VAULT Festival in February 2020. Annette has BA English, and MA Arts Administration and Cultural Policy (both Goldsmiths). She is on the Advisory Board of Penned in the Margins.

Ali Lewis is Associate Editor of Poetry London. His debut pamphlet is Hotel (Verve, 2020). He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2018.

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