Publishing remains a competitive career. But there are new ways to break into it, says James Morrison

The traditional image of publishing is of bespectacled bookworms poring over lovingly bound manuscripts. But today's publishers are as likely to find themselves copy-editing corporate journals, scrolling through pages of web content, or flitting between sales meetings as they correct early drafts of tomorrow's bestsellers.

As jobs in the industry have become more varied, so have the ways of breaking into it. Many still start out the hard way - making tea and sealing envelopes on unpaid work experience - but growing numbers are enrolling on a new wave of publishing degrees launched in response to changing industry needs.

The profession's sheer popularity makes it nigh on impossible to find work now unless you are a graduate, yet the one thing that remains the same is the notoriously low pay. According to the most recent industry survey, by the website, in 2004 the average starting salary was £16,300 - nearly £5,000 less than that for graduates as a whole.

If that doesn't put you off, publishing offers a huge array of choices. Penguin and HarperCollins employ hundreds of staff besides their all-important commissioning editors and readers, across divisions dedicated to everything from rights through production and distribution to marketing. Meanwhile, the Publishing Training Centre, Britain's leading provider of on-the-job training, reports that half of the 3,000 recruits it sees each year hail from "non-traditional" publishers - anything from web-based journals to publicity departments of conglomerates.

As in decades past, the tried and tested way to find an opening is to get your foot in the door as an unpaid volunteer. Alban Miles, 23, was hired as a £17,500-a-year editorial assistant by Random House, having made an impression during a three-week placement he began after graduating in English literature from Oxford. Eighteen months on, he is now an assistant editor, earning well over £20,000.

"I came out of university and didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I liked books," Miles says. "I got a job at Foyles in Charing Cross Road and met quite a few people there who were keen to get into publishing, so I gave it a go. I rang the editorial department and pestered them until they gave me work experience.

"It was partly luck that I got the job. On one of my last days, someone came up to me and said, 'I'm giving in my notice.' A few weeks later, the human resources department rang and asked if I'd come in on a two-month contract until they found someone else. They said I might get the job if it worked out, and I did."

Miles's story is fairly typical, but many graduates are now recruited straight into paid jobs from the publishing degree courses launched since the early 1990s. London College of Communication offers BA and MA options; the former has been restructured to focus on magazine publishing.

Sue Pandit, dean of the college's school of printing, says the change reflects the growing number of job opportunities in periodicals. The MA remains geared towards the demands of "traditional" publishing, namely academic journals and the so-called "trade" sector, which means books.

Pandit says close ties to London's major publishing houses mean that either degree is an opening to a career in the industry, with about 99 per cent of Masters graduates entering the profession. "A postgraduate qualification will get you through the door much quicker, and at a higher level," she says. "It's the equivalent of two or three years' experience."

City University's progression statistics are equally impressive, with about 85 per cent of students on its MA in publishing studies - half of them from non-EU countries - obtaining full-time jobs in the industry within six months of graduating. Professor Iain Stevenson puts this down to the five-week mandatory work placement built into the course: "By the time they graduate, the students are well plugged in to the publishing world."

For a lucky few, there is an even surer way. Each year, the biggest publishers offer a handful of places on their in-house graduate training programmes, the longest established being Pan Macmillan's, whose alumni include Martin Neild, the managing director of Hodder Headline. Best not to get your hopes up, though: the number of vacancies available on this scheme for 2007 is just six.