Asikhia and Adarkwa-Afari share their stories after David Miller Internship Programme
The first two fledgling publishing professionals to be offered the David Miller Internship Programme reflect on what the scheme taught them, ahead of taking another step forward at this year’s London Book Fair.
In some very important ways, the David Miller Internship Programme (DMIP) has been hugely valuable to Valentia Adarkwa-Afari and Hannah Asikhia, helping pave the way for both to get their first jobs in the trade. But their experiences also serve as a reminder that publishing—and the rights and agenting world in particular—is often barely on the radar of many of the bright graduates the industry is trying to attract.
Asikhia, who did an MA in philosophy with a specialisation in Black feminism at the University of Birmingham after completing her undergraduate degree at York, had always wanted to work in a creative field but the books world did not seem particularly viable. She says: “Publishing was not necessarily something I even considered. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what others get to do, it’s not for me.’ It is weird because I was always a huge bookworm, but [the industry] did not seem to be open to people like me.”
Adarkwa-Afari and Asikhia were the inaugural members of the DMIP scheme, which is named after the late RCW agent and backed by the Deborah Rogers Foundation and social enterprise Creative Access. It seeks to provide opportunities (with a specific focus on rights) for those new to publishing, who come from backgrounds previously underrepresented in the trade. This is a switch from the programme’s first incarnation, the DRF David Miller Bursary, which was a biannual professional development stipend for those already working in rights.
Beginning in September 2022, Adarkwa-Afari and Asikhia interned at a range of literary agencies, scouting firms and publishing houses across London, including Penguin Random House, RCW, Profile Books, Greyhound Literary, David Higham Associates, ILA, Faber, PEW Literary and Eccles Fisher Associates. The scheme also included a trip to last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.
Asikhia found the internship on Creative Access’ website while Adarkwa-Afari, who was completing her MA in English Literature at the University of Sheffield when selected for the internship, discovered it through a Google search. The latter had not heard of Creative Access at the time but says: “It has been my mission ever since to tell everyone about the organisation. I think a lot of students and graduates might be unfamiliar with it, which is a shame because the arts industry is very hard to get into—and it is even harder when you don’t know where to find these jobs.”
The pair stress the “huge amount of support” they have received from Creative Access, which continues to this day. This includes masterclasses, networking events, discounted travel tickets and ongoing one-on-one mentorship with industry professionals. The two also praise the nitty-gritty practicalities of the scheme, such as earning a London living wage and that London accommodation was included. As Adarkwa-Afari was born and bred in Sheffield, while Asikhia hails from Peterborough, this was particularly useful. In fact, the two remain London housemates, five months after the internship concluded.
Learning the ropes
A theme that both go back to is how eye-opening DMIP was about many facets of the industry. For example, until the internship Asikhia says that editorial was the only real department of publishing she was familiar with. The rights side of the business has been a revelation and she is keen on building a career that helps deliver books around the globe. “The ability to read something I would not have necessarily had access to if it had not been translated became quite exciting to me,” she says. “The way you are able to do that for other people and other cultures, and give people all over the world that opportunity to make literature more accessible [is fulfilling]. Of course, English is widely spoken and read across the world but it is so important for people to be able to read stories within their own languages.”
Adarkwa-Afari was also a rights newcomer. She says: “Before, I didn’t necessarily think of publishing as such a diverse, wide-ranging experience in terms of what goes into the making of a book. I would think of books as the books on the shelf—you buy the book, that is where the relationship with the author ends. But once you get into everything that goes on behind the scenes, you see the huge amount of care and preparation that goes into making a book.”
The trip to last year’s FBF was a crucial experience for the duo. They were thrown into the bubbling cauldron of publishing’s biggest annual rights-trading event, gaining valuable experience in the practical business of the fair, from scheduling agents’ meetings to writing book-pitch letters. Even more importantly, it was at the Messe’s LitAg that they met former David Higham head of rights Sarah Harvey, and ex-Curtis Brown and C&W joint head of rights Jake Smith-Bosanquet—both of whom had recently moved to the newly ramped-up Creative Artists Agency’s London outpost. The meeting went pretty well: a month after the DMIP ended, Adarkwa-Afari and Asikhia joined the CAA team as Harvey and Smith-Bosanquet’s assistants. Asikhia says: “The internship is an incredible opportunity, and you are really excited to be learning all these new things. But of course there is that constant fear that you are not going to be able to find a job afterwards. It was really important for me to find something and go forward—I was scared that it would take a really long time.”
For the first few months at CAA, their day-to-day has revolved around administrative work like drafting up contracts and sending materials between the firm’s literary agents and publishing houses. “It is a mix of things,” Adarkwa-Afari says. “No day is boring, there is never a day that we have nothing to do.” Heading into LBF, they are preparing to start pitching their agency’s lists to publishers on their own. They say, almost simultaneously: “We are terrified, but also really excited.”
To those considering applying for the internship, Asikhia recommends showing a passion for the type of books you love. “I didn’t think I did well in the interview,” she says. “But one of the things the selection committee pointed out about why I got the job was that I was excited about books, and they could see my passion.” She also advises to get a sense of where you might fit within publishing and what you hope to learn from the internship.
“The good thing about the internship is it does not necessarily mean you have to know everything about rights,” Adarkwa-Afari points out. “We both came in knowing nothing, but we had an enthusiasm for reading and for learning in general, so no one is going to sit there and think, ‘You do not know enough.’ Do not go in underestimating yourself and how much you know, because the whole point is to teach you about the industry.”
Reflecting on how they benefitted from the internship, it is a combination of the practical and intangible. “Confidence is the main thing I gained,” Asikhia says. “In the first interview we had I thought, ‘I don’t know what I am doing here, I cannot do this.’ But I learned that sometimes you must be bold and go for it.”
For Adarkwa-Afari, the opportunity to network with others in the industry has been the most useful asset. “We hear quite often that publishing is quite small and that everyone knows everyone,” she says. “The internship gave us relationships that may be helpful down the line, and also relationships with other assistants, which forms a good frame of reference for the industry.”
Asikhia adds: “Really the whole idea of the internship is about getting into this industry and enabling people to be part of something bigger. It is really exciting. It is quite cheesy but I do love [the trade]. I am smiling right now as I say this. I do love it a lot.”
Features April 20, 2023 by Samantha Fink