As a child, I loved books because they kept me eager to explore the world. As I grew and settled down in Nottingham, I loved them because they kept me in touch with my cultural and geographical roots. So it was no surprise that after my graduation, I began interning at a Penang-based publisher dedicated to promoting and preserving Malaysia’s cultural heritage: Areca Books.
Located in the heart of the George Town World Heritage Site, Areca Books specialises in nonfiction books of various genres, though their own bookstore carries titles by other publishers as well. Throughout my first week, I helped with 3 aspects of Areca’s operations, each of which has taught me a different but no less valuable lesson: retail, marketing and production.
On Thursdays, I help run the bookstore since it’s the shopkeeper’s day off. Handling customers proved an easy feat, but I was often caught off guard by the hidden responsibilities of book retail. Specifically, the ones conveniently hidden in Hollywood’s “cosy bookstore” portrayals like bookkeeping (not to be confused with accounting), stock tracking and occasional errand-running between the office and the bookstore.
Even so, Areca’s smaller scale of operations meant that I was able to learn the basics about practically everything involved in its management, which would have been impossible had I chose to work for a major chain bookstore. In other words, interning with Areca Books allowed me to learn enough “basic skills” to form a foundation for any future careers in the book retail industry and of course, the publishing industry.
Lesson Number 1: To learn something about everything, start small. To learn everything about something, go big.
Like most publishers, Areca devotes a lot of time to both online and real-life marketing. At any given moment, the team would be working on a book review, drumming up support for a book launch, tweaking their website/online bookstore or all of them simultaneously. But a week ago, Areca slipped one more card up their sleeve to better promote their brand: kittens.
Despite its image as a “serious” publisher, Areca and its team actually has a soft spot for these bundles of cuteness. Before long, they and their mother had become the bookstore’s unofficial mascots and even attracted customers outside Areca’s target audience after their first appeared on the store’s social media pages. It was an unexpected, yet eye-opening success for a niche publisher with fierce competitors on social media marketing platforms.
Lesson 2: Do not be afraid to defy stereotypes or to draw inspiration from your immediate surroundings.
At first glance, book production can be a laborious chore and after spending Day 1 proofreading references and updating indexes (read: that keyword list you never read at the end of nonfiction books), I too formed that impression. Eventually, though, I learnt to see past the monotony of these tasks and appreciate how my efforts would lead to what readers would find a concise but accurate guide, if not a useful one.
On the other hand, my involvement not only allowed me to observe Areca’s work up close, but also taught me things I never knew about myself (For example, I disliked the exhaustingly long screen times and physical inactivity, but not the “lack of variety” my parents feared so much). Most importantly, I wouldn’t have learnt any of this if I’d mindlessly devoted myself to work instead of keeping an eye on both the team’s progress and mine.
Lesson Number 3: Ask dumb questions, pay attention to everything and learn from what you see.
An internship, paid or unpaid, can be worth far more than just an extra line in your resume. As long as you know what you want, what to look for, and how to make the best of it, your first venture into the workforce will certainly leave you a changed person.
Written by Tan Jie Ying