Room for Growth: An Interview with James Spackman, Founder of the Spare Room Project
By Lauren Dooley and Sarah Ernestine
We interviewed James Spackman to discuss the inspiration behind and success of The Spare Room Project: a project that aims to assist publishing newcomers and hopefuls with housing and mentorship while they attempt to navigate and enter a competitive industry.
What inspired you to revive The Spare Room Project?
My original inspiration to found The Spare Room Project was the simple realisation that, due to the dominance of internships as the “way in,” publishing was only really open to people with friends and family in London. This didn't seem fair, and I had a sense that publishing people would enjoy offering help in a practical, personal way, to help make things fairer. The Project had to pause while lockdowns were happening and in-person internships ceased. Fortunately, the very clever George Walkley suggested I do a virtual version and The Spare ZOOM Project has been a great success, generating over 400 conversations between publishing jobseekers and people already in the industry. But now things are opening up and in-person internships are starting again, so I'm asking people to open their doors again.
Why do you think it is increasingly difficult for those outside of London to enter publishing?
Rent! Simple as that. Even if your internship comes with London Living Wage, it's still not easy to arrange and pay for practical accommodation. There are more opportunities outside London, of course – with thriving regional publishing and big firms' new outposts – and remote working is clearly part of the mix now, but still the majority of the work is in the capital and it's not getting any cheaper to live here.
The cost of living in London is high, and many internships and entry level roles within publishing are at, or below, the London living wage. What can the publishing industry do to help newcomers be more financially stable?
It would be wonderful if the industry could unite around London Living Wage as a universal minimum. And I'm optimistic about the chances; it's not that long ago that most internships were unpaid, so progress can be made.
What is involved in the mentoring that the project creates?
That varies hugely depending on the guest and host. For some people it's all about the basics: somewhere to stay for free, and that's fine. Other hosts have the time and inclination to do quite a lot of informal coaching, mentoring, explaining the industry and sharing contacts and introductions. In fact, a lot of hosts really enjoy the opportunity to help and encourage guests in this way. But it's by no means obligatory.
How does this project promote diversity and inclusivity in our industry?
It's mainly focussed on regional diversity, helping non-Londoners into the industry. I think there's a related class/financial effect too, though I don't have hard data on that; essentially it's supporting people outside the traditional London middle class publishing group (of which I am one.)
How did the influence of Penguin Random House’s sponsorship affect the project and its growth?
It's been amazing! They allowed me to spend much more time on the project and engage a part-time Project Assistant. Their art team made a fantastic logo and their publicity team helped me spread the word, adding their credibility and clout. The PRH staff have adopted the Project wholeheartedly, so it's a really broad-based support, not just financial. And they've helped me make the project better too, the diversity and inclusion people and the HR team have challenged and advised brilliantly and even their inhouse lawyer gave their time freely so all the docs were legally sound and all safeguards had been considered. Special shout out to Siena Parker and Claire Thomas, who are majestic people.
What are your ambitions for the project in the next year?
I want to re-establish the in-person guesting and hosting really strongly, use social media much more, to take a larger part in the conversation about publishing job seeking and entry level jobs.
James, you admit your start in the industry was easier than most, but your work experience was unpaid. How important is it that industry pays for work experience?
I think it's vital if we want a fair industry. If I hadn't had a base in London, I wouldn't be working in publishing, simple as that.
What is The Spare Zoom Project and who can apply for it?
It's an opportunity for anyone seeking a job in publishing, or even curious about the industry to get a free 30min online chat with someone already in the industry. You can use it to get explanation, advice, tips and hints. It should be a welcoming but realistic chat.
If you’re looking to apply for accommodation, or to host a publishing hopeful, you can do so via The Spare Room site. Alternatively you can also apply for a zoom chat, or offer your advice to hopefuls via zoom there too.