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“Your cover letter is your time to shine”, industry experts share advice at the Comma Press Publishing Conference 2021

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Featured Image: Comma Press

The Publishing Conference 2021, hosted by Comma Press and Manchester Metropolitan University’s MA Publishing Programme, continued for a second day, hosting industry experts and insiders sharing their knowledge and insight into the world of publishing.

The event was filled with top tips and practical support for people who aspired to a career in the publishing industry and featured industry expert panels including ‘How to Break the Industry’, ‘Rights with Sarah Cleave – Comma Press’, ‘Marketing with Alesha Bonser – Penguin Random House Children’s’, ‘Starting your own press with Kit Caless – Influx’, ‘Audio with Marina Stavropoulou – Bonnier Books UK’ and a CV and interview masterclass with Manchester Met Publishing lecturer Debbie Williams.

How to Break into the Industry

The How to Break into the Industry panel featured Rosie Hilton, co-chair of SYP North (Society of Young Publishers), Raakhi Vadera, the HR Business Partner at Pann MacMillan, Suzie Astbury, Managing Director of Inspired Selection and Anne Ashworth, Head of Employee Apprenticeships at Pearson.

Hilton opened the discussion explaining her role for SYP North, a nationwide programme supporting people to get into the publishing industry. SYP North support writers over-16 within their first five years in the industry. They hold events, book clubs, campaigns for “book job transparency” and offer mentorships and advice.

Astbury then explained that Inspired Selection recruit people into all aspects of the publishing industry, supporting candidates who are either trying to break into the industry or those who are hoping to acquire more senior roles. For those who aren’t sure which area of publishing they would like to go into, Inspired Selection has experts who can help candidates explore this further by getting to know their strengths and passions.

Astbury said: “A lot of people, when they’re joining publishing tend to think about editorial roles but we’ll explore all of the different types of roles…we’re really good at drawing out your real strengths and trying to help you find that career.”

Photography: Anne Ashworth

Ashworth explained Pearson is known as an examining body and publishes books in the field of education. Pearson also works internationally (in 70 countries) and the opportunities available for prospective positions encompass more than just educational publishing, they are now investing in their digital platforms and online education.

Ashworth said: “It’s about getting your foot in the door and exploring what fits you. Some [apprentices] are doing the publicist’s assistant apprenticeship but some also do the digital marketeer apprenticeship. We decide how we want the content of that apprenticeship to suit the needs of the 21st century from a publishing expertise perspective.”

All three panellists discussed the transferable skills they had used and developed throughout the years and how much mobility there is within the publishing world. When discussing what they looked for in potential recruits, Ashworth discussed how important it is to have enthusiasm and a drive to help others succeed.

Vadera talked about how vital an honest application is so that a clear baseline can be established. When applying, she advised to always ask for a job description and discuss your transferable skills. She also suggested that applicants should keep a list of events attended, courses undertaken – anything where you learnt something that could help in this role.

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Photography: Raakhi Vadera

Vadera explained: “Be your true self, there’s no point pretending to be something that you’re not when you’re applying for a job because eventually you’ll get found out and you’ll have to be yourself.”

Astbury explained that the increased flexibility the pandemic has allowed, means employers have to fully trust in their employees wherever they are working from. She also stressed the importance of professionalism, as well as baseline skills of creativity, communication, maturity, initiative, comfort with data handling (excel-based skills are also essential), a love of the product like books and audiobooks, and an eye for commercial success.

Astbury suggests when researching a company it’s important to “figure out why you would be the best person for that job”. She added: “You want to be bringing a lot of you to that role and that company.”

Vadera emphasised the importance of a good cover letter and Ashworth noted meeting deadlines and being proactive at every stage of the recruitment process. Astbury also explained the importance of attention to detail, and research to make your application relevant to the individual companies rather than sending out lots of “blanket letters”.

You can see the event in full on Comma Press’ YouTube Channel.

Rights with Sarah Cleave – Comma Press

Copyright Symbols
‘Copyright Symbols.’ Photography: MikeBlogs (CC BY 2.0)

Sarah Cleave joined Comma Press as Publishing Manager in January 2017. Although Rights may not be considered the most glamorous element of publishing, Cleave represented the diversity of the work well. Cleave doesn’t exclusively work within rights and yet they are part of her role every day.

She explained how the Rights sector of publishing impacts every aspect of the industry, including translation, dramatization rights, film rights, territory rights, language rights, digital and audio rights. Most of these licenses will be time-restricted, other than copyright itself which is automatic for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years.

Sarah explained that publishing in itself is “the exploitation of intellectual property”. That is, it’s something that everyone working within publishing will need to have some understanding of. Contractual rights also include details of an author’s payments, both advances and royalties.

Networking is an important part of the role as well. Cleave talked about the preparation before the London and Frankfurt Book fairs, three day long events (with numerous meetings) and how important these events are in the events calendar of those who work in the field of Publishing Rights.

The entry level role in this area would be as a ‘Rights Assistant’ and organisational and administrative skills, as well as an eye for detail, are all key to this role.

Marketing with Alesha Bonser – Penguin Random House Children’s

Photography: Alesha Bonser

Alesha Bonser is Senior Marketing Manager at Penguin Random House with six years of experience in the UK publishing industry. Bonser has worked on high profile books and with prestigious authors, such as Jacqueline Wilson, Michelle Obama and John Green. Bonser explains that working in marketing is about knowing your consumer, knowing who will buy and read your books.

She said: “We bring our consumer insight and commercial expertise into planning campaigns to make sure that we get the book into the hands of as many readers as possible.”

Bonser also demonstrated the difference between trade marketing and consumer marketing, both of which are vital elements of Bonser’s role, and in some companies, these could be two separate teams. An average day in marketing could include: planning campaigns in all formats, briefing designers, animators and photographers, liaising with media agencies, creating ‘Point of Sale’ material, working with the Rights team and pursuing new marketing opportunities-including pairing with other brands.

Bonser went on to convey her passion for reaching readers who don’t ‘identify’ as readers or book buyers. She will also work with authors and try to include them as much as possible in the campaign planning. Bonser advised: “Do your research. Remain on top of all the trends that are happening, research the new social platforms, be aware of the consumer landscape and throw yourself into every project.”

Audio with Marina Stavropoulou (Bonnier Books UK)

Photography: Marina Stravropoulou

Marina Stavropoulou is an Editor in the Audio Department of Bonnier Books UK. She is in charge of the Children’s and Young Adult audiobook list. Stavropoulou, who is from Greece, has always dreamt of working in publishing and recommended working in a book shop initially as a good way to stay current with trends and build up a network. She also looked at skills that companies were looking for and then ensured she had them, even if this meant learning them from scratch.

She explained in order to be an editor for audiobooks you should be “extremely organised, highly skilled in time management and diplomacy, and have a good eye for detail”.

Stavropoulou collaborates with colleagues from across all departments on an almost daily basis and says that staying on budget is important. It is also important to maintain good relationships with key retailers such as Audible and more specialised ones too. She sees her role as being: “Creative in how we translate the author’s vision into the audio format… but it has to make economic sense.”

Stavropoulou discussed the day to day role of an editor, and how it differs slightly if you are an editor of audiobooks. It seems busy but exciting, with a lot of decisions to be made on a daily basis, as well as many smaller jobs that include ensuring the credits, acknowledgements, intros and outros’ have been included. There are also challenges, such as how to translate items such as pictures in children’s books into an audible format.

Stavropoulou states that casting is one of her favourite parts of the role even though it can be stressful. She said: “Finding the voice that can make or break a book is always a risk.”

Starting your own press with Kit Caless – Influx

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Photography: Kit Caless

Kit Caless is a writer and editor based in Hackney Downs and co-founded Influx Press with a friend. He regularly contributes to magazines such as Vice and The Quietus and is the author of the thesis Spoon’s Carpets: An Appreciation.

Caless talked openly about the highs and lows of co-founding their own publishing press. Caless and his friend, Gary Budden took the brave step to build Influx Press, which is a prize-winning Independent Publisher. Caless was honest about the challenges of this venture and the lessons that he and Budden have had to learn.

Caless emphasised it’s important that you aren’t afraid to ask for help. If you are thinking of starting your own press then Caless says you should “have a hook, start with a bang and people will start to notice you”.

Caless was refreshingly open during this presentation, discussing his initial naivety in the business, however to start from the humble beginnings of “books in a backpack” knowing very few people in the industry, to becoming an award-winning independent publishing house that is respected by agents, press and authors alike, is a commendable achievement.

Speaking of Influx Press, James Miller, author of Lost Boys, said: “I love Influx Press: their titles are edgy, original and unusual, they publish fresh and otherwise marginalised voices, exploring new experiences of the city and new relationships between place and prose – this is what independent publishing is all about.”

Caless also explains that as an independent press, you don’t always have to follow the mainstream way of acquiring authors. Influx Press have found unique and innovative ways to find their authors such as reading online blogs and approaching authors themselves. Caless told viewers that for him networking is “having a beer”.

Caless’s whole presentation was an example of humility and a complete lack of pretension in someone who has launched not only his own career but the work of many talented authors. When asked about the most difficult part of the job, he said he felt responsible to the authors if a book didn’t take off or succeed, a testament to his motivations for being in the industry.

He also eluded to his income being low but finished by saying: “There’s a word called Eudemonic… it’s Greek for ‘pleasure in purpose’, pleasure in meaning as opposed to hedonic, which is pleasure in physical pursuits and I think running a small press is a eudemonic experience because essentially you find that it may not pleasurable all the way through but the outcome is part of the pleasure that comes afterwards.”

Workshop: CV and interview skills with Debbie Williams (Publishing @ MMU)

Photography: Andrew Canfield

Debbie Williams has over twenty years of experience in publishing, bookselling and publishing education. She works at Manchester Metropolitan University leading modules on sales and marketing, design and production, project management and placements.

Williams’ objective was to take the attendees through a step by step guide of how to break into the industry from an employers perspective.

It was clear throughout her presentation that as an employer she really saw value in bespoke applications. As a care-leaver herself, Williams didn’t start with contacts in the industry but her hard work has lead to her making significant changes within the industry, particularly in terms of diversity and the education of new publishing candidates.

Williams began by working in Waterstones on the shop floor, however was promoted within just three months and moved to head office. She became a buyer for children’s books and her first project was Harry Potter. She stayed in this role for the whole Harry Potter series.

Concerned by the lack of diversity in the industry, Williams wanted to work towards changing this. She put together and pitched a course about diversifying the industry to the University of Central Lancashire, which became an award winning course before going on to Manchester and Leeds to develop similar programmes.

Williams explained that everyone will say it’s notoriously hard to get into the publishing industry, which she said is both true and untrue. There are lots of applicants. However, she offered top tips, from the perspective of an employer. She stressed to the attendees: “What you need to do is stand out, it’s as simple as that.”

When reading applications, she stressed that many that are saying exactly the same things – that they are applying because they love reading and they’re good at spelling and grammar. “Don’t say that – it’s a given. Be specific, why do you love reading? Which books on the list do you like? Show that you understand what the role is,” she explained. She further advised candidates to be proactive: “Looking for a job is a job.”

Williams advised that you remain aware of what’s going on in the industry, and suggested subscribing to The Bookseller and Book Brunch for the latest news about the industry, looking at Book Machine for high quality courses (if not already studying publishing) and also looking at Creative Access who are aiming to widen participation in the creative industries.

In terms of recruitment agencies to register with, Williams highly recommended both Inspired Selection (who were part of the earlier panel) and Book Careers, who also act as mentors to help you more generally with job applications. Social Media, particularly for bigger publishing houses, is also a good way to connect with Employers according to Williams.

Finally, she suggested setting up an account on LinkedIn so creating a professional profile is worthwhile. On LinkedIn and Twitter, Williams recommended that aspiring publishers ‘like’ her own profile, as she shares a lot of vacancies, but they also like those of: Suzanne Collier of Book Careers, Anna Howarth from Usbourne Publishing and Heather O’Connell of Bluebird Consulting. If there is an individual employer who you feel passionate about working for, Williams suggests regularly checking their websites and social media accounts.

Areas that she would recommend candidates ‘upskill’ in and familiarise themselves with are Adobe Indesign and Adobe Photoshop (for design), Canva (for social media campaigns), Neilson Bookscan (trend tracking and generation of top seller lists). Williams recommended writers build a portfolio of reviews, advance information sheets and blurbs for books. It’s important to practice pitching books and putting together presentations – she recommended recording the develop of these skills. For public speaking confidence building, The TED talk from Caroline Goyder may be useful.

Williams also recommended gaining relevant experience but that unpaid internships aren’t necessary and that the industry as a whole is “moving away from them.” Structured internships can be useful but are in heavy demand with few available places, so experience in related industries, for example, bookselling, librarianship, administration, social media, marketing and retail can all be useful. Your social media profile should also be up to date and professional.

It will also be useful to make contacts in the industry. Retweet any interesting articles, review books and go to as many events as possible both online and offline (when safe to do so). London Bookfair, Bologna Children’s book fair and Frankfurt Bookfair. Publishers such as Penguin Random House and Bloomsbury also hold their own regular events. She encouraged writers to ask questions of the speakers, interact as much as possible and be brave enough to stand out. Williams recommends preparing for this in advance. Get to know those employers that you would love to work for, consider where you would be a good fit.

Some of Debbie’s Top tips when you see a job advertisement that you are considering applying for:

  • Do you meet the essential criteria? If not, don’t apply. If you’re close, contact and ask whether it’s okay for you to apply.
  • Highlight why you might meet the relevant criteria.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of an employer – they need to read through every application and match with the criteria in order to shortlist-
  • Don’t use a generic application, make it meet that job and person specification.
  • Ask if it’s okay to contact for an informal chat, if you can you should. This will also make you stand out. Prepare for this as if it is an informal interview. Find out who you will be talking to, what do they do, who are their authors are etc. Find out more about the role, the culture and the department. This will all help for the interview itself too.
  • Keep conversation brief unless they indicate that they want to talk for longer – be bright, energetic and smile whilst talking! Williams says that this will come through.
  • Research before starting your application – research the company, their history, their people, their list, their best sellers, their genre(s), any changes in strategy, their culture.
  • Every time you send a CV to an employer – it should be bespoke to that employer and demonstrate that you fit in with the company culture.
  • Keep it simple – make sure the criteria stands out. No more than two pages.
  • Use headers, a professional font and a summary at the top – no waffling!
  • Always check spelling and grammar – high level of accuracy will be expected.
  • No pictures, avoid lots of colours, distracting fonts etc.
  • Cover letters should have personal examples of how you meet the criteria – In paragraph one say which job you’re applying for, start with where you saw the job advertised, say why you’re applying to this company and for this specific job and how you’ll fit the criteria.
  • Finish with a “call for action” paragraph – stay passionate and enthusiastic throughout!

Overall Williams offered reassuring, practical and relevant advice on applying for jobs in the Industry. Her warm professionalism and self-disclosure meant that the information was presented well.

If you are considering a career in publishing, the annual Publishing Conference, hosted by Comma Press and Manchester Metropolitan University’s MA programme, is a great place to start. The weekend’s free events are still available to watch on Comma Press’ YouTube channel.

About the author / 

Kerry Power

Kerry is studying an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has a degree in law, is a qualified Primary school teacher and is a mum of two boys.

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