I am finally back with a rather exciting Career Inspiration interview. If you’re new to this series, the aim of my Career Inspiration interviews is to help those of you looking for career ideas, a career change or simply an insight into what others do.
It’s very hard to know what you want to do in life and I’ve always enjoyed finding out about what others do and the journey they took to get there. I hope you enjoy today’s interview with Sarah, a Picture Book Publicist at Penguin Random House.
Please tell us what a Picture Book Publicist is.
A Picture Book Publicist is only the best job ever! Essentially, we’re the ones who get to read, love and shout about incredible picture books to anyone who’ll listen, as our job. We get paid for spending time with authors, staring at beautiful, bright illustrations, laughing out loud at hilarious rhymes and sobbing quietly at those sad, innocent children’s stories that just grab your heart and won’t let go. We speak to journalists over coffee and lunches, spend our lives on social media, write creative copy until it’s coming out of our ears, make videos, share content and make sure the author, illustrator and book itself has the best time ever out in the big wide world.
When did you realise you wanted to be a Picture Book Publicist?
I’ve always known I wanted to work with books, and Publicity seemed like a natural fit, given the fact that I love to bang on about my favourite reads more than anything else. I’ve also always had a special place in my heart for children’s books; my shelves have been full of fantasy, Middle Grade and YA titles since I was a kid myself, and I’ve never stopped buying titles from these ranges. When I started seriously looking at roles on offer, I saw the opening for a Picture Book Publicist at Penguin Random House and I knew immediately that I wanted it. Picture books are the very first books a child will EVER read, they’re the magical wardrobe into a Narnia of future reads. They’re so important, and so lovely, and I just couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, doing anything else. I went for the job, and I think I convinced them, because I started two weeks later – and two years on, I’m still here!
What did you study at university and why?
I studied Classics. As I briefly mentioned above, I love fantasy books; I also love historical books, and ancient history, so for no other reason that I thought the course seemed interesting, I applied. I was able to really tailor my modules in second and third year, and I concentrated mainly on Classical Literature, eventually writing a dissertation on the first ever recorded sci-fi novel – A True History, by Lucian!
Please tell us about the training route to becoming a Picture Book Publicist.
When I joined the publishing world, all you needed to be a Publicist was a university degree, bags of enthusiasm, confidence in public speaking/pitching and a willingness to work hard and travel away on evenings/weekends. A lot of people also do internships, but coming from a small town in Yorkshire, as I did, I simply couldn’t afford to travel to London to do those myself. Instead, I got an entry level job in PR for a bakery chain, and worked at learning the basics there – so that when I eventually applied for my publishing role, I have proven, demonstrable skills and know what I was talking about. Now, many publishers (Penguin Random House included!) have removed the need for a degree entirely AND pay the living wage for internships, so it’s much more accessible to those living further out of London or who don’t have masses of experience behind them!
It’s a cliché response, but there really is no typical day in publicity! If I’m working on a campaign, I’ll get to my desk for 9.30am, spend an hour or so with the book and jotting down initial thoughts, before making lists of outlets who NEED to see it, drafting a press release, and planning some potential stunts online and in the real world. I might then call the author, or meet them for lunch to go over my plans, and afterwards I’ll spend the rest of the day mailing out advance copies to journalists, influencers and bloggers who I hope will love it as much as I do. If I’m at an event, I could be up as early as 5am on a train chugging across the country, unless I’ve stayed over in a hotel the night before – that’s a great perk! I’ll then basically act as an author’s PA for the day whilst they speak to children at a school, bookshop or festival, making sure they’re prepared, getting them refreshments, doing a practice run and helping to manage the signing queue at the end. Other days, I might attend a course, visit a bookshop or potential event venue, run a photoshoot, meet with internal staff to update them about a campaign, or schedule hundreds of tweets/Facebook posts!
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Aside from the madness that is the Autumn term (almost all the children’s literary festivals run from August to October, so we’re barely in the office and barely sleep!), the biggest challenge is persuading a journalist, blogger, bookseller or average parent that THIS picture book is THE ABSOLUTE ONE that they HAVE to read, above all others. Penguin Random House obviously isn’t the only children’s publisher, so there’s a LOT of competition out there, and space in the media is extremely limited – in the books sections, we’re not just up against other picture books, but other books in general, from adult fiction bestsellers to the latest in the Harry Potter franchise. It can be disheartening when you work so hard and so long on a campaign, only to find something else has got the coveted review space you were after. But for every setback, there’s usually someone who DOES love the book and will shout about it with you – you have to remember to look beyond the main national newspapers and magazines to find them.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Without a doubt, seeing all the tweets, letters, blog posts, and Facebook messages from parents, teachers, bloggers and kids themselves when they find a book they love, and it’s one that you’ve been able to show them. I’m constantly blow away by the enthusiasm and effort shown by the parent community online, and I have been known to cry at the quotes and stories they send to me after reading and loving one of my books. Knowing that real children and their mums, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents or friends have been moved to reach out to me to tell me that ‘x book’ has been their favourite bedtime story this week, or that they’ve read it ten times in one day, or that they’ve bought a copy for everyone they know, is the most wonderful feeling. I feel as proud as if I were the author or illustrator myself!
Have your friends and family been supportive of your career choice?
Oh my god, yes. Anyone who knows me knows that my job is a huge, massive, unapologetic part of my life, and I get told constantly – almost every day – how lucky I am, and how pleased people are to see me so happy. It’s so wonderful to know you’ve found ‘your thing’, and even better to hear that that comes across in everything I do and say! Plus, I’ve met so many of my friends through my job, and through the publishing world; it truly is one of the most brilliant communities in the world.
What advice would you give to others thinking of a career as a Picture Book Publicist?
READ. Read children’s books, go and visit your local bookshop and spend time looking in the kids section, see what’s popular, try and identify the trends, take note of any authors or illustrators who catch your eye, and look out for the publishers logos on the covers to see who’s published where. To be a really good picture book publicist, you genuinely have to love your list with all your heart, so there’s no point settling on a set of books you have no personal interest in. Get on twitter, and talk about the titles you love. Find publicists and booksellers and authors and journalists to follow, so you immerse yourself in ‘that world’ as much as possible. Establish yourself as a champion of children’s books by joining hashtag chats, or maybe even set up your own blog. And look constantly for job roles appearing – publishing is very fast paced and notoriously difficult to get into, so take every chance you have, and make yourself stand out as much as possible!
What keeps you motivated?
Quite simply, the books themselves. I can’t wait to see what I’ll be working on next, from month to month. I’m like a child myself when I get my hands on an advance picture book; I read it again and again and the sense of excitement I have when working on a brand new campaign is unrivalled by anything else. There’ll never be an end to great books and great authors and great illustrators, and I just want to meet them all!
What direction would you like to take your career in 2017?
Well, I’m super excited to be taking on a couple of new titles in 2017 that sit in the Middle Grade age range (7-12yrs); they’re based on comic books and are therefore incredibly picture heavy, so they’ll compliment my existing picture book list very well and challenge me to think beyond my usual ‘’go to’s’’ for reviews. I’m also looking forward to taking on the planning and execution of the Edinburgh Book Festival for our whole Children’s department, which will give me a chance to see all our picture book stars, as well as our Middle Grade and YA authors in action at all their events. We’ve already been given our allocations right through to November 2017, and there are some absolute CRACKERS on my list, so I’m literally jumping with glee at the prospect of introducing them to the word! Keep your eyes peeled…
Thank you so much to Sarah for taking part in my Career Inspiration series. I loved hearing about her career journey and the passion she has for her job. It’s so important to find something you love and work hard towards it. I wish Sarah lots of luck with her career throughout 2017. You can find Sarah over on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram.
If you would like to take part in my Career Inspiration series then leave a comment below or drop me a message on Twitter.