Ansa Khan Khattak worked in Rights for three years before joining Picador's editorial team as commissioning editor. Here, the 2020 Rising Star shares her advice on how to move across publishing roles.
Can you outline your career trajectory to date and how you ended up in your current role?
I started my career in publishing as a rights assistant for Penguin Children’s Books. A large part of my job involved working on co-edition printings for illustrated pre-school titles. It was a brilliant introduction to what goes into making a book: how files are supplied, how proofs are checked, what happens at the printer. After a year, I moved across to the adult rights team, working on the Penguin Press, Penguin General and Michael Joseph lists. I got the chance to go to book fairs in Istanbul and Budapest, as well as Frankfurt and London. Selling rights in such a broad range of titles was great experience, but after two years I realised that I didn’t have the same passion for clinching a deal as my colleagues. I loved meeting foreign publishers and talking to them about books, but not necessarily selling books to them. When I told my line manager that I’d started to wonder whether I might be better suited to editorial, I don’t think she was surprised.
From the perspective of someone who’d been in rights for three years, working in editorial seemed very attractive, but hyper-competitive, and hence a bit unattainable. Admitting that I wanted to move departments felt a bit embarrassing, though everyone I spoke to at Penguin was very encouraging. A publisher I met in Turkey said I talked about books like an editor; he probably didn’t realise how much that meant to me. In the end, having applied for different editorial assistant and agent’s assistant roles and getting nothing, I left my job in rights to go and work for a university for a year. Somewhere towards the end of that year spent doing something completely different, I decided it was worth trying again to get a job in editorial, so moved back to London and started doing work experience. I was mid-way through a placement when the job as Picador editorial assistant came up.
What attracted you to the commissioning editor role at Picador?
When I worked in rights, I felt quite far away from the text of the books we published, although I got to read them and talk to other people about them, of course. I wanted to be more involved in making the decisions about what got published, and the form the final book would take. I love reading things critically, talking about what is or isn’t working, and how it might be fixed. I’d worked in a bookshop while I was at school and was fascinated by things like covers and cover copy, how books were packaged to appeal to readers. All of these things seemed to lend themselves well to being a commissioning editor. And Picador – with its list of both literary fiction and narrative non-fiction – seemed like a perfect place to work. The imprint was home to classic literary authors like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and Roberto Bolaño – but had also just published massive literary/commercial crossover hits titles like Tigers in Red Weather and The Miniaturist. It was the range of titles that made it seem like an exciting place to start in editorial. I now get to add to the list by commissioning titles by brilliant authors whose work speaks to me, and I hope will speak to others too.
I hope as an industry we’re becoming more comfortable with the idea that it takes some people longer to get where they’re going for lots of different reasons, and that the experience they therefore bring with them should be valued.
What qualities do you need to be successful in this role?
Some of the qualities needed to be successful in editorial are probably quite easy to predict: excellent attention to detail, a love of reading, an ability to identify and express what is and isn’t working in a narrative, a good knowledge of the book market. There are other skills, though, that are perhaps less obvious but are crucial. The ability to be diplomatic is very important – with authors and agents (whether you’re developing your relationship with them, telling them disappointing news, or trying to convince them of a cover approach), but also with other departments to whom you might also be imparting bad news, or who you might be begging to find more time in the schedule. There’s a whole team of people responsible for bringing a book into the world, and you have to be able to work well with all of them.
What skills and experience that you developed in your previous role in foreign rights have helped you in your current position?
In both rights and editorial, the ability to pitch a title in a convincing way is incredibly important. As a commissioning editor, it’s your job to convince your colleagues that it’s worth investing the company’s time and money in a book. "I really love it!" or "It’s great!" are good starting points, but very quickly you’ll be asked for your one-line pitch, who the readership is, what other books have done well in this area; being able to communicate that information well is a crucial skill.
Coming to editorial from rights meant that I had some prior experience of working with authors and agents, as well as other publishers. I had spent time with scouts and sub-agents, and knew how important personal relationships are. I also knew that however much you think you know, there’s always a new way for things to go wrong, someone always has a query you don’t know the answer to, and everyone in publishing makes mistakes – the important thing is to admit it ASAP and ideally before the book goes to print. The ability to not freak out is very important in editorial.
What has the transition been like for you?
When I was hired at Picador, I was told that the fact that I’d had another job in publishing, in another department, was only a good thing: it meant I had all of the experience above, and also meant that I could hit the ground running with all the administrative bits that come with being an assistant (necessary but maybe less glamorous things like taking minutes, photocopying, making Biblio work). The fact that I was older than other people applying for entry-level positions only came up once in an interview for another role (which I didn’t get). I hope as an industry we’re becoming more comfortable with the idea that it takes some people longer to get where they’re going for lots of different reasons, and that the experience they therefore bring with them should be valued.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving across job roles?
- Don’t rule yourself out. If you’re looking at the department you want to move into and don’t see anyone who has a similar background to you, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for you in that area of publishing.
- Think of your transferrable skills, because there will be loads.
- Speak to people because it’s good to find out what the actual work entails from people working in the department you’re interested in – but also because that’s how you’ll begin to build the relationships that are so important in publishing.