In the first of The Bookseller's new How to Rise in Your Career series of features, The Borough Press editor and Rising Star 2020 Ore Agbaje-Williams – who spearheaded her company's BAME open submissions period with The Good Literary Agency – shares her top tips for pitching and launching a new work project.
Can you outline your career trajectory and how you ended up in your current role?
I started out at in PR at a boutique agency through Creative Access but had wanted to get into publishing since I heard about it at a university open day. At a PRH event at Rife Magazine my best friend Grace introduced me to Nikesh Shukla who was running Rife at the time and offered to mentor me and introduce me to some people he knew in the industry (Francesca Main, Clare Bullock, Anna Kelly, Francine Toon), who were brilliant and gave me great advice.
After a few months in PR I left to pursue publishing and Lisa Jonas, who was at Creative Access at the time, helped me with my CV and recommended that I apply for a three-month long business marketing internship at Bloomsbury, just to get my foot in the door of the industry. I got the role (and also met Angelique Tran Van Sang at the first BAME in Publishing event, who knew about my editorial ambitions and sent me manuscripts to practice writing reports on) and then two months later I heard back from another job that I’d applied for at HarperCollins as digital content assistant. I started at HarperCollins in July 2016, then in September 2017 was delighted when an editorial assistant role at Borough came up, and I’ve been there ever since!
How did you come up with the idea for the BAME open submissions period?
I really wanted to see more books across the industry that reflected both my racial heritage and the other racial heritages that exist in our society that weren’t being reflected in books that were often highly publicised, supported or regularly on bestseller lists. Specifically, I wanted to reach out to people who didn’t know about the traditional routes into publishing, and who would benefit from having an author mentor (Nikesh) who would be able to tell them about their experiences but also guide them through the industry from an author’s perspective.
Ultimately publishers are businesses and aim to make money – will your project do that?
How did you go about pitching your idea?
My mentor at the time (Natasha Bardon, HarperVoyager's publishing director) said I should think about and write down the reason for doing it, pros and cons, the logistics (timings, outreach, judges, literary agency, mentoring), the goal(s) of the competition, and from that, sketch out a plan and present it to my manager. So I worked on that, finessed them with her and presented them to my manager (Suzie Dooré, publishing director at The Borough Press).
Can you talk about the process from pitching to launching the project? Were there any challenges along the way?
As I was still assisting the Borough team at that point it made it difficult to find time to work on it, and I had to be incredibly careful, making sure to specifically carve out periods of time to work on it whilst not letting anything else I was working on slip. I had to set up meetings with TGLA, put together wording with publicity for The Bookseller announcement, finalise the terms and conditions and check them with legal, think about timings for reading, decide on a scoring system for the readers, as well as finding readers/judges and working around their schedules too, so there was a lot of difficult time management involved.
The competition launched in January and closed for entries at the end of March, and during that time I emailed at lot of university professors at humanities courses all over the country and sent them a poster to either print out and post in their faculty office/hand out or to email to their students, as well as also reaching out to writing groups I could find and utilising any contacts I had. There were two readers of each submission, which after scoring was whittled down to a longlist of about 18 which everyone then read and judged using criteria that I put together with the help of another mentor (Hannah O’Brien, marketing director), so that whilst we were picking a book that we all loved to win, we were also choosing a book that we knew we could sell and someone whose career we could start and build with them. It’s also why I made sure that amongst the judges we had people from sales, marketing and publicity to make sure all the expertise that is there during the traditional acquisitions process was there at the beginning of this process too.
All the judges met up at the HarperCollins offices and discussed each submission in detail, making sure to see how many of the criteria they met. We then whittled that down to around seven or eight shortlisted titles, and after further discussion unanimously picked a winner! That judging process took just over two and a half hours, which again, had to be carefully planned out beforehand. So ultimately the main challenge was time – making it, working around other people’s and using it efficiently.
What has the response to the BAME open submissions period been?
It’s been great and incredibly positive. A lot of people have asked if we’re going to hold another one, and so many people have been asking me when the winner Sophie Jai’s debut novel Wild Fires will be available for them to read because they absolutely loved her first 50 pages and are desperate to read more! For me personally, working with Sophie has also been incredible – she is a hugely, hugely talented author and when I read the first full draft I was absolutely blown away. I cannot wait for everyone else to see how phenomenal she is.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pitch and launch their own work project?
- The bottom line: ultimately publishers are businesses and aim to make money – will your project do that, whether in the long or short term?
- Business strategy: think about whether or not your project fits into or works well within the company’s existing strategy.
- Do your research: if your idea has been done in a different way before, think about what you could do differently/better.
- Timeline: come up with a rough timeline as to how long your project will take and when it could start and end, keeping in mind which are the busiest periods in the publishing calendar.
- Ask for advice: it can be great to feel like you’re doing everything on your own and taking charge, but even people at the very top of a company will tell you, they don’t know everything – ask for advice from those with more experience wherever you can and learn from them!