After a few months break, I am very excited to be bringing back my Pursuing Publishing series! In this post, we’re looking at the world of audio and editorial – a double whammy.
Editorial is arguably one of the more ‘well-known’ areas of the industry, and everyone knows what an audiobook is, but what goes on behind closed doors? What do people who work in audio actually do? How is the end product actually created? I spoke with Brittany Willis, Editorial and Audio Assistant at Watkins Publishing, to answer all these questions.
How did you discover that a job in publishing specifically was something you wanted to pursue? I’ve always wanted to work with books. I studied English at A Level and then at university and my dream job has always been in publishing, but until two years ago I never saw it as an attainable goal. I grew up in Devon where the publishing scene isn’t exactly thriving, meaning work experiences were hard to come by. The thought of moving to London, a place where I had no family or friends, was scary and at times seemed impossible. I felt very lucky when, two years ago, my parents moved to Hampshire (which is an hour and a half outside of London). My goal to work with books felt more hopeful. Of course, Covid happened last year which made remote working possible, meaning I’ve still yet to make the move to London.
While studying my English degree, I did a month placement at Graffeg publishing, a small non-fiction and children’s publisher in Wales, helping wherever they needed me: editorial, design, publicity, marketing. I then spent my summer working as an editorial assistant at an academic publisher in Exeter. When I graduated, I emerged from dissertation writing to find publishers were pulling back their job openings due to the uncertain job climate. I applied to whatever was being advertised in editorial, publicity or marketing and was lucky enough to get two publishing interviews. The second was with Watkins for my current role, which is a mix of editorial and audio (an area of publishing I hadn’t previously considered). I interviewed in September and accepted the job in October. I’ve been in my mum’s spare room at my desk ever since.
You have quite a unique position in that your job straddles two different divisions - what does an average day in your role look like? My role is balanced about 60:40 between editorial and audio, although the audio part of my role will decrease over the course of this year as Watkins has recently hired an audio assistant to take over some of our audio list. I consider this a testament to how well our audio is currently doing! In terms of editorial, I am starting to manage the editorial process of a few titles on my own now, seeing them through copy editing, typesetting, proofreading and all the final checks that make a book look and read great. I also do the tasks you’d expect of an editorial assistant – feedback on submissions, ad hoc tasks, admin etc. When it comes to the audio part of my role, I work in a team of four overseeing the production of our audio list. We have quarterly meetings to determine which titles in our frontlist will be made into an audiobook. I then do lots of admin – I’ll coordinate dates and deadlines so the audio is published on the same date as the physical book; I’ll update all the spreadsheets; I’ll fill out handover documents. The audio side of my role is a lot more admin and project management. The fun parts are listening to voice samples and picking the narrator or problem solving how to adapt a book with tables or diagrams into an audio format. I’m now realising you asked about my average day, so let’s take a look at what I did today. It’s a Monday so I answered all the emails I got over the weekend. I did a spot check of some audio files we had come in recently, making sure they’re good quality and all the files are named correctly. After saving them to the company server, I finished preparing a presentation for Wednesday’s audio meeting to discuss how we are approaching our audio while coming out of lockdown (are we going to continue seeking narrators who can record from a home studio, for example?) I then checked six PDFs that our printers had sent for reprints, checking things like the ISBN, prices and copyright information will be printed correctly, as well as all pages are present. After lunch, a freelance designer got back to me with the first proof of a booklet for an oracle deck. The page count turned out to be more than we expected, so I spent the afternoon chatting to her about creative solutions to reduce the page count. This will mean working with the authors to cut some text later in the week.
Is there anything about working in audio/editorial that surprised you that you didn’t necessarily know before?
One of the main things that surprised me was how involved I’d be allowed to get in the decisions. As Watkins is an independent publisher, we’re encouraged to go to all the meetings and provide our input. Every week, I sit in on the covers and acquisitions meetings, and also the quarterly audio meetings. The meeting I was most interested in when I started was the 6 and 12 month review. Here, the sales department show us how well the books published exactly 6 months and 12 months ago sold. As someone who was new to the industry, it was fascinating to see what numbers were considered good sales, and also listen to all the departments discuss why a certain book did or didn’t sell like they thought it would.
What is the most exciting part about your role? I love getting to work hands-on with a book in InDesign. In my summer experience within an academic publisher, we marked up PDFs and sent all corrections to the typesetter to implement. At Watkins, we often take in the corrections ourselves. This means I’ll get to play around in the InDesign file, making author and proofreader corrections but also thinking of creative solutions to problems like text fitting onto a page. I don’t know if this is normal in other publishing houses but I love it!
And the least exciting? Admin. Luckily, my role includes a lot less admin than I expected. I am certainly encouraged to get stuck in and even ask for the projects I’m most excited about, but I’m in an entry level position so admin is unavoidable. I think I’ve got into a system now that it’s more ingrained into my routine.
Are there any specific skills needed to be an audio/editorial assistant?
For audio, I’d say a key skill is organisation. Since it’s a lot of project management, I spend my days glued to my pipeline document (an excel spreadsheet with all the titles and what stage each one is at). As for editorial, attention to detail. Looking at the same PDF for the third time, trying to spot any last minute mistakes before I send it to press, requires attention to detail. I’ve spotted the wrong running header, or the wrong number listed on the contents page, at the last minute.
As most of my audio role is admin (we currently use external studios to do a lot of the hands-on work – although we are working on changing this and doing more ourselves later this year!), there isn’t necessarily any software I’d say to brush up on. I would recommend having the physical copy of a book in front of you while listening to the audio adaptation. It can be any genre! But it is really useful to see how they’ve changed and adapted to suit a different format – even little things like changing ‘book’ to ‘audiobook’ and ‘read’ to ‘listen to’, and removing references to page numbers. As you listen to more and more, think about what narrators you’ve liked and why – what kept you engaged? If you weren’t engaged, why not? It’s all things you can talk about in an interview!
Is there anything you wish you knew before searching for a job in publishing in general?
Publishing isn’t just working for the big five (or is it the big four now?). When I started out applying, all the jobs I saw were for Hachette or Penguin, and these jobs were getting over a thousand applications. I rarely heard back from any of the applications I sent off. I compiled a Twitter list of all the accounts that publicised job applications to ensure I wasn’t just limiting my focus to the bigger companies. I joined Publishing Hopefuls and religiously looked at their weekly list of job openings. I genuinely think if Watkins had advertised for my position earlier in the year, I wouldn’t have seen it because I just wasn’t looking in the right places for the smaller, independent publishers. My second piece of advice: try not to be picky. Apply for everything you have the time to. I know first-hand that application burnout is a thing, but you never know what avenues will open up for you. I personally applied to everything that wasn’t crime because I didn’t consider it worthwhile since I didn’t read that genre at all and I knew so many applicants would. I don’t read spiritual books, and non-fiction wasn’t my normal reading tastes either. Yet I did my research and found some great things on the Watkins list and I still went for the job. I was honest about where my interests laid, and I got the job!
What is your favourite audiobook?
I didn’t actually listen to a lot of audiobooks before getting this job, but I’m loving exploring them now. A recent favourite was Am I Normal yet? By Holly Bourne – I loved the narrator!
My favourite audiobook I’ve worked on goes live next month. It’s called the Grief Handbook, aimed at people trying to overcome grief of a loved one. The physical book includes journal pages and activities, so I got to discuss how to make this into an audiobook with our studio. We opted to recommend the readers keep a pad and pen on them while listening and then adapting the exercises so the narrator is telling them what to do, and then playing nature sounds and calming music for a short period while they do it.
A huge thank you to Brittany for taking the time to answer all these questions, and for shedding light on her role as Editorial and Audio Assistant! You can follow her social media here: