Vanessa Williams: I'm the Children's International Associate Publisher at HarperCollins - Basically I manage the UK and US list for titles that they either have World rights for or Commonwealth rights. So I act as a 'champion' so to speak for their titles - I pitch them to the sales team here, manage the strategy behind them and ensure that everything is running smoothly from the admin to supply.
GR: Interesting! So just to clarify background on that, if a book has been written/published in the UK and has been acquired by HarperCollins over here, it then gets printed and distributed in Australia? And are you part of the team deciding whether to acquire those rights? Or is it the other way around - you're pitching Australian books to the UK/US market?
VW: So if the UK or US have acquired a title - they can offer that author either local rights or they can pitch for World rights (how we usually get our US books) or the UK can acquire Commonwealth rights (so we are considered one of their territories). So then I come on board and see that list, and they let us know more detail on the title and we can sell it on their behalf - I am basically their internal salesperson on the ANZ side. So I don't get to do any of the fun stuff such as deciding covers, editing etc - I come on board mainly for the sales and distribution side.
Does that make a bit more sense? I know my role is always hard to explain; it took me awhile to get it! I don't really get any facetime with authors, it's more like being a branch of the US/UK sales team.
VW: Oh good! Having the word 'publisher' in the title makes it confusing - as what I do can be different to what the local publishers do.
GR: So what kind of decisions have to be made from the ANZ end - do you distribute every title that HarperCollins has international or commonwealth rights to, or are there differences about the Australian market that make you more selective about what to try and sell here?
VW: We aim to distribute them all but on various levels - we will have more 'priority' titles that we will focus on that we feel will work in the market - and those are the ones I concentrate on mainly in terms of the strategy side. There are also agencies that we act as distributors for (Usborne Books, Head of Zeus, Pavilion Books) but my end works the same - it's about finding titles that will work well either across the market or for particular customers and ensuring that we pitch them correctly and find the best space for them.
GR: Do you find most of your work is done with agents, authors themselves, or publishing reps in their home country? Or a mix? (and of course, booksellers here!)
VW: I'm sort of a middleman - so I talk with an export sales person in each publishing house. They will be our spokesperson and pass on information and request what we need, so it keeps it a bit easier. On this side, I mainly deal with internal staff - so I would talk to our sales team about potential titles for their customers and how to pitch it, I would talk to our marketing team to see what we can do for a title, and I would talk to our supply team to ensure the books get here, and on time!
GR: It sounds like there are a lot of staff involved in getting a title from printer to bookshop!
VW: Oh very much so! Everyone owns a bit of the book, which is nice because there is a great team behind you who are aiming to do what is best for that book.
GR: When you say "their customers", do you mean different booksellers?
VW: Yes exactly - we have a sales team in the office that deals with head offices for places like Dymocks, Big W, etc and then we have the reps that are out on the road that go and visit individual booksellers too.
GR: Switching to you personally for a moment, how did you get into the industry?
VW: I always wanted to work in publishing - I did my BA in English & Drama and then I came to Sydney and did my Masters in Publishing. It can be hard getting your first role in the industry though, so I worked as a sales coordinator for a media company and then a job came up for a sales assistant role at HarperCollins so I applied and luckily got the job! I've worked at HarperCollins for just over five years now, in various roles.
GR: Do you still read non-work books for pleasure?
VW: Yes - the last non-HarperCollins book I read was Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust and the last HarperCollins book I read (that wasn't a kid's book I had to read for work) was Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason's book Saga Land.
GR: Is kids/YA a passion of yours, or just where you ended up?
VW: I've always loved YA - I mostly read fantasy and sci-fi for pleasure and a lot of YA falls in that genre, or straddles the lines (the fiction team at work does Jay Kristoff's Nevernight, which I really wish fell under YA so I could have it!) But I love that I've learned more about picture books and middle grade since being in this role.
GR: aha, "so you could have it" suggests that you don't get freebie access to everything on the HC list! Do you get a staff discount?
VW: Ah I meant more 'fall under my list have it'! We get staff discounts but we can also get freebies if we are very kind to the publishers of specific titles. Folks at work know I love fantasy so I usually get those dropped off at my desk in exchange for a review!
GR: Do you have a review site/blog, or do you put those reviews on goodreads/amazon?
VW: It's more for internal reviews - so when they are pitching it to sales they can say 'Vanessa has read it and thinks it is amazing' (obviously with more detail!) Work keeps me too busy to have a blog!
GR: "Pitching to sales" meaning to booksellers, or to people on the sales team?
VW: Hmmm I think both - I've never seen sales pitching to their booksellers... but maybe they do say it then too!
GR: So even within the publishing house, publishers have to pitch their titles to other staff! Do the different teams make decisions independently of one another?
VW: We generally work together - so the Children's team will come together to make all decisions for a title (publisher, marketing, sales) and then we pitch to the sales managers and reps and let them know what strategy we are taking with a book, what is so special about the book, etc. It's quite nice as we come together to 'launch' the titles so where I might be in my bubble of kid's books - it gives me the opportunity to hear what is coming out from Fiction/Non Fiction.
GR: And obviously it's a little different for you because you're working with titles where the acquisition process occurred overseas, but ordinarily would that kind of meeting happen after HC has already offered a deal to an author and/or exchanged a contract, or is it earlier on in the decision making process where it will affect things like advances?
VW: Launching titles happens after a book has been signed. So the local team go through an acquisitions meeting where the publisher would pitch the book and give an idea of where it would sit, what format, what comparison titles it may be like - then everyone would decide whether to try and sign it or not. Then the details get worked out - how much would it cost to produce, do we want a book with a lot of embellishments on the cover, what would the advance and royalties be, etc.
Launching titles is more to highlight what is coming up for a particular month and really get it on the sales team's radar so they can start thinking of which customers it would work for, if they need anything extra, etc.
GR: Speaking of covers, is it common to make changes to the UK/US cover when you bring a book over to the Australian market?
VW: It can happen, but not much. It involves extra design costs and requires approvals from the overseas team, so unless a cover really doesn't work for a market, we generally wouldn't do it. I've had it happen only twice since I've started. It happens more when local publishers buy rights for a book, but less on my list.
GR: You mentioned that staff know you’re a fantasy fan - it sounds like you all know each other reasonably well. How many staff are there, and how big is the Children’s team you work closely with?
VW: There are 12 of us in the kid's team and around... oh gosh, 150-200 of us in the office? And I've worked in various roles so I know people in different departments quite well.
GR: Do you work with the kids' teams of other publishing houses at all, or are they very much the "competitors"?
VW: I don't actually! A lot of people at work do know others, mainly through publishing events or because they used to work at HarperCollins. I love following other books though and am fascinated by if they face the same issues we do, what they do the same, or different... It's healthy competition - yes, we want to make sure our books sell, but we all respect a good book and are happy when it does well. (But yes, we are happy when one of our books takes the number one sales spot for a week!)
GR: So more like friendly sibling rivalry than war.
GR: Have you ever had to try and sell a book you really didn’t like? Or thought was an objectively bad book, regardless of personal tastes and preferences?
VW: Ooooh. Yes. Yes I have. Although... there have been some that are objectively bad BUT have some hook that will mean it will sell (whether it is to do with the trend of the moment or the like). And sometimes an amazing book just doesn't get the attention it deserves. That can be heartbreaking. I'd rather try and find the sales hook for a 'bad' book than see a book I think is fantastic not do well in our market.
I think that's the thing really - if a book appeals to people, for whatever reason, I guess I can't call it bad, I may be judging based on personal taste. It is finding a home for that book and giving people what they want to read.
GR: Is there anything you'd like to add?
VW: Hmmm. I think just to note the extraordinary effort on everyone's part at work for getting a book completed and to the market. And to say that one of the best things working in publishing is seeing the passion people have. To see people really put their belief in something, or have a book speak to them, and to make a book their baby as well as the author's... that's pretty brilliant. I remember a time before I worked in publishing, I had no idea! And I was wowed when I found out what everyone had to do and how many people it takes to make it work. It's really a special place to work.
GR: I guess that's the thing about the publishing industry, the majority of people who go into it are booklovers to start with, so you get to be surrounded by some pretty special people. I think we've covered some really interesting stuff, and I'm very grateful that you took the time to share with me.