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A career in...editorial, with Emily Yau

As part of #WorkinPublishing week, Emily Yau from Quercus Fiction talks to jobs in books about her career in editorial.
Written on 06/18/2018 - 11:02

As part of #WorkinPublishing week, Emily Yau from Quercus Fiction talks to jobs in books about her career in editorial.

How did you start your career in publishing?
After I graduated I knew I wanted to work in publishing but didn’t know where to start. I was living in the North of England at the time and therefore didn’t have great access to work experience, so I enrolled on the MA Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University. It was through this course that I was able to intern one day a week at HarperCollins which ultimately helped me secure my first editorial job as an editorial assistant.

What led you to a career in editorial?
The publishing department at Oxford Brookes was a really great eye-opener to all the different career opportunities available. I went in – as many do! – wanting to work in editorial, but I had an open mind to other routes. However, working on the Avon imprint really cemented it for me and it was then that I knew I wanted to be a commercial fiction editor. Every day I would commute home to Oxford and I would always feel really proud to see people reading novels on the train – regardless of which publisher the book came from!

How did you progress into your current role?
My first real job was as a PA to an MD, which was a really great foundation on which to build my knowledge of the way a publishing house works. I quickly moved to Ebury, which is part of Penguin Random House, as an editorial assistant. I stayed for five years, climbing the ranks to commissioning editor. Ebury is known for its non-fiction publishing and it was hugely rewarding to help build the small fiction list. During my time there I worked on bestselling novels such as Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl and The Martian, but it was my knack for finding self-published authors, such as Adrian J Walker and John Marrs, and my interest in digital publishing that led me to where I am now at Quercus.

What skills and experience are needed for roles in editorial?
It goes without saying that an editor needs to be meticulous in everything they do; having a firm grasp of spelling and grammar is a must, as is good copy-writing. Also, digital is increasingly becoming more important so understanding how SEO and metadata works is particularly crucial. But it goes much further than that these days and an editor is expected to wear many hats in their role. Lots of my friends think that I sit around reading all day (the dream!), but ultimately being a good editor is about supporting your authors and championing their book in all areas, so the key skills I would pull out is having the right instincts, knowing your market inside out and having the ability to communicate your vision effectively and persuasively.

How do you continue to learn and improve your skills?
The world of publishing is constantly changing and there’s always new ways of doing things so I’m always on the lookout for ways to learn and improve. I’m a sucker for training sessions and I’ve been fortunate enough to work for big companies where these are easily accessible. But outside of that, I read: books in my area, books outside my area, newspapers, magazines… I consume a lot, as most of popular culture is essentially about telling and marketing stories (promise it’s not just an excuse to binge on Netflix, though I do think that it sometimes helps!) Most of the time, I learn by doing: experimenting with ideas and formats, seeing what works and learning from what doesn’t.

What advice would you give to someone trying to start or progress their career in an editorial role?
The best advice I can give is the same for pretty much anyone with at least a toe in the publishing world, and that is to read often and widely. Skills can be learnt and refined along the way, but you can’t teach someone to have the right instincts or the right market knowledge. Being passionate about the genres in which you work is a lot more than simply saying ‘I am passionate about reading’ on your CV. It’s about being able to say which authors and publishers you admire, why this is and then being able to identify where this stems from and how you can use that knowledge in your own work. Of course, publishing can be very subjective at times, but if you are well versed in your area you will always have something to offer – something I would stress even more to younger people starting out: forty-something-senior-professionals will invariably have differing worldviews to a twenty-something-intern, and both perspectives are equally as valid.

What is the most interesting project you have worked on?
I could never pull out one project as more interesting than another as I have loved every book I have published, but I will mention the Black Mirror publishing programme at Ebury as it was so different from everything else I have worked on. Usually, you read a manuscript you love and acquire it, and from thereon, the process follows a very set pattern (mostly!), but with Black Mirror we were working with a brand that already existed and which had a huge following already – no pressure at all! I was working with a lot more people too: the Black Mirror creative team, including execs from Netflix, American authors and agents and of course a set of authors who were all really excited to create stories set in the Black Mirror world. It was challenging as I had to reconfigure my brain to work in a wholly different way, but as a massive fan of the show myself, it was absolutely thrilling.

This blog is published as part of #WorkinPublishing week.