Industry Insights: Holly Harley
Holly is a Commissioning Editor at Piatkus Non-Fiction, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. We had the pleasure of chatting to her over Zoom! She can be found on Twitter at @hollharl.
Tell us about your journey into publishing.
After university, I trained as a magazine sub-editor and then undertook work experience, including one placement at Greene & Heaton. I also worked for Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog, Goop. Through networking, I found an editorial assistant job at Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion), working with their non-fiction list. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into fiction or non-fiction, but the more I learned about non-fiction, the more it appealed to me! I was there for seven years, mostly desk editing and commissioned a handful of books.
Once you get to a certain level of experience, it’s good to have a change and spread your wings – that’s how I ended up at Piatkus. Now I do health and popular psychology, and also commission literary non-fiction for a new list, The Bridge Street Press, which publishes just five titles a year.
What appealed to you about working in Editorial?
My initial idea was that Editorial was all about reading manuscripts and “making books good”. There is a lot of that, but now I realise there is a big distinction between commissioning and desk editing. I like that Editorial is very communications-focused. There’s a perception that editors are separate from the rest of the process, but actually you’re the person leading the publication.
What does a typical day as a Commissioning Editor look like (if there is such a thing!)?
Prior to lockdown, I did a lot of submissions reading on my commute, but now I find I get more reading done and can start a bit earlier! A typical Monday would involve an editorial meeting, where all the PCR non-fiction editors discuss the proposals we’ve had the previous week that we might want to take to acquisitions on Wednesday. I’ll put memos together for that meeting, and answer emails from the weekend. Today I’ve been liaising with an author who will be recording an audiobook this week. I’ll also check any proofs or covers that have come through digitally.
Do you think that having this option to work flexibly is helpful in terms of accessibility?
It was open to people having different work patterns before, but now lockdown has shown that people really can work from anywhere. Hachette is opening regional offices, so I think the opportunity is even greater than it was before. It’s really heartening to see because I think this is one of the only ways we’re going to open up the industry a bit more.
How does working for an imprint differ from working for a publishing house? Is each imprint run independently, or do they work with each other?
Piatkus, Constable and Robinson all started life as independents, so there is a nice independent spirit. The nature of our publishing means that we have lots of acquisitions going through at any one time, so we have separate meetings to discuss these. At PCR we have our own dedicated publicity and marketing teams, but at the end of the day, we are all part of Little, Brown, so I don’t think there is too much difference.
How can an applicant demonstrate that they want to work for a specific imprint in a covering letter?
It’s always important to be really engaged with whatever imprint you’re applying to and to show that you have an interest in the books they publish. I would be impressed by someone who has engaged with a book but also noticed something about the campaign that they found interesting or mentioned why an award the book has won is particularly relevant. I also can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure that the book you mention is published by the imprint you are applying to, and that it’s spelt correctly!
What’s the best way to shine at interview?
Try and be as comfortable, open and genuine as you can. Show your curiosity and a keenness to learn. For an entry-level job, you’re not always going to be doing the most glamorous things – what’s attractive to me is when someone knows this and is happy to muck in and integrate into the team with a can-do attitude.
Do you have a favourite genre?
The more you read, the more you love a bit of everything! I definitely like popular science and what I’ve learned on the job is that most good non-fiction is great storytelling. It takes you on a journey and shows you the author’s enthusiasm for empowering people on how to live better or how they have reached a fantastic conclusion.
Lastly, what’s the best advice you were given when you started out in publishing, and what advice would you give those wanting to break into the industry?
One of my favourite pieces of advice that was given to me is that if it feels wrong, it probably is. If you’re part of a team and you spot something you’re unsure about, don’t be afraid to come forward and mention it. The people who are coming up through the ranks are now more diverse with different life experiences so that rings even more true – not that it’s not on people like me to educate ourselves, but we do need to be able to have discussions about what we’re publishing.
Another thing is to not have your heart totally set on what you want to do from the start. Publishing is still quite opaque, and people don’t always know about all the jobs until they get there – there is flexibility, and you can move around. You have transferable skills!