Insight into the Business: An Interview with Matt Blackett
By Megan Whitlock and Naomi Churn
We interviewed the Deputy Director of Contracts and Business Affairs at Penguin Random House, Matt Blackett, to discuss his wide-reaching role, the less-talked about sides of publishing, how industry news affects business decisions and in what direction he thinks publishing is heading...
The ins and outs of the business and the contracts side of publishing is rarely publicised. What does the day-to-day of your role entail?
I’m responsible for overseeing all contractual matters for four of PRH’s divisions: Penguin General, Penguin Press, Cornerstone and Ebury. This involves ensuring that all books are signed up with the rights the company needs to publish them across print, electronic and audio formats. I speak with editors daily to discuss their new book acquisitions and publishing plans, so that they can feel properly equipped in their conversations with authors and literary agents to agree a book deal that works for everyone. Once the deal is agreed in principle, my team and I then get involved in negotiating the finer contractual details directly with authors and agents, before making sure everyone signs. I advise colleagues in the rights team on their agreements with third-party licensees – for example, foreign-language publishers, or newspapers and magazines. I have also started to manage PRH’s Permissions team, which involves working on the licences for the huge number of incredibly varied requests the company receives to use extracts from our books in other media.
How did you expand your career from dealing with contracts into contracts and business affairs? How do the two overlap?
Traditionally, it was the role of a contracts team to implement the relatively straightforward set of terms that had been agreed by an editor when acquiring a new book to publish, without having any further involvement in the acquisition and licensing process. This is a far cry from what our team does now, as we work much more closely with publishing and rights teams, finance directors and company leadership to play a more central role in ensuring that the business acquires and exploits its publishing rights as effectively as possible. The role of our team has evolved from being predominantly administrative, to now getting involved in structuring and negotiating a broad range of agreements through the entire publishing lifecycle. To recognise this increased responsibility, we became the Contracts and Business Affairs team.
What channels do you personally use to keep up to date with industry news?
I get a variety of daily digests from The Bookseller and BookBrunch, as well as PRH’s and Bertelsmann’s internal newsletters.
How much does current publishing industry news influence the decisions involved in managing contracts and business affairs, particularly at a big five publisher?
From day to day, it would be unlikely that current industry news would influence how we manage contracts and business affairs. However, occasionally we will become aware of “hot topics” within the publishing industry – a decade ago it was the growth of ebooks, and some years later there came the rise in popularity of audiobooks. When that happens, I think that everyone has no option but to sit up and think about how those conversations and broader changes might affect the work we do.
Are there any changes you hope to see in the publishing business within the next few years?
I’m feeling really positive about the growing number of initiatives there are within the industry to make publishing more diverse and accessible. It can only be a good thing if the people we work with and the books we publish better reflect the society in which we live.
Do you have any advice for publishing hopefuls hoping to break into more technical sides of the industry?
When talking about the different areas of a publishing business, it seems that the more “creative” areas – such as editorial, design or publicity – often steal the limelight, and there exists the suggestion that to work in the other areas of the business, such as contracts and business affairs, is less glamorous, exciting or desirable. This is simply not true.
Working in all areas of a publishing business involves fun and creativity, and the interconnected nature of the different departments and colleagues means that you will always feel like you are part of the publishing process. I would advise hopefuls really to be open-minded and curious about working – and staying – in those more technical sides of the industry, and not to feel like they are playing second fiddle to the editorial teams, or that they should get a job in any area of the company purely to get a “foot in the door.” Reach out to people in those different areas of the industry and ask them about what they do and what they enjoy – and don’t enjoy! – about their jobs. When applying, it is fine to talk about how much you love books, but also be very specific about what aspects of the role you are most curious about, and how you could bring your own personal flair to them.