Lucy Beresford-Knox is working as a Rights Manager at Penguin Books Ltd UK. She is selling rights in Penguin’s titles to publishers from Eastern Europe, including Romania. In Romania, Penguin is represented by Simona Kessler International Agency. We talked to Lucy about what it means to work at Penguin, about which are a Rights Manager’s responsibilities and challenges, about eastern european markets, about how a book can have international success and many more.
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How does a normal workday in the life of a Rights Manager at Penguin Books Ltd UK look?
The best thing about my job is that it varies greatly, depending on the time of year and the books that I’m working on. I sell rights in Penguin’s titles to publishers all across Eastern Europe, and to newspapers in the UK too. The list at Penguin is so big that there’s always something new and exciting to work on. Outside of bookfairs and sales trips (which are full of meetings to pitch our titles), I spend most days in the office – a typical day might include a meeting with Penguin’s editors to discuss new titles we’re considering acquiring, or time spent discussing rights strategy for particular focus titles with my colleagues. Then I’ll spend time submitting books, discussing deals with my subagents and international publishers and keeping track of the publication of our books in the countries I work with. I often meet with journalists and literary scouts too to discuss our new titles and keep abreast of trends in the industry (the best meetings happen over lunch or a coffee!)
Which are the best parts of your job?
Without doubt, the best part of the job is reading new books, and then meeting or calling publishers to talk about them. The most exciting cases are when new books catch people’s imagination really quickly and we tie up deals within a few weeks of acquiring a fabulous title. It’s great to be involved in making a debut author an international success, and particularly to be able to find partner publishers across the world before a book is published – telling authors the good news always feels good.
What about the most difficult ones?
Securing the best deals for authors requires careful negotiation and that can be tricky at times. But more disappointing is when a book I really love doesn’t find a home internationally, or if there are delays with a publication, which is bad news to have to tell an author. All publishers work with different deadlines and these can be difficult to negotiate if you’re working on a co-edition, for example, or on a deal with a newspaper.
Which are the qualities[skills/abilities] or studies[background/education] that prepare one for this kind of job?
I started working in publishing after having done a history degree, and worked my way up from being an assistant on the team. Above all, as with most jobs in publishing, a job in rights requires a love of books and of reading, as there is always new piece of writing to look at. A good memory is definitely a plus too, for when you’re pitching a whole catalogue at a book fair, as is a creative streak for when you’re working out the best way to submit a book. A job in rights suits people who are sociable and confident in building relationships with publishers, so as to be able to pitch books to a variety of editors, but who can also be tenacious in pursuing the best deal for an author.
Seen from the outside and considering the titles you sold here, what’s your opinion on the editorial market in Romania?
I think Romania is a really interesting market, though it’s very different to what I’m used to seeing in the UK. There are fewer publishers and I can see it is a struggle to reach a wide market through the relatively small number of bookshops. The lists at each publishing house are quite distinct so there tends to be less competition for the bestsellers, unlike some other European countries, but this also means that each publishing house knows its readership very well. As a relatively new market, it is sometimes a cautious on, but international bestsellers do tend to find a home with a Romanian publisher and there is potential for individuals to shape lists, which is exciting.
Is there any book that had a huge international success that took you by surprise?
That’s always a good surprise to have! Most recently we’ve been successful with a wonderful British author called Nina Stibbe. Her first book, a word of mouth success in the UK, was a fabulous set of letters written when she was a nanny in London in the 1980s, and they are comic gold. Although heavily steeped in “British-ness”, the writing was so charming and real that it struck a chord internationally too. Her first novel, Man at the Helm, which has echoes of Sue Townsend and Dodie Smith, has sold in more territories still – at first sight a surprise given its English countryside setting – but in fact it’s great to see the strength of the writing (and the brilliantly comic dialogue) making this author a success around the world.
Do you know from the beginning that a book would be successful in many countries? Which are the signs?
You can’t always predict what will take off, but there are certain pointers that give a book real international potential – fiction with a high concept at the heart of the story is always good to sell, as it hits the “readers group” market and those who like a gripping read that they can discuss with friends – that’s something that is common to most markets! In non-fiction, books that can give an entirely new angle on a widely enjoyed subject have good rights potential, as do figures known internationally, or those that simply have a great story to tell. Authors with a strong media profile internationally have great potential for the marketing benefits they can bring with them, but an engaging writing style is always important too.
Have you noticed any particularities in terms of what’s successful in a region or another? For example, what works in Eastern Europe?
Each country is distinct in its tastes, which is why travelling to those countries is so necessary in my job – especially as markets are constantly changing. Titles which have sold in more than 5 territories are most likely to find a home in the more cautious markets, but there are other trends too – literary/commercial crossover fiction is working well at the moment, whereas erotic fiction doesn’t sell so much. History and serious non-fiction titles (particularly from well-respected authors) are currently selling well in E Europe too, particularly in Poland. It’s changing all the time though, and I’m always looking out for opportunities to bring a new sort of book to the markets of the territories I work with!
How often do you travel to attend meetings and establish new contacts? Could you share with us a special/funny moment while travelling?
I travel to Frankfurt every year to meet publishers at the Book Fair (I also meet them at the London Book Fair) but aside from that it’s good to fit in a couple of sales trips every year, to different countries across E Europe, so that I get to visit publishers in their offices too. It makes a real difference to how well I understand the publishing industry of each country, and it’s good to see the full breadth of publishers’ lists. It’s also really good fun! Most recently I was in Bucharest for some meetings and had a great time. I arrived on the day of the elections, so the following day I was trying valiantly to discuss books and publishing in my meetings… though all anyone else wanted to talk about was politics! On the upside, I now know a lot more about politics in Romania, which can only be a good thing!
I suppose your choice of this job comes from a big love for books. Could you tell me about your favorite writers and books? What do you like to read?
Of course – I love reading and it’s definitely why I work in publishing. I like to read different things depending on my mood and the time of year! When I’m on holiday I love a novel with a hint of mystery or adventure – I recently read Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, which was perfect beach reading. Also, recently I’ve enjoyed curling up with Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, and the brilliant historical novels by Elizabeth Fremantle – all of them are atmospheric in their own way, have great stories, and real heart. I’m a lover of history, music and current affairs, so when I’m reading non-fiction it’ll normally be about one of those three things. Though David Bellos’s Is that a Fish in Your Ear? is also personal favourite – it’s all about the art of translation, which, for someone in my job is totally fascinating.