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A Peek into Publishing

A Peek into Publishing: Rights with Olivia Richardson

Welcome back to the latest Peek into Publishing! We love showing you around our departments and offering insight into not just entry level jobs, but a wide range of roles. So far we’ve shown you SalesMarketing, Editorial and Design. We thought it was about time we dove into our Rights department with the amazing Rights Manager, Olivia, asking her how she got into the industry and what it’s like working in rights in publishing, a less spoken about area of the industry.

Olivia Richardson, Rights Manager

How did you get into the industry and in your current rights role?

While I was studying English and Classics at Newcastle University I sought out as much publishing work experience as I could, which unfortunately was often unpaid. My first experience was in the Marketing and Publicity department at Vintage, Penguin Random House for two weeks. Initially, I had my eye on Marketing, as I had completed some positive and enjoyable work experience. I was also interested in Editorial, but I was very aware of just how competitive of a department it is.

After I graduated, I continued seeking as many placements as I could find, gaining publishing experience in the day and waitressing at night to pay my rent. I eventually found my first full-time position at independent illustrated publisher Ryland Peters & Small as a Rights Assistant. I spent over a year there and worked with the loveliest team – we’re still in touch to this day. As it was a small publisher, similarly to Watkins, I was given more responsibility sooner. Fairly early into my role I was attending book fairs like London and Frankfurt, which were exciting and educational – something I might not have had the chance to do if I’d worked somewhere bigger.

After working at Ryland Peters & Small for a year, I went travelling for a few years. I ended up staying in Hanoi, Vietnam for 18 months, so I sent out lots of speculative applications to publishers. I was lucky enough to land myself a part-time role at an independent publishing company as an Editorial Rights Coordinator (which was focused on buying rights rather than selling, which is what I do now). Most of the publishing houses in Vietnam are state-funded, so it was cool to be part of one that wasn’t (even if we had to be careful what books we were publishing at times!)

After coming back to the UK, I applied for a job as a Rights Executive with Watkins, where I’ve now been for three years, and I was promoted to manager around 18 months ago.

What does your day to day look like as a Rights Manager?

The Watkins rights team includes myself and James, the Rights Executive. Usually, we’ll catch up a couple of times a day as we spend all day liaising with foreign publishers and agents, trying to sell the rights of Watkins books to publishers that will translate them into their own languages. This used to be mostly over email, but more recently has been happening via video calls. 

This involves writing contracts, sending them back and forth with foreign publishers, negotiating prices for advances and royalties, sending submissions for our forthcoming titles and exciting press. As there’s so much emailing back and forth, I dedicate a portion of my day to updating spreadsheets with the information so we can keep track! 

For example, yesterday I attended a production meeting, where I learnt about any upcoming books we are reprinting in case any foreign publishers might want to get involved with that printing (it would be more cost-effective for them, so a huge selling point for us). Over the past few weeks I have had a lot of virtual meetings with publishers, agents and scouts to make up for the cancellation of the London Book Fair. This has created a lot of follow-up admin, such as sending out PDFs for manuscripts they’re interested in. I spent the rest of my morning battling my inbox (a battle I always lose!)

In the afternoon, I attended the editorial acquisitions meeting, providing input on whether a new proposal would do well with rights. Here, I consider how the author’s previous work has sold, taking into consideration trends in different countries. Some seem to be ahead of us while others are far behind! The benefit of book fair meetings is finding out what’s popular, what’s selling and what they’re looking for. Last week, I compiled notes from meetings about what’s popular in Europe and Asia at the moment. Recently published books that have been receiving a lot of interest are Why We Get Mad by Dr Ryan Martin, Face Yoga by Danielle Collins and The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People by Mel Collins – they’ve all done exceptionally well for rights. 

What were you most surprising to learn when you started in rights in publishing?

I was really surprised by how much maths is involved! From negotiating prices, calculating royalties and general budgeting, I didn’t realise how big of a role numbers would play. Luckily, I enjoy maths, but it was unexpected!

I also didn’t know that it would involve as many travel opportunities as it does – pre-lockdown I would travel to different territories to build relationships as well as attend book fairs. Last year, I was lucky enough to have an all-expenses paid trip to Qatar for a book fair, which was an incredible experience and I met some really nice people.

What is the best thing about your job?

The best thing is definitely the people I work with! That’s the one thing I’ve really missed about being in the office – I miss having all my good mates around.

I also really love getting the chance to meet people and make friendships all over the world – I’ve built relationships that have outlasted jobs. People have moved through agencies but we still meet up at book fairs and stuff.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Just keeping on top of stuff – there’s so much all the time! Historically, there’s been a quiet period in the summer for the rights department, but the pandemic threw that off whack, as the increase in video calls means there’s a lot more follow-up conversations and general plates to be kept spinning, but at least there’s never a dull moment!

What would be your top tip for people applying to work in publishing?

My first tip would be to go to any book fairs or literary festivals you can – they’re a great way to get excited about the industry and grow your understanding of the market.

Secondly, learn from my mistakes and do not work for free. Luckily, more companies seem to be offering paid schemes, but I’d definitely recommend you value your time and work, no matter how much you want to build your CV with publishing experience. Seek out paid placements, even by sending speculative emails to smaller publishers. Also, when you do get some experience, try and get involved with as many departments as you can. It’s important to understand how the overall publishing process works and how the different departments fit together and interact. This is why small publishers can be a great starting point as you can usually float around a bit between departments!

What’s one Watkins title you’d encourage everyone to read?

The ones I use the most and would always recommend are the Nourish cookbooks! My personal favourites are Mowgli Street Food by Nisha Katona, Fire & Spice by John Gregory-Smith and The Part-Time Vegetarian by Nicola Graimes.

I’m really looking forward to reading Saltwater in the Blood by Easkey Britton and Zen and the Art of Dealing with Difficult People by Mark Westmoquette, both of which are coming out later this year. They’ve had a really positive response at book fair meetings so I’m excited to see what happens post publication!

Tell us about a project you’re currently working on?

For the past couple of months, Vika (Chief Technology Officer) and I have been collaborating to design a new rights system that will more easily track deals and records all in one place. It’s 100% Vika doing all the development and execution but it’s been really exciting being a part of the process and tailoring the system to our needs. I’m hoping this will transform how the rights department works, and result in less time updating systems. 


That’s all for this week! We hope you gained a little more insight into what it’s like to work in rights in publishing, both for publishing hopefuls as well as rights assistants seeking insight into higher up the rights chain. We wish those of you seeking a job in rights the best of luck! If you want to learn more about upcoming Peek Into Publishing projects, follow Watkins on Twitter.

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