This week I’ve been asking questions of Samantha Fanaken, Head of Sales at Penguin General. Penguin General is a publishing division of Penguin Random House, dealing with the imprints Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Ireland, Penguin Life, Portfolio and Viking. Read on to find out how many meetings Samantha has to cram into a day, and whether she reads all the books.
Claire: It seems to me that Head of Sales in a publishing house sits right in the middle of things: talking to editors, marketing and booksellers. Is that how you see it? Can you give a job description of your role?
Samantha: It does feel like that, which is the main reason I love my job. I get a say in the books we add to our list, I help shape how we publish them, thinking constantly about the reader at the end of the journey, and work with our retailers to put our books, old and new, in front of readers.
Claire: What about on a day-to-day basis? What’s a typical day like?
Samantha: Busy. To tell you about a day last week, it starts with our print planning meeting where we set the first print run of books publishing in two to three months’ time and reprint backlist, sometimes in the thousands, sometimes in the low hundreds, depending on how the book has settled into the market. Then I attend our weekly acquisitions meeting, where we discuss new projects the editorial team would like to buy and ongoing auctions and negotiations. Then off to see a retailer to discuss how Christmas went for them and what we and they could do differently when we hit peak trading this year. Then I rush back for one of our monthly meetings for one of the imprints within Penguin General, where we discuss anything and everything – how a recently published book is selling, what more we could do to support it; planning how to keep a cookbook published last year selling well; discussing what our ebook plans should be for a crime writer across the year to keep her fans engaged. Then I go straight into our monthly presentation to the territory managers who do a very important job, selling directly to the wide variety of independent bookshops out there. I pitch our April books to them and come away with a list of queries about events and signing opportunities. There’s a small window of time to grab a late lunch before I go into our weekly jackets meeting, one of my favourites. Our wonderful art director copes so well with all our feedback – the work in progress jackets that we all love, the tweaks we asked for last week that we now realise aren’t right, the moments when we’ve pushed an idea as far as it will go and need to rebrief the jacket from scratch. It’s a lively creative meeting and I love it. And then I go home….
Claire: You mentioned visiting a retailer. Do you get out of the office much – visiting bookshops?
Samantha: Not as much as I should but yes I visit new store openings when I can get to them, I make a point of visiting independents whenever I’m outside of London to remind myself how diverse this part of the market is – not every indie bookshop looks like the brilliant Daunts on Marylebone High Street and what they sell to browsing customers on a Tuesday morning is not what the well-heeled of London may buy. And I personally shop in our local Waterstones for myself and my daughter most weekends.
Claire: The only thing new writers often hear about sales is their role in the acquisitions meeting. I know that this is sometimes the place where it might be decided not to offer on a particular book. Can you give me an insight into exactly how the acquisitions meetings happen at Penguin?
Samantha: We discuss each new potential project in turn – the editor pitches the book to us all but this may be a follow up to emails and conversations we’ve already had ahead of the meeting. I’m always mindful that by the time an editor brings something to the meeting that they’d like to publish, it’s already been through a rigorous process of assessment by the editor and they have plucked it from the many other submissions they’ve received as something worth adding to our list. However it’s my job in the meeting to represent the market alongside my marketing and publicity colleagues and I need to contribute thoughts about the market right now for the particular genre or topic up for discussion and assess what the potential level of sales could be. We discuss the non fiction proposal or the novel for what it is, what it could be and who we think the readers are for it and how we would reach them. Sometimes there are non fiction proposals that we all find fascinating but on reflection, we’re not sure that we could persuade a reader to part with £16.99 or £8.99 when they might get all they need from a long magazine article. Sometimes there are wonderful novels that divide the room and we have to decide what the right thing is to do.
Claire: At university you studied English Literature and Language and then went on to get an MA in English Renaissance Literature. Could your younger self have imagined doing the job you’re doing now?
Samantha: My younger self wished I didn’t need to get a job to pay my rent so I could retrain as an archaeologist and spend most of the year on a dig in a desert somewhere (I’m sure I had a hopelessly romantic notion of what that would be like compared to the reality). But if I could have looked into the future and seen that there was a job which involved reading some of the best literary fiction out there, debut novels that keep you reading through the night, non fiction proposals that make you want to phone someone up and quote line after line aloud to them – well that would have looked pretty good.
Claire: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Samantha: The smart passionate colleagues I work with. And the books. The ones you start and three pages in, think to yourself ‘God this is good’.
Claire: And the least?
Samantha: It would be undiplomatic to say.
Claire: How many of the books you’re involved in selling do you get to read?
Samantha: I read very nearly everything we publish. There is the occasional book part way into a series that I won’t get to because I know what it is and how to sell it, but other than that, I read everything.
Claire: What books (Penguin or otherwise) have you read recently that you’d recommend to readers of this interview?
Samantha: When it’s the holidays, I read non work stuff. So over Christmas, I read The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I would push them all into your hands and urge you to read them. But from Penguin General’s list this spring, I can’t recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi enough. I try to resist sales person hyperbole as much as I can but it’s not a book of the year, it’s a book of the decade. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is beautiful and moving and hopeful and there are scenes set in a London of the near future or of the could-just-happen that I can’t get out of my mind. And yesterday, I finished a book called Silence, a non fiction book we’re publishing in the autumn, which makes you want to leave what you are doing and go for a long walk on your own.
Claire: I loved Commonwealth too; it was one of my top ten reads of last year. Thanks so much, Sam for answering my questions.
Read my interview with a reader in a literary agency
Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
Read my interview with an Art Director at Tin House
Read my interview with a Foreign Rights Agent in a literary agency
Read my interview with an Editor at Tin House
Read my interview with a translator