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Becca Parkinson, Engagement Manager at Comma Press

Becca Parkinson speaks to The Publishing Profile about her role at Comma Press and her diverse reading habits.

Publisher standing in front of bookshelves
Image Caption: Becca Parkinson standing in front of colourful bookshelves

I’m Becca and I’m currently Engagement Manager at Comma Press, a not-for-profit independent publisher based in Manchester. At Comma we focus primarily on short stories and translated fiction. Working for a small press in a team of 5, my role is incredibly varied and involves proofreading, creating sales and marketing materials, running our social media platforms, working on funding applications, pitching and planning events with bookshops and festivals, liaising with our sales reps, distributor, wholesalers and printers, producing and editing our podcast (The Comma Press Podcast) and much more.

How did you get into publishing?

I studied English Literature at Lancaster University, where they have a fantastic internship programme for humanities students, wherein the university provides paid placements at creative and cultural organisations around the North West. I applied for this programme in my final year and happily was offered two placements, my first being at Carnegie Publishing in Lancaster for 5 weeks after I finished my degree. This was followed by a 4-week placement in Manchester at Comma Press, as Marketing and Production Assistant. After my placement, our Publisher Ra Page asked me to stay on and by Christmas, I was offered a permanent role, as Sales and Production Manager. Almost 4 years later, I’m still at the press, and my role has evolved into what it is today.

Has your role in publishing widened your reading taste, and how has it changed your attitude to different genres?

Before I got my role at Comma, my knowledge of short stories and translated fiction was limited to set texts during my academic career - ’The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the stories of Carver, Hemingway and other American writers I studied at university. The first book I worked on at Comma was The Book of Dhaka, an anthology of ten stories translated into English from Bengali, and it was such an eye-opener. I realised how limited my reading had been in the past (mainly British and American, canonical and curriculum-based) and since immersing myself in the translated fiction and indie press communities, I have read fiction from all over the world. I am now an avid reader of non-fiction (particular essay and memoir) which I had previously had little interest in.

What reading formats do you prefer? Do you prefer hardbacks, paperbacks, eBooks, audiobooks, library books, or a mixture?

I’m a paperback reader through and through. Though I appreciate the beauty of a carefully crafted hardback and often have to resist treating myself to them in a bookshop, I’m one for carrying my books around with me, and so the comparative lightness and transportability of a paperback makes them my preferred format. I have read eBooks but I am not an eReader, I much prefer a tactile book, and a full shelf of books to be read that I can see in front of me (much to the disdain of my mother who is a huge eBook fan). Despite being a complete podcast addict I have never ventured into audiobooks, and I really should. I’m sure I will someday.

Library books have played a huge part in my love of reading, I was a librarian at primary school and high school, and had a brilliant local library in the village I grew up in; I aspired to be a librarian when I grew up! Since moving to Manchester a couple of years ago I haven’t registered for a library card yet. But I’m sure it’s something I will get around to, particularly as I have witnessed through my current role how brilliant and hard-working the librarians are working across Great Manchester and the North West more widely.

Is there a book that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?

I’m proud of both the collections I edited for Comma Press, The Book of Tbilisi and The Book of Riga. Both collections are translated short stories, from languages that are massively under-represented in the UK book market, about two cities I had very little knowledge of before I took on the projects. As a result, I have had the opportunity to travel and meet international colleagues and authors. I can say I’ve procured funding for and edited two collections just four years into my career, which is something I’m incredibly proud of. I’ve also worked on the first anthologies of science-fiction from Iraq and Palestine. The latter in particular was such a humbling experience, as I learnt about the Nakba and the ongoing struggle the Palestinian people are facing on a daily basis. The authors were all such a pleasure to work with and we've hosted some great launch events around the UK and Ireland.

What is your most-read genre? Do you have niche sub-genres that you are often attracted to?

I'm tending to alternate between fiction and non-fiction at the moment. With fiction, I tend to read contemporary, literary fiction (novels and short stories like The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld and Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks both of which I read recently), with the occasional classic thrown in (I just read Little Women, for example). I’ve always enjoyed dipping into historical fiction too, from the likes of Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and others. As I’ve said, on the non-fiction side I lean towards essay and memoir (I’m a huge Cathy Rentzenbrink fan!) but I also just finished The Five by Hallie Rubenhold which ties to my interest in history.

Where do you buy or access your books?

I often buy my books from Waterstones, adding them to my virtual basket and eventually splurging on payday or being unable to resist when wandering around their Deansgate shop. When and where I can I buy from independent bookshops. Being from Preston and living in central Manchester, I’m unlucky that I don’t have a local indie, so I will buy from Hive or order directly from the publisher to support an independent that way.

Which childhood books have you kept on your shelves?

My parents just downsized and forced me to send a bunch of my childhood books to the charity shop (sad times), but I hung on to a few classics: Black Beauty, The Water Babies, Heidi, The Secret Garden. Growing up I loved authors like Anthony Horowitz, Malorie Blackman, Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison, Cathy Cassidy; most of these I borrowed repeatedly from my school or local library but I do have a few books I got signed by Cathy Cassidy at a Borders bookshop we used to have in Preston I don’t think I could ever get rid of.

What’s the most beautiful book you own?

My friend bought me a copy of Miss Austen for birthday in February which is a Waterstones exclusive, a beautifully designed hardback with sprayed edges. It’s so pretty. I also love the Penguin clothbound classics and the Penguin English Library paperbacks, they’re so pleasing all lined up together on a shelf.

Who is your most read author, and why?

For my younger self, I think it’s either Anthony Horowitz or Meg Cabot, I read everything they wrote up until I left high school. As a grown-up, I think my most read author is Jill Mansell - in the past I would have said guilty pleasure but I’m just going to own it, I love a laugh and ‘chick-lit’ provides the laughs for me! Sometimes I just want an easy, relaxing read, and Jill's books are passed between myself, my mum and my auntie whenever they are released.

What are the best books you've read in 2020 so far?

So far in 2020, I have read and enjoyed immensely Normal People (finally), A Half Baked Idea by Olivia Potts, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

What are your most anticipated reads for the rest of 2020?

In terms of forthcoming, I can’t wait to read Coming Undone, a memoir out this summer written by Terri White, as well as Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue and Olive by Emma Gannon. I am also looking forward to reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (the contents of my virtual Waterstones basket right now!)

Is there a book that everyone should read?

I always recommend reading Educated by Tara Westover, Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton and Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.

You can find Becca on Twitter and Goodreads @beccap1502


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