We speak to Jessica about collecting old books and her varied journey into the publishing industry.
I’m an editor at David and Charles, an independent arts and crafts book publisher based in Exeter. I have always worked in non-fiction publishing but have moved from publicity and marketing to editorial. I came to the company as a managing editor covering maternity leave. When the person I was covering came back the company made a role for me!
How did you get into publishing?
I’ve wanted to be in publishing since I was 16 and listened to a careers talk at school. The speaker was a children’s book writer. She described her career trajectory and said she started out working in publishing houses. I decided there and then that publishing was what I wanted to do so after my A-levels I got short-term internships in various publishing houses and literary agents, which I did during my gap year. I then studied English Language and German at The University of Reading and whilst I was there I tried to get as much relevant experience as I could; I wrote articles for the student paper (and eventually became Comment and Debate editor) and spent my summers doing internships. One summer I did a journalism internship in Berlin writing for a travel guide and another summer I worked at the Edinburgh Festival writing theatre reviews.
After university I worked in Germany for a few months as a language assistant and then for six months as a copywriter in Peru, where I wrote mainly about how to deal with menopause symptoms. I really believe in getting a big breadth of experience before settling into a career!
When I eventually came back to the UK I moved to London and got a job as an editorial assistant with the Big Lottery Fund, still with my eye on working in the publishing industry. My big break came when I got an eight-week editorial internship at non-fiction book publisher Quarto. I was working on some really interesting books and got to know some wonderful people. A month after I finished my internship I got an email inviting me to an interview as the publicity and marketing assistant was leaving. I hadn’t really considered working in publicity before but I jumped at this opportunity and landed the job. I found I really enjoyed working in the publicity side of publishing and stayed in it for another three years. I worked at Quarto for one and half years before moving to travel guide publisher Rough Guides, where I worked as a PR and marketing executive for a further one and half years. At some point I decided I wanted to get back into editorial so I applied for the managing editor maternity cover position at David and Charles and got it.
Is there a book or project that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?
I recently worked on Zero Waste Gift Wrap, a new book that has just hit the shelves. I’m all for encouraging sustainability and living a low-waste lifestyle. I really try to practice what I preach and find these types of books so inspirational, so I hope they inspire others too. It is a gorgeous book and I am proud to have my name in the credits.
Has your attitude to reading changed since working in the industry? How has it changed your reading taste or the genre of books you usually read?
Yes! I definitely read and appreciate non-fiction books more now. I have always been a sucker for a beautiful package, but now I look at non-fiction coffee table books and really value the design, the cover, the colours, and the layouts. This wasn’t something I’d ever really given much thought to before I worked in non-fiction publishing, but now I now know much love and care goes into all these aspects. I still read mostly fiction books but my work has given me that extra appreciation for non-fiction books.
Where do you buy or access your books?
I use my library card a lot. I love that I can walk into a library and walk out with an armful of books without spending a penny. I tend to buy books from Waterstones and charity shops.
What is your most beautiful book?
It’s a toss-up between my hardback illustrated edition of The Hobbit and my book of Brothers Grimm fairytales. I’m finding it hard to choose!
What is the oldest book on your shelf?
I love old books and collect them – the older the better. There’s something so exciting about touching a book that has been around for decades or even centuries - the people involved in making it are long gone but the book is still here. I always wonder about the story of the book too – where has it been and how did it get to me?
The oldest book I have on my shelf is a book of short stories that was published in 1877 – it’s called Friendly Hands and Kindly Words. I’ve had it for years and can’t remember where I bought it – I often just see books that I like the look of and get them. It was probably from a car boot fair or something. Some of the pages are falling out so I fully intend to take it to a specialist book binder at some point and get it repaired.
I also have a children’s book called The Lost Opal Ring that was published in 1919. It was given to my grandmother in 1920 as a prize for regular Sunday School attendance (according to the bookplate on the inside cover). She would have been 13 at the time. It’s a beautiful little book with black and white illustrations dotted all the way through. I love it and think it was where my love of old books began.
What surprises you about your bookshelves? Is there a book that you own that you were surprised to love as much as you did?
I had a book on my bookshelf for a long time and it didn’t have a brilliant cover so I’d always ignored it. I thought it would be a rather old-fashioned biography but it was an absolutely excellent book – it was very, very loosely based on a real girl and is written like a fiction book. It’s called Early Rising and is written by Joan Clarke. I can’t find much about it on the internet so think it must be one of those obscure, long-forgotten books that’s now out of print, but I fully recommend it if you can get hold of a second-hand copy somewhere. It’s the story of a naughty little girl who lived in a village in Gloucestershire many years ago. It’s written from her perspective and is light-hearted and funny.
What are the best books you've read in 2020 so far?
I’ve just finished Rebecca, which I loved. I practically inhaled it. It had been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years and I’d never got around to reading it. However, when I saw there was a new film on Netflix I decided to read it before watching the film – I much prefer to read the books before seeing film or screen adaptations if I can. I also read Agnes Grey earlier on this year, and I really enjoyed it. I had had mixed experiences with the Brontes – I loved Jane Eyre but hated Wuthering Heights, so I went into Agnes Grey with an open mind, knowing it could go either way. I read a couple of books of short stories too and I also love reading children’s and YA books; Evie’s Ghost and The Wild Way Home were two excellent ones that I read during lockdown.
What are your most anticipated reads for this year?
I’ve just bought The Binding. I have been wanting it for ages and bought it a few days ago. I can’t wait to get going.
What advice would you give to aspiring publishers trying to break into the industry?
Keep an eye on job boards, apply for lots of different types of jobs, and don’t be too fussy. When you are at the very beginning stages of your career you don’t always know what you want, so try not to have tunnel vision. I had always been convinced I’d wanted to work in editorial fiction publishing but ended up working in non-fiction and this is where my passion lies now. I was surprised to find out how creative non-fiction publishing actually is. The ideas generally come from the editorial team themselves and the books often look so gorgeous!