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Sabah Khan, Head of PR at Avon, HarperCollins

We speak to Sabah about her non-traditional journey into publishing and making a conscious effort to read more writers of colour.

Hi everyone. My name is Sabah and I am head of PR at Avon, HarperCollins.

How did you get into publishing?

My journey into publishing is very non-traditional. Following graduation, I worked at a magazine for a bit, before finding my way into a PR agency. I worked at a few different places trying my hand at different types of PR.  before settling on consumer and lifestyle. At my second to last job, we won The Friday Project as a client. Not long after that, we won Avon and I worked on both book clients until I left in 2016. I went to go and do some charity PR, and Avon decided that they needed to bring the role in house, rather than outsourcing it again. I applied for the role when it went live and I’ve been here since March 2017, which means even though I’ve only been in house for over three years, I’ve worked with my authors for much longer – so it really felt like coming home.

Has your attitude to reading changed since working in the publishing industry? How has it changed your reading taste or the genre of books you usually read?

I don’t think my attitude has changed much – I’ve always been a huge reader and now I just get access to books and insights in a way I never was able to before. I think the only difference is that now I sometimes think about a journey a book has been on, so I find myself asking what it might have looked like on submission, and if that plot twist came from the author or was suggested by an editor. It makes reading a very different kind of experience now but no less fun, and I still find it as escapist as ever. Getting lost in a good book might be a cliché, but it is for a reason! Now that I work in publishing, I have found myself more open to trying to read different types of books – my favourite genre has always been commercial fiction but hearing about exciting non-fiction or more literary books means I’m far more likely to pick them up because everyone here is so passionate about the great work they do and they make it hard to say no!

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

I feel really proud when I look back on most of the work I do, because I pride myself on pushing myself really hard and always striving to push for just one more thing. One of the things I’m really proud of was the first hardback campaign I ever worked on, for C.L. Taylor. At Avon, we tend to focus on the paperbook or the ebook so doing a hardback for the first time really pushed me out of my comfort zone and I think it’s safe to say we were all extremely pleased with the outing! I’m now going to be working on hardback number three which comes out next spring and I’m excited to see how that goes – fingers crossed things will be feeling a bit more normal and we can potentially do real events again.

Where do you buy or access your books?

It’s a real mix. Before I entered publishing I was anti kindle, always preferring to hold a physical book. While I think I’ll never not love an actual book, buying my books online has made things much easier – it means I can take so many more away with me and not worry about space! I do try and support independent book shops when I can so if I know I’m going to buy a physical book, I’ll usually pop into a shop and pick it up.

What books have you been reading in lockdown? Do these books typify your usual reading taste, or have you found yourself reading other genres and authors?

During lockdown, with everything that’s been going on, I’ve been trying to read more voices of colour – across genres. I think it’s quite easy to get lost in the books I work on and only read those or their comp titles but it’s so important to try and read and consume different stories and different narratives. For the first time this year, I’m keeping a list of what I’m reading so I can refer back to it. During lockdown some I’ve read are:

  • Queenie

  • Such A Fun Age

  • The Hate You Give

  • Truth Be Told

  • Girl, Woman, Other

  • An American Marriage

  • My Sister, The Serial Killer

As you can see, quite a mix across genres and topics! I like to try and read as eclectically as possible – but I have definitely read more voices of colour than even before. This is mainly out of choice but I think that especially as the publishing industry is trying to change so much, we need to read diversely if we want to be reflective of society as a whole. I have of course read other authors of colour before now, I’m a huge fan of Dorothy Koomson, Poorna Bell and Ayisha Malik – but now more than ever I’m making a conscious effort to try harder.

What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?

One of my wonderful authors, Laura Jane Williams, gave me a copy of The Alchemist last summer. I’m ashamed to say while it had always been on my TBR pile, I’d never actually read it. Now that I have, I can honestly say it’s life changing and I’m so glad she chose to share it with me. I also have to give a shout out to one Phoebe Morgan, who gave me a book to help me get over my last relationship and I genuinely don’t think I would have been able to move on without it! That one was It’s Called A Break Up Because It’s Broken. I have since paid it forward by buying those same books for other people.

What is your most beautiful book?

I’m not really someone who buys books because they are nice looking – my favourite thing is actually a book that looks like it’s been read, and so the spine is worn out and the pages are thinning – because that book has been loved. I used to read fairy tales over and over again, and my copy of The Faraway Tree literally cannot be read anymore because the pages will fall out. Now that I work in publishing though, I have a new found love for finishes, particularly a nice foil on a hardback spine which I think looks absolutely beautiful. For Christmas, my mum got be a copy of Christmas Shopaholic and it has candy stiped sprayed edges – stunning! I also have a copy of Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed which is a beautiful neon green hard cover gift book and it’s filled with quotes for literally every single life situation.

What is the oldest book on your shelf?

Some of the books on my shelf are actually from a school library, or were my sister’s before they became mine – so the shelves are about as mixed as the people who read them! I picked up The Enchanted Horse a few weekends ago, to re-read as it was one of my favourite books when I was a child. This time, I turned to the copyright page to see who published and it turns out it’s a HarperCollins book, published in 1992. What a wonderful thing, to have had this book on my shelf for so many years and to now be a part of the publishing house that brought it to me.

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 think actually what surprises me when I look at my shelves is that each book takes me back to a particular phase or time in my life, and what I was experiencing in my day to day life very much ties itself to what I was reading. For example, I have all my Enid Blyton fairy tale and boarding school books which take up a lot of room, and those then change into Goosebumps, into Point Horror and into more classic Austen/ Of Mice & Men territory – so it’s like looking back at my development in books almost. Those are the books that now live in my study, which I only revisit if I’m feeling nostalgic.

My bookshelves in my room are much more about where I am now – every Cecilia book (in hardback, and prior to working at HC, a true fan girl!) along with the Shopaholic series line the bottom shelves but as we move up there’s no real order, just books I thoroughly love and enjoy. A lot more non-fiction, particularly with a focus on relationships and self-improvement – along with grief and growth.

Which authors or genres do you look forward to reading more of in the future?

There are some authors who I will always love – so the minute Cecelia Ahern or Sophie Kinsella have new books out, you can guarantee I will do whatever I can to get hold of it! I’m also a huge Beth O’Leary fan, I thought The Switch was brilliant and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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

This is a really hard question – because I’m finally catching up on my TBR pile which means I’m reading books now which I’ve had on my shelf forever but never got around to. I really loved Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho, which came out earlier this year. It’s one of those books that I genuinely enjoyed reading – so when it was over I felt a bit sad because I missed the characters. Becoming was also absolutely sensational – learning about Michele Obama’s life and how she came to be who she is was so inspiring and I find myself now thinking, what would Michelle do… I also finally read my first Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book – Americanah – and I don’t think I have enough words in my vocabulary to describe how perfect it was. Reading those pages really felt like I was experiencing every single part of those character journeys and I think that’s the making of an absolutely amazing book – where the characters and the voice never really leave you.

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

Oh we have some really exciting things coming up, and I can’t do this kind of thing without some promotion – so a biggie on the Avon list for later this year is definitely The Christmas Killer, by Alex Pine. For anyone who is more Die Hard than Love Actually, this one’s for you! As we get into 2021, we have a new standalone from Helen Fields, her first book since the series and it’s going to be a must read for all her fans. On a personal note, I’m really excited for Uncoupling by Lorraine Brown which publishes in 2021 – we got this one in on submission and really loved it so can’t wait to see how it’s published.

Which books should everybody read?

This is such a hard question – and I really want to stress that books are subjective and you might not love a classic or a book everyone raves about, but there is something for everyone so just find what you like and don’t be ashamed of it. Commercial fiction gets such a bad rep sometimes and I think that’s so unfair – whatever you chose to pick up and read is right for you and I think there’s a lot to be said about shaming people for their choices, or calling them guilty pleasures which I hate! That said, some books that really stand the test of time for me are… The Life of Pi, Girl, Woman, Other, The Kite Runner, Tiny, Beautiful Things, The Alchemist and Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton, the ultimate love letter to female friendship.

Where can readers find you online?

I’m everywhere! You can tweet me on @sabah_k which is the quickest way to get hold of me, and unless I’m on holidays I’ll always come back to you! I try to keep my other social media more personal so all my book-related musings are on my twitter feed.


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