The latest publishing professional to brave Trial By Interview is Rachael Beale – Rachael is “Website Managing Editor” for the London Review of Books. What is that, I hear you ask? Well, read on and find out…
Rachael Beale has spent much of her career to date experimenting with combinations of words and technology, either writing for technical companies, or doing technical things for literary ones. Since joining the London Review of Books in 2007, Rachael has been involved in a number of innovative digital/literary projects, including ‘Kafka’s Wound’, the LRB’s contribution to the BBC/Arts Council-funded digital platform The Space. A dedicated follower of fiction, Rachael was a judge for the 2013 Costa First Novel Award, and has contributed to Fiction Uncovered, Booktrust and Belletrista . She read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge before training as an editor.
Firstly, what does a “Website Managing Editor” actually *do*?
Primarily, planning and nagging. On the ‘planning’ side, I look at what’s coming up in terms of new titles we’re excited about, what’s going on in the wider cultural landscape, promotions in the retail space, and the Bookshop event programme (which is amazing, incidentally, and it’s well worth signing up to the email newsletter to receive advance notice). I also actively develop the Bookshop’s network of publisher and agent contacts, in an effort to identify, as far in advance as possible, great books that we think our audience would love, and that we could build into strong sellers.
Today, for example, I’ve been re-reading publishers’ autumn catalogues (and getting very excited about the enormous number of fantastic books due to be published in September). I began planning promotion for the autumn events schedule with our events manager, looking to see if we could build any mini-campaigns around combinations of books and events. And I caught up with an editor or two in my lunchbreak and at an evening event.
I’ll then work with our Bookshop manager to ensure that we have a regular flow of content onto the site to support and promote all of those activities. ‘Content’ can mean anything from a simple update of our bestseller list, up to author videos and podcasts. We aim for at least one new piece of content on the site daily.
The ‘nagging’ part is making sure that our plans are executed: identifying and commissioning writers (or writing copy myself), ensuring they deliver, editing copy, and managing publication on the site. In parallel, I work with our marketing team to ensure that they have what they need to support all of the above with online advertising, point-of-sale displays and promotions, banners, and so on.
Finally, I manage the development of any new and improved website functionality for the Bookshop; I also contribute to digital strategy development, including social media and email marketing, and carry out miscellaneous other production duties.
Would you describe yourself as a technical person who happens to understand the literary world, or a literary person who happens to understand technology?
I’d have to plump for the latter. In between my background and work experience, my skills in both areas are pretty much equivalent nowadays – but my heart lies with the words! I’d much rather pick up a book in the evenings than set up a new blog or splice together a video, just for the fun of it. Although I do still do quite a bit of reading-for-fun about technology…
I want to be you when I’m grown-up – what tips can you give someone who wants to make a career merging tech and publishing?
Look for opportunities, always (true of any kind of career shift). If you’re in publishing already and want to get more technical: codecademy.org has some fantastic free online courses for you to dip a toe into the programming waters and work out if it’s for you. Get your hands dirty – set up a blog and tinker with it constantly, even if you never actually write anything on it. Keep an eye on the Bookseller’s FutureBook site, and on their events programme; also the Literary Platform, Digital Book World for the US perspective, and Twitter – @Samatlounge has some really excellent lists of people writing, thinking and working at the intersection of books and technology, whose views are worth following (as are hers, clearly!).
If you’re coming from the technical side and wanting to break into publishing: publishing will be very happy to see you. Go to the conferences (again), and in particular look out for events like CultureHack and the recent Futurebook Hack; network like crazy – but be prepared to swallow a pay cut, unless you’re contracting on a project-by-project basis. Publishing and tech have slightly different salary scales.
Can you give an example of when something really simple to do/fix/update made a huge change?
When we launched the new London Review Bookshop website in November 2013, we overhauled the events system, integrating with Eventbrite. We decided to make our monthly late shopping evenings free but bookable events, so that we could have them appear on the calendar, rather than just mentioning them casually on a specific page on the website. We also decided to send out an email once a month advertising only the shopping evenings, and to put a little more effort into the presentation – usually theming them around a book or a currently-active retail promotion, and having food to match.
The results have been amazing. Bookings have been very strong – previously, we didn’t ask people to even let us know they were coming – and actual turnout likewise, but the really incredible thing has been the sales. Comparing equivalent evenings before and after the launch of the website and the introduction of this new approach, the sales uplift has frequently been several hundred percent. Just a little extra effort to make late shopping feel more welcoming and more ‘event-like’ has paid huge dividends, and the atmosphere on those evenings is wonderful: customers seem to really enjoy the experience. We’re experimenting over the summer with pushing the format a little further, with the Cake Shop selling ’small plates’ alongside late opening (the next of these ‘Happy Hour’ events is on 29 July 2014).
For your personal reading, do you prefer dedicated e-reader (kindle/kobo/etc), app-on-a-tablet, or printed book?
It always feels like a personal failing to admit it, given my job and digital experience, but I’m still overwhelmingly fond of real paper. I do read ‘actual’ books on my phone occasionally, but they tend to be heavily plot-driven YA or science fiction, or non-fiction (especially the popular kind). I’ve so far resisted buying a dedicated device, or even a tablet, as I am already utterly hopeless at travelling light without adding an extra gadget to my load. I also find that my mode of reading onscreen is heavily adapted to research: I skim and spot, rather than rolling around indulgently in a good sentence or five. Plus I read an awful lot of proof copies, and there aren’t as many publishers as one might like that currently offer ebook proofs (NetGalley’s efforts notwithstanding).
What book characters would you invite to your fantasy literary dinner party?
Frederica Potter from A.S. Byatt’s quartet of novels beginning with The Virgin in the Garden, and Ally Moberley from Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, because I think they’d have loads to talk about. Lemony Snicket (come on, he’s a book character really) and the Queen (as imagined by Alan Bennett in The Uncommon Reader) could trade book recommendations to their heart’s content. Ann Burden from Z for Zachariah, Anna Wetherell from The Luminaries, Billy Lynn from the eponymous Long Halftime Walk, and Arthur Dent from the Hitchhiker’s Guide all deserve a bit of a break and a nice dinner. Arthur would have to make the tea, though, since he’s so fussy about it.
Thank you so much, Rachael, for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to tell us more about what you do.
Rachael can be found on Twitter as @FlossieTeacake, the London Review of Books is @LRB, and the Bookshop is @LRBBookshop
In London on the 29th of July? Why not pop along to the July Happy Hour. Not subscribed to the LRB yet (and why not?) this could be the perfect chance as they are running a subscription co-promotion with The Paris Review. Follow #readeverywhere on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram to see all the unusual places the two publications are read in! There is also a Facebook page: