Let me introduce myself. I’m Jasmine Richards and I have been a senior commissioning editor at Oxford University Press Children’s Books for four years. I have worked in publishing for nine years or so and one questions that I often get asked is: ‘how do you become a commissioning editor?’ I’ll do my best to answer that in this post or at the very least tell you a little bit about my path into publishing and why I think my job is AWESOME!
How I became a commissioning editor
Everyone’s route into publishing is different but I think they all begin with a passion for books. I have been a lifelong reader of children’s books. Indeed, the fact that I was still reading children’s books when I was an adult was my first clue that I should work in children’s publishing!
I studied English Literature and Language at Oxford University and learnt lots about analysing books and talking about them. After I left university, I worked for a year going to state schools around the country where I talked to young people about higher education and its benefits. I realized how important books were in terms of raising aspirations and how they had raised my aspirations as a child without me even really noticing! After that epiphany, I just knew I had to work with books.
I started off on the Penguin Graduate Programme. It was an eighteen month programme where I got to work in lots of different parts of the business—marketing, publicity, sales, a stint in the Penguin US office as well as children and adult editorial. Because I got to work in so many different parts of the business I was absolutely sure that I wanted to work in children’s editorial at the end of the programme.
After my time at Penguin ended, I took up an editorial position at a company called Working Partners where I developed and edited books such as Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest. I then moved over to OUP Children’s Books where I would become the editor of authors like Gillian Cross and Julia Golding.
What I do all day
I love being a senior commissioning editor at OUP because there is no such thing as a typical day. I can often be found in meetings, be they marketing meetings, cover meetings, or acquisitions meetings. I might be busy writing book blurbs or additional information for sales sheets, or maybe a piece of passion for a website, a letter to booksellers, or indeed a blog post like this!
A big part of my job is finding new talent and so that means reading new submissions. I love the fact that every time you are reading a submission you could be about to find the ONE—it’s a bit like speed dating and rather exciting (especially as I have never actually been speed dating)!
Another part of my job that I adore is editing manuscripts from authors already on our list. I really enjoy working with authors and realizing their vision for a book.
Other elements of my job include negotiating with agents over contracts or talking to my colleagues about scheduling and progress of current projects. I’ll speak frequently to our rights team about possible angles to help pitch a book to foreign publishers and I’ll often be on the phone to an author talking about a new idea or how a book event went. I’ll attend book launches, writing conferences and book fairs.
If I’m honest, there’s really not enough hours in the day to do the job but it is always varied and stimulating and I get to work with books all day long (and get paid for it). Result!
Choosing books: how I fall in love
Now another question that I often get asked is: ‘what makes you acquire a book?’
And the answer is simple— I’ve got to fall in love.
In the first instance, it might be an idea that I’ve fallen in love with. An idea that makes you sit up and go WOW, that’s something a bit different.
A killer idea would make me dip straight into a script right there and then even if I have a million other things to do.
A good first line would keep me reading.
When I first started in this role, I had a wish list—dark fiction, thrillers, some classic adventure stories for 9+ readers. But the longer I do this job, the more I feel that genre is not my main focus. It is those books that refuse to let you off the hook that find their way into my heart.
That hook may be a driving plot that won’t let you put the book down. It might be characters that move you so deeply that you can’t stop reading because you need to know that they will be okay. It might be the way that a book makes you feel—happy, excited or scared and the fact that you don’t want that feeling to end.
These books don’t come along every day. Authors who can make you laugh and cry, gasp and cheer all in the same novel are rare. Which is why when you find them, it is a bit like striking storytelling gold.
Discovering Dave Cousins, author of 15 Days without a Head and new novel Waiting for Gonzo, was a golden moment for me. I came across his writing in an anthology called Undiscovered Voices and immediately knew that I wanted to read more of his writing. Very soon after that first reading we put in an offer for his debut novel 15 Days Without a Head.
Waiting for Gonzo, Dave’s second book, follows the character of Oz and his move to a small village up north called Slowleigh. Oz has big mouth and it soon gets him into big trouble with Isobel Skinner the school psycho.
Oz is not a character that you will forget easily. He’s flawed yes but charming and funny, and underneath it all has a good heart. The cast of characters that surround him are also unforgettable. There’s Meg, Oz’s older sister who has a problem of her own which is getting bigger by the day. Then there’s Oz’s friend Ryan and a pair of notorious hobbit feet.
Dave’s writing manages to be funny and emotional, surprising and satisfying. There’s a lovely accessibility to his writing but you know every sentence has been crafted and honed. Don’t wait too long to read Waiting for Gonzo—you’re in for a real treat. And it is a reminder to me why I became an editor and how lucky I am to do the job that I do.
Waiting for Gonzo publishes in March.