Katie Sassienie, Assistant Editor at Hachette Children's Group, talks about her move from adult books into kids, touching on transferable skills, being open to stepping back to step forward, and the interview advice that helped her move into picture books editorial.
When searching for your first job in publishing with a specific area in mind, it can be difficult to know whether to apply far and wide or focus on the area you believe you’d like to end up in.
I first started looking into the industry while at university, and it wasn't long before I had my heart set on children’s publishing. Studying English and Drama, I obviously liked words (useful) and I loved bringing stories to life. Plus, I had babysat every child in North London as a teenager, so, coupled with my trusty English degree, my choices were naturally pointing towards children’s publishing.
I believed I had set myself up for the perfect way into a role in children’s. It didn’t quite work out like that, as you’ll see – but where you start off isn’t necessarily where you have to end up, and no one expects it to be. Here’s my journey in six (rather large but hopefully useful) steps.
1. Getting your foot – not your face – in the door
During university I did various work experience placements at children’s publishers, so by graduation I felt pretty prepared to begin my career. But then summer came, I moved back home, and – plot twist – no one hired me. I put my heart and soul into every application, only for the job to be snapped up by someone I can only assume was more experienced, smarter, nicer, funnier, a better singer and more popular than me.
I decided to broaden my search to other areas of publishing. I found that my best applications were the ones where I had a genuine interest in the role and the publisher’s list, and these were the ones that resulted in interviews; so, while I do advise applying widely, if you can’t portray genuine enthusiasm then it might not be worth your time. It really will come across in your cover letter. As long as a role excited me and could help me develop skills to move into children’s eventually, I decided it was worth pursuing.
Just as I was about to give up hope and accept a job in – dramatic pause – digital advertising, I secured a short-term Editorial internship at Headline, a division of Hachette. My internship started with a bang… into a glass door on day five. Major embarrassment aside, I instantly loved working there. I'd finally got my foot in the door, and then made a mark on it – the imprint of my face remained for months.
I really got a feel for how the department ran, and how that played into the whole publishing process. The experience confirmed that Editorial was where I wanted to be, and I started to think that perhaps children’s publishing wasn’t the be-all and end-all. (This had nothing to do with the fact I was still being rejected for roles in children’s publishing...)
Despite the glass-door incident, and then another incident shortly after involving a glass of Prosecco and the MD (I now stay away from all forms of glass), my three-month internship somehow turned into a full year. Then, as I was hitting the twelve-month mark, an editorial assistant job came up in my team. I had to go through all the usual processes with applying and interviewing, and I eventually managed to secure a permanent contract.
2. Work while working out what works for you
I found my way in the job quickly, having already got used to the company’s processes and built relationships with my colleagues. I still had children’s publishing in the back of my mind, but was very happy in the role and gave it my all. Creativity was key for me, and there were plenty of opportunities for this – lots of writing, brainstorming and creative planning.
A large part of the role involved reading submissions for editors. I really enjoyed this but didn’t fully trust my own judgement. My aspiration was to eventually acquire and work as an editor on my own titles; however, the more I sat in acquisitions meetings where colleagues would passionately pitch, the less I could imagine what my own list there would look like. I knew what I personally liked to read, but questioned if I would ever be able to do those stories justice. The more I thought about it, the more I questioned whether I was in the right place for the long run.
I decided to look into children’s publishing again and realised that my interests and strengths in my current role would be well-suited to working on picture books. My concern was that I would have to start over as an editorial assistant, moving backwards in order to move forward in children’s. But many assured me that in the grand scheme of a 50+ year career, a slight step backwards is nothing, and everyone progresses at their own pace.
I reached out to various people at Hachette Children’s Group, a couple of whom had interviewed me for jobs when I was an intern (even if an interview doesn’t land you the role, consider it networking!), and others my colleagues kindly put me in touch with. I set up some coffees and mentoring sessions, including one with the CEO of Hachette Children’s.
Each chat offered something new and reassured me that the experience I had in adult fiction was invaluable – knowledge of the industry, an understanding of key processes and being accustomed to Prosecco at 11am were all extremely transferrable. But because I would likely be up against people with that experience but already in children’s publishing, I needed to really go above and beyond to communicate my passion for and knowledge of the children’s market and secure a job.
4. Lurking in children’s bookshops without looking suspicious
On advice gleaned from these meetings, I started to do the below fairly frequently to make sure I knew what was going on in the world of kids’ publishing in preparation for when a role came up:
Keep an eye on the bestsellers lists
Follow relevant book blogs and bookstagrams and listen to publishing podcasts about the area you’re interested in (Down the Rabbit Hole is great for children’s books)
Read the Guardian’s monthly book roundup and look at the Waterstones Book of the Month. The children’s bestseller lists can be quite stagnant, so this is a good way to see what’s making waves on a smaller scale
Go into bookshops and spend more time than probably socially acceptable looking at what’s on display in the kids’ section – in terms of authors as well as themes
Keep up to date with children’s trends – whether that’s spotting the alarming amount of llama stationery in Paperchase or following the increasing popularity of books about poo
When moving jobs within the same area of publishing, even if the aim is to change departments, you likely have a strong knowledge of the market already just from your day-to-day that will be beneficial. I was completely immersed in the adult fiction publishing world, and there was no crossover in my daily work, so I had to make time to keep abreast with the kids’ market.
5. Show and tell
To make things harder for myself, the area that I was keen to pursue was picture books. Whereas young fiction and YA might have followed more similar processes to adult’s fiction, the process of creating full-colour illustrated books was a mystery to me. So when I secured an interview for an assistant editor job in the picture book team at Hachette Children’s, I knew I had to stand out and prove my enthusiasm and ideas were enough to warrant training me up.
Interview advice I received during my mentoring sessions definitely played a part in securing me the job:
Search for the company (and interviewers if you have names) on The Bookseller to see what big news they’ve had recently (Twitter is a good alternative if you hit the Bookseller paywall) to discuss at the interview
Show how your current experience can benefit the new role – for example, I came prepared with suggestions of adult fiction authors who could be worth approaching to write for children too
Bring along books you’ve worked on if relevant – even if just as a prop to direct the conversation
Bring examples of books in the market that have caught your eye to whip out when they ask (I brought along a print-out with around 10 covers)
If they give you a task, think about how you can go beyond what they’ve asked for – be extra keen
6. Move it, move it… if you want to
So this time last year, I began my career in children’s publishing as an assistant editor, working in the picture book team at Hachette Children’s Group. The fact I was able to step up from editorial assistant is further proof that the skills I gained in adult fiction were absolutely transferrable – I didn’t need to ‘start again’ as such.
I’m happy to say that I can see myself on this path for the foreseeable, but I’m only at the start of a lifetime of work so we’ll see where my career takes me. I know lots of people in the industry who have made big jumps in their careers much later on – from children’s to adult, TV to publishing, Publicity to Editorial – and often teams are seeking out someone with a different working background to bring fresh ideas to the team.
It’s surprising that I gave up working on 400+ page novels to work on picture books considering how long I’ve rambled on here. But I hope my journey will be useful for anyone on a path they might not want to continue on forever (you can make the move!), or for anyone starting out to know not to be afraid to try something you’d never previously considered (early career decisions don’t have to seal your fate!). Feel free to reach out if I can help in any way – my DMs are always open.
Katie Sassienie on Twitter.
Hachette Children's Group on Twitter.
Hachette Children's Group website.