I want to be… a translation agent

Emma Jamison is a translation agent at David Higham Associates, handling translation rights sales into Brazil, Catalan, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Spanish in Latin America, as well as looking after global translation rights sales for the classics list. Previously Emma worked at Faber & Faber and AP Watt. Here, Emma talks about how she found publishing, what her day-to-day looks like and what the least satisfying part of her job is!

You’ve been in the industry for a few years now, but what about before then – did you have any preconceptions about what it would be like? And is it what you were expecting/hoping for?

I did my degree in French and Spanish Literature, so like most languages graduates I was trying to figure out what to do with that. I loved books, and I probably had an idealised view of an editor sitting down with a manuscript and a cup of coffee, getting their red pen out! Clearly, I knew very little about the industry itself, so went along to a Penguin Careers Open Day, where they gave an overview of the various roles in a publishing house, which helped open me up to different options.

Having copy-edited my university newspaper, my initial work experience placements were in editorial so I didn’t know what to expect when I started my first role in Rights and Permissions – other than feeling relief that I passed the maths test at interview (NB for potential applicants, I’ve not heard of anywhere else requiring this!).

I remember learning quickly about different genres and writers that had fallen outside of my radar previously, and also that I wasn’t necessarily going to be using my languages in a big way on a daily basis. I realised that publishing was less structured than what I was witnessing from friends in other industries, and the path for career progression was more opaque. The flipside of that was that there was, and continues to be, room for new discoveries and challenges whatever stage you’re at and wherever you are. There is so much more to the industry than what you can imagine from the outside, and the potential for finding new ways of reaching readers and licensing intellectual property continues to interest and challenge me.

Can you walk us through a typical working day?

That’s a tough one. Probably the only typical part of my days is the diversity of tasks and projects I’ll be working on. At DHA, our translation team is divided into adults and children’s, but within those divisions we’re working across all genres. So, I could go from drafting a submission letter for a book about sustainable investments to pitching our highlight crime thrillers to discussing terms with audio streaming platforms to presenting a submission strategy to authors to negotiating a deal for a literary estate to working with the team on an international strategy for the next book from a big bestselling commercial fiction author to approving contracts. The only constant is the variance – and starting the day with a clear to-do list.

I feel like that is one thing that’s also true for so many roles within publishing! What do you feel is the most satisfying part of your job?

Having an editor fall in love with a book you’ve pitched them is pretty high up there. Particularly if it’s been a real passion pitch. Also concluding a tricky negotiation, being part of a team that’s creating international success for our authors, investigating new sales formats and opportunities, and getting beneath the surface of the company’s marketing spiels to the nitty gritty.

And what is the least satisfying part of your job?

Tackling the inbox! Sometimes the sheer volume of the workload means that keeping organised and keeping your priorities in order takes real determination. I am sure that everyone in rights (and publishing at large?) will at some point have found themselves typing out, “I’m sorry for the delay in coming back to you…”.

Oh my gosh, I empathise completely! So what are some of the skills that a translation agent will develop?

Negotiation. An understanding of international copyright law. Basic contract law. How to pitch, and how to vary this based on each individual editor, publisher, market. Strategy development. Organisational skills. Critical thinking. Analytical skills. Adaptability. An understanding of different international markets. Multitasking and an ability to balance the macro and micro aspects of the job. Diplomacy and tact. IT skills – there are various different data entry platforms used in the industry, alongside the Office suite and design programmes that rights teams rely on. Synthesizing large amounts of data and making this information easily understandable to authors and those working in different areas of expertise.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be in your line of work?

Every role probably asks for candidates to be well organised and able to juggle a busy workload across a number of different projects, but in rights this is truly essential, and you’ve got to enjoy it – or at least aspects of it. Demonstrating that you have ways of structuring your time and prioritising your workload (in whatever previous work, study, life admin) will be key at interviews.

I would also say: read widely! Unless you’re at a very small, focussed agency, most rights teams will have to read, pitch and sell across a very broad range of genres, and having an awareness of books in genres outside your natural reading habits will help you to hit the ground running.

Stay curious. Reading tastes, financial and political circumstances and ways of consuming books vary internationally and remaining curious will help you to not only understand other markets and make you better at reacting to those circumstances, but also see questions and new developments as exciting challenges rather than problems.

Be true to yourself. There is no cookie cutter way to excel at this job, and you don’t have to and shouldn’t be a carbon copy of your boss or anyone else in the team. It’s a relationships-based, selling role, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert who loves networking. Our differences and different approaches to the role are what make us stronger as a team and an industry, so embrace these. We’ll all have areas of the job that might not be our greatest strengths – whether that’s recalling UK editor names and lists of rights sales for any given title on the spot to a deep dive analysis of royalty reports – but if we’re aware of those weaknesses, that’s when we can put in place structures to help us overcome them and allow us more time to play to our strengths.


Emma Jamison on Twitter.

David Higham Books on Twitter.

David Higham website.

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