Helene Butler is Head of Rights at Johnson & Alcock and has over a decade's worth of experience. Here, she talks about her route into rights, how an applicant can make their CV and covering letter standout, and that essential interview prep for a rights role.
What was your route into your role as Head of Rights at Johnson & Alcock?
I’m French, so I started with a couple of internships in France. I wanted to work in editorial (like everyone else!) but I left it too late that year and all the internships were gone except one in foreign rights. It was a prestigious publishing house, so I thought it would still be useful and I applied. I’m so glad I did! I got the internship and fell in love with rights. I was lucky enough to meet people who became my mentors and helped me find an internship in London to improve my (very basic at the time) English.
I then applied for jobs and managed to get one as a scout assistant in London, which was a wonderful introduction to the industry and foreign markets. It gave me a great set of skills, showing me what editors are truly after internationally and what the best agents did to retain our attention when pitching/submitting a book. I still use these skills today.
My contract ended after two years and I decided to go back to foreign rights. Interestingly, a recruitment agency I had joined refused to put me forward for anything other than assistant roles, explaining to me I was too junior, but I was determined to also try to progress. I got in touch via email/LinkedIn with people I had briefly met before to ask if they had heard about vacancies, and someone advised me to get in touch with A.M. Heath, who indeed eventually hired me as Rights Manager – unregistering from the recruitment agency with my Manager signature at the bottom of the email was a personal high I must say, but mostly it shows that you should never stop believing in yourself if you know deep down that you can do a job.
Six years later I was on maternity leave when I had the opportunity to create the foreign rights department of J&A. I’ve been here for two years, the department is growing and the job remains a wonderful challenge I’m thrilled to have embraced.
What inspired or encouraged you to seek out a job in the publishing industry?
My love for books! I’ve always read compulsively, and this remains a passion today. I loved writing and was obsessed with creating and managing content: I made a newspaper covering my family’s life when I was eight, covered all my books and lent them to a few primary schoolmates via my own little library system (with cards!), started typing, printing and binding all my literature lessons in high school… so I guess the roots were there!
I started working as a French teacher in my hometown after uni but, while it was nice enough, it didn’t feel right. There aren’t that many other options with a literature degree but I did some research and it seemed publishing could technically be one, which felt pretty exciting. I had no clue how to get there though: I had no connections, I didn’t live in Paris and my parents, bosses, even former teachers weren’t very supportive: they all thought I had a pretty good teaching career ahead of me and that giving that up for a bizarre dream was crazy. But I stuck to my guns and started applying for internships in Paris. I didn’t have the money to live there but was lucky enough to be close enough to commute in under two hours, so my parents covered train costs and I did that on-and-off for a year-and-a-half as I gained experience across four different publishing houses.
As someone who interviews job applicants, what advice would you give a candidate who is looking to get into a rights position?
Have a good idea of what rights actually are and be confident this is something you want to do for at least a little while.
You don’t need any legal background to work in rights. We’ve all learnt on the job, and colleagues are a mine of information as you encounter new challenges. But very often we get candidates who are just keen to get a foot in the door and will take anything as long as it gives them a first job. I identify 100%, I’ve been there! Except, knowing that doesn’t really fill the recruiter with confidence that the candidate will be happy in the role and won’t leave after six months for a position in “holy grail” editorial. Someone who answers “why do you want to work in rights?” by “because I love books and I have a passion for words,” will make me feel unsure about the fit and lead me to probe a bit more.
To work in rights, you need to be ok with letting go of the idea that you will work on the text or shape the book. The trade-off is that it’s wonderfully versatile. Your literary skills are still needed to identify the potential of the book in different markets and find your own words to pitch it. You must also use strategy to launch your submission, releasing information at set times to specific people to create a buzz. If you have a logical mind, you’ll certainly enjoy offers and contracts negotiation, adding a bit of legal knowledge here and there. Foreign languages aren’t needed, but it’s pretty fun to converse with editors in their native languages and read a translated edition based on a deal you made. As you get more senior you also get to travel, attending major bookfairs (London, Frankfurt and Bologna for children’s) but also potentially visiting editors in their offices across the world, attending fairs further afield and taking part in international fellowships.
It also helps if expectations are realistic. As a rights assistant, you will typically have to handle a lot of admin (fair scheduling, rights guide drafting, database management, invoicing and payment chasing, follow-up of foreign editions). But you will also follow the life of the department – witness the excitement of auctions, the frustration of endless contract negotiations, the frenzy of bookfair preparation – and gather very meaningful experience throughout, which should allow you to progress to a rights executive role at some point, should you wish to.
It can feel hard for applicants to make their CVs and covering letters stand out. What usually catches your eye or endears you to an applicant?
A clearly structured CV and a letter that feels personal are key. Nothing too long, two sides of A4 for a CV and one side for the letter should really be enough. And, erm, without typos!
I usually look at the CV only briefly. Of course it’s always great to see high grades and prestigious schools, but it’s not what will win me over. I like seeing a sense of direction within the professional section of the CV: it doesn’t matter if there was a stint in editorial, one in publicity and one in a bookshop. This would actually still work for me if the candidate explains they wanted to have an overview of the book chain. That’s direction. I also love personality and drive, so anything that shows me the candidate has worked hard to create something sticks with stuff for a while, and anything that shows initiative and passion is a plus. It doesn’t matter if it falls in the hobbies section. If it tells me a story about the person, and I can see how this can be applied to work life, it will catch my eye.
The letter is more important to me because it normally feels a lot more personal and should be tailored to the company you’re applying with. In the letter, I want to see some structure: it shows the person knows how to use the language and logically go from point A to B. The tone is important too: some confidence is nice but sometimes over-confident letters can feel strangely entitled, as if the candidate had forgotten they were actually the ones applying for the job.
Last but not least, a letter that doesn’t have anything specific about the company or/and its authors is an immediate “No” for me. It does seem obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of letters that don’t even include the name of the company. “Your company is one of the leaders in the publishing world and would be an inspiring place to work in” might seem good but it screams, “I’m sending the same letter to 20 people today”. We know that’s what you’re doing, we’ve all done it too! But we need to see you’ve spent a little bit of time researching the company and have actively decided you’d like to work for them. It can be as short as a couple of sentences, but it really pays off. So please talk about the company’s values or its history – and do mention a couple of authors (maybe not THE absolute bestseller one but at least another less obvious one?). You’ll immediately get a huge amount of brownie points.
Is there specific prep that you would recommend for anyone currently interviewing – or hoping to interview – for a rights job?
Everyone is different, but I would spend one to two hours researching before an interview if I really wanted the job.
First, learn about the company you’re interviewing with. It’s the same as for the letter: we know you’re of course interviewing for other positions, but we want to hear why this one in particular appeals to you. So, for any publishing interview, first I’d advise to have a look at their website, their list of authors, their Twitter account even. What are their big authors? What was their latest success (prize nomination, award, bestseller list)? Do you have time to read one of these hot books, or can you at least familiarise yourself with the story? If you do, make sure you bring it up casually during the interview (it’s OK to simply say something like, “I was looking at your list more closely and I’ve seen how successful this book has been for you. I haven’t read it yet but the story of xxx seems so original”). It shows you’re engaged. Are their books across all genres (fiction, non-fiction, children’s)? Is there anything else they’ve done recently? Are they part of an initiative or anything that has made them stand out in the past few months?
For foreign rights, check out if they have a foreign rights page on their website. Have a look at their latest rights guide if it’s in there. Is there a book that’s selling everywhere? Which one? Try to have a vague idea of who works in the department and what is the role of the person interviewing you.
An important distinction is whether you’re applying within the foreign rights department of a literary agency or a publishing house. This could be the subject of an article in itself, but the main difference is that the publishers are one step removed from the author: they’re only able to sell rights to the novel if they have world rights in it. It means the literary agent that sold the rights to them has accepted to sell translation rights to them as well. So, if you’re in a literary agency, it’s a pretty safe bet to assume the rights department is representing most of the books you’re seeing on their website (except the few for which they’ll have licensed world rights but you don’t need to identify these). If you’re in a publishing house on the other hand, a lot of the books you’ll see on the main page will certainly be only for the UK market and their foreign rights team will only be able to represent a small portion of these, which you’ll find on their rights guide.
It’s OK if it’s still a bit unclear during the interview, but it’s good to be aware that they might not have the rights in all the books before shouting you can’t wait to work on their Nobel prize winner too loudly. Rights teams within publishing houses also typically send offers to the agent, who then sends it to the author. So again, good to be aware that “close contact with the author” isn’t something you can put too much emphasis on if applying for a job within a publishing house.
The smaller the company, the less “corporate” the interview tends to be but, just in case, be prepared for a couple of tricky questions. Standard curved balls can include: “Can you tell me about a time you resolved a crisis under pressure?” or “What would you say is your greatest flaw?” (everyone says “perfectionist” so another one would be useful!).
Remember also to try and demonstrate skills that fit the position you’re applying for: assistants should be organised, able to work under pressure, with attention to detail. Executive and above should be able to work under even more pressure (eeek), actively sell/pitch titles, and demonstrate they’re able to manage people under them if applicable. Being a great team member is important too, so do think of experiences that would illustrate that skill.
If you can practice just general interview conversation with a friend or family member, it can help boost your confidence which of course plays a part on the day, although it’s pretty normal to feel nervous and a good interviewer will be empathetic.
You won’t be able to mention everything and that’s OK – you don’t want to end up bombarding them with pre-prepared examples but go with the flow and be ready to offer an anecdote that might help illustrate a point you feel is important. Successful interviews don’t feel like interrogations, they’re conversations.
Finally, have one or two questions ready. It’s OK if you don’t have one but often the interviewer will end by asking, “Is there anything you’d like to ask?” and it’s a nice touch to have additional info to enquire about. It shows you’re keen and switched on. Your preparatory research should have helped you identify areas you’re curious to know more about, or you might want to ask further questions about the way the team works together. It’s also a good opportunity to clarify what your responsibilities will entail exactly and who you would be reporting to if your interviewer hasn’t covered this yet. Asking about salary and flexible working are technically OK: be aware this might be seen as pushy by some interviewers although things are changing and more and more people are campaigning for transparency on that front. To be on the safe side, have at least another question about the job to ask first if you must go down that road.
A word on clothes, as these little things can seem daunting and impossible to work out from the outside. Publishing tends to be informal: people do wear jeans, dresses, jumpers etc. However, an interview is always a more formal occasion and it is important to show you appreciate that. By all means, wear something that feels like you: you’ll be more confident if you don’t feel dressed up. Be aware that quirky clothing might make more traditional interviewer uncomfortable, but it’s your call. A suit might look a bit corporate, but if your demeanour isn’t then it won’t be an issue at all (ditch the tie though!). A safe bet would be a nice skirt or pair of trousers with a blouse/shirt.
It’s good to send a little note the day after the interview, thanking the person for their time, confirming your interest and saying you’re available if they need any additional details. If you’re invited for a second interview and, for example, don’t have access to the rights guide, it’s a good opportunity to ask if it would be at all possible to have a look to familiarise yourself more with the list. Or if you can read one of their current books. It shows you’re keen and proactive. You have to read it and be ready to talk about it at the interview, though! But it should again help you find at least one question you’ll want to ask.
Ultimately, publishing is a friendly industry based on relationships. People want to share a space with colleagues who are on the same wavelength and, especially in rights, work with teammates who will successfully build bridges with others internationally. Being shy is ok, but don’t be scared to show your personality. It’s the best way to make sure they see the real you and that you’re a right fit for each other. And don’t forget to ask yourself if you like the company too! Being miserable in the wrong company isn’t worth it. It’s hard to turn down a job offer even if it doesn’t feel right. I’m lucky enough it hasn’t happened to me (yet). But I’ve been turned down several times from jobs I thought I wanted so much… and every time a much better one has come along. Don’t lose faith.