News: In Conversation with Marianne Tatepo

Marianne Tatepo is the founder of the Black Agents & Editors’ Group (BAE) and a Commissioning Editor for Ebury Press & Pop Press (Penguin Random House UK), publishing non-fiction books, with a focus on lifestyle and illustrated.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Marianne. I’ll get right into it. How did you come into publishing?

It was vaguely on my mind for some time. I didn’t quite know the precise roles and departments, but I knew that people were involved in making books. I studied comparative literature and film at Kings College London. I remember seeing a publishing internship at Pearsons around the time. It was specifically for Black, Asian and other minority ethnic applicants. I thought about going for it but someone in my personal life asked why I got to ‘have it easier’ than they did as a white person. That made me feel ashamed and put me off applying. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone for it. I went on to work in a field unrelated to publishing and then, seven years ago, I chose to study an MA in publishing. It gave me access to internships and industry contacts. That’s how it started for me.

Would you recommend an MA for those who want to work in publishing?

I would recommend trying all the avenues and opportunities that present themselves to you. Maybe if I hadn’t been so impressionable at the time, put my foot down and went for the internship, I would have had a better segue into publishing after my degree. That didn’t happen. I didn’t have any inside knowledge of the industry either. A lot of barriers to publishing have to do with jargon and terminology. But things have changed now. You can get that knowledge from a variety of places like work experience and internships. You are better able to gather that information by reading things online, getting your hands on the right resources and educating yourself. For me, it was valuable to do the MA but  I’m not saying you need a masters to get into publishing. At that point in time, I wanted to go into further education. Another consideration for me was that I couldn’t afford to take on unpaid work. Doing an MA meant that I could invest in my education rather than doing free labour.

That is so interesting! I have been thinking about doing a post-graduate course recently so hearing you talk about it is so enlightening.

Were you thinking about studying a masters in publishing?

No, not publishing. It would either be in creative writing or something focused on African or Black British literature. I have been looking and thinking about whether I need to do it and why I would. I love academia and I love studying. I graduated in 2018, continued my work in education and journalism, but the following year I realised that I needed a change. I had been in both fields for so long and I wanted to try something new. So in the summer of 2019, I left both industries and started applying for a range of things. I had an interview at Usborne towards the end of the year and that made me consider children’s publishing seriously. I then saw an opportunity at Faber through Creative Access. I applied for the role, was sure I wouldn’t get it, but I did!

That’s great! Congratulations! Celebrate that because it is not a given and it can take a while to get a role in publishing.

I’m learning that as well! Even the fact that I’ve been able to stay so long after my three month internship isn’t a given. I sometimes struggle to see how well I am doing but celebrating those achievements is so key!

So you are a Commissioning Editor, for those of us that do not know, explain what your role entails and what are some of your favourite things about your job.

There are a lot of different variations of this role. I work within non-fiction, specifically within lifestyle non-fiction. My role is a bringing together of minds, a communion of ideas. I sketch out a topic, find a solution or something practical. I notice missing books and missing information. I have relationships with agents and often they will send me proposals that help with the areas I identified, answering some of those essential questions. I am also in the position to spot someone really talented who could communicate information to an audience and work with them on putting together an outline and then a proposal. Non-fiction in that sense is rather dynamic. It is responsive to what’s happening in the world. It engages with questions we are asking ourselves on topics that are controversial or misunderstood. I have a front seat in figuring out the best way to communicate information, solutions or raise uncomfortable questions and then work on finding audiences who will want to read that book. My role is all about working with our brilliant authors, writers, designers, photographers, illustrators and our comms and sales teams to bring these books to life and market!

There are a lot of different areas that we bring together in lifestyle. We cover things like food and drinks, cookery, well-being, interior design, nature and the environment. I have to think about what would make a reader pick up a book when they see it in a bookshop. How does the package look? My favourite thing about my job is trying to get inside people’s heads, trying to understand and anticipate their needs and worries. What is going on in their lives and at what stage would they need a book like this? It is a very dynamic process. There are so many different types of audiences and readers that you can tap into. I think it has been even more important working on lifestyle titles in lockdown. Everyone is thinking about how they live, how their home looks, how to maintain it, what they want to change about it and starting a new hobby. I think about the questions we are all asking ourselves and I get to answer them through the publishing I’m involved in. That is really exciting!

It sounds really exciting! How do you think the last year will impact the new books you work on?

Lifestyle is on the tip of everyone’s tongues now more than ever before. I think there will be more focus on the home. There is more of a reliance on being indoors and curating our internal space. It will be interesting to see whether more people move away as we continue to work from home. What information will they need when they do move? 

It will also be interesting to see how other departments change. I’m curious about what happens to publicity and marketing. I mentioned going into a shop and picking up a book earlier. Bookshops may become less accessible to people. I am hoping this is not the case in years to come, but it is our reality now. So how else can we get books into the hands of readers? We are constantly considering how we convey information online, digitally and remotely. There may be less of a reliance on in-person events in the future. What happens to outdoor advertising on the rail or tubes if the people aren’t there as much? How do you reach those readers and let them know that the book exists?

I agree. The way we make noise about a book is changing so much and will no doubt continue to do so. What advice would you give to new editorial applicants in this new climate?

It’s likely that you have learnt from the same canon again and again in your academic studies. I would say cultivate your interests by looking beyond the canon. For example, if you enjoy reading fan fiction online, cultivate that interest and become very good at it. Try to understand how those communities work. Don’t feel that you can only care about ‘serious, highbrow’ texts. There are all types of readers and all types of books. We need more people that can talk about communities that have been underserved by the industry. Some of the bestselling books in the last couple of decades have come from fan fiction and there is not as much expertise in that space. A lot of young adult books also do extremely well. Whatever kind of books you like, do a deep dive and realise there is value in that. Understanding the landscape of non-fiction is worthwhile because it is a fast growing area within publishing. Taking an interest in advertising and marketing, understanding consumer behaviour and what makes people interested in reading is so valuable. I don’t think everyone needs to do a masters in publishing or take the traditional route. Having a curiosity around books in general, whether it’s the classics, modern literature or non-fiction, will serve you a lot.

Thank you for that. Of course, I have to ask you about the Black Agents and Editors’ Group (BAE)! It had such an effect on me. Seeing people who look like me, come from my background and from my community, doing what they’re doing, in one space is so powerful! What made you start it?

At the beginning of 2020, Black Girls Book Club sent out a tweet asking about Black people in publishing. They curate a lot of events and book clubs for Black women and they were asking for a roll call of editors. Myself and others were tagged. I was curious, it felt like we were starting a supergroup or something. Then the year went on as it did. The end of May was horrendous, critical and terrible. I got sick as well which wasn’t great. Working from home felt so isolating. After George Floyd was murdered, our industry was engaging and responding but it felt like there was a Black-shaped hole within the networks and spaces that we had. People have created such amazing spaces for different groups over the years. There has been great solidarity in numbers but it isn’t always helpful to lump all non-white people together. Of course, we can come together to help and support each other, but the reality is that we have different experiences in the world. We are read differently. We are treated differently. There are nuances and differences that were not being recognised. The pandemic is a collective traumatic experience that we are all enduring. But within that, there are subcategories of individual circumstances as well as collective ones. There was something happening to the Black community that was not happening to other communities. With the disproportionate rate at which we were impacted by the pandemic and then the murder of George Floyd, I felt that I needed to have communion with people that looked like me.

I wanted to create a space, initially digitally for obvious reasons, where people could have conversations about their experiences and realities of being a Black individual in publishing and offering support to one another. I am confident enough to approach someone I don’t know in publishing and say, ‘Hi, can we chat?’. Twitter and other social media platforms are really helpful with this. But I also realise that not everyone feels comfortable doing that. When I first began on my journey into publishing, I wrote a piece for The Bookseller. Ailah Ahmed at Little, Brown, reached out to me and offered to help me prep for interviews. To this day, I am so grateful for her help. I want more people to have access to that help too. A report that I referenced in my piece announcing the launch of BAE did a break down of representation across different departments within publishing. It showed that things were going backwards in terms of the representation of Black people in this industry. 

I wanted to do more to show young Black people who want to be in this industry how much they could do. A lot of us have taken part in events and panels and we have spoken to a range of audiences. That is so important. But there is something extra special about seeing a group of thirty to forty people who look like you, have gone through the same process and who you can turn to for mentoring and advice. It makes you feel like you can get there too, that you belong, that you are accepted. It is comforting and empowering to know that there are others in the same position as you. People are very excited about BAE and we’re having conversations about how to build more awareness. The focus now is connecting with communities, schools, youth centres, libraries etc. We want to go to the people!

I am constantly talking about being what you can see. I feel cheated that I didn’t know about all the roles in publishing sooner! I’m glad I’m here now, but I would have benefited from having more information available to me while I was in school. I’m so excited to see what is ahead for BAE!