Brigid Mullane on how to be a publisher

Brigid Mullane on how to be a publisher

Brigid Mullane is a publisher at Ultimo Press, and in this interview she discusses her career and her path into publishing. She was previously Managing Editor at Hachette, Editor of Kill Your Darlings, and Communications Manager at Writers Victoria. She has also worked in a variety of roles at Melbourne Writers Festival, National Young Writers’ Festival, Emerging  Writers’ Festival, the Sun Bookshop and the Brunswick Street Bookstore.

Brigid Mullane on how to be a publisher


ASTRID: Hello, Brigid. Thank you so much for joining me today. You are a publisher at Ultimo Press, and today I would like to do something a little bit different on The Garret. I would like to ask you how you became a publisher and what a publisher does. My first question, and I admit my students asked me this all the time, how do you become a publisher?

BRIGID: There is no straightforward route, I think, to becoming a publisher. Mine came… it felt very circuitous at the time it was happening, but now when I look back it seems like I had more of a plan than I did. I began working in bookshops. I did an undergraduate degree in writing and editing, and always wanted to become either a writer or an editor. Once I worked out that editor was a possibility, I was more drawn to that than I was to the actual having to create things. So, I worked in bookstores, mostly independent bookstores, and I worked with you briefly as Communications Manager at Writers Victoria, and I worked in producer roles at writers festivals. I was really trying to get as close to books or to writers as I could, in whatever form I could. I tried to get entry level jobs into publishing, and I found that difficult. It wasn't until I was, I think, in my very late 20s or early 30s that I got my first in-house job in publishing, and that came about from some freelance editing that I'd been doing, and a maternity leave position recap becoming available.

ASTRID: Let's just stay on that for a minute. Why are in-house positions, entry level in-house positions, at publishers so difficult to get?

BRIIGID: I think people love to read, and I think people love books, and a lot of people are drawn to the industry for those reasons. It's just sheer volume of people versus space. Once we're in, we remember how hard it was to get here. We don't want to give up spots. I think people stay for a while. The progression can sometimes be quite slow, from editorial assistant to editor to potentially publisher, or there might not be that much movement in that straightforward trajectory. It's all this sideways movement, and then the ladder – in that sense of moving up – doesn't really exist anymore. There's not many people vacating, and there's lots of people who are interested in… that sounds like so many industries these days!

ASTRID: The role you had before you came to Ultimo Press that was as Managing Editor at Hachette. Is that correct?

BRIGID: That's right.

ASTRID: Can you explain the difference between an editor, particularly managing editor, and what a publisher does?

BRIGID: Yeah. Managing editor is an interesting position. It's a lot less hands on editorial work than you might even have as a senior editor. It's really a project management position. In a lot of ways, it's making sure that the schedules run to time, it's liaising with production staff and making sure the books all look good. It's all this outside functionality, it's less about the deep dive into the words, which is interesting.

Publisher, again, is an interesting position because it's almost like a curatorial position. When you're working in house, as an editor, you will be working probably on books that other people have selected, whether you are interested in them or not, working on facilitating the copy and the proofread and all those sorts of editorial stages As the publisher, you're deciding whether or not to commission and publish a book. So you are, I guess, drawing on your taste or your aesthetic or what you're interested in and hoping that other people are going to be interested in it too. Commissioning that author or accepting a manuscript and then becoming the champion of that book in house from the very start, with structural edits and overseeing the copy edit with the help of your in-house editorial staff, designing the cover, helping marketing and publicity with those plans. It's very broad, you're just the real champion of that of that book from go to whoa, and that author as well.

ASTRID: Just to pick up on terminology, is there much difference between a commissioning editor and a publisher? I mean, is that kind of just different publishing houses use different terminology?

BRIGID: Yeah, I think different publishing houses use different terminology. That's definitely the case. In Australia, I think it tends to be a reflection of experience, but not necessarily. When I was Commissioning Editor at Ultimo, I was working as a project editor on other publishers books as well as commissioning my own work and publishing my own authors on my list. That's not the case everywhere. So that to me was the difference between commissioning editor and publisher.

In the UK, I think they just call them all commissioning editors. You might have someone who's 25 years in, and their role is still commissioning editor. It varies from place to place. It's not a huge difference per se, except potentially, what I found is when I became Publisher, it freed up my time to really focus on my authors and their books, and not work on anyone else's at the same time.

ASTRID: I realise this might be a strange question, but as I was getting ready to speak to you, Brigid, it is the one that kept bubbling up for me. What is the ultimate goal of an individual publisher? And by ultimate goal – I mean, interpret that as broadly as you as you want – but I mean, is it to work with certain authors? Is it to publish a book that stays in print forever? Like, what are you going for?

BRIGID: Oh, that's such an interesting question, because I've never ever thought of like something being in print forever. But what an incredible achievement that would be to help someone get to this place where their book is just always around. My main goal, my instinct, my first thought is just working with the authors that excite me, who are creating work and writing books that I think people will be interested in. The goal is always to get that book and that work in its absolute most pristine shape, and then get it to the readers that are going to connect with it. It seems like a really basic goal, but that's where I start from every time I think.

ASTRID: You don't need to name anybody here, just stay in generalities, that's completely fine, but when you get to work and there is either a pile of printed manuscripts or your inbox or submission boxes are full of people pitching to you or whatever, how do you approach a new work, particularly by an author that you've never heard of or is unpublished or you haven't read before?

BRIGID: There are a few things, I guess. My approach is hopefully always the same in terms of coming to things with an open mind and an open heart. But, you know, it sometimes might not be the case because it's, I don't know, a Monday afternoon, or you've got a bit of a cold, or you've already read 16 things beforehand. But I guess I could talk about what stands out to me in that in that context. There's a few different things. One might be a synopsis or concept that gets me very excited, something that I might not have seen before, or I love the feeling of reading a concept or an outline or a synopsis for something and just not understanding why it hadn't hasn't already been done like this feeling that it just is inevitable that this has to happen. Then your brain just starts thinking about all the ways you could make it happen or what it might look like or what gap in the market there might be or maybe a more practical or non-fiction approach. The other is voice. You might just come across something and maybe the synopsis is slightly janky but the writing is so good that it just reminds you why you like reading things, why you like books, why you are interested in doing this, and that is a really hard thing to pin down about why that might be. But there are those two things that will either stand out to me, the voice and the writing, or just the strength of the concept.

ASTRID: You just use the phrase gap in the market. I know what you mean, and I think everybody listening knows what you mean. But how do you actually figure out where the gaps in the market are? Like, for example, I read a lot and I have my own opinions of what's not being published or what I can't find in Australia. However, if I talk to a few people, often I can be redirected to someone that has done something similar, and it's not really a gap. It's just a gap in my knowledge. I guess, because this is your job and you can't read everything because nobody can, how do you work with that idea of identifying gaps? And I guess I'm referring to you as an individual, but also, you know, the organization that you work for, because I guess there'll be some kind of overall direction in terms of what you're looking for.

BRIGID: I guess that the flip side of it as well is that once you see something and you think yeah, there's a gap, you might realize that there's a gap for a reason, because everybody tried it two years ago, and then it turns out no one was interested. So that once you have that connection with the proposal or with the idea, then you do a lot of research looking into if you're right or it's just that you weren't paying attention, or if it has been tried and you think it hasn't worked successfully, what would you do differently.

It's not necessarily… I think at Ultimo especially we try to look forward so it's not looking so much just at BookScan figures. So BookScan is a sales history of all books in Australian market. You can see if the thing that's a little bit like what you're looking at worked. We try and be a bit more forward thinking, but it gives you that kind of context – if it didn't work last time, why? Or if there is a gap how do you find the readers who haven't been serviced before? How do you get to them, because the publishing industry might not have been talking to them at all before if they're in places where our normal marketing or publicity angles might not hit. You have to think a bit more creatively about how you would publish that book and find those readers. That's really exciting the idea of finding new readers and that prompts a kind of different question for me, when you're considering working with an author. Obviously, the first thing in question is what they've written, and what you think you can do with it. But after that critical question is whether there are any aspects to an author that might help them essentially pitch to you?

ASTRID: And I mean, does it matter if they are well read and know everything in the genre, or the area that they're publishing? Or doesn't matter that they have a great social media profile? And you think they can be helpful in terms of events and publicity? What do you care about in an author beyond the beautiful words?

BRIGID: Yeah, there's a few things. I think the first one is really basic. Do you think you're going to vibe professionally? Are you going to enjoy the process together? Do you have the same idea about what the book should look like at the end of the process? There's no point me trying to shove a book somewhere that the author really doesn't want to go. You spend a lot of time together and you want to be on the same page. There's probably a lot of book plans that can… you know, you want to be on the same page as your author.

I think social media is an interesting one. I think it's becoming less important. Our idea here is always only do what you enjoy, don't force yourself to get on X and tweet if it causes you real pain, if that's just going to take time away from your actual writing. It's not going to shift the readership necessarily. What I think is interesting – and I think about a lot, because I'm often asked questions about how to be published because I work in a publishing house and I'm an obvious person to ask – what I think about a lot is this idea of being a good citizen of Australian literature.

I don't think you have to read everything in the genre, but I think if you want to write a book you should be interested in the books that are doing what you want to do. You should be excited by other writers and what's happening in Australian literature, or you might be mad about what's happening and you should have an opinion about that. You should be part of the ecology of it all, and you should know what's out there and engage with it. I think you can often, when you're listening to pitches or reading through submissions portals, you can sense when people have written one book, and it's their book and that's what they're interested in, but they don't read outside of that. When that happens, it can sometimes be a red flag that the work is not the most important thing and maybe it's more about ego and about being published or being seen as being a writer and being a writer of books.

ASTRID: That's a really interesting observation. And also, I'm really glad that you said you can be mad about things in the industry, because that might be the thing. It's like, what's not out there? And the book you want to write is the thing that's needed. You don't have to be happy or think that everything's working exactly how it should.

So let's go there. I don't think everything is working as it should. And I am positive that you don't either. I follow Ozpublishingtea on Instagram. Your face just, I don't know, crumbled. Ozpublishingtea, I have no idea who puts it out there, but it is on Instagram, maybe elsewhere. And everybody's anonymous, and they just put forward figures about how low paying the industry is, or if a job is coming up, or if it's going to only going to be an internal hire, that kind of like insider a gossip. Are you Ozpublishingtea?
BRIGID: I am not.

ASTRID: You're the first person I've ever asked that. I recommend everybody follow Ozpublishingtea. But the reason I bring that up is you know, salaries are low. I think that goes back to the conversation we had at the very beginning, which is people hold on to jobs for a very long time and there's not necessarily a lot of progression,but also people love books. I think that gives an industry the opportunity to say things like, ‘you do it for the love and you do it for the passion’, and that's a really easy way to underpay people. And it's really quite offensive. I'm a teacher and they do that to teachers, you know, ‘you love your students, it's worth it’. It's really not, we should all be paid much higher.

BRIGID: Yeah, I think both is okay.

ASTRID: Yeah, both is totally fine. But I guess I wanted to open it up here and ask you, broadly speaking and obviously speaking in generalisations, what are the other issues or problems or red flags you see, in the whole publishing, reading industry?

BRIGID: I think lack of pay transparency has been a really big one. That should be illegal. Now, they have passed laws recently which means you can no longer put in contracts that you have to keep your salary secret, which has been in my contracts for other publishing jobs in the past. So you can no longer be penalised for talking to your peers about what you earn, which is a step, although it was not a step that publishing did on its own. It was federal legislation that did that. I think low pay is a big one for entry level positions. I think in Sydney, particularly the entry level wages, maybe $50,000 or $60,000, and at the moment in Sydney that is near impossible to live on and be close to your workplace, if you're thinking about publishing houses that are in the CBD or anywhere around, which they most mostly are. Over time, unpaid over time, I think is a big one. I heard that that's improving, but it was very bad, pre-Covid. I think, especially for publicists and people who work in events, Covid happened and I think a lot of people left the industry who'd worked in the event side of publishing. I don't know what conditions are like now, events are a lot less so maybe it's better. But I think if you talk to a publicist, they might have a better kind of idea about that. What do you think, what else is wrong? What else can we fix?

ASTRID: Well, I've never worked for a publisher. I'm just generally interested in anything that I hear from, you know, inside publishing houses. I think that sometimes there's a bit of hesitation in what gets published in terms of – not in terms of real innovation, I think Australia innovates really well –  but sometimes, I think topics are considered on the nose, or they won't sell and so we don't go there. And that worries me. And then the converse of that is sometimes I think we go really hard on some genres, memoir of trauma, for example, and it's not always in the best interest of those writers to have those books out there. And that is a very big generalization.

BRIGID: I wonder if it's moved a bit away from that, I feel like there's been a bit of a shift. But there was definitely a time for a few years where it felt like there was maybe one or two really good books in that, or books that sold well, in that trauma dump genre, which then meant that people were trying to chase the trend of that kind of literature, which should come with a pretty heavy duty of care because you're often dealing with emerging writers, and you're often dealing with something that might be the worst thing that's happened to them. But at the end of the day publishing is a business. So what is your obligation to that person after that book comes out and for the rest of for the duration of your relationship? If you're encouraging people to put that stuff out there, I think there's got to be a level of care that continues a bit further than the average author care relationship.

ASTRID: I agree. I do think that that trend has slowed down a great deal. The other thing that I'd like to ask you about is how many books get published a year. Now, this gets me into trouble when I talk about it with my students, so I don't know how you'll react. The reading public in Australia is, you know, a certain size, and look, sales might go up or down a year, but sometimes it just feels like so many books are published, particularly from the big publishers, the international publishers, and sometimes I can't really tell the difference in terms of quality or content or plot or market niche or whatever. And I do wonder if that's good for the industry.

BRIGID: We do have a lot of books. This October feels massive. Like we're now in Christmas mode, right? So it does feel like there's a lot of books coming out. I'm mostly pay attention, I guess, to Australian titles, but when you're thinking about multinational publishers, they have both their Australian list and their international list. So there's also all of the American and British and all sorts of books coming into the market as well. Yeah, I think I think generally people are trying to curate a list that they think will work, but also there is such a high percentage of failure in publishing everyone overcompensates and overschedules to try and balance having a book that works out there while also having a book that might not be financially out there working.

ASTRID: For the listeners, can we just define what we mean by works or you know, financially successful or even the word that you used, failure? I don't know how many first-time writers understand how often books fail and what you mean.

BRIGID: Oh, yes, I feel terrible, because, you know, failure is a really interesting concept. I think there's probably different metrics. There's an obligation as a publisher to try and not lose money. I think that's the base of where you want to be. But there's also all sorts of reasons that books should be published that are not financial and are about cultural contribution and extending the conversation about certain topics or interrogating certain things that are happening in Australian culture and society. Sometimes more confronting books might be less likely to sell a lot of copies or sometimes things that are easy to deal with and easily digestible might be more financially viable. But that doesn't mean that that's the only metric to success. I'm sorry that I said failing, that sounds awful. I think it's just about how you define success. Yet losing money is what we always try not to do. But I'm sure you've had this discussion on the podcast before. It is what the majority of books do.

ASTRID: As a reader, I find that so deeply distressing every single time even though I know that to be true, it doesn't feel good to say anytime. Let's move on from this deeply depressing topic.

Brigid, I'd like to ask, given that you say that you mainly focus on and read Australian literature, with your professional hat on as a publisher, how do you think the international market looks at contemporary Australian literature?

BRIGID: Not a lot. I think that I think the onus is still on us to be the champions of it. I think there's been a real response to Australian crime and Bush noir, and that it's been helped by some great authors like Jane Harper. And our Aussie crime is quite well respected. I think we've got Sulari Gentill, who publishes books for Ultimo, who's incredible and well received in America. But in every territory, they have their own authors and all of their own ideas and all of their own sensibilities. I think the onus is still very much on Australian publishing and our rights workers and things like that to be to be pushing our literature out there and getting the word out. I don't know that there's a massive pool yet from other territories, but I think we're good enough. I think there's enough incredible Australian authors that if we can get it in front of the right people there's going to be publishers that vibe with it overseas as well. And I think it's interesting what Giramondo has done, you know, those inter publishing prizes where it's Fitzcarraldo and Giramondo’s New Directions Prize. Those sorts of things I think are really interesting, finding the people and the publishers that enjoy the same things, and getting Australian work out that way.

ASTRID: I agree with you. I think Australian literature is good enough for the international stage, absolutely. My final question for you, Brigid, bringing it back to your career and what you do. What is the most common misconception about what you do?

BRIGID: I think the most common misconception about working in publishing is probably the amount of time you spend reading at work. It's not often a lot, there's a lot of other things that take up your day. It would be lovely if it was, and there is a lot of reading involved, but it's not often happening during office hours. But I do get access to a lot of free books, and I do get to read a lot of great things. It's a plus and a minus, I think, a plus and a minus.

ASTRID: That is so very well said. Brigid, thank you so much for talking with me today. And I do think your insight and wisdom is going to help many. Thank you.

BRIGID: Thanks Astrid.