“I love working in such a warm and friendly environment”
Introducing Assallah. She’s an editorial assistant at Fig Tree, a imprint in Penguin General that publishes literary and commercial fiction, history, biography, memoir, style, art and cookery. Earlier this year Fig Tree published Dolly Alderton’s bestselling memoir Everything I Know About Love. Coming soon is Useless Magic: a book of lyrics, poetry and sketches by Florence Welch, the vocalist of Florence + the Machine.
What was your journey to Penguin Random House?
I always loved reading, so I studied English at University up to Masters level, (which you don’t have to do) after which I got a job in writing and market research at a legal directory. That was my first proper job and I enjoyed it, but I knew I wanted something more creative — I just didn’t know what! So when I saw a paid BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity) trainee scheme being advertised at another publisher I thought I would give it a try. The fact that it was rotational particularly appealed to me, because it meant I could try different departments and see what suited me best. In a way I was surprised that an opportunity like this existed. I’d assumed you had to work for free to get into publishing, but that’s not true anymore: more paid internships and diversity schemes are opening up alongside the traditional grad schemes and work experience placements. I think one of the reasons for the lack of socio-economic and ethnic diversity in publishing is that lots of people are unaware of what a career in publishing might entail, simply because they don’t have the connections to introduce them to that world. That’s why it’s so important to make the industry accessible. I had an incredible experience on that traineeship and started looking for a permanent role. I saw there was a vacancy for Editorial Assistant at Penguin in Fig Tree, which looked amazing, so I applied. The rest is history – well, seven months’ worth of history in any case.
What do you love most about being at Penguin Random House and in your team?
I love working in such a warm and friendly environment. I love being surrounded by people who are passionate about books and their jobs. Because Fig Tree has such an eclectic list across a range of fiction and non-fiction, the work is always fun and varied. I could be working on a debut novel on the one hand, or a cookery book on the other. On a typical day I could be writing cover copy, making edits on a manuscript, or working on a book’s metadata to make it more discoverable and appealing to customers on Amazon. I could be reading and working with my manager to respond to submissions, or doing any of the admin that goes behind getting a book from a Word document to a sellable product: whether that’s writing a cover brief for the designers in our brilliant art department, clearing permissions, or entering our books for literary prizes.
I love seeing book covers in progress: seeing a book come to life in that way, and having a hand in that, is really exciting. The thrill of finding a submission in your inbox that grabs you is another highlight of the job, even if we can’t always buy the book. Sometimes we celebrate the publication of a book with a launch party, and I look forward to those too. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work and lose sight of the fact that the book is the author’s baby, something they’ve worked hard to complete and are anxious to see take wings. Launches are a chance to step back and celebrate that.
What is a book that has changed your life and outlook on things?
The books that have changed my life are part of a fantasy series called the Dragonlance Chronicles, which I read when I was about eleven years old.
This was my first love affair with books. It was the first time I realised you could fall in love with a book and grow attached – almost feverishly attached – to the characters (I’m not ashamed to say that my pre-teen self had a major crush on one of them). For me, at the time, these books were magical. I don’t really read fantasy anymore and I probably wouldn’t enjoy them in the same way now, but I will always feel sentimental about these books for the joy they brought me growing up, and for triggering a lifelong passion for reading.
A book that changed my outlook on things is Middlemarch by George Eliot.
It’s a smart, observant and very human book. George Eliot has this wonderful ability to dissect her characters in a way that reveals all their flaws and frailties, while at the same time asking us to forgive them. That’s what impressed me when I read it: the kindness and compassion alongside her irony and criticism. I found that really affecting.
What is your favourite song and why?
Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen. In the song the narrator writes a letter to a friend who’s had an affair with his wife. It’s a song about bitterness and betrayal, but it’s also clever and surprising – Leonard Cohen always had an incredible way of turning a thing on its head.
Another one of my favourite songs (cheating here) is A Case of You by Joni Mitchell. It’s a beautiful love song and I always find myself coming back to it.