An Interview With… Sarah Benton

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview Sarah Benton. Sarah is the Deputy Managing Director for Orion Publishing Group, and she was kind enough to answer my questions on what exactly her job role entails, and what she is up to in lockdown.

Over to you, Sarah…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Publishing was definitely not something I planned on doing, knew anything about or thought was an option for me. I always loved books, and writing, but by the time I did my A-Levels, I’d settled on something much more normal: I planned to be a teacher.

I studied English at The University of Southampton with that goal in mind, until my final year when I did my dissertation on children’s books. It sparked something in me that I might be able to combine the two things I loved: working with children and books. A stroke of luck set the path to my future(as is so often the case). My dad worked in education for local government and had met a librarian who knew lots of people in children’s publishing. She offered to take me to a Children’s Book Circle event in London and I left university a week early to go. I met a publicist from Macmillan Children’s Books and managed to get some (unpaid, then) work experience that summer. I loved it from day one and knew I’d found what I wanted to do.

2) How did you work your way up to being a Deputy MD? Did it make a difference that you didn’t come from an editorial background?

I worked. I worked, really hard essentially. I always looked for opportunities to expand my remit, to learn more, to get involved in things around the companies I’ve work in. I’ve been in the industry 17 years, and it was 11 years before I became a Marketing Director. I think some of my best experience came from the years I was a Marketing Exec, or Manager (6 out of the 11). Getting to understand a huge variety of readers, authors, genres, campaigns, people – seeing what succeeds and what doesn’t. Experience really does count when you get to the top and people are suddenly asking YOU what they should do. I always say that life, and your career, isn’t a race. People move at different speeds: don’t look at them, just look at yourself. You are in control of what choices you make, and it shouldn’t ever matter what someone else has. It’s also no-one else’s responsibility to manage your career but your own. I’ve never been afraid of having difficult conversations with people if it meant I got to understand what I needed to do to progress.

When I started in publishing, I thought I knew two things: that I ought to be an editor and that I would never want to run a company. I knew quickly that editorial wasn’t for me. I liked the buzz of marketing and publicity: the reader contact, the working out what is the thing about this book that would make it appeal to the audience. I have always been driven by the reader, not by my own taste and I think that has served me well in such a senior role now. I can be very objective, and that’s what needed. I view being in a senior position now the way I did training for a 10k. I started off never thinking I could go that far, but each day you train, you get a bit closer and then one day, you’re doing it. I hope the fact that I didn’t come from an editorial background shows other people that it’s possible, and that there is no one route to the job you love.

3) What does your job role entail on a day to day basis? Has it been any different in lockdown?

The thing I love about my job, but also what makes it challenging is that literally no two days are ever the same. There are basics – key meetings like acquisitions or our cover art meeting, catch ups with my team and my boss – but other than that so much of my day is driven by what is happening. Someone needs your advice, there’s an author or agent that wants to speak to you or a sudden urgent, high-profile acquisition. You start your week with a plan, but so rarely does it turn out the way you think, so you have to adapt and be kind to yourself. I used to be driven by my to-do list but in a senior role I have realised that it’s impossible to work like that – I have a rolling list of things I need to do, and a daily list of urgent things. You have to accept you rarely get to the bottom of either list.

In a way, while it’s been more intense in lockdown, the fact that I am so used to adapting has put me in good stead. I thrive on things changing, so in a way I’ve found the last few months hugely fulfilling. On the other hand, particularly at the beginning, we have had to make decisions based on almost no certainties, and that was hard – you have to rely on some data, but a lot of gut instinct. In the end you can never know you’re making the right decision all the time, but you have to make the one you feel is right based on the information you have.When faced with tough decisions, I often think: what’s the worst thing that could happen? What am I afraid of? In fact, and ironically, the worse thing you could do is to make no decision at all.

4) Are there any limitations of your job role in lockdown?

I really miss my colleagues! Of course, we are making things work well with video meetings and phone calls but running a company often relies on lots of very quick decisions, which can sometimes be done by chasing someone around the office and having a very quick 5-minute chat. Life in lockdown is definitely a little slower – asking when people are free for a call, playing phone tag. In the office, Katie Espiner (our MD) and I thrive normally by bumping into each other, chatting through the issues of the day and making a quick decision on next steps (and we have a lot of fun while doing it!). I really miss that.

5) How have you found balancing your work with being a parent?

I returned to work from maternity leave during the peak of Covid-19, so it definitely wasn’t how I planned it! We were waiting on a nursery place but due to everything being closed we needed to think again. My husband is a writer, so we can be more flexible than most, but it’s certainly a challenge. I work in blocks of time, while my husband has the baby, and then we swap over. I fantasize about a full day just to work but that’s not where we are right now. We are making it work,but it’s a lot and there isn’t much downtime. Nursery is on the horizon though, so hopefully things will get easier soon. I am enormously lucky in that Hachette are hugely supportive of working parents. Even when my daughter is at nursery, I will work flexibly and set my own hours. Now we’ve all proved we don’t need to be in the office 9-5 we won’t go back to that way of working and nor should any of us.

6) What books are you most attracted to? Do you have a favourite genre? What would you look for, ideally, in a debut novel?

I would say there is no one thing, no secret ingredient – sorry! I read widely, across all genres mostly (I think it’s so important to do this in publishing). What I guess I look for most is a strong voice and – a feeling. The kind of book that you read a few pages of and can’t stop thinking about. I remember reading Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams in the first draft and knowing, extremely quickly, that this book needed to be published and would be very big – it doesn’t happen every time but it’s nice to occasionally be right! 

I also try to read as much outside my comfort zone as much as I can. What are the books people are talking about? What is in the bestseller list? I think it’s important to understand what books sell, what readers love. I have so little time for reading outside of my job at the moment with a baby, but I do love a pacey thriller – the last one I read is one we are publishing, Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall, coming this August. I got “the feeling” about that one, and I’m very excited about it.

7) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

Like reading, I watch quite a varied mix of TV! I love a hard-hitting documentary as much as a trashy drama. I am currently watching and loving Little Fires Everywhere (after adoring the book), but also David Olusoga’s A House through Time – it’s absolutely fascinating to think about all the lives lived under one roof. My guilty pleasure is Grey’s Anatomy – it’s my total switch off TV and much needed!

8) On a Friday evening when you leave your desk, what’s the first thing you do? On the weekend, what do you do to relax?

I currently only work 4 days a week, so Thursday is my Friday! My day comes to a hard finish at 5.30 every day when I give the baby a bath and put her to bed so it’s after that I get to relax. Normally, I come downstairs, have a quick check of emails and sit down for a moment of peace. My husband has developed into an excellent cocktail maker, so we will sit down with a drink and some food and go over what’s happened that week.

Relaxing with an 8-month-old isn’t super easy! Running is what I do to relax. It’s just me, my music and the park – it really clears my head. I do try to switch off from work at the weekend – it’s really important. I don’t send emails and rarely check them. Spending time with my family normally resets me for the week ahead. Being a good leader is as much about hard work as it is about self-care: if you don’t look after yourself, you simply can’t do your job.

Thank you so much for your time, Sarah. It has been a pleasure to have you on the blog today for an interview.

Bio: Sarah Benton is Deputy MD for The Orion Publishing Group. In her seventeen years in the industry she has worked at Harpercollins, Bonnier’s Hot Key Books and Pan Macmillan, in marketing and publicity across children’s and adult publishing.

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