Getting to the top of your profession: Interview with Sam Humphreys

Sam Humphreys is Associate Publisher at Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. She has previously worked at Picador, Profile Books and Penguin, and before that, was a primary school teacher. Norah Myers interviews her here.

1) How did you personally know when you were ready to progress to your next role?

I’m not sure I did, actually. I suppose for many people, it’s about feeling ready for new challenges – but for me, it’s never been completely clear cut. Jobs don’t always come up when or where you want them, and I certainly wasn’t looking to move when I was offered my current job. However, I knew I would want a different, more challenging role at some point in the future, and figured I could – hopefully – grow into the role over time. Being an Associate Publisher is very good in that respect, because there’s room for negotiation and flexibility: you’re not the Publisher, so you don’t have overall responsibility, and you have time to learn the ropes as you go along. (That’s my theory, anyway.) Sometimes, I think it’s about just taking the plunge.

2) Which qualities do you think help certain people to get to the top of their profession?

I think people who aren’t afraid to speak up/out generally do well. (Obviously it helps if what you’re saying is sensible and rooted in reality, experience or observation, however.) I also think decision-makers – even if they don’t always make what you think are the ‘right’ decisions – tend to do better than people who endlessly prevaricate. I suspect the two are linked – and that both in turn are connected to a combination of confidence and knowledge: if you have one or other, that’s great; if you have both, then so much the better.

People who are interested – not just in what they’re doing, but what others (and that might be other editors, other agents, other authors, other publishing houses, other lists, other books) are up to – also, I feel, tend to fare well. Publishing is a small and sometimes gossipy world – and to succeed, I suspect you need to know (or at least want to know) about more than your own little corner of it.

Finally, I’d like to say that people skills are also important, but I’m not always sure that’s true. (I’ve certainly had some great bosses – and some less so – and I imagine that’s true for most people and, indeed, most industries.)

3) What has been the most challenging element of a senior position?

For me, the most obvious challenge has been getting my head around the financial aspect. Like many editors, I see myself as a words rather than a numbers person – and interpreting a sheet of numbers doesn’t come easily or automatically to me. Print margins, advance write-offs, P&Ls: these terrify me slightly, and I’ve had to work hard to overcome my instinctive fear of such things. Linked to this, though, I think it’s also been quite a challenge/revelation to realise that I can – and should – ask if I’m not sure. Even if people think you’re stupid for asking (and in my experience, they never actually do), that’s better than pretending you understand something when you’ve got no idea.

I do think it gets harder to start a new job the higher up you go. Like most editors, my first job was editorial assistant, and there’s something about starting at that level that makes it relatively easy to get the hang of things. For a start, there are likely to be other assistants who can show you what you need to do and where you need to be at any given time. As you move up through the ranks, though, you don’t necessarily have many peers – and quite often you’re expected to make decisions (especially when you’re managing people and/or budgets) from day one. That can be extremely daunting, and I also think it takes longer to really feel you’ve got to grips with things. As a general rule of thumb, I’d say at least a year – so you’ve done everything once – but probably two to start to feel properly comfortable. I’m not sure you ever want to feel too comfortable though – and perhaps if you do, that’s the point you should think about moving…

4) Where would you like to be in 5 years?

In all honesty, where I am now. I was in my first job (at Pan Macmillan) for nearly ten years, but then moved three times in relatively quick succession. I still feel as though I’ve a lot to learn in my current role – particularly regarding the financial side of things, as I’ve mentioned – and I’d like to feel I’d really mastered that before moving on.

5) What advice would you give your younger self?

Oh, that’s tricky! Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand or to speak up if you have an opinion. (But, equally, be happy to shut up if you don’t: there’s no point in speaking just to make a noise.) And, finally, listen to and learn from others but trust your instinct.