Interview with Rebecca Lewis-Oakes, winner of last year’s Kim Scott Walwyn Prize

Rebecca Lewis-Oakes is the 2015 winner of the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize. She is currently Managing Editor for Fiction at Egmont UK and has been a commissioning editor at Puffin, Faber & Faber and Scholastic, working across all ages and ranges of children’s books, from fiction and non-fiction to picture books, gift and novelty. Her successes include editing the multi-award-winning Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, commissioning the YouTuber hit Sprinkle of Glitter Diary and developing the first app for the Eric Hill Spot brand.

1) Congratulations on winning the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize in 2016. What an achievement. How has the win helped you professionally?

Thank you very much! It was an honour to win, especially with such a strong shortlist. The shortlist announcement timing was fantastic for me professionally – it came during London Book Fair which is obviously prime networking time, but also on the second day of my then-new job at Puffin. So the prize raised my profile within the industry and also at Penguin Random House, where, being such a big corporate, personal profile is hugely important. Winning the prize gave me a big confidence boost and sense of validation, since the judges recognised the importance of the behind-the-scenes nature of my accomplishments. While it’s often not the glamorous or headline-grabbing side of being an editor, it encouraged me to continue to see the broader picture in my career.

2) Please tell us about a few women working in publishing whose work and careers you really admire. What makes them stand out?

There are so many! Aside from the obvious trailblazers like Dame Gail Rebuck and Ursula Mackenzie, and current heads of houses like Francesca Dow and Hilary Murray Hill, I could perhaps highlight three women at different stages of their careers.

Philippa Milnes-Smith is always impressive, having headed up Puffin spectacularly, then becoming a top agent whose finger is always on the pulse and who is particularly great to work with.

Zosia Knopp is not only a Guinness world record-holding Rights Director, but she is really good at and committed to developing talent in-house. She is very inspiring to see in action, and is extremely generous with her knowledge and time.

Finally, Juliet Mushens (a KSW shortlistee, I believe) through sheer force of personality, hard work and great taste, has had phenomenal success early on in her career as an agent, which is clearly going to continue.

3) You approached Louise Pentland, a YouTube star, before it was popular to commission books from vloggers. What potential did you see in YouTube talent that you felt would fit naturally with book publishing?

Yes, we were only the second publisher to approach Gleam for any of their social talent. Louise in particular seemed a perfect fit for book publishing, since we went to her with the idea of a branded diary because she loves stationery and her followers love it too. It felt like a great project to do in print form, as the YouTube format is perfect for her content such as makeup tips, but this was a brilliant way to extend the interactive relationship between Louise and her audience on the page.

It was that combination of innovative creator and devoted audience that just made sense to us – and has been proven with all the social talent topping the book charts since then.

4) Where would you like to be in five years’ time?

I’d like to have progressed and expanded my current role. Beyond that, it’s hard to say: five years ago I couldn’t have imagined being where I am now, especially with the digital projects I’ve worked on. I never thought I would launch an app for Spot the dog, or help develop an xhtml-based typesetting programme! So I hope in five years I’ll still be open to new opportunities, helping my company run more smoothly and achieve more in whatever format that might take.

5) Why should women in trade publishing apply for the prize (or let others nominate them?)

The very process of applying for the KSW prize is empowering. The judges have designed a rigorous application process which will help women think critically about themselves and their careers. I found that in itself really positive. Being shortlisted and winning was a bonus and a huge boost for me. It’s so important to identify and own your achievements in your career, not just when applying for a new job, but think actively critically about your career in an ongoing way. So I say go for it!

Even though publishing is a pretty female-friendly industry, more can be done towards equality. Every choice that individual women take towards confidence makes a positive change.

6) What’s the most rewarding thing about working in children’s publishing?

Helping children to love reading. The mission statement at my first company, Scholastic, is about helping children to achieve their true potential on society through reading and – while lofty – that has always stayed with me. And it’s only possible because of the brilliant people I work with – across the board, I find everyone in children’s publishing is talented, committed and driven to produce great books for children to enjoy.

The Kim Scott Walwyn Prize recognises excellence and future potential in women in their first seven years of a publishing career. The deadline for applications is Friday 10th February and details can be found here: https://kimscottwalwyn.org/

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