Clare Millar interviews Bianca Jafari, Product Development Executive at Thames and Hudson Australia.
What did you study?
I completed my undergrad in media and communications at RMIT and went straight into full-time work. I spent a few years chipping away at an online professional editing and proofreading course and then eventually completed my masters in publishing and communications at the University of Melbourne.
What is the most useful skill you learned in your degree? And what was the most enjoyable part of your studies?
The practical skills were the most useful part of my publishing degree—learning basic skills in InDesign, Photoshop, WordPress, Mailchimp and then learning about different paper stocks and book sizes. These skills helped me diversify my resume and stand out from other job applicants.
Melbourne University runs a student-led publishing house, Grattan Street Press. In my final year of uni, I worked on the GSP subject. It was the highlight of my degree. I felt like I was doing something important—something that was more than just a grade at the end of semester.
The subject opened the door for me to establish industry connections and helped me secure my internship at Hardie Grant Egmont. It also showed me that there’s more out there than just editorial. Of the 25 students who participated in the project, about 23 of us wanted to be an editor. Like in the industry, there’s only room for one editor. What was initially disappointing, turned out to be a blessing—everyone who worked on the production or sales and marketing team had a really rewarding experience.
What do you wish you’d known sooner?
Looking back, my university experience was tainted by imposter syndrome. During my undergrad I was working towards a career in radio; I had hosted my own show on RRR, did a producer crash-course at SYN and interned at ABC. And yet I still got scared off by the students who had stronger journalistic skills and those who were far better at using GarageBand.
When I started my masters, those same thoughts started creeping in. But worse. Publishing is such a small industry and it can be tough to find work as a graduate. I was so intimidated by the other students in the degree—they were extremely literary and were all avid readers. I found it hard to admit that my interest in books was mostly picture books, YA and commercial non-fiction, and sometimes I’m more drawn to the cover, the feel and the look of a book than the content inside.
I wish I’d known sooner that there is room for everyone in publishing, not just the literary types. Working at Thames & Hudson Australia on illustrated books, games and gifts is perfectly suited to my skills and interests. Looking around the industry, there are so many opportunities that are not at a traditional publishing house—Smith Street Books, Bolinda Books, Brumby Sunstate, Booktopia. And there are so many jobs beyond editorial—data controller, production, publicity, rights, sales rep.
How did your role come about?
In my current role, I develop around ten to twelve products a year—books, games, puzzles—and I see each project through from start to finish. I’ll think up an idea, do market research, commission and manage the author/illustrator, work with the designer and, at the moment, I even plan and execute the publicity campaign.
My list is a combination of totally new ideas and being inspired by existing THA content. For example, I will take a bestselling THA book and see how its content can be repurposed into a new format such as a compact edition, game or card deck.
Product development is not a very common role in publishing. You’d be more familiar with the term commissioning editor. In some ways, I am commissioning, but there are some key differences and a lot of what I do falls out of the regular books process.
Where a bestselling THA book could be years in the making, one of my products can be turned around in as little as six to eight months. My projects also don’t rely as heavily on the editorial team because they are usually illustration-led. It helps that I’ve had experience with copy writing and editing. Additionally, my projects sit in a different space in the market—they’re still sold through indies, department stores and chains, but they can also be found in small gift stores, clothing shops, lifestyle shops, and newsagencies.
My role in product development wasn’t an advertised position that I stepped into—it was a role specifically carved out for me based on my prior experience. After my stint at Grattan Street Press I secured myself an internship at Hardie Grant Egmont and met a marketing hero who eventually became a mentor.
A year later she had moved to THA and asked me to interview for a publicity role. The role was to represent one of THA’s distributed publishers, Laurence King Publishing. LKP was a world leader for all things gift, so I knew this was an experience I couldn’t get at any other Australian publishing house. It was not an entry-level role either, which really appealed to me.
Too often publishing graduates are expected to work for five or six years at an entry-level salary waiting for a senior person to retire. This was a great opportunity to become a fully-fledged book publicist straight out of uni. When I interviewed for the role, the thing that set me apart from other applicants turned out to be my five years working in sales—as a sales rep and later a sales coordinator. Even though the sales work was in a completely different field, it gave me that edge over other applicants.
After about a year working on the LKP list, I was given the opportunity to bring to life my own edition for their bestselling bingo series. In July 2020, LKP published Australia’s Deadly Animals Bingo, which I developed and produced end-to-end. The success of the game paired with my insight into the gift industry eventually led to my current role of Product Development Executive at THA.
What does a typical day look like for you as Product Development Executive? What skills make you successful in doing that?
A typical day will usually involve a mixture of these tasks:
- Developing a new idea to present at a publishing meeting
- Researching—I spend hours in bookshops feeling paper, taking down measurements and noticing embellishments
- Working with the production manager to make sure that all projects meet budget requirements. When we’re trying to confirm the format and all the specs, there can be a lot of back and forth – you only get one chance to make the price and the physical product perfect
- Briefing an illustrator or designer
- Presenting artwork to the sales and marketing team and asking for feedback
- Providing feedback to the illustrator or design either in writing or over the phone
- Writing blurbs, instructions or any other text required for the product
- Fact checking, for example making sure that all 250 Australian animals that I’ve chosen for a game are all native to Australia, have been illustrated accurately and are written correctly (biscuit starfish vs biscuit sea star was a debate I sadly spent twenty minutes on)
- Trawling through Instagram to find creative people who inspire me and then reaching out to them to collaborate
There are three skills that I think are really crucial to my role:
- Understanding audiences—being able to know what a creative millennial cares about or how to appeal to a nine-year-old who hates reading enables me to deliver products that are consciously curated for a specific audience. A clear audience (even a wide one) makes design, sales, marketing and publicity so much easier
- People skills—being able to connect to people, to make them want to collaborate with you, is so valuable. Then being able to guide them through the process, to manage their expectations, to sometimes have hard conversations but eventually to celebrate successes together… it’s a total rollercoaster that I’m still learning to navigate
- Excitement—I’m calling excitement a skill because it is so underrated. Pretty much every job that I’ve ever had I was underqualified for (men do it all the time!) and the one thing that I’ve had in spades is genuine excitement. In my current role, excitement can be infectious. It flows into the sales reps, onto the bookseller and, if I’m lucky, that excitement might lead to a bookseller handselling one of my products
You were on the shortlist for the 2021 ABIA Rising Stars. What does this mean to you?
I still can’t believe it! It was such an honor to sit alongside four inspiring publishing creatives. Most of the time in publishing we are celebrating the incredibly talented people that we work with—the authors, illustrators and designers. We very rarely celebrate ourselves. It came at a time where I was at a crossroads in my career and it was a little reminder that I am exactly where I need to be.
You also freelance on the side of your full time work. How do you manage this?
Before the pandemic hit, I would book freelance work for the weekends. As soon as we started working from home though, the lines became too blurry. I found myself not being able to separate work time, freelance time and family time and it was affecting my mental health.
Since then, I’ve only freelanced for one client whose work I find the most manageable, am most comfortable with and requires the least brain power. So, I guess that means I’m not managing freelancing with a full time job very well! But, I think that’s okay. Setting boundaries is something to be celebrated.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
The first product in my list, Dinner with Monet, launches today (July 1, 2021) and I already know that seeing it in a bookstore is going to be a proud moment. I am of course incredibly proud to have been shortlisted for the ABIA Rising Star award and I’m proud of the success of Australia’s Deadly Animals Bingo. But I think what I’m most proud of is the fact that I’m still working in publishing.
In 2019 when I accepted a job at THA, I only imagined being in publishing for a few years. I was taking a pay cut and leaving a job that I adored —a team lead role at a tech startup. I loved the fast-pace of the tech startup and I was scared that the pace of the publishing industry, its long history of keeping with traditions and its inability to make quick changes would clash with the work style I loved. Deep down, I also knew that I could never support myself on a publishing salary.
Since the day I started, I had open conversations about pay, I pitched my skills and regularly worked outside my job description when I saw an opportunity to progress my career. When I knew my role with LKP was coming to an end (they are no longer distributed by THA), I pitched a product development role to THA. I spent countless nights and weekends learning how to put together a business proposal and make P&L statements for proposed titles to convince my MD, and eventually the board, to let me publish gift products. Now, two years since I started at THA, I’ve created a fast-paced role for myself that is anything but traditional. It’s exactly where I want to be and that is what I am most proud of.
And what are you hopeful for or excited about?
I love this industry but the standards for pay are just too low. And I say that as a privileged person working at a publisher that pays well above award rate. It is impossible to be an inclusive industry when the pay requires you to either have a second job, live with your parents or be supported by your partner. It’s just not feasible. There’s a long way to go, but I feel like we’re starting to move in the right direction and that makes me feel hopeful.
There are lots of publishers making a commitment to diverse and inclusive hiring practises and there are more and more workers across the industry willing to stand up and fight for fair pay. The editorial position that THA recently recruited for lists an award rate and pay guide on the ad, which is something that should be happening across the board.
This industry can never reach inclusivity and diversity without transparency and I’m confident that speaking up on taboo topics is one of the ways we can help get there. I’m excited for what the future holds and I am grateful that I will be around to see it.