Clare Millar interviews Sarah Layton, Primary Editor at Cengage Australia and New Zealand
What did you study?
My undergraduate degree is in Politics and Media Studies. By the end of it, I had realised that journalism was pretty dry and that it was possible to work in publishing. After that, I studied a Master of Publishing and Communications.
What is the most useful skill you learned in your degrees? And what was the most enjoyable part of your studies?
Oh wow, I loved my degree, but I’m also a massive nerd. I think I was a bit weird, because my favourite part quickly became research, which was very unexpected! I’d never considered doing a minor thesis or PhD but, as it turns out, that becomes a lot more of a draw when you’re writing about something that fascinates you.
My absolute favourite experience in my masters was going to New York for a week of talks by industry professionals and scholars at the New School. My research from that trip became my first paper at the Independent Publishing Conference, which turned into my chapter in Post-Digital Book Cultures.
But overall, I’d say the most useful skill I learned in my degrees was to never let any learning opportunity or industry friendship go to waste. People in publishing are almost universally lovely and passionate about what they do. Having a couple of years in such a dedicated space where the doors are open is a unique opportunity. If your tutors and connections know you and feel invested in your success, that helps a lot with opportunities long after your degree. Also, you get to feel like part of the community.
I’d also say that you can never have too much experience outside your degree if you’re passionate about a specific area of publishing and are able to do it around work. Not everyone can be an editor in a university-run teaching press, and you will only get to do it for a semester, so if you get a chance to work for a lit mag—even if it means taking fewer subjects a semester— jump on it. I took so much away from those experiences, and they prepared me better than anything for interning work.
What does a typical day look like for you at Cengage? What skills make you successful in doing that?
At the moment, my typical day is a lot of audio file and script work for our PM eCollection—our online library of primary school level educational books. It’s a great resource that I very much love that has grown so much over the last two years during COVID.
I also get to edit our upcoming books and commission art for them. I have a background in illustration, which has come in very handy when choosing/working with illustrators, and I think being a bit of a jack of all trades in my past work has also helped a lot. Editing is the job I’m always most excited to do, but it’s great when knowledge from an odd job you did years ago in your undergraduate degree becomes useful again.
You’ve moved from customer service at Cengage to editorial – how did this happen for you?
Honestly, sheer persistence and networking. I’ve never let go of a contact or publishing friendship, and I will rock up to any publishing Christmas party I’m invited to. The folks at the trade publisher I interned for in 2019 can vouch for that!
When I graduated from my masters two years ago, I hoped I’d be one of the lucky few who got work as an editorial assistant straight out of my course. But when that wasn’t happening, I decided any work in publishing for now was better than no work in publishing, and I took a casual 4-hour-a-day summer job with Cengage’s customer support team, which turned into a 1-year maternity leave cover position after a couple of months, which turned into full time work.
I was incredibly lucky that my manager knew exactly where I wanted to go in the future. She let me use my editing and copywriting skills in my CS role, writing training manuals for our team and proofing bigger communications from our department, and she championed professional development opportunities as a way to work towards the career I wanted. I also networked like crazy and built a reputation within the company as a good communicator who already knew our Primary products inside and out.
I’ve interviewed for a lot of editorial jobs over the last five years and have been told so many times that I “would make a great editor someday” while also being told that I hadn’t got the job. I feel very lucky to have this role, but I also think when you’re applying for work it’s also so important to know that you could genuinely be excellent at a job if you had the chance to do it. After being knocked back a lot, it’s easy to feel like you’re somehow delusional for thinking you could still get into in-house editing someday. But being great at interviewing is a totally different skill to being good at editing. And if you’re struggling to be the top candidate in interviews, you can make opportunities for yourself by being unphased and persistent until people find it too awkward to say no anymore.
You’ve had research published in Post-Digital Book Cultures and are speaking at this year’s Independent Publishing conference. What is your research about?
My research this year is called ‘Dickens to Dumbing of Age: A modern literary serial’. It argues that the literary serial can be seen as both a historical and modern form that encompasses both the Victorian literary serial and modern day webcomics.
I’ve been a big webcomic reader since I was a teenager, so getting to treat one as a primary source and analyse its paratexts was a lot of fun. I’m also always keen to challenge narrow definitions of classic book forms that avoid conferring legitimacy on new publishing forms (usually digital). Digital literature is endlessly fascinating, and it really didn’t go rogue in the way people were expecting at the dawn of the internet. It has a lot of the same hallmarks as classic texts, which is what I try to pay attention to across all my work.
That’s very much a theme in my chapter for Post-Digitial Book Cultures as well: ‘Converging Margins – Punk Publishing Beyond the Codex’. If you want to read about why I think augmented books are like the biomechanical horse I saw in a Twine game one time, you should grab a copy! There’s also an incredible chapter in the book by Eloise Faichney on Tumblr poetry, which everyone who grew up in the 90s/early 2000s should read.
Tell us about a frustrating experience you’ve had at work or in your career generally. Or perhaps something you’d like to see improved upon in your industry broadly. And what are you hopeful for or excited about?
I’m still at the beginning of my career as an in-house editor, so I really haven’t experienced long-term industry practices as much as others, but listening to Jocelyn Hargraves paper, ‘The invisibility of editors and the Australian COVID-19 gig economy’, at this year’s Independent Publishing Conference put into words something I’ve struggled to express in the past.
There are very few careers that ask for complete immersion but also complete invisibility of their workers in a final product. There’s a pervasive idea that being an excellent editor means your work disappearing so completely that your touch is unrecognisable. This is also, coincidentally, a great way to undervalue the work that editors do. Not recognising editors’ work makes it hard to track an editor’s portfolio and also makes it hard to have visibility/accountability around who is editing work by diverse authors.
I don’t think editing should be glamourised unnecessarily because that leads to other problems the industry is just beginning to tackle in terms of wages and work hours, but I would like to see greater recognition of editors’ work beyond the acknowledgements page. And at the very least, we really have to put translators’ names on book covers.