Clare Millar interviews Sasha Beekman, Production Coordinator at Affirm Press
What did you study?
I studied the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. I did it two years full time and would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in the world of books/writing/publishing/words.
What did you enjoy most from your studies? And what do you wish you’d learned but wasn’t included?
I wonder if this answer will be helpful for anyone, but the best part of studying was definitely the people I met, and my internship (which I guess does tie back into the people I met). It was one of those courses that have a lot of part-timers and a lot of mature age students because it’s a two-year course and, you know, people come into it from all walks of life, having potentially had a different career path before, or are looking to upskill, or just looking for a complete change.
The people I met were so varied and interesting, and it really was the best. I actually just had a catch-up last night with people who were in my cohort. We hadn’t seen each other for ages, but it’s really nice to see what everyone’s up to these days and how we’re all still connected to this book world in some way.
And the second part of my answer is my internship. I did my internship with Affirm Press probably 5 years ago now (Lordy be). It was such a wonderful experience, and led to a lot of great opportunities for me. I met some of the best people, and signed and published my first picture book when I’d finished interning with them, and of course I’m working there now and it’s just been really nice how I keep floating in and out in different ways. Embarrassingly, the ‘thank you’ card I wrote for the team at the end of my internship is still pinned to one of the walls in my pink Kikki K. pen, and I am too nervous to ever re-read what it says, even though I walk past it to get to my desk every day.
You moved from Darwin to study in Melbourne. Did this feel necessary to enter this industry?
I really did feel like moving to Melbourne was a necessary move at the time. The lit and arts scene in Darwin has really come into its own, though, in the years since I’ve moved, so maybe there’s more of an opportunity there for younger people looking to enter the industry, and maybe they won’t feel the need to move away from home for it.
I think a lot of where I am today comes from the real-life connections I’ve made, so even with the larger push towards remote working and learning that we’re seeing at the moment, I still think I would’ve made the same decision to move to Melbourne because everything has come from actually knowing people, and making a lasting impression (well I like to think I’ve done that haha).
In my course we talked about networking a lot and I really hated it because it felt so corporate and soulless and fake, and I didn’t realise that all of the literary events, book launches, parties and things that I was going to and making friends at actually counted as networking. When I reframed it as just making friends and meeting cool people, I felt a lot better about it because that’s just something that feels more natural to me.
So after all that rambling, yes, I think that it was really important to move from Darwin to Melbourne to start off my career in this industry. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll want to go back to Darwin and open a bookstore or something (not to compete with The Bookstore Darwin or anything, I love you), but I think that having lived and worked in Melbourne and being part of the publishing scene here, it will always help whatever I decide to do or wherever I decide to go in the future.
Tell us about being a production coordinator! What does this involve? What do you think makes you successful in this role?
Hoo-boy! What does this involve? It’s a lot of stuff, really. It’s quite a big role. Often when I tell people I work in publishing, they’ll assume I’m an editor or something and I find it so hard to explain my job and I always preface by saying ‘now, it’s not the sexiest of the publishing jobs…’ but I suppose that comes down to personal taste.
If we boil it down, production has to do with the actual physical making of the book. So, if you pick up a book and look at the size of it, the weight of it, the paper stock inside, what the cover feels like, what embellishments might be on it (foil, a grained texture, a glossy finish)—that’s all part of production. There’s a lot of design work involved, working in Photoshop and InDesign a lot, and a big chunk of my work is quoting and costing books. There really are a lot more numbers and measurements involved in my job than I ever thought there would be when I was at uni studying words!
So when a book is first acquired, we’ll talk about how we want it to look. This can be pretty standard when it comes to a novel or your regular non-fiction title. But if you’re working with kids’ books or highly designed illustrated books, there’s a bit more to it, and that’s where I’ll do a lot of my quoting with different printers to find out how much it will cost us to print a book full colour, to a certain trim size, and what finishes we might want. Usually I’ll go outrageously all out with what options we might want (ribbons, sprayed edges, foil, embossing, graining etc.) and then once I get the quotes back I’ll work with the editors/publishers and figure out what is actually viable for us to produce.
Honestly, a lot of my job is saying to editors ‘no, we can’t do that, don’t even think about it’. But lately, I’ve been able to have a lot of fun with some funky kids’ book formats, which I’m really stoked about. The most fun part is when we’ve been able to be back in the office together and fawn over all of the different swatches together when we’re brainstorming. There’s nothing better than a good swatch booklet.
What kind of timeframes and lead times are you working with in your role?
Goodness gracious. We all know time neither exists, nor matters, but I feel like I am living on some other plane to everyone else because currently in March I am printing books for Father’s Day. There are huge lead-times for books that print offshore because we need to leave time for them to ship (literally on a ship) to our warehouse in Australia. And it’s just a reality that we have to do a lot of offshore printing for our fully illustrated titles because it’s not viable to print them here – unless someone wants to pay $100 for a picture book?!
So we’ve got to work really far in advance because of that, and even further in advance because for some of the super speccy titles with a lot of shimmer and bling, or a whacky format, or a big-name author, we want to have samples of them ready for our sales team to sell in, and some retailers even want us to present all our Christmas titles in April. So it really is just a strange way to view a year. The absolute busiest time of year for me is May-June because that’s when we’re printing all of our key Christmas titles, but right now it’s already starting to ramp up. So my ‘quietest’ time of year is probably August/September.
Why do you think we don’t hear much about production roles at uni?
I think because as I mentioned before, it doesn’t sound like the most sexy job, does it? When you think about books you think about words and how beautiful they are and how they can truly transport and transform you. But you rarely think about the physicality of a book, right? And maybe that’s because all of that falls to the wayside when you’re truly immersed in the story, which makes a lot of sense. And I must say, until I had my first publishing job (the one I had before this one), I definitely wasn’t as obsessed with paper and cover finishes to the level I am now.
I think that it might be because a lot less production people are employed in a publishing house than editors. And maybe because of the simple fact that it might be a less employable pathway than editing, so they wouldn’t want to devote too much time on it in a course?
In my course they talked a lot about freelancing as a viable way to earn an income after the course, and it’s definitely a lot easier to be a freelance editor than a freelance production controller, I think. But that being said, I actually don’t remember a single lecture talking about book production.
And you mostly work on children’s books, is that right? What’s has it been like being part of building a children’s list?
I actually work across the entire list, so that’s all books on the general list and all children’s books. But I’ve been having a lot of fun brainstorming really fun new formats and ideas with the kids’ book team and it’s hard work but it’s a real joy. The best thing is actually seeing something you worked on be made into a physical book, and I imagine editors, authors, designers all feel this way too! And I think it’s particularly special to me because you can spend hours going back and forth with measurements and little tweaks here and there, getting quotes, choosing paper, and when it all comes together and it looks shit hot I am just so proud—that’s definitely the best part.
You interned at Affirm Press when you were starting out. How did the internship help start your career path?
I think I touched on it a little bit before, but it helped immensely. I truly, truly don’t think I would have achieved what I have to date without this internship—what I learned there and the people I met. I felt so supported during my internship and felt like I really had a good reference for the kind of workplace I wanted to be a part of and where I wanted to end up in publishing (I was an editorial intern actually, but I feel this role suits me better).
I actually kept cropping up over the years as I applied for a number of different jobs in publishing and whenever I heard of an opening at Affirm I would email Martin and be like ‘hello, please hire me’ and EVENTUALLY, it happened for real. My current role is a maternity leave cover and maybe people are going to hate this story, but it came about because I was at an Affirm party and asked who was going to cover this parental leave, and when they said they hadn’t found anyone yet I said ‘I can do it’. So I feel really grateful that I had some production experience from my previous role, and that they believe in me, because it really is a lot of responsibility. I like to think it turned out well for everyone!
And you’ve worked at other publishers and bookshops. How would you describe the differences in your jobs and the atmospheres throughout the sector?
You know, I’m really quite chuffed about the fact that I’ve been able to have a pretty full-circle view of the publishing industry. I’m an author, I’ve worked in-house, and I’ve worked in a bookstore! And it’s really interesting to see how these different areas interact with the product of a book.
I would say that from my experience, everyone who works in-house should do a stint in a bookstore. Gosh, the work that booksellers do in the world of stories is so important, and I can’t tell you how many times in meetings and in my day-to-day in-house I have said the phrase ‘from a bookseller’s perspective’, because it’s so important that the booksellers like the books.
The product has to be good, it has to fit on shelves; it has to not have a cover finish that’s going to be torn off once they’ve put a sticker on it. There’s so much that I don’t think people would think about unless they actually worked in a bookstore. You have to get the booksellers onside if you want to sell your books. And they do the best job at handselling and personally recommending things, so you WANT them onside for sure. I think that experience has really taught me a lot and I’d like to think that I have a pretty holistic view of the publishing sphere now.
You’re also the author of When You’re Going to the Moon. How did this come about?
Wow, it feels so long ago now, but it was all because of my course and my internship at Affirm Press. I did a children’s writing subject at uni, really because it fit nicely with my timetable and I thought it would be easy (spoiler: it wasn’t) and that’s where I fell in love with kids’ books again and where I saw what skill and effort is needed to create them.
When I was interning with Affirm, they were just starting their list of children’s books and I thought, why the heck not, and did the annoying thing that you shouldn’t ever do as an intern and said ‘I’ve written a book, could I submit it to you?’. Thankfully they said yes, and after I finished my internship I submitted it. Turns out they really liked it and wanted to publish it and I was beside myself. It was a really great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of being edited and the collaboration. I’m trying my best to do it again, so we’ll see!
Do you think that publishers see it as a good thing that you both write and work in publishing?
Who’s to say! I think it’s more common than you think, though. I can think of a few people who both write and work in the space. I was always worried that as an author who worked in a different publishing company, people at Affirm might’ve found me annoying because I think I knew too much of the process and asked too many questions that other authors probably wouldn’t think to ask or probably didn’t care about, to be honest. But I was just so curious about everything! I mentioned this once after I started at Affirm as a staff member and everyone assured me that I wasn’t annoying, but why would they say otherwise to my face, you know?
What would your advice be to students of colour looking to enter the books and publishing industry?
My advice might not be what some people want to hear, but I would say that the best thing is to really put yourself out there. Go to the events and the parties, the book launches and talk to people. Worst thing that can happen is that you make a few acquaintances you have a chat to whenever you’re at a lit event, best thing is that they might think of you when they know of a job coming up.
The Australian book world is so, SO dang small and genuinely people will hear a name on a resume and say ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen this person around’ or ‘I’ve heard that name’ and sometimes that can do wonders.
I would also say that internships, if you can afford to take the time to do them, are extremely valuable and a great way to learn. AND, specific advice for being a bookseller because when I first moved to Melbourne I thought ‘obviously I’ll get a partime job at a bookshop’ but it turns out that literally everyone in the city had that idea AND you needed bookseller experience, so just start wherever you can. My first bookselling job was straight out of uni selling law and business textbooks but it’s all relevant and any experience is good experience, I say.