Ask An Editor: Ailsa Bathgate, Barrington Stoke editorial director

Lucy Nathan
News - Publishing Monday, 27th September 2021

'I still feel slightly amazed and incredibly lucky that I get paid to do the thing I love most in the world, which is to read!'

How did you get into publishing?
Answering this question made me realise that I've now spent over half my life working in the publishing industry. This should probably make me feel old, but actually I still feel slightly amazed and incredibly lucky that I get paid to do the thing I love most in the world, which is to read!

I started out the way so many people have - by working in Waterstones. I'd come home from teaching English in Japan and felt that at the old age of 23 there was no time to go and do a publishing course - I had to get on and get a job as quickly as possible. I started as a Christmas temp in the amazing branch in Edinburgh's West End, and was there for the next 18 months. It was a brilliant introduction to the business - learning about what sells and why. I absolutely loved it and had the best time with some lovely people. Everyone should work in customer service at some point as it gives you an entirely different perspective and respect for those serving behind the till in any retail environment. Be polite, people! And don't leave disgusting deposits in the erotica section...

But I really wanted to get into editorial, and eventually I got a maternity-cover editorial assistant position in the religious division at HarperCollins. I was really lucky, as some of my close friends from university now lived in London and I was able to move between their sofas for a while until I got settled. So I was in! I had a job at one of the biggest publishing companies in the country! I got to ride the Tube to work and I had a pass that got me into the swanky offices on Fulham Palace Road.

This was exciting stuff for a girl who grew up in a small town in the very north of Scotland, and I was pretty chuffed with myself. I was also incredibly intimidated, as I realised how little I knew and it seemed that everyone around me was supremely confident. Having been to Edinburgh University, I'd already experienced a huge sense of culture shock coming up against the class system for the first time, and it was definitely still in full force in publishing. Have things changed? I'm not convinced. 

My first role in-house gave me a great chance to learn about the industry and the different stages of the editorial process, all the while fielding calls from people who claimed to be in direct contact with Jesus and who wanted us to rewrite the Bible! I moved around some other positions at HarperCollins before family reasons took me back up to Scotland, and for the next 16 years I worked for Mainstream Publishing, latterly as editorial director.

Mainstream published non-fiction in almost every genre, and there was never a dull moment. We had a panic button installed when someone threatened to firebomb the office; someone wrote to members of the Real IRA pretending to be me; an author sent me an A3-sized framed photo of themselves to inspire me while I worked on their memoirs - the stories are endless and possibly worthy of a book themselves if I got my old colleagues together!

Once Mainstream was sold to Penguin Random House I went freelance, and then, out of the blue three years ago, Lucy Juckes approached me about the position of editorial director at Barrington Stoke. I didn't know much at all about the company and thought they were an educational specialist, so I was amazed when I saw the list of authors they worked with and then completely won over by their ethos and aims.

Apart from a brief spell in children's publicity at HarperCollins, the children's market was new to me. The last three years have been an exciting, immersive whirlwind of learning. But the essentials of editing remain the same whatever books you apply them to. It's all about being the midwife to great stories and having the utmost respect for the authors who create them, without whom the industry wouldn't exist.

How did lockdown change the way you do your job?
Doesn’t the start of lockdown seem like a lifetime ago? I remember so clearly sitting in the office discussing whether LBF would go ahead and what was going to happen to our titles that were currently at the printer in China... From an editorial point of view, the practicalities of my job didn't change, as I've always worked part of the week at home. I can edit anywhere there is peace and quiet and a plug point. But with an 11-year-old to home-school, my working day now started at 5am and went on late into the night as I tried to keep everything on track. Wasn't it brutal? And yet I'm so conscious of how lucky I was/am to have a job.

Just like everyone else, we had to reschedule a tranche of our titles and watch as the distribution chain shut down around us. But we galvanised ourselves to think about ways we could support our customers - the parents and teachers who turn to us for help in reaching struggling and reluctant readers, and there were more of them than ever.

Lockdown provided a unique opportunity for parents to see how their children were really doing at school, and for many it came as a shock to learn about problems with reading. We have never been so busy in terms of direct contact with customers, and we set up a live-chat function on our website and designed a home-help pack that we sent out to hundreds of people.

I know that we've all got Zoom fatigue, but I think there are some great benefits in being able to speak to anyone anywhere in the world this way instead of having to travel. Being based in Edinburgh has often meant periods away to attend meetings, conferences and book fairs that are now easily accessed from home, and I think we have an opportunity to reflect on ways of working that often disadvantage working parents, particularly women.Are there any recent pieces of publishing that have impressed you?
It's not specifically a piece of publishing, but one thing that has really impressed me is the work being done by CLPE, by Charlotte Hacking and Ed Vere, to explore the positive impact on children's literacy of using picture books in the classroom. The pandemic has undoubtedly had a detrimental impact on children's education and put at risk work that has been done over the last 10 years to close the attainment gap, so it was wonderful to hear about this innovative programme that has been proven to improve children's reading and writing skills by focusing on visual literacy. I'm really interested in exploring how picture books can be used with older children to improve literacy and encourage creativity. Details about the Power of Pictures can be found here.

What are you currently looking for?
One of Barrington Stoke's main aims is to bring struggling and reluctant readers stories from authors their peers are already reading and talking about so that they can feel included in the conversation with no sense of stigma. This means that I am constantly reading all the amazing work being published by other companies and on the lookout for new names to bring to our readers. I have an endless list of authors I'd love to work with, including Katherine Rundell, Pamela Butchart, Jasbinder Bilan, Polly Ho-Yen, Struan Murray, Alastair Chisholm, Jenny Pearson, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Elle McNicoll and so many more. Every struggling/reluctant reader is different, so I think it's really important to try to offer something for everyone. We have a lot of ground to cover!

Are there any industry trends that you've noticed lately?
There's definitely an increase in the number of graphic novels available and a recognition of the value of this route to reading. It's something I’m very interested in exploring, though there are challenges with the format and production that we have to overcome. 

I've also noticed that more publishers are starting to think about the accessibility of their books, and I very much hope that this is a trend that catches on. Barrington Stoke was created to reach children whom the publishing industry was largely ignoring and offer a gateway to the world of books. We believe that every child can be a reader, and so much more could be done throughout the industry to make more books accessible to more children.