From bookselling on the shop floor of Waterstones, to Editorial Director for Hodder and Stoughton (a division of Hachette UK), Melissa Cox has a unique, 360-perspective of the book world, and an eye for elegant writing with commercial appeal and distinctive voice, as testified by the novels she’s published, among them The Vanished Bride, A Gift in December, and The Wicked Cometh. Alongside her diverse stable of fiction, Melissa is especially proud of having published Palette, a wise and warm-hearted beauty bible for women of colour.
Read on for more fascinating insights and stories from Melissa - from playing a pivotal role in the development of the Waterstones Children’s Laureate, to the serendipity of being in the right place at the time, to discovering who’d get a seat at her dream literary dinner party table (spoiler alert: witty women feature large). Her passion is infectious, plus you’ll also get a preview into a gem of a debut she’s publishing later this year (The Stranding has soared onto my must-read list).
What are your career highlights to date?
Making the leap from the shop floor at Waterstones to the head office – an incredibly exciting time in my life as it aligned with a huge period of change at the chain; being part of the Children’s Laureate steering group the year Malorie Blackman agreed to take on the role; being shortlisted for a Nibbie for Young Bookseller of the Year (a distant memory now!); judging the Costa Children’s Award the year Frances Hardinge won the overall prize; changing careers and making the move from bookselling to publishing; publishing my first book; the first time a book published by me got a five star Amazon review, the first time a book I published was awards shortlisted, the first time I won an auction… I could go on and on, I’ve been very, very lucky.
How do you bring your bookselling and book buying experience to bear on your commissioning role?
It’s been a long time since I was a buyer, but certain things stay with you, like an eye for production details on books and a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of fonts and finishes. I have a very strong, instinctive reaction to covers – instantly feeling in my gut if something is wrong or right – which comes from years of sitting in meetings being shown hundreds of book jackets every day. But the most important thing I learned during my time in bookselling is probably how to pitch, how to sell something – be it a book to a hesitant customer or, later on, a book of the month to bookselling colleagues. I’ve never struggled to sell things to people – in another time in history I probably would have been a pedlar, like the one who convinced Anne Shirley to buy that terrible black hair dye.
Describe a typical working day in the life of Melissa Cox.
In lockdown, it’s settled into a fairly steady pattern. I start slowly in the morning with some exercise and then a coffee while reading my emails and making my to do list for the day. I sit down at my desk officially at about 9:45, unless I have earlier meetings, and usually the day will start with a couple of Teams catch ups or company meetings.
I’m embarrassed to say this but I usually spend some time each morning checking all of my books Amazon rankings and reviews – a good review can really make your day. I try to keep my Inbox under 100 active items at any given time so I spend a while replying to things: filling in forms needed to progress books through their various publication stages, replying to queries from Finance or the Contracts team, acknowledging submissions from agents, the emails NEVER stop. I aim to tick off one or two big things from the To Do list before lunch at 1pm – in the old days this might be a working lunch with an author or agent but now it’s much less exciting. In the afternoon there’s nearly always more meetings – and they usually require preparation of some kind.
I try to do creative work in the afternoon, like writing copy, coming up with ideas, briefing covers etc., as they’re more fun and less likely to make me sleepy post-lunch. I edit books or read in the evenings – I rarely leave my desk before half six and sometimes I’ll be there until 10 or 11. I’ve written such a long answer to this and I feel like I could write lots more – I promise you, this is not even half of what editors do!
What’s the best aspect of your job? And what do you wish you’d known before moving from book buyer to editorial director?
My favourite part of my job is, no question, my authors. What incredibly talented, interesting, funny, kind, generous people they all are. It’s a real pleasure to work with them.
What I wish I’d known is before moving? I wish I’d spent my last year of bookselling only reading backlist – as an editor, the reading never, ever lets up. I love it, but think fondly of the days where I’d discover a new author and be able to read nothing but their backlist for two months without a care in the world.
What sets your editorial heart a-fluttering?
I look for commercial fiction with an insistent, memorable voice – be it the character voice or the authorial one. I can tell within pages of starting a book or submission if the voice is the kind I’m after. I also LOVE a set piece – for example the cocktail making scene in The Rosie Project, or the Thanksgiving dinner in Such a Fun Age – I can go from enjoying a book to loving it after a really good set piece with plenty of build-up and even more pay off.
Tell us your most interesting acquisition story.
I am very lucky to work with the tremendously talented Rowan Coleman, who writes mystery novels for me under the name Bella Ellis. This would never have come about unless I hadn’t just happened to be in her agent’s office at the exact time she sent over the idea, prompting the agent to ask me if I thought anyone wanted a book where the Bronte sisters were detectives. My answer was a quite enthusiastic yes and a year later, the book turned up in my inbox and I hotly pursued it. We’ve published two of those now and there’s two more on the way.
Which book are you most proud of publishing?
I am predominantly a fiction editor, but I have a few non-fiction passion projects and Palette by Funmi Fetto, my first (and only!) full colour book is definitely one of them. I’m proud of it because it is the first of its kind, a beauty book for black women, that celebrates their skin, their hair, their features, all in a way that the beauty mainstream did not for a long time. Colour books are incredibly complex projects, even for experienced editors, so I’m really proud of the stunning book we ended up with – it’s beautiful and useful, William Morris would be very proud…
Which classic novels would you have definitely published back in the day?
This is hard to answer because so many of the books on my list are from LGBT+ and BIPOC authors, and we know that historically, their works have been excluded, overlooked or even banned. However, I’d like to think I would have published Northanger Abbey, if given the opportunity, because it is very much my sense of humour as well as catering to my taste for the slightly mysterious and gothic while still having a flirty, will they, won’t they, romantic element… An LGBT Northanger Abbey type novel would probably be my ideal acquisition.
Which books beloved from childhood do you still return to?
A lot more than I should! The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is an annual re-read – I love the moment they escape the dreadful orphanage in a wagon filled with geese – and Anne of Green Gables because I’m constantly astonished at how short it is and how much living happens in it. I also continue to love illustrated books, perhaps even more now as an adult than as a child – Shirley Hughes, Judith Kerr, the Ahlbergs, John Burningham, Paddington, anything illustrated by Ardizzone or Ernest Shepard, - they evoke such a lovely, nostalgic feelings for me but also inspire me – I’m sure I got most of my design knowledge from overanalysing picture books!
Which authors would you invite to your dream literary dinner party?
All the funniest women for one big, raucous dinner party with plenty of champagne and really good bread and butter and huge plates of the most delicious River Café style food (can you tell it’s been a long time since I went to a restaurant?). I’d have all my own authors, plus Nora Ephron, Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Katherine Heiny, Samantha Irby, Maeve Binchy, Kate Young, Nigella Lawson, Shirley Hughes – and some of the lovely authors I met during my time at Waterstones like Jessie Burton, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Mhairi McFarlane, Cathy Rentzenbrink. Gosh, that’s a lot of champagne…
Give us an elevator pitch for one of your upcoming books.
This June I am publishing the most beautifully reassuring, hopeful novel by a debut writer that starts with a woman hiding from the end of the world inside a whale. It’s called The Stranding and it really is something special – a book to end a reading drought, a book to bring hope in dark times, a book to inspire and a book to return to. The author, Kate Sawyer, is very talented and would also be a fabulous addition to most dinner parties.
Tell us a secret about books.
Booksellers will tell you they’ve read a book (they haven’t) and loved it (they didn’t), just to get you to feel good about buying it.
Huge thanks to Melissa for taking the time to talk to us. Follow her on Twitter for wit and wisdom from the world of books (and beyond).
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