Industry Insight: Q&A with Sarah Clark (Head of Publishing for Rough Guides and Insight Guides)

From reading a degree in English and American Literature, to epic international travelling adventures, to heading up publishing for Apa Publications (that’s the parent company of renowned global travel guide publishers, Rough Guides and Insight Guides), Sarah Clark knows a thing or two about words and travel. 

In this latest Industry Insights piece, Sarah shares details of her publishing career journey, alongside some excellent tips for budding travel guide writers. She also shares poignant (and inspiring) insights into how it was to work on the frontline of the travel publishing arena during covid - a period that saw Apa Publications adapt to survive very uncertain times and come out thriving, with some forward-thinking books on the company’s sunnier horizon. Over to Sarah…

How did you first get into publishing? Was it a long-held aim? Where did you work en route to Apa Publications/Rough Guides? Was working in the travel arena a long-held aim?

I did a degree in English and American Literature at the University of Warwick, but without any especially clear idea of where that might lead me. I just knew I loved to read – and then, post-uni, I was lucky enough to do a lot of travelling. Two multi-country trips – the first around eastern Europe, just after so many countries there joined the EU, and southern Europe, and then the second around southeast Asia and Oceania – really gave me the travel bug. I worked in events for a bit, then decided to focus on getting into a career (at 23, hilariously, I thought I was late getting started), and the idea of working with books drew me to publishing. I was doing work experience placements and landed one at Insight Guides, owned by Apa Publications, through a contact – it wasn’t somewhere that usually offered work experience at the time. It was mind-blowing, the idea of actually producing these books that my friends and I relied upon so heavily when travelling in the pre-smartphone age! After that, I worked on a short contract at Little, Brown. This came to an end and I went on holiday to Marrakech. While there, Insight Guides reached out to me to tell me that their editorial assistant position had become vacant unexpectedly, and asking me to apply. That was in December 2006…I started in the new year and I’ve been there ever since!  

What drew you to editorial as opposed to other areas of publishing? 

When I first looked to break into publishing, I was quite open-minded about whether I worked in editorial, publicity or something completely different. But that is the huge benefit of work experience, if you’re in a position to do it, because I got a chance to experience various departments. After this, I came to the strong conclusion that my interest – and skills – lay in working with words and authors, and the act of building a book. 

What’s your career highlight to date?

Being promoted to Head of Publishing, only six months after returning from maternity leave, was a really proud moment. After being part of the company for many years and rolling with the changes during that time, it felt like the culmination of a special relationship – as well as the start of something new and exciting. Also, it makes me proud to know that I work for a company that doesn’t consider having a family to be detrimental to your career progression, or reflect anything about how well you can do your job. Prior to this, being heavily involved with the editorial integration of Rough Guides, when Apa Publications bought the brand in 2017, was a privilege and a brilliant learning curve.

What tips do you have for aspiring travel guide writers? What does it take to be a great guide book author?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many great guidebook authors over the years, but the things that make the very best stand out – and make you want to commission them again and again – are genuinely being able to write engaging prose, the ability to convey a sense of place through their words, and destination authority, meaning that you trust the information they provide. In addition, being communicative, collaborative and able to meet a deadline are all big assets that make a writer more likely to be commissioned again – as the editors share recommendations all the time! My best tip for aspiring writers is to be flexible on the format of travel content that you work on – and to be good at interpreting a brief! 

The past eighteen months have been especially difficult for travel-related businesses. What challenges have you faced, and what are you most proud of having achieved during this difficult period?

It’s impossible to overstate the shock to the whole travel industry caused by the pandemic, and even in our most pessimistic readings, we didn’t expect the impact to last so long. In the first lockdown, our sales plummeted by 95% and as time went on, bookshops – once open – reduced travel shelf space. We went from being a small and independent but ambitious publisher with these big brands in our armoury to the very brink of collapse. But thank goodness for the Rough Guides brand, because our partnerships last year kept us going, and this year our many UK guides have been extremely valuable to our sales. The biggest challenge has been to completely rework our priorities and modes of working – we’ve had to become extremely agile. The downsizing of the company has also been tough, as well as not seeing colleagues in person! I’m proudest of the team, for everyone’s versatility, flexibility and dedication to doing whatever is needed to first keep the company afloat, and then build it up again.

Tell us about some of your upcoming books and publishing projects.

We have a new edition of the Rough Guide to the Best Places on Earth 2022 due out this autumn, and it is a paean to the wonder of travel – something to really whet the appetite for what’s out there! I also recently completed work on the Rough Guide to Green Britain & Northern Ireland, which is a unique little book, based around road trips in the UK that can be done in an electric vehicle and the most eco-friendly places to visit, stay and eat. This feels like a very timely book. I’ve been working on a large content project for a major tech name, providing travel information for a new initiative they’ve developed, but I will shortly be getting back to planning next year’s books, including a new Rough Guides list – watch this space!

Which book(s) have you re-read most often (feel free to include anything - fiction, travel writing, books beloved from childhood!)?

I’m a long-standing Tudor obsessive, so I feel like I’ve gone back to the Wolf Hall trilogy (less so the last one – it was very long!) and the Philippa Gregory books a lot. I can’t resist reading parts of my childhood favourites – Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables and Chronicles of Narnia – if I come across them, and several of my favourites from my adolescence hold up really well too – Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Joy Luck Club, Rebecca, I Capture the Castle.

Which authors would you invite to your dream literary dinner party? 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roald Dahl, Hilary Mantel, Henry James – and David Nicholls to write the resultant screenplay. 

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not editing?

I’m generally in full-on mummy mode when I’m not working, but I love the theatre and eating out, and I spend a lot of time plotting future holidays!

Tell us a secret about books…

I have a Kindle and many books on there, but if I really love a book, I have to buy a physical copy as well. Just as I have to try to steal any of my Mum’s that she’s lent me. I feel like having them all on my bookshelves shows my appreciation of them!

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Helal S - 24th September 2021

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