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Industry Insight: Q&A with Jessie Sullivan (Head of Zeus)

Liz Robinson

By Liz Robinson on 8th June 2020

Well, just how do I introduce Jessie Sullivan from Head of Zeus and her completely fabulous answers, I almost want to hand you straight over to her so you can get on with finding out about her booky world. If anyone is interested in publishing, I highly recommend having a read, this really is an insight into the industry. There are some extra additions in the form of GIFs which the office thoroughly enjoyed and as Charlotte our Content Manager says: "Jessie’s enthusiasm just oozes out of her answers”. 

Yes, I reached for a slice of banana bread! Her favourite place to read is one that I totally agree with, and I had the same cover as one of her favourite childhood books. There is always something to connect booky people. By the way Jessie, Charlotte has already come across a bottle of your fun book fact wish - a paperback version. It's something a few companies have tried to create although the one Charlotte found didn't quite meet her very high expectations!

Jessie Sullivan, currently Head of Marketing at Head of Zeus, has worked in publishing for ten years. Jessie started out working across PR and marketing but, inspired by the combination of data-driven analytics and the scope for creativity, found her home in marketing. She has worked for a range of respectable publishers from Indies to corporates and has worked across adults, kids, fiction and non-fiction. Jessie was named as one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars in 2019 with three further awards for her marketing accomplishments. 

Tell us about your role in the book world and how it came into being:

My current role as Head of Marketing at Head of Zeus is a relatively new one – I’ve only been here three months – but I’ve been working in either PR or marketing (often both) in books for around 10 years and I feel incredibly lucky to have found a career that I enjoy so much. 

As a kid and throughout my teens, I had always been a heavy book-reader and, as I’d grown, publishing had always been in my mind as something that would be worth pursuing (helped by all the glamorous portrayals of publishing by Hollywood – still waiting on my 30th floor corner office with floor-to-ceiling-windows and an ever-stocked drinks tray). However, I’d picked both my degree and my university out of a hat (Medieval History at the University of Nottingham for all you curious cats and kittens out there) and I was worried I was unprepared and at a disadvantage* having not done English. 

But, like so many others, I did my research and started with unpaid internships (which I now actively rally against!) and then I was very much in the right place at the right time and landed a receptionist job at the then-independent Quercus. Whilst on reception I reached out to as many people in as many different departments as possible to get experience and ‘try out’ each of the different departments available (like so many – I had no idea that there was anything other than ‘editor’ on offer – Hollywood never shows the production team – the unsung heroes of our industry!). I quickly realised that my personality wasn’t so suited for editorial and I really enjoyed the campaign work I was getting involved in. Three months later, I was moved over to be Publicity & Comms Officer in the PR team. It was a perfect introduction to publishing and I’ve even kept the cutting from my first book’s review in a national newspaper – a very proud moment in my life. 

Cut to a year later, Quercus was bought by Hachette and my role was made redundant. A humongous confidence hit but ended up being a blessing in disguise. I ended up at Little Tiger Books as Publicity and Marketing Officer – a (then) small independent which meant that I was thrust into a lot of different tasks which, when paired with one of the best managers I’ve ever had (who to this day I see as my one true mentor who unlocked my passion and capacity for this industry and would be played by a Tom-Hanks-esque important character in the adaption of my life) really catapulted my career. I realised that I preferred the combination of strategy, data analysis and creativity associated with marketing over PR and decided to focus on marketing singularly. I progressed quickly from here, moving to more senior roles (use the fluidity of this industry to your advantage friends!) and trying out all the different types of publishers and books – indies, corporates, adults, children’s, small teams, big teams, fiction and non-fiction. 

All of this means that I have figured out, though not without hiccup, who I am within this industry and the environments and books on which I thrive. Enter the incredible Head of Zeus and my new role as Head of Marketing. My journey has been enjoyable and unbelievable and tumultuous and hard work, but I feel like I’ve found a good home to stop, breathe, grow and innovate. 

Please forgive me for the long ramble. If you’ve got this far, please award yourself with a slice of banana bread or sourdough or whatever you’ve been baking in lockdown. 

*For anyone wanting to get into Publishing and with the same worry, I’ve hired many times in my career and I’ve never once questioned someone’s degree choice!

When it comes to your particular role, what makes your heart beat faster?

There’s a lot that gets my heart beating faster (and I’m not just talking Normal People and #ConnelsChain) but I think the main thing is really connecting with the target audience for a book. A lot of my job – which a lot of people don’t realise – is data analysis. You’re always looking at sales data and constantly evaluating and re-evaluating an ever-changing environment in terms of consumer behaviour (how do readers consume media? Is it constant? What kind of books are they looking for right now?), the purchase journey (how are readers buying books? What format of books? Is this constant? How can I match this with supporting the industry as a whole?) and, especially at the moment, what’s happening in the wider world. When you strategise, implement and complete a campaign which nails all of those elements to really engage your target audience, there is nothing like it. It’s the marketing equivalent of that moment in Wolf of Wall Street. Yeah, that one. 

Since you first arrived in the industry, what is the one thing that has remained constant, and what has been the biggest change or challenge?

This is a humongous question that could warrant an answer longer than my first but -  DON’T PANIC - I’ve opted for simplicity and mystique much like the convenient appearance of those chains the White Walkers used in Game of Thrones to catch that icy dragon (seriously though, is there a White Walker forgery somewhere? Are the working conditions okay??). 

In terms of what’s remained constant – there will always be a place, and a demand, for storytelling. The format of that storytelling may change from eBook to physical to audio and whatever lays beyond but there has been and there will always be a hunger for good storytelling. It’s not going anywhere (which is great news for authors, publishers and booksellers). 

In terms of what’s changed – nearly everything else you can think of, but I think the biggest challenge has been the technological advances that change the way in which every single human on the planet consumes. We now digest information, entertainment and media completely differently to even one year ago and this shows no sign of slowing meaning the landscape, the consumer journey, even the way we talk to our readers, is constantly changing. However, one of my very educated authors (Hey Professor Ben Garrod!) told me a few weeks ago that extinction is just one half of a whole. The other half is evolution (yeah, I got chills too). I think the same applies here. For every challenge, there is also a whole host of opportunities and it’s keeping that at the forefront of your mind which is key. 

Is there a fictional or historical character you would be thrilled to market a book for, why is that, and what type of book do you think it would be?

I have a lot of answers to this question, but I think we could all do with a book by Leslie Knope round about now. For those of you who don’t know Leslie Knope, immediately stop reading this and go and watch Parks and Recreation right now. I guarantee it is the tonic you never knew you needed. However, in summary, she’s the Deputy Director for the Parks and Recreation Department of the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. She is an over-achiever who cares passionately about everything – from friends to work to waffles. Her unwavering enthusiasm is what makes this series so uplifting and she is incredibly relatable, not just in her character but the situations in which she finds herself (especially at work).    

I’m pretty sure if anyone could solve all the world’s problems, it would be Leslie Knope. 

[N.B. The Parks & Rec writers have already published an article explaining how they think Leslie would react to COVID-19 which is a fantastic read but there’s a host of spoilers for the series, so I won’t post the link here.]

Who are your book world inspirations?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, and for, some amazing people in this industry. However, I’m often most inspired by the people who are willing to go against the grain, question what is and what should be and are willing to do something about it. These people have included colleagues from every stage in their career from CEOs to interns and assistants. They are all equally impressive to me for standing up for what they believe in and what is right. 

Describe your favourite place to read:

Bed. If something can be done in bed then why aren’t you doing it in bed? Bed is the only safe haven left.

What is your favourite book from childhood, how did it make you feel?

I devoured books as a kid but there are a few that have stuck with me for a long time. The first I really remember is my mum reading the Hairy Maclary books to me. Reflecting, I think they were the books that really made me understand the joy of stories and how books are channels for community and shared experience. Hairy Maclary also taught me that some stories are better spoken out loud. 

Another book that really stuck with me is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I think it was the first book I read that felt a bit more grown-up but was still full of magic and adventure and other worlds. I remember reading it in one sitting and being engrossed. It ignited a lifelong love of books, especially fantastical ones. 

My original copy of The Hobbit had this cover:

Hardback, paperback, ebook, discuss:

I consume all formats of stories and I think most people do. For example; for a commute, I’ll want an eBook. For an author I love or a book with a breathtakingly beautiful cover, I’ll buy hardback. For a summer holiday, I love a paperback (shout out to my brothers and sisters who only count being on holiday when the pages of your book are a bit wrinkled from pool/sea water). For walking the dog, I’ll want an audiobook. I think it’s wrong to categorise people as consuming mostly one format or the other – I think that different formats serve different needs, not different people. 

Any strange book habits?

I have never in my life stopped reading a book halfway through. No matter how bad it is or how much I’m not enjoying it, I have to finish it. Fortunately, this has only been a struggle once or twice in my life. 

What would be your desert island book?

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It had such a profound impact on me that it is one of the only books that I finished and then immediately started reading again. Honestly, I’ve read this book so many times and each time I discover something new about it. I think I could read it over and over and never know everything about it. 

Curiously, I haven’t read Morgenstern’s new book The Starless Sea despite pre-ordering it as soon as I could. I have been told by numerous people that it is every bit as outstanding as The Night Circus but I still worry it won’t live up to my expectations. 

Fun book fact:

A lot of people love the smell of books but few people know there’s an actual word for this. Some people like the smell of old, dusty books and others like the smell of new, freshly printed books. Well #loveislove and it’s all called “bibliosmia’. As in “If anyone ever bottled Eau de Bibliosmia I’d be first in the queue”. 

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