Ask the Expert: Hannah Knowles

We’re back with Ask the Expert, where we chat with various people across the world of arts, culture and entertainment and share their expertise. 

Today we’re speaking with Hannah Knowles, the Publishing Director, Arts and Culture at Faber. With over 17 years of experience in the industry, Hannah is responsible for overseeing Faber’s music and screen publishing as well as managing the arts and culture lists and exploring new arts areas for Faber to publish in. Before joining Faber, Hannah worked at Canongate, Octopus, Hodder, and Ebury.

Describe your job in one sentence.

Overseeing the brilliant Arts & Culture lists at Faber & Faber.

You’ve worked at some of the biggest publishing houses and imprints over the course of your career, how did you end up where you are today?

Ha! Long story. I moved around a lot when I was younger, largely because I needed more money to pay the rent, and if there was no room to progress at the company I was at, it just meant moving on. This role at Faber was an incredible stroke of fortune – I took on a maternity cover and ended up staying in a great role.

What are your tips for anyone trying to break into publishing, in particular, commissioning?

If you’re breaking in and just starting out, take any job in any department. At that stage, all experience is going to be incredibly useful, so even if you know you ultimately want to be a commissioning editor, taking a job in another department will help you understand the job and the industry better. I worked in sales for 6 months – part of my role was filling out returns forms for a particular retailer and it was a big eye-opener. It showed me what sales are up against and was incredibly useful for when I began to acquire books. Also roles at literary agents or scouting firms are all experience that you can use in publishing houses if you choose to move later down the line, so just keep an open mind.

You have been refreshingly open and outspoken about mental health in the publishing industry. Do you think that there has been any positive change around this conversation since you first spoke up?

Hmm. Well. I haven’t seen anything that has made me believe there is a better fundamental understanding of how mental illness impacts people in the industry – or chronic physical conditions, either. I referred in an article to our having an exceptionalist attitude in the industry, and unfortunately that means that it doesn’t matter how many articles I or anyone else writes about the subject. There is (broadly speaking) a belief from management across the industry that what they are doing is adequate, and if you think that is the case and don’t engage with people who are saying their experiences don’t match that belief, then nothing is going to change.

What if any other changes have you noticed in the industry since the start of your career, for example, with regards to career opportunities for individuals from non-typical backgrounds or with particular perspectives, as well in terms of the range of authors published?

There are incremental changes, in terms of diversity of staff and authors being published, but the problem – as has been raised by many others – is that there isn’t adequate support in place to ensure that people from different backgrounds don’t feel alienated, which makes retention a problem.

Biggest pinch-me moment of your career?

That’s always going to be working with incredible authors! There is nothing like that buzz you get when you read a proposal that has something special about it. Nothing other than then being able to buy it and work with the author to publish it, of course!

Who from the world of arts and entertainment would you love to sign for Faber?

There are a couple in the works that I don’t want to jinx, and some I’ve already signed that I’m extremely excited by. But dream commission? Now Prince is no longer with us, it would have to be Stevie Nicks.

What’s on your radar? Could you share what you’re listening to, reading and watching at the moment? 

I’ve pre-ordered Yoko Ogawa’s Mina’s Matchbox. She is probably my favourite writer at the moment. She isn’t afraid to show humans as the very morally complex, contradictory and strange creatures we are. Podcasts are my wind-down go-to: My Therapist Ghosted Me always makes me laugh.