Talent Fairy Q&A with Siobhan Jones, Editorial Director, Book of the Month
The best part of my role as Talent Fairy is that I talk to people constantly. I talk to folks who still work in traditional publishing and want to ride it out. I talk to folks who have successfully transitioned to new or adjacent fields. And I talk to lots of people who are trying to pivot and need the tools to do so. But what I’ve found is that those three groups don’t necessarily talk to each other. There is a knowledge gap between those who are looking for content jobs and those who are hiring for them. In my series of posts, Chatting With People Who Hire Content People, I bridge that gap, and answer questions that career pivotors might have about roles and organizations outside of traditional media. I talk to folks who have content backgrounds and “get it” and those who don’t, but they will all have one thing in common: They hire content people, people like you.
My interview today is with Siobhan Jones, Editorial Director of Book of the Month, the super popular book subscription service for millennial women. (The brand reaches more than 15 million readers each month across their social and digital platforms.) I recently got to know Siobhan while working on the search for a new position at BOTM that will work alongside Siobhan (more about that in a minute). Siobhan has been with the company for almost four years where, among other things, she has the esteemed duty of sourcing and selecting the five novels that are included in its offerings for its members each month. (Take a peek at this month’s picks.)
Siobhan and I chat about what it’s like to read and discuss pop fiction for a living, the content that millennial women are thirsty for, and how a chance meeting at a coffeeshop changed the course of her career. Oh, and we also talk about that new new role at BOTM, for a Head of Original Content.
Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Talent Fairy: What does it mean to be Editorial Director at Book of the Month?
SJ: It’s a dream job: It’s reading for work! My main role is to pick the books and lead the editorial team. There are a lot of things that go with that: I work with publishers to get the books and authors we want to be featured as one of the five monthly selections. We work with brand partners and celebrities [on partnerships], on merchandising the site, and on creating content for the book product pages. We also have some input on what the marketing team is doing, like our messaging on social media.
How did you end up at BOTM?
SJ: I moved to New York to be a teacher, but I didn’t love it. How I got into publishing is a quintessential New York story. I was done with my first year teaching and was on summer vacation. My girlfriend and I would walk to the coffee shop every day and there was always this woman there who was reading a new book. We wondered what she did. One time we got to talking, and she said to me, I see you are already reading a new book. Do you work in publishing? Do you want to? And I said, Yeah. I didn’t realize that was something you can actually do! It was this serendipitous thing that changed my life. She got me an interview at HMH, a publisher based here in New York. I became a publicity assistant, but I wasn’t that good at it. I wanted to be in more of the social media world and in the marketing of books and deciding what people wanted to read on a higher level. That’s when I got involved in the social media side of books and started my own bookstagram. I only had like 18K followers which I thought was big at the time. When I got to Book of the Month, I worked with book influencers who had 200K+ followers!
What was your role when you started?
SJ: I started as a content marketing manager. I was working on Instagram, the blog and with influencers and PR. That was really fun work, but I wanted to jump into the book selection [part of the company]. The woman in that role ended up leaving and I took that on in late 2017.
How do you know what books to pick that will resonate with your readers?
SJ: We keep a lot of data about what members have liked in the past. But our emphasis is on debuting new authors. We consider ourselves a hand-in-hand marketing partner for emerging writers who need a fair shot. A new author may get lost in the noise and we help them get their name out there in the world, help build their career, and then we are there when they go to write their second book, too. Brit Bennett is a great example of that. We carried her debut The Mothers back in 2016 and wanted to use our platform to amplify the noise around it. And now we are featuring The Vanishing Half.
I love BOTM’s sassy TV commercials. They really speak to this generation of women. Are you responsible for that voice?
SJ: I can’t take credit for the voice, although I do like to think I’m funny. Our marketing and creative teams have crafted this voice over the years that is a little cheeky but also warm and informational. Our goal is to make millennial women feel that the brand gets them. To have that wink-wink moment and be playful. We don’t want to talk down to people. We are trying to help millennial women find books they love. Most of our members read for entertainment, so we try to make the experience really fun.
Outside of the book recommendations, what else does BOTM offer its members in terms of content right now?
SJ: We pride ourselves on being the best at creating content that helps our members figure out which books they will love, and beyond that at celebrating reading. Instagram is a big channel for us. Recently we’ve been pushing towards expanding our content programs.
One example is a biweekly Instagram live show called “Virtual Book Tour” that we launched last month. It’s on Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m. We bring on an author we are featuring that month so our followers can hear stories about their lives and make them more interested in their work. We started it because a lot of authors had to cancel their publicity tours due to the Covid crisis.
We just had Jennifer Weiner on [most recently author of Big Summer] — she was great. We talked about why commercial fiction gets a bad rap. And she talked about stories and ideas that are important to her. Members got to know her and her work on a higher level.
The brand is expanding to more original content, including an email newsletter, which the new editor will head up. What do you think that will look like?
We want to go beyond talking just about our books and create a platform that provides perspectives on women’s lives broadly and is a platform to help promote the voices of our authors and other contributors. We would like to give our members and our audience content that is truly engaging, is relevant to what is going on in their lives and is driven by our authors. That being said, I think that the right hire is going to be able to put a fine point on how Book of the Month does that and makes it relevant.
I hear you are a small but mighty team. What’s the office culture like or what was it like before everyone went remote in March?
SJ: It’s one of my favorite things to talk about! Across the board, the people I work with are really great: smart people who like books and working in an innovative environment. It’s super collaborative — we want to get the job done together. I will also say it’s pretty fast paced, but if someone is up to that challenge, it’s the perfect fit.
How have things changed now that everyone is working remotely?
SJ: One thing we do to keep the team together is have these all-hands meetings every week or every other week. We will pop onto Zoom or Google Meet and share what we have been working on. I’ll talk about the books. Someone else will share the results of tests that they are running. We use Slack a lot. We adapted to work from home very quickly.
Anything else you’d like to share about what it’s like to work at BOTM?
SJ: I’m sure all tech companies say this, but we really want to invest in things that matter. And put resources behind what works. I think this [job] is an amazing opportunity for someone to shape something from the beginning and make it really big.
We are a pretty small team. And we don’t care about hierarchy and corporate shit. I came in as a lower level manager and over the years I’ve been given more opportunities to rise — I took them and it was paid back to me. This is the kind of place where if someone comes and makes a difference they will be given more opportunities to make their mark. At some places it’s one in, one out, and you can’t move up in title until someone else leaves. We don’t have that. If someone is champing at the bit to be in a place where they can let their ambitions unfurl, that is this place.
Chandra Turner is founder and CEO of Ed2010 and Talent Fairy. She is a talent recruiter specializing in the content and media space. She also offers personalized career coaching for media professionals at all stages of their career.