In conversation with

Sam Parker

Editor-In-Chief at Penguin

Introduction

Introduction

There’s nothing like a January full of resolutions to re-ignite interest in good old fashioned reading. Sam Parker’s over here hoping that zeal stays steady year round, otherwise he’s out of a job.

Formerly Digital Editor at Esquire, Sam now spends his days curating and commissioning features for Penguin.co.uk as its first ever Editor-in-Chief. 

While his time at Esquire taught him “how to structure long-form features properly and interview celebrities without being entirely sycophantic and awful”, this role asks Sam to spearhead a new online movement for Penguin that will entice and excite readers about books and authors.

As a sharp editor with an evident love for literature and an enviable roster of writers at his fingertips, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

We spent an afternoon by the river with Sam to talk literary inspirations, editorial learning curves and what writing really means to him.

Question and Answer

You had a long career at Esquire as Digital Editor – what did you learn about writing and editing during you time there?

I was lucky to have two great editors, Will Hersey and Alex Bilmes, who taught me many things. The first was to stop trying to show off and instead think about what a reader actually needs, wants or cares about. Later, I learned how to structure long-form features properly and how (more or less) to interview celebrities without being entirely sycophantic and awful. The main thing Esquire taught me, which is the essence of good magazine writing, I think, is that everything should be a pleasure to read, whether it’s a 3,000-word piece on mental health or a caption underneath a photograph. It’s difficult – particularly if you’re working online and publishing multiple stories a day – but it’s a good thing to aspire to.

Which magazines do you turn to for great writing?

Esquire, The New Yorker, The TLS and the London Review of Books are the ones I subscribe to. My girlfriend gets the Times and Guardian delivered every weekend and the supplements in those usually have something good. I like the FT too, even though in my head I’m still too young to read it.

What were you reading growing up?

Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl were my favourite authors when I was a kid, but the book that made me want to become a writer was Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. I read it at school when I was around 10 years old and was hooked right away by phrases like ‘web-footed cockle women’ and ‘snouting, velvet dingles’; how atmospheric it was, how good it felt to read out loud. I spent an afternoon writing my own version that described all our neighbours in highly unflattering terms, which my parents found hysterical. I realised I wanted something like that buzz – the writing and the feedback – forever, though sadly I never made it very far as a poet.

Sam Parker Editor Penguin
"The book that made me want to become a writer was Under Milk wood by Dylan Thomas. I was hooked right away by phrases like ‘web-footed cockle women’ and ‘snouting, velvet dingles’"

Can you tell us a bit about your role as Editor-In-Chief at Penguin Books?

Our goal is to make penguin.co.uk a leading place to discover great books, whether that’s through curated recommendations, author interviews or an interesting essay. My job is to oversee the editorial strategy, including on our social media channels and newsletter. It’s a new role and a huge challenge, but one I’m very proud to be doing because the Penguin brand means a lot to so many people.

“The main thing Esquire taught me, which is the essence of good magazine writing, I think, is that everything should be a pleasure to read, whether it’s a 3000-word piece on mental health or a caption underneath a photograph. It’s difficult – particularly if you’re working online and publishing multiple stories a day – but it’s a good thing to aspire to.”

How do you think your writing has grown since you started out as a journalist?

I have no idea. Less energy, slightly more competency? Although at 34 you can start saying that about most things.

What stories are you most interested in reading about?

Discursive essays about popular culture. Long reads about cults. Anything to do with authors I admire. Worrying dispatches from Newcastle United Football Club.

Whose voices are you particularly excited about at the moment?

Lisa Taddeo, Lisa Halliday, Ottessa Moshfegh, Deepa Anappara, Nicole Flattery, Hannah Sullivan. I’m also rereading Anne Tyler as she has a new novel out this year.

What do you think the role of a writer is?

It depends. I’m grateful for all the honest, hardworking reporters out there exposing injustice and changing the world. Personally I just like the fleeting sense a good novel can give you that you’re not actually completely alone in the universe.

The Storylist

Sam's Storylist

Books

  1. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
  2. How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  3. The Giver Of Stars by Jojo Moyes
  4. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
  5. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
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