Updated: Jun 18
To celebrate the second anniversary of the podcast, I've decided to interview some of my guests from the first season and see how their career has developed in the last couple of years. First up is Dr Ellen Johl, now Assistant Editor at Wellcome Collection.
I interviewed Dr Ellen Johl for the podcast in May 2018, when she was Editorial Assistant at Penguin Press. If you haven't listened to that episode yet, you can listen to it directly on this page. Ellen's interview starts at minute 20.
And now onto this blog post interview to discover how Ellen's career has evolved in the past couple of years.
Hi Ellen, it’s so nice to be back in touch (virtually), thank you very much for agreeing to do this follow-up interview! You’re now Assistant Editor at Wellcome Collection. What does a typical day in your current role look like?
Hi Flavia! It’s so lovely to be in touch. Our small publishing team at Wellcome Collection works very closely with co-publishing partners to publish unusual and beautiful books, so I usually split my week between the Wellcome offices and Profile Books.
A typical day at Profile might be made up of various meetings: joining their editorial and acquisition meetings, briefing a book jacket at the covers meeting and chatting with the production team. I’ll also read proposals and submissions, edit books and I might even have a stretch of time to research new commissioning ideas.
During lockdown, everything is continuing pretty much as normal, and I really value learning from the other editors there. On my Wellcome days, I’ll also have quite a few meetings. I’ll feed back to my team on what’s happening in publishing. I’ll collaborate with other departments across the Collection and Trust: from digital to design, media to marketing, legal, events, library, collections and research. I might also be in touch with our other external partners to offer editorial thoughts on a new proposal or book draft. On another day, I might work with the events team to set-up a launch event for one of our books. Every day is different. At the moment, I’m working closely with one of the curators on a future exhibition for a tie-in book: it’s a fascinating project that I hope will be both radical and have a wide appeal. Of course, because of lockdown, all of these meetings and interactions are happening digitally, so it’s more important than ever that everyone stays connected.
Which new tasks and responsibilities do you have, compared to your previous job as Editorial Assistant at Penguin Press?
As an Editorial Assistant, I worked very closely with two publishing directors helping them publish books, whether that meant photocopying manuscripts, taking on some editing, assisting with deals or tracking down hard-to-find images. In my new role, I don’t directly support another editor in the same way. My role has a bit more flexibility and responsibility – and part of the reason for that is because our publishing team is so tiny! It’s just me and a publisher (who is currently on maternity leave) and a freelance marketing director. So, instead of being reactive to the requests of a manager, I'm able to look at the whole picture: the schedule and critical path, scanning ahead for copy and cover brief deadlines, thinking about the gaps where we could be publishing, both for specific lists like the Wellcome-Profile imprint or more broadly about what partnerships we could be developing. The other key difference is that I’m encouraged to commission and to take on my own projects, which is really exciting.
How are the books you work on now different from the ones in your previous job, and how has your approach as an editor changed accordingly?
In my previous role, I worked on the Allen Lane imprint at Penguin Press, which publishes serious non-fiction: from psychology to science to economics to medieval history. Most of the books, although the subject matter might vary widely, seem to appeal to a similar kind of reader. In my current role, all our books contribute to Wellcome Collection’s mission of challenging how we all think and feel about health.
Working on a narrower range of subjects – the question of what it means to be human – is a very rewarding challenge, as it pushes me to think more creatively and radically about the possibilities of publishing.
And what I love about working at Wellcome Collection is that each new project has the potential to reach a completely new reader, whether that’s through serious science or a more commercial memoir or a very literary history book or a children’s book or an Audible Original collaboration.
What advice would you give to those trying to step up in their career as you did, from editorial assistant to assistant editor?
I think at every step in your career you have to own it! Everyone wants to feel appreciated for their hard work and to be rewarded with a promotion, and that’s hugely important, but you can’t live your whole career thinking about the next title change. It’s healthier, I think, to focus on building up a set of skills that will make you an editor. Instead of thinking about how you can become an assistant editor, perhaps think about what projects you can ask to lead on, whether there’s any shadow editing you can do, or whether you can think of some new commissioning ideas.
Think like an editor! You already are an editor, no matter what your title is. Now, how can you be an even better editor? Ask questions, listen, take chances, find opportunities. And then be your own champion.
In your opinion, what are the skills more in high demand now, to work in editorial roles?
Editors have to be flexible – you have to be able to pivot from championing your books to quiet time editing or reading. You have to stay current with what’s happening in publishing and in the wider world, but also be able to switch off and focus. And that can be incredibly challenging in such a digital, noisy world.
Do you have any advice for those applying for their first job in publishing right now?
It feels like an incredibly difficult time to be applying for a job, but people are still reading, some publishers are still hiring. Try to stay enthusiastic. Read the Bookseller. Reach out to people for advice – most people are happy to help.
What do you think could be the best way to use the potential downtime in the current lockdown, for those trying to start and/or advance their career in publishing?
Probably the best thing you can do is look after your mental health! This isn't downtime: we're trying to survive a pandemic. Forcing ourselves to ‘make the most of it’ isn’t going to help. This is a long slog, not a sprint. Other than that, I reckon reading is the best way to pass the time. Read widely and figure out your interests.
You’re a strong advocate of diversity in publishing, and in our previous podcast interview you recommended reading more female and BAME writers. Do you think things have improved in this regard in the past couple years, and which steps forward do we still need in the book industry?
I don’t know whether I’m the best person to ask – as a privileged white woman – but it does feel as though the publishing industry is waking up. Slowly. At Wellcome, we’re looking into launching a new initiative with the aim of seeking out under-represented writers (we’re currently recruiting a consultant to advise on how to go about setting up this initiative, link to apply here).
What are you currently reading and what’s your favourite book of the year so far?
I’ve finally started reading the Wolf Hall trilogy, and it’s the perfect tonic during the pandemic. I can’t pick just one favourite book of the year so far – but I’ve been loving Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing, The Crying Book by Heather Christle and Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby.
Thank you very much, Ellen!
Thank you for reading this post!
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