Getting to the top of your profession: Interview with Georgina Morley

Georgina Morley is Non-Fiction Editorial Director at Macmillan. She acquires history, historical biography, memoir and the occasional book that might surprise you.  Norah Myers interviews her here.

1) How did you personally know when you were ready to progress to your next role?

Most of us want to make progress in our careers, especially starting out, but you have to learn your way around your job and get a sense of what aspects of your chosen career are the ones that are right for you personally. I was a secretary for a year (it was thirty years ago), then became a copy-editor and then moved across to the commissioning side of Penguin Books as assistant to the then Chief Editor, the late, great Peter Carson.

The two years I worked for Peter were fascinating. He worked with extraordinary authors like Robertson Davies, Jan Morris, Simon Schama and Roy Foster and I learned more in those two years than in three at university. But even though I’d started to acquire for myself and even though I loved being at Penguin and working for Peter, I started to feel restive. I needed a bigger challenge. There were no more senior roles there for me, so I knew I had to move on.

I thought it would take a year to find the right new job, but in fact it took only a couple of months. A colleague told me about a job at Transworld and I was lucky enough to get it, becoming a fully-fledged Commissioning Editor. Five years later, having learnt a huge amount about books, about editing, about authors, about publishing, it was again time to move. I put out some feelers, spoke to contacts who might have the heads up on who was looking to appoint someone and I joined Pan Macmillan as an Editorial Director in January 1994 and here I, very happily, still am.

2) Which qualities do you think help certain people to get to the top of their profession?

Passion – it’s a cliché, but it’s vital. If you can’t summon the energy to be passionate about the books you acquire, to communicate that passion to your colleagues so that they in turn can enthuse their customers and – ultimately – the people who really matter, the readers, then do something else. That tingle of excitement when you read a proposal or a manuscript that you know you want to publish is like nothing else. Cherish it.

Determination – stick at it. Most books you acquire are likely to underperform. Sometimes, they’re just not as good as you hoped they would be. Sometimes, the world just doesn’t want to know.  Sometimes you love a book with a vengeance and your colleagues just don’t get it. Learn when to back down as gracefully (not a trick I’ve always been able to pull off!) and when to keep to pushing at what seems like a very solid wall.

The ability to say no – this is probably the single most important lesson you need to learn. It’s tempting as a hungry young editor to buy books just to be able to say you’ve commissioned something. We’ve all done it. And sometimes we’ve got away with it. But a good editor knows that good enough isn’t actually good enough. Who is the market for this project? How will you reach that market? Does it fit what your publishing house does? If you can’t answer those questions, say no.

Being able to juggle – as an editor, and especially as an Editorial Director where you oversee a particular area of the list, you need to keep tabs on EVERYTHING. You’ll be reading submissions, editing manuscripts, writing cover copy, checking catalogue copy, clearing picture permissions, reassuring anxious authors, persuading them that a particularly cover look is right for their book, persuading your colleagues that the approach they favour won’t find favour with the author, etc., etc., etc. You’ll be dealing with this year’s books, last year’s books and next year’s books.

3) What has been the most challenging element of a senior position?

The juggling, as outlined above, which means there’s not always enough time to think strategically about the area of the list you’re responsible for. Or to think strategically full stop. We spend a lot of time firefighting and you have to be able to carve out space and time to step back from that and think clearly and calmly about how best to get the best for your books, while still ensuring that they are either profitable or prestigious. And preferably both.

4) Where would you like to be in 5 years?

Still working, still caring about the books and the authors and trying to help them publish the best version of their books.

5) What advice would you give your younger self?

Publishing’s a life choice, not just a career. You don’t work city hours (except you do, as you think about books and ideas and publishing every single day of the week, whether you’re at work or not) and you don’t get paid city money. Nobody dies if you screw up, but it will often feel like it; try to keep some perspective.  Have a hinterland. Read books outside the genres in which you publish, do other things than read books.

And if you find you don’t love your job, you’re not excited by the books your company publishes, don’t enjoy working out how to persuade people to read those books, then walk away. It isn’t for everyone. But for me, it’s been terrific. On a good day, it’s one of the best jobs a bookish person could have: you get to get up in the morning and go to work to talk to smart people about books.