1 What is your job title and company? And roughly how many people work for your company?
I am publisher at Old Barn Books, which was started by my husband, David Ellwand, and myself. We are aided by a band of highly skilled freelancers, most of whom very happily are also old friends. My office companion for two days a week is Becca Spiers. We were desk neighbours at Templar for about 10 years, so we are used to the way each other works, and we are learning and growing the business together.
2 What are your qualifications and working background, and when and how did you take on your current job?
I was sales and marketing director at Templar Publishing for 21 years, and prior to that worked in print and bookselling. My first job was for Guardian Overseas Education, running courses for children in France and Germany. My first degree was in French and German and I also spoke Spanish, so I started off at Templar helping out in rights. As a bookseller I had discovered that I loved selling, and I also studied for a distance learning MBA from Warwick University as I wanted to explore the mystery of business.
I grew up in a ‘special’ residential school for children with all sorts of learning difficulties and physical disabilities. Our parents had been founder teachers at the school and invented many of their own materials. My father printed books and other teaching aids in his print room, stuffed with ancient letterpress equipment donated by Coventry Printers, and pioneered the use of audio visual equipment in the classroom. That’s obviously where I got the love of the smell of ink and paper, and in a house full of books and with access to several local libraries, I read pretty much non-stop. I always wanted to work in publishing, but it took me a while to find the way in.
After leaving Templar I worked with The Book People and for three years helped to organise the Imagine Children’s Festival at the Southbank Centre, which was a fantastic way to rediscover children’s joy in books, authors and artists. We started Old Barn Books as a way of being able to work from home while we were caring for ailing parents. It hasn’t been quite the part-time, relaxing option of our dreams, though. There’s no other way to do it but with passion and full-on!
3 What does your average working day entail?
The typical office day starts at about 7am with a dog walk in the woods, followed by a session in the library in the barn, where I regularly re-write yesterday’s ‘to do’ list into today’s page in the diary and skim through emails and sales figures. A longer dog walk follows with Dave, who will have emerged by now—he tends to work at night in his photographic studio and darkroom—or with Becca and her puppy if she’s in, so we can chew over ideas or issues that have bubbled up since we were last together. Then it’s down to the serious graft until 3pm, when Becca leaves to pick her children up from school.
Tasks we cover together might include writing or editing a text or marketing materials, liaising with our production guru, designers or proofreaders, or ensuring our sales partners—Bounce Sales and Marketing in the UK and Walker Books in Australia—are up to speed with our list and sales materials. We pull books from the shelves and test how they feel in our hands to decide on the spec for our next titles, and if we need a pack shot we head through the barn to ask Dave to do it for us in his studio.
Most of the time, though, we seem to be packing parcels. We both say that our favourite toy when we were little was our Post Office set, and here we are living the dream: wrapping parcels and sending them out endlessly into the abyss, hoping that someone somewhere is going to pick up on the beauty of our books!
After another dog walk, the evening shift begins. I usually tackle the accounts or communicate with our overseas publishing partners or Helen Binns, who sells rights for us. Once I’ve started on the first glass of wine at about 7.30pm, I avoid writing any emails.
4 What do you enjoy most about your job?
We don’t have any outside investors. The financial and time constraints involved in having your own money on the line are actually quite helpful—we really can only take on projects we absolutely love and believe in. We won’t be producing mass marketing multi-title series any time soon. There’s a buzz in identifying the killer project (from the butterflies in the stomach, not from a spreadsheet) and working out how we can best realise it in editorial, design and production terms and bring it to market. There’s no-one else to blame when it goes wrong and that is actually quite liberating: it forces us to take responsibility!
5 What achievements are you most proud of?
We are proud of every book we have published, as all of them have been produced with care. Winning our first award—at the British Design and Production Awards with Give and Take—was a great moment, though, and felt like a validation of what we do. This year our first (and so far only) fiction title, The Stars at Oktober Bend, has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. We are so happy that this title, which we bought in from Allen & Unwin in Australia, is going to get the UK readership it deserves. It’s a great book and it’s wonderful to know that other people share our feelings about it.
6 What are your biggest challenges?
See (4) above! It’s been quite scary. Starting the business was really an unplanned spur of the moment thing, so there’s no pretence at any roadmap. Although, of course, we have been here before. We know it takes a long time to build a list and a name and there are all sorts of pitfalls on the way. I try not to think about how long and how hard it might be. We might not have done it if we had thought about it too much!
7 What have you experienced in your job and publishing that you didn’t expect?
The children’s publishing community is a very small and supportive one. I missed it when I wasn’t in it. I only realized when my daughter came to Bologna with me for Old Barn’s first book fair in 2015. She absolutely loved the creative atmosphere and the buzz and actually picked out our first picture book purchase: Kate Prendergast’s wordless Dog on a Train, which has been very successful for us.
8 What is the best thing about working for an independent publisher?
I always loved the ability / necessity to be involved in the whole process which independent publishing entails, from the birth of an idea through to the happy customer. I’m too nosey and opinionated to be able to keep to my own job and not interfere with everyone else’s. Although I hope I respect the expertise of my colleagues (eek!).
9 How do you switch off from your work?
No, I don’t have an answer for this one!
10 What advice would you give anyone wanting to start or progress a career in publishing?
Don’t despair and don’t dismiss any opportunity for a book-related experience. Just do everything you can to the best of your ability. All the detail matters!