This month we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary, which seems like the perfect opportunity to introduce you to some of our amazing team. First up we have Jonathan Wright!
Catch up with Jonathan on Twitter: @jonw23
• Tell us a little bit about your role at Pen & Sword, and how long you’ve been doing it?
I’m the Publisher for the History, Transport and White Owl imprints along with heading up the marketing team. I’ve been with Pen and Sword for over 22 years now and held a number of different positions, but my role has changed as I and the company have developed. For the History and Transport imprints, I look after the commissioning editors for these areas and discuss new projects with them along with adding some of my own titles. I also head up our lifestyle imprint White Owl, for which I’m responsible for sourcing the books we publish. Heading up the marketing team is something I’ve done for about 16-17 years now, so my role there is to support and manage our staff, provide advice and direction when needed to ensure our authors are happy and that we make the most of all opportunities available.
• Did you always want to work in publishing, how did you come into the job?
There’s a bit of a story with this. When I was at school, I didn’t really have too many ideas about what I wanted to do as a career and I held a couple of positions before I joined Pen and Sword when I was 17. At school we used to have to endure careers interviews with an adviser who would look at our grades and ask questions about what we enjoyed, our interests and so on. I never really thought too much of this and didn’t really feel it had been particularly helpful, but some years later I looked at what the adviser wrote about me and to her credit she had written ‘with Jonathan’s grades and interests, I feel a career in publishing would suit him.’ So maybe she did know what she was talking about after all!
I started life at Pen and Sword as office junior and have been lucky to work my way up as the company has grown. I’ve seen us grow from a tiny publisher into one of the biggest specialist publishers in the UK, something I’m immensely proud to have been a part of.
• What are some of the biggest changes to take place at P&S since you joined?
So much has changed! When I started at the company, there were only a few office based staff and now we’ve grown into much bigger organisation with more staff working both in the office and from home. In the office, I remember we had only one very basic computer and a typewriter that we all had to share. For every catalogue request or reply to a letter, we’d have to take turns to use the typewriter which I remember had a dodgy ‘A’ key, so you would end up with either none or twenty letters, depending on how the mood took it!
The book industry has changed completely, for example there was no Amazon when I started and I remember them launching as a purely online bookseller and the debate over whether they would make it or not. I think we all know the answer to that now! There was also no email or internet readily available, so lots more contact via phone and writing letters. I know to many today that will sound horrendous, but I’m glad I got to experience life before the web was readily in use, as it was just such a different way of working to how we’re used to corresponding today.
• Do you remember the very first book you signed up/worked on at P&S? Is it still in print today?
The first book I marketed was one called Final Descent, about aircraft wrecks in Wales which is still available as an eBook today. The first book I sold serial rights on was Jock Lewes, a book about one of the founders of the SAS written by his nephew, John Lewes. I sold rights to The Mail on Sunday and it was an incredible moment for me. I still get the same buzz seeing our books in the newspapers today, all these years later.
I got into commissioning as I had built up good relationships with a number of authors after handling the marketing for their titles so when they had new ideas, they would ask if I would act as their commissioning editor. This was something I was very keen to do and I’m proud of all the authors and books I’ve commissioned over the years, it’s a very special feeling seeing something you’ve taken from an initial idea to a published book. I never get tired of seeing finished copies of the books I’ve signed up, it’s incredibly rewarding.
• We know you could never pick favourites, but tell us about some of the books/series you’ve worked on over the years which you are most proud of, authors you’ve felt privileged to work with etc?
I have so many favourites, it’s hard to pick just a few but here are some of the ones I’m most proud of.
Conjuror on the Kwai is the amazing story of Fergus Anckorn, who was a POW in Japan during the Second World War, but with a difference. He was a magician by trade and would perform tricks for the camp guards to secure better treatment and extra food for his friends. He went through so much, but endured it all with a smile on his face and had the most extraordinary life once he returned home. A few years after his book was published, he appeared on the final of Britain’s Got Talent with the magician who won the show that year, Richard Jones. It was an amazing moment and one that still gives me shivers today as Fergus was the most amazing man!
Britain’s Last Tommies is perhaps my favourite Richard Van Emden title that we’ve published. I am very lucky to be able to class Richard as a friend as well as a colleague. His passion for his subject and his ability to write the most engaging books using the words of the veterans themselves marks him out as unique amongst military history writers. It also helps to explain the huge success he’s enjoyed. He works tirelessly to find the best quotes and spends hours (and a fortune) sourcing unseen photographs to ensure his books stand out. All of the books I’ve been lucky to publish with him are special in their own way, but Britain’s Last Tommies has a special place with me. It was a TV tie in with a BBC documentary, I sold serial rights to The Times and best of all, it was the book and series that brought the wonderful Harry Patch to the attention of the nation. What a man he was!
I’m very lucky that being the publisher of White Owl has given me the opportunity to work on books and with authors covering topics that I’m personally very passionate about. For example, I’ve recently published a book on my beloved Arsenal FC and I’ve always been a keen video gamer, so I’m delighted to be able to work with Chris Scullion on his series of game encyclopedias for classic retro consoles. Chris has been amazing to work with and also become a friend, so I’m delighted that his books have sold so well.
• What are the perks of the job – has your work allowed to visit anywhere special, meet anyone inspirational?
There are a lot of perks with the job and I feel truly fortunate to be able to do the work that I do. I find it so rewarding to be able to work with authors to create beautiful books that will be around for years to come. I have met so many amazing people, many of whom have become personal friends and who I’ll keep in touch with for the rest of my life. Journalists, editors, authors, staff, I’ve been very fortunate to work with such great people.
I met Fergus Anckorn who I mentioned above and he was even more incredible than I dared think he could be. I have met Jimmy James, one of the survivors of The Great Escape and I have a book signed by Harry Patch that is probably my most treasured physical object. I have met a few famous people through work, so off the top of my head, Freddie Flintoff, John Barnes, David Suchet, Christopher Biggins and a few others.
In terms of travelling, I’ve been very lucky to have travelled to New York a couple of times, along with a few countries in the EU. I also enjoy my work trips to London and being able to meet authors and contacts face to face. Attending trade shows is always a highlight for me as it’s fun meeting our customers and hearing direct feedback about the books we publish. However, I think my favourite trips are when the office heads off on battlefield tours. Not only do we learn a lot about the history behind the books we publish, it’s great to spend time with the fun people we work with. We have a really great group of people at Pen and Sword.
• You were a driving force in setting up the new White Owl imprint, which is quite a departure from Pen & Sword’s traditional list. Where did White Owl come from, and what challenges and rewards has it thrown up so far?
We’re always looking for new ideas and areas to launch into, so White Owl came about as the result of a couple of years spent discussing where to go next. We launched the imprint as a lifestyle one so that we could trial lots of different ideas and learn where we could make a difference. As such we’ve covered all sorts of topics such as health, gardening, natural history, sport and more besides, but we now have a very clear idea of what White Owl should be and where we want to take it.
It’s always a challenge launching a new imprint and especially one that taps into some very competitive markets. Initially, the biggest challenge was convincing authors to work with us who only knew us from the areas we’re traditionally known to publish in, but once we got a few names and authors signed up, it became much easier. I think it helps that as a company, we’re incredibly passionate about the work we do and once authors see that, they’re happy to sign up and trust us to do the best job we possibly can.
I’m incredibly proud of the list we have so far and we’re lucky to have some amazing designers working for us, so not only are the books entertaining and informative, they also look great too! In terms of where the future lies for White Owl, I think it’s going to be very exciting as we have some great titles lined up that sadly I can’t reveal just yet, but I’m sure that old and new readers alike will find something that interests them.
• What would be your dream book for P&S to publish – and would you write it yourself?
Haha, well the book I’d love to publish will actually be released later this year in October and that’s Arsene Wenger’s autobiography. Sadly it’s not one of ours, but I’m sure he’ll sell a few copies! As for writing myself, I’m not sure I could write a book as I know just how much work is involved which is why I have the utmost respect for our authors. There is so much dedication needed, but I imagine the feeling of achievement once they hold a finished copy in their hands is pretty special.
• What’s next? What projects are you working on at the moment which are due to be published in the rest of 2020/2021 which you are really excited to see released?
For this year, my main focus has been launching White Owl’s new crafts list. I’m really proud to have put together a team of incredibly talented authors, editors and designers to work on this series and I think the first few books in the list have shown just how good this team is. The books look great and we’ve had some really amazing feedback so far. I have a few new areas I’m planning to move White Owl into, but it’s a bit early to say what these are just yet. Suffice to say I’m excited about it and I hope readers will be too!
In terms of specific titles, I’m really looking forward to Chris Scullion’s SNES Encyclopedia from a personal point of view, but I’ve recently commissioned some incredible Military/History titles that I think our traditional customers will really enjoy. There are some amazing stories here that it’s quite incredible to believe are fact and not fiction – they would easily make great films!
• Outside of work, what have you been reading this year?
Outside of work I have to be honest and say I tend to read mostly fiction as it’s a distraction from the type of proposals I read for work. I’m very lucky to read through so many great ideas, even if we don’t publish them all, but in my own time it’s nice to have something completely different. Recently I’ve been reading a thriller titled I am Missing by Tim Weaver in his David Raker series that are always good tales and I plan to read Atonement next as I’ve had that on my ‘to read’ list for far too long. I think my favourite book of the year (admittedly not published this year) is Ray Parlour’s autobiography as not only is he an Arsenal legend, he’s an incredibly funny guy too.
• How have you found the transition to working from home during the pandemic? Who – if anyone – supports your work during the day and how do they help?
I worked from home two days a week anyway before all this when I care for my daughter, so in one way I was used to it. Work wise, I can do everything I need to from home just as well as I can from the office so no change there, but I do miss seeing my colleagues and making trips to see authors, journalists, etc. That was a big part of my role and something I really enjoyed, so I do miss that enormously.
I live alone mostly, but when my daughter Maddie stays over she’s great company, albeit not that interested in work chat (she’s three) – but I do find myself talking to Pickles, my 8-month-old Border Collie. He pretends to be interested in what I’m saying, so that will do for me. I am also lucky that I have a really supportive partner in Helen who helps keep me going and keeps me positive.
I’ve also found that having regular contact with our MD, Charles, and the rest of the team has been an enormous help. I think more than anything it’s made me realise just what a nice group of people make up Pen and Sword and just how much everyone cares about the company and making every title a success.