A relationship built on coincidence: or, a conversation with Jane Johnson.

The conversation began when I visited Cornwall and stayed with Jane in Mousehole. Or maybe it began when Jo Fletcher sent Jane a christmas card some years ago. I wanted to know things about editing, wanted to understand more about how publishing works. The conversation was interesting, so I thought I would find a way to share it.

Jane Johnson


Jane in Mousehole with the framed print from Musicians Benevolent Fund, Cavalcade

But first, let me introduce you to Jane Johnson. We met when she commissioned me to do cover art on the books of Robin Hobb. But that is another story. Our paths had crossed before though I hadn’t realised it, because the editor’s name is seldom on the books they edit and it is rare for them to gain any credit for the work they do outside a small circle of people. If they do their work well it passes unnoticed. But I wanted to know more, and so I asked Jane a few questions.

How did you first get in to the world of publishing?

Jane: I had taken 3 degrees – in English literature, Old Icelandic and teaching – and found myself over-qualified for just about anything, so was working in Ladbrokes, until a chance meeting with a neighbour landed me an interview at George Allen & Unwin Publishers, who published JRR Tolkien, my favourite author since I was 11. I lied about my typing and shorthand abilities and got the job: within 6 months was running the Tolkien list. An incredible bit of serendipity and strategic risk-taking!

What would you say is the ‘job description’ for an editor?

Jane: The job of an editor is twofold, and that binary function can in itself create tensions.You are employed by a publishing company to find  work that will reach and please a significant audience and therefore be commercial and generate revenue and profit to that business. But at the same time you are there to deliver a service to the author, and so also to the readers. In that aspect, the editor’s job is to enable the writer to tell their story as simply and effectively to their readership, without letting their own ego, prejudices or corporate strictures to get in the way of that magical, crucial process. In addition, you represent the author and their work in-house, acting as a locus point for all information about the writer and their books, negotiate the contracts with the agent; are the conduit of information back to the writer and agent, and also the driver of enthusiasm, support and success for the books in the publishing house. It’s impossible to occupy that position effectively without some degree of friction, there are so many warring and sometimes incompatible forces at work.You end up requiring a very wide-ranging skillset — receptive reader, economist, negotiator, communicator, psychologist, therapist, generator of ideas, warrior, nit-picker, information store. Some of these skills are in themselves incompatible: there’s really no such thing as a perfect editor!

By this time my head had caught up with Jane’s reference to Tolkein. At college Alan Lee had been a real hero of mine and when my son was 10, maybe 11 I bought him the Lord of the Rings illustrated by Lee. I asked Jane, was she responsible for these books?

Jane: I commissioned both Alan Lee (illustrated LOTR) and John Howe (calendars and then book covers). I commissioned Alan back in 1987/8 to produce 25 watercolours to illustrate the centenary edition of LOTR (to celebrate the 100th year of the author’s birth) We devised a plan which had to take into account the technical requirements of printing the book (where ‘signatures’ fell where the art paper would be) and Alan’s wish to be oblique in the subjects: to illustrate scenes that were less known, and at a slightly different angle. It ended up as the most beautiful book, and was a great success, selling over 100,000 copies in a high-priced hardback in the first year. In many ways Alan’s illustrated LOTR remains my proudest publishing achievement: we succeeded in both aesthetic and economic terms, and Alan really did magically manage to capture my vision of Middle-earth. And as Peter Jackson said when he invited me to New Zealand in 2000, I’d ‘given’ him the look of Middle-earth by bringing both artists to the work. (That was the first of a dozen trips to the NZ production: the producer dubbed me ‘the 10th member of the Fellowship’ by the end, and I felt I was!) I also commissioned John Howe’s classic Gandalf striding through the rain cover for the single volume edition of LOTR, which remains for me the most iconic image of the wizard; and in the calendars many of the best Middle-earth monster paintings that certainly had a big influence on the creation of the Balrog, orcs, Uruk-hai etc. I also then commissioned Alan to illustrate THE HOBBIT, also a beautiful edition.

( Certainly for me the most beautiful thing about the Peter Jackson films was seeing these books of Alan’s and John Howe’s vision on the big screen.)


Tom's copies of Lord of teh Rings, tattered from being read and re read

How long have you been an editor at Harper Collins?

Jane: I started in publishing in 1984: George Allen & Unwin (by then Unwin Hyman) were taken over by HC in 1991, so this is my 30th year as an editor! Voyager as a list was launched by me in 1995: 20 years old next year, which is hard to believe. My tagline for the list was ‘For travellers of the imagination’ and that holds as true today as it did back then. Emma Coode is now running the list in HarperCollins: she and I have worked together for 15 years. We’re like a two-headed beast. On different continents (I work remotely now and am rarely in the offices).

Tom's well read copies, the ones I could round up in the house.

Can you remember holding the first of the Game of Thrones books in your hands? What did you think then?

Jane: I remember reading the manuscript when it came in to my boss (Malcolm Edwards) and he asked me to read it. I read the scene in which Bran climbs up the tower and inadvertently sees the king’s wife and her brother having sex, and the brother then pushing the child to his death (as we thought then) and thinking, Crikey, this is something different – sex, in fantasy, and not only sex, but kinky sex! And going straight to the publisher to recommend we buy it. I remember it was the Fiction Department’s Christmas lunch when we were involved in the auction, and we were all goading him to increase the offer. It kept going up and up, because everyone was bidding for it. We won the auction for what was at the time an unspeakable amount of money. My boss’s face was white when he realised how much three books (our initial purchase) added up to. When Malcolm moved to Orion I took over his authors so have been looking after George for more than a decade now and was the commissioner for the remaining 4 books. I’m not head editor for George: I read and give my input to his US editor, Anne Groell. I’m his UK publisher. And also his resident climbing expert! He asked me for advice for when Jon and the Wildings scaled the Wall.

And the first Robin Hobb you read? Which one? What did it feel like? Was it manuscript? 

Jane: I first bought her when she was writing as Megan Lindholm, back in 1987 and published several books by her under that name. They sold respectably for a small independent house, but nowhere near enough to sustain a place on a corporate publisher’s list. But I was at HarperCollins when her first Fitz and the Fool manuscript was submitted and I remember reading it with goosebumps all over me. I knew it was a bestseller at once. So then her agent and I devised the Robin Hobb pseudonym for her and I came up with a strategy for making ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE a bestseller from a standing start, which I’m proud to say we achieved.

That feeling – the editor’s hunch – is a rare thing. I got it when I read the first paragraph of young British writer Mark Lawrence’s PRINCE OF THORNS – I knew I had to buy it by the end of the first page. We were late to the auction on that one, and acquisitions usually move at a glacial pace at big publishing houses, who never take any decision except by committee, after scads of paperwork have been completed and circulated, but I made such a nuisance of myself with that one that I bought it within a day of receiving the manuscript. Then again when Joe Abercrombie’s agent sent me what he called a YA project called HALF A KING. Again, the writing was so good I could hardly read it fast enough, and we’d convened the entire publishing team and created a pitch document within 24 hours. Sometimes, you just know.

Sales, can we talk about sales? Would you know things like what was the print run for first George RR Martin book compared to what it is now?  And co-eds for first books? Compared to now?  

Jane: We print, I seem to remember, 1500 copies of the first hardback of A GAME OF THRONES. We sold over 300,000 copies of the hardback of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS in 2012… In 2012/13 George sold somewhere in the regions of 9 million copies worldwide.

Cover art for A Dance With Dragons

As an author it sometimes feels that the writer is on the outside of the publishing process. George RR’s position seems very strong now, with everyone watching and waiting and almost bullying at times for what comes next. But was it always like that? The series has taken a while to build. Has the publisher always had faith that they had a real game changer on their list, or has it been a battle at times to convince them?

Jane: It was a slow build and we were out of pocket in a pretty massive way for many years. It took two or three goes to get the book up and running. It came out first of all with some very striking covers by Jim Burns on them, but they were too genre-oriented to reach out to the widest possible readership so I did recommission the covers about 10 years ago and that style is being used worldwide now. Sometimes you have to be very dogged and determined: it doesn’t always make you friends in-house. It hasn’t always been plain sailing when defending contracts that were for years far from earning out: but everyone is smiling now, and I did have to negotiate the contract for the rest of the books at a lower rate; but at least that means George is now earning huge royalties. With fantasy, it is always a battle: it always amazes me how few publishing people read in this time-honoured area, even though it often bankrolls the entire business (Tolkien, Martin, Twilight, Harry Potter etc). They always have the erroneous and ridiculously snobbish idea that it’s read only by teenage boys who never leave their basements and will therefore somehow miraculously find its market without being supported by advertising or promotions. I’ve had to fight for marketing budgets for all my key authors over the years. Don’t have to do that for GRRM any more…

When George RR Martin was last in the UK Harper Collins threw a party for him at The Tower of London. I was lucky enough to get an invitation and went along, partly because I wanted an intro to the Raven Master. I sat in the Tower after it had closed, drawing Merlin and waiting for the party to arrive. Amazing privelege to sit in a place where so much history had happened. And the Raven Master was just wonderful, as were the ravens. Read more about that here: more coincidences wound through the take of Merlin the raven I drew.)


Between the receiving of finished text and publication date how much editing happens would you say? 

Jane: It depends entirely on the author and the book. Sometimes there’s hardly anything to do but a bit of tidying around the edges; sometimes a book may require 5 or 6 structural edits before it’s working properly.

And can I also ask you about your writing? Have you always written?

Jane: Ever since I can remember. I was always writing stories at junior school. I wrote a 60pp novel called THUNDERBOLT THE DARTMOOR PONY when I was 9. The first long piece of fiction I can remember writing before that was a revision of the ending of Bambi, so that Bambi’s mother didn’t die. I also told ghost stories to kids at school: they paid me 6d between them for a new story. I got into trouble because kids were being late to school since they’d no longer walk through the churchyard because I’d told them so many tales about the undead, or the mistakenly buried, fighting their way out of graves… But I stopped writing when I started publishing: I was overawed by other people’s talent for a time before regaining my own confidence. It was writing THE TENTH GIFT that really gave me the confidence to call myself a novelist. I had never tried to write a historical novel or about our real and recognizable world before and it was a huge challenge: but researching the Barbary corsairs and finding out more about them and their numerous raids on my native Cornish coast was so utterly fascinating it was soon clear it would be impossible to write a dull book with such thrilling subject matter at the heart of it. It started as a novel about my abducted family member (Catherine Tregenna in 1625) and then became a heartfelt love story and what I hope is a sympathetic and informed examination of the interface between Christianity and Islam: for when I set out to research the novel in Morocco, I got so immersed in the place and its people that by the end of the year I came away with a Berber husband. Which is simply the best payback for writing I could ever have dreamed (though even my imagination would never have come up with anything so outlandish!). We’ve just celebrated 9 years together, and I’ve written three historical novels with Morocco at their heart: THE TENTH GIFT, THE SALT ROAD (amongst the Tuaregs of the Sahara) and THE SULTAN’S WIFE (set in the 17th century Moroccan and English courts).




You write under many different names. Why?

Jane: My first published novels (4 books as Gabriel King) were written with my ex, literary novelist M John Harrison. We’d recently broken up and I think the shared project was way of keeping in contact. So we had to come up with a pseudonym that would encompass us both. Jude Fisher as a name came about because of my work with Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies: I had to write the companion works under a pen-name because it would have been awkward for the estate if I’d been involved under my own name, even though by then I had stepped away from being Tolkien Publisher. And I was too well know in the fantasy field – I didn’t want my fellow editors judging the submission of my work because of who I was but on its own merits. My historical novels are all written under my own name, though.


 What are you working on at the moment ( editing and writing)

Jane: I’m editing the draft of a 12th century epic novel which focuses on the build-up to the Third Crusade, on Gothic cathedral architecture and its debt to Islamic sacred buildings; on miracle-fakers and the Siege of Acre. It’s called THE BOOK OF MIRACLES: my perennial interest in the interface between Christianity and Islam. Love and war: my WAR AND PEACE!

I also have a rather odd project in the works which I’m writing sort of secretly. Only my agent has read any of it so far…

Editing? Constantly: already this year two big fantasy novels, including the new Robin Hobb (FOOL’S ASSASSIN) which will be published in August; and two thrillers (which I also publish) including the new one by Jonathan Freedland, aka Sam Bourne. I now have Mark Lawrence’s next manuscript on my Kindle for reading.

( Below is a picture of Jane hard at work, editing in Morocco. She lives half of the year in Morocco and half in Mousehole, with her husband Abdel Bakrim who paints and cooks and trades beautiful silver jewellery made by the Berber people)

editing books in Morocco

Forgot to ask, this is a techy question. When you edit, do you do it all on screen or do you print off and read on paper ( just imagining the block of paper you would need for George RR.) 

Jane: Everything is now edited on screen and sent back and forth with tracking showing every change. I run a paperless office. Which is just as well, since with temperatures hitting 47 degrees here in the summer, it’s impossible to run a printer: the inks just dry up.

I read manuscripts on my Kindle, then they get transferred to an editing program on my laptop when we get to structural edits and finally copy-editing. I do like to see a book through from acquisition to printer. I don’t think there are many editors around who do that, but I see it as a crucial act of faith between me and the author.

I’m not head editor for George:  feed my edits to his US editor, Anne Groell. I’m his UK publisher. I am Megan’s head editor, also Raymond Feist’sMark Lawrence’s and now Joe Abercrombie‘s. I was Stuart MacBride’s worldwide editor (he’s currently #1 in hardback) having persuaded him to turn a science fiction crime novel into a present day one: he’s still working with those characters. I am Jonathan Freedland (BBC/Guardian)’s worldwide editor. And I am also the UK publisher of Dean KoontzTerry Goodkind and Tom Knox and SK Tremayne.

Mark Lawrence, King of Thorns

One of the driving forces behind this conversation with Jane was my wishing to understand how the phenomena of The Game of Thrones came about. The series has been a game changer in publishing and also in tv adaptations. It is an epic that took time to build from its initial print run of 1 500 hardbacks to the monster it has become. Time has played a part in this, with each book that was published new people discovered the series, and the publishers kept the back list in print so that new readers could collect all and read all. And the books had their own champions who fought for the writer and backed what has been a very long game, convincing the publisher that it was worth investing, until the series hit that tipping point. And where was that? Sales rocketed with the adaptation for the small screen. HBO brought many new readers to the books.

It is one of those books that again champions fantasy fiction until there are few households left who haven’t either read the books or watched the series.

Having enjoyed both screen and book I would like to thank George RR Martin for having the vision to hold such a behemoth in his imagination, and Jane and all his editors, on both sides of the ocean, for the work they do, and Harper Collins for buying the book and keeping the faith.

We didn’t only talk about books. I also told Jane I wanted to revisit an old haunt of mine. Every year when I was a child we would go on holiday to the sea, to a small place in Devon called Torcross. I loved it there and to a land locked child it was so wonderful to be beside the sea. We always sat on a shingle beach and I would read and doze and draw and swim. Above us a small private hotel, the Cove House Guest House. I would dream of another life, being a child, growing up there, drawing on the stretch of concrete in the sloping garden, watching the sea boil with mackerel, the storms, talking to the ghosts of the soldiers who had died there during the war. Jane went quiet. Then she went to fetch a photograph, a small black and white of a child, with a great roll of paper stretched out on a strip of concrete in a garden by a shingle beach. It was the same garden. Jane had spent the early years of her life growing up in the same house, beside the sea.


About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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10 Responses to A relationship built on coincidence: or, a conversation with Jane Johnson.

  1. Val says:

    A really, really interesting interview. Thank you both :0)
    It’s fascinating to discover how many people are involved in bringing a story to it’s readers who are often totally oblivious to them (guilty..)
    We have spent several weeks of Spring/Summer for the last two years camped out in the wilds (on the shore of a Glacial lagoon) in our cosy tent with a wood stove, listening to the Glacier grumble and rumble each night, while reading 1st The Hobbit aloud, as a family read and then the next year The Lord of the Rings… the setting for experiencing reading these books was perfect…. Grand misty mountains, a huge Glacier both beautiful and Grim depending on the weather (always awesome) the ever present ever moving sea. When the children were asleep my husband and I would curl up by the stove clutching big mugs of tea and disappear into the adventures in The Game of Thrones which were also perfect companions for such a Wild and beautiful setting.
    And now we know the name of a least one of the people we never knew were involved and have to thank :0) if you get the chance and could pass those on we would be grateful.

    On a last note it sounds like unexpectedly sharing a special childhood significant place was truly beautiful serendipity.

  2. What a fascinating interview/story. Thank you for sharing it all with us. I have read some of those authors. Now to go find some of the others.
    Sandy in Bracknell

  3. Great interview. I was very surprised to hear that the UK first print of A Game of Thrones was only 1500 books, especially given the large advance paid. Thank the gods that quality showed through in the long run and that Jane was able to keep the series on the shelves until it took.

    • Jackie says:

      I was amazed too. It seems standard in picture books. First print run is 2000. Received wisdom then is that the book goes to paperback. But it takes no account of new babies being born, new readers finding the books. I am unusual in that my publishers watch sales and keep my books in hardback. Dragons has sold about 10 000 now. Not bad given some of it’s rejection letters one of which said it was too whimsical for the current picture book market! Thank goodness for editors.

  4. Jo Fletcher says:

    Wonderful interview; good questions, Jackie! I am *so* glad I support the Musicians’ Benevolent Society by buying their Jackie Morris Christmas cards every years – so many good things have come out of sending them 🙂

    • Jackie says:

      Cheers Jo.Are there things you would add, Jo, about the process of buying and editing books? I feel now that publishing houses don’t give authors enough time to grow, too interested in budgets. Do you think things have changed since the net book agreement went? I have so many questions I want to ask. After 30 years in publishing I am only just beginning to learn what it is all about. i spent my first 10 years in ignorance happy colouring in at home. Have since learned to get out and sell. But I miss the solitude of just being home alone with my imaginary friends.

      • Jo Fletcher says:

        Oh gosh, there’s a question! I think that a lot of publishers don’t give authors time to find their audience – in fact, I’m in the middle of next week’;s blog about that very subject 🙂 – but I think genre publishers are different; we know that it sometimes take a while for word of mouth to get around! For every Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie, both hits pretty much out of the box, there’s a Charlaine Harris – 23 years to become an overnight success! – or George Martin. And I’m pleased both became huge hits *before* the respective TV shows. But you can’t blame publishing houses for giving up on an author if the sales aren’t there: it’s an expensive business, once you factor in editing, covers and everything, and no sane business will throw good money after bad indefinitely. But sometimes, if the editor has that gut feeling, it’s worth going out on a limb and pushing to keep the author – you just have to learn when to pick your fights! As for the loss of the Net Book Agreement, my gosh, that’s a whole different rant! In a few words, I think books have become devalued, and that’s not done anyone any good. Okay, got cover copy to write otherwise Nicola will slaughter me in a manner most foul! But keep asking those questions! xx

        • Jackie says:

          Brilliant. Charlaine Harris is a name that is new to me. Will have a look. Who is your most recent “I have to have this on my list?” And why do you think that, as with children’s picture books, with such a big slice of the market they get such a small percentage of the reviews, unless they go giant like Harry Potter and George RR? So many people, when I suggested Robin Hobb to them, turned around and said “oh, I don’t read fantasy, after loving H Potter. One recently reminded me of this. She hasn’t read anything but fantasy since her first Hobb, apart from Manda Scott’s Rome series.

  5. Pingback: Robin Hobb Cover Art Part 2 | Jackie Morris Artist

  6. IMO this interview with Jane Johnson is one the best pieces of reading online. Anything that opens up the other side of the publishing industry is rare enough, so it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to read about the development of a range of different author successes. Additionally, Jane is a wonderfully colourful character in her own right!

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