BookBlast interviews editor and publisher, Philip Gwyn Jones, who has over 25 years’ high-level experience at the heart of literary publishing in the UK. Most recently, he founded Portobello Books in 2004, joined Scribe UK in 2014, and then moved to Picador at Pan Macmillan before going freelance.
Philip Gwyn Jones, tell us a bit about yourself. Are (were) your parents great readers?
My father read [and watched and listened to] only news, news, news. My mother was an aspirational reader and even more aspirational for her only child when he eventually arrived, and dutifully followed the advice in the women’s magazines of the 1960s-’70s from the likes of Kaye Webb about what books a child should be given to read. I ended up with a marvellous library of paperback kids’ books, mostly Puffins, from that time, which was largely ignored by my own children, and is now boxed up in the attic to be ignored by generations to come.
What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which remains to me the greatest book of them all, containing, as it does, everything and its undoing and its explaining. Plus Asterix, in those puntastic Anthea Bell translations.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
At university I decided I wanted to be either an editor or a diplomat. I went to CISBE for the Foreign Office assessments and was told to come back the next year when I had become a bit more diplomatic. I never went back, and the rest is publishing.
Has your vision from when you started commissioning for Scribe UK 5 years ago changed?
Vision implies strategy and I don’t know that I could legitimately claim ever to have had a substantial, solid strategy, other than . . .
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
. . . when I have never come across anything quite like it ever before.
How has your previous experience running the late, lamented Flamingo imprint at HarperCollins and then founding Portobello Books and merging it with Granta Books as their publisher been beneficial to your current role both in terms of commissioning and balancing originality and profitability?
Well, as an editor, you are only as good as the books you have published, obviously, and if you get that right, cumulatively, more often than you get it wrong, then you get to keep going and seek out more great books to publish. It’s no more complicated than that.
Which writers are you most proud of having helped launch into their writing careers?
As for pride, well, I am proudest to have been the first British editor to offer a book contract to these debutants: Kate Boo, Judy Budnitz, Anna Burns, Eleanor Catton, Jenny Erpenbeck, Julian Gough, Naomi Klein, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, Gavin McCrea, Magnus Mills, Patrick Ness, Arundhati Roy, Kathryn Schulz, Zadie Smith and Tommy Wieringa, amongst others.
How well have publishers adapted to technology and the internet in your view?
I actually think traditional book publishing has absorbed and adjusted to the possibilities, benefits and disruptions of the digital age as well as any of the other creative industries – better, arguably, in that it has not resulted in the evisceration of the old companies and the triumphalism of new start-ups, unlike in music and film.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
I don’t really read e-books. I certainly don’t use a Kindle. But I do read a lot of submissions, books-to-be, on a screen of some kind, from smartphone to desktop, and I have no problem with it, in theory or practice. Although I am certain that retention of complex argument is much enhanced by reading on paper as opposed to screen. No, printed books will never die.
Your views on how marketing and distribution are boosted by social media and online collaboration?
Well, the community of readers bonding across time and space over a book or a writer is a wonderful, powerful thing to behold and often very satisfying for all concerned, especially the author, but, despite lots of invention and energy being expended, I still find it hard to see much evidence of social media activity actually generating book sales – too many people online seem satiated by the online discussion of books and don’t need to go further and buy and read the books themselves.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
Do you mean state funding? If so, it depends on the language market, the degree of difficulty, and the ambition. Most poetry publishers need funding injections to survive in the Anglosphere, and if that’s what it takes then Society ought to be happy to provide that funding, or lose poetry book publishing, for example.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing in your view?
As with all other aspects of Brexit, it is nigh-on impossible to predict. And I mistrust anyone who claims to be able to see this future clearly.
In your experience, how and why does winning a Literary Prize make a difference?
If it is a major prize, book sales rise for all of the author’s books, in this language and other languages. Simple. If it is a minor prize, it can be parlayed into greater success next time out.
Your views on handling success?
Wear kid gloves.
Your heroes/heroines in fiction, and in real life?
Julien Sorel. Tristram Shandy. Mary Garth. the narrator of In Search of Lost Time. Obelix.
Milena Jesenska. Franz Kafka. Edwyn Collins. Joan Didion. Oscar Wilde.
Your favourite literary journals?
The New Yorker.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Your bedside reading?
Right now Olivia Laing’s Crudo, Madame Bovary, Laura Beatty’s Lost Property.
Your five favourite feature films?
Fitzcarraldo, Dekalog [OK, that’s cheating], Ida, All About Eve, His Girl Friday.
Who would be in your dream book club?
Henry James, William Hazlitt, Oscar Wilde, Marian Evans, Dorothy Parker, Irene Jacob.
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