The Publishing Post
From Petroleum Geology to Publishing: Joelle Owusu-Sekyere
By Leanne Francis, Shaniah Shields and Jia Wen
Joelle Owusu-Sekyere is a Commissioning Editor at Coronet, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton. Her journey into publishing is a rather unconventional one, and it is both inspiring and encouraging. We are delighted to interview her for this issue!
What made you want to get into publishing, especially with a BSc in Petroleum Geology?
I had always been an avid reader, fiction writer and die-hard buyer of women’s mags growing up. When I realised that being a geologist was no longer my dream just before graduation, I knew that it was the ideal time to give publishing a chance. I initially was attracted to the perceived glamour of working for a glossy women’s mag; however, so many of my favourites (RIP Company Magazine) folded at the time, making me nervous. Despite running a successful lifestyle blog for nearly a decade, I knew that I would struggle in magazine publishing because I wasn’t a trained journalist, so I changed my goal to securing a job in book publishing. It was a world I knew nothing about at the time, so I thought I didn’t stand a chance! My plan was to complete a Master’s degree in either Science Communication or Petroleum Geosciences if publishing didn’t work out.
What does a typical day at work involve?
I’d love to say I sit at a beautiful oak desk with my feet up, reading piles of manuscripts while puffing away on a cigarette, but in reality, a typical day consists of:
Answering numerous emails, prepping for meetings in-house or with authors, liaising with different departments and generating/discussing lots of exciting book ideas with my colleagues. I work in our London office for a few days a week but am still pretty much working from home (my bed) where I seem to be the most productive in the early hours of the day. I tend to leave Fridays for editing and reading submissions and, as I edit by hand, I tend not to use my computer/laptop/phone at all, which is surprisingly freeing.
What has drawn you to working with non-fiction and what do you look for in a non-fiction book?
It’s my science background, for sure. I like facts, figures, but also people telling their truths whether it’s a narrative non-fiction, manifesto or more academic. Things like natural sciences, history, geopolitics and personal memoirs have always fascinated me because I am naturally curious. I love watching documentaries and often go down so many YouTube rabbit holes watching the most random but insightful documentaries.
Non-fiction is a completely different kind of storytelling because it’s not imaginary – it happened. The magic lies in how these truths are told and by whom. That really excites me as a reader and editor.
What advice would you give to publishing hopefuls?
Be an “ideas” person, be confident and stand firm in your thoughts and ideas. I genuinely believe that it has got me to where I am today. I always made sure I came with ideas on the books I would hope to publish, things I’d do to make my boss’s life easier and ideas on how to grow the current list to be more representative of the world I live in. You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room, but people will always remember you if you speak up and bring ideas to the table – even if they need fine tuning!
I would also say use LinkedIn as much as you can to find out how the publishing people you admire got to where they are today. Going into interviews, I always make sure to research, then reference a book the editor worked on in the past and mention the things I enjoyed about it. Sometimes going the extra mile with the individual, not just the company as a whole can make you stand out.
Are there any upcoming projects you're excited about?
I can’t say too much just yet, but all I’ll say is that my painful four years of writer’s block is over! I am back to writing fiction again, and I hope to one day share my projects with the world…
Unrelated to writing and publishing, I discovered flower pressing and resin art during lockdown. Working with nature and preserving it has been therapeutic and a lifesaver during this difficult year.
What does the future of publishing look like to you?
I try to be as optimistic as I can, but change is slow and often non-linear. We’ve spent the last two years talking about change, and now is the time for action – not just with the books we publish but the people working to publish them. I hope that fresh and exciting voices we have seen pop up receive genuine support and nurturing throughout their careers and are treated with the same respect and dignity as more established authors. I hope their loyal fanbases and readership are not patronised and belittled, and instead teach us publishers about the ever-changing landscape of communities, the platforms they are using and where they are finding/buying their books. For example, I think the power of TikTok has been a huge surprise to traditional publishers and also other creative industries when it comes to influence and buying power.
Lastly, I hope more Black, Asian, mixed, working class and LGBTQ+ writers will be commissioned to write about things other than their trauma. And I also hope that staff retention of Black colleagues improves across all departments. I look forward to seeing more in managerial positions in the coming years.