Jane Johnson, publisher of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin | JOB HACKS 

Johnson talks shaping the Sci Fi and fantasy genres, publishing George R.R. Martin, and hanging out with the cast of 'Lord of the Rings.' 

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Jane Johnson

Original Hometown: Cornwall, England

Job: [Jane Johnson]( is a writer, editor, and publisher. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, she was responsible for publishing J.R.R Tolkien’s work and bringing it to a modern audience. In that capacity, she commissioned John Howe and Alan Lee’s illustrated editions of the novels. Johnson is now the fiction publishing director at HarperCollins and was one of the driving forces behind establishing Voyager, its Sci Fi and Fantasy imprint. Other authors she has published or edited include heavyweights like Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin.

How did you get your start?

I got my start in publishing through a glorious mixture of serendipity and passion. I was living in West London and working at a local betting shop where, despite my degrees in English and Icelandic, I had ended up as a board marker and cashier. I enjoyed it, and had become, for the first time in my life, numerate; and an expert on the form of every horse and dog running that year. But it was not exactly the career I had envisaged. One day walking home I bumped into a neighbor, Sarah, and we got talking. Very pregnant, she told me she was leaving her job at George Allen & Unwin Publishers. “That’s Tolkien’s publisher!” I squeaked. “Oh, do you like that sort of thing?” she asked.

Like? I loved Tolkien. I had fallen into Lord of the Rings at the age of 11 and — I am ashamed to admit — still have the copy I filched from the school library, since I could not bear to part with it, or share that magical world with anyone else. I had taken an English degree because of the love of reading Professor Tolkien had engendered in me, had specialized in Anglo Saxon because it was his own speciality; continued with a master’s degree in Old Icelandic because the Elder Edda and sagas had provided him with inspiration.

“Can you type and take shorthand?” she asked. “Of course,” I lied. Novelists are born liars, I’m afraid. But they’re also problem solvers. I got the job — based on my untruths, but also because of my passion for Tolkien, and, as my new boss pointed out, because having spent a year working for Ladbrokes I was not only numerate, but also understood the nature of gambling, which would put me in good stead in publishing, where every book taken on represents a calculated risk. I taught myself to type and created my own version of shorthand, and got promoted out of the secretarial disaster zone up to editor, with special responsibility for the Tolkien list, in a very short time.

Since you write and edit, is there one you enjoy more? Or do you think they feed into each other; writing makes you a better editor and vice versa?

Writing and editing are two sides of the same coin and the feedback between the two disciplines is invaluable. I had written ever since I was 7 or 8. But when I started in publishing I stopped writing for about 10 years, so overawed was I by the talent of the authors I came into contact with. But eventually, as I learned more about the craft of writing — and of editing — I became less awed by the mechanics and started to write again, and the more I wrestled with my own writing problems, the more I was able to empathize with and help the authors I worked with. The challenges are different, of course.

Creation offers an entirely other order of problems to editing. I write big, immersive, historical adventure novels. They tend to be long and filled with a large cast of characters, and usually start from a base of pure ignorance, about people and times I know little or nothing about, so require a lot of research: a big challenge. As a climber, I often liken the process of starting a novel to standing at the foot of a long climb whose summit is obscured by cloud: you know it’s going to be a long, hard slog and you have a good idea about how to begin the route, but only a vague idea of how you’re going to get to the top. It’s daunting!

Editing a big, complex text can also be daunting in its own way. Every book, every writer, is different in how they approach their novels, how they react to suggestions and edits; how rigorous they are in the writing, how consistent in the characterization and events etc. As an editor your job is to help them deliver the very best version of their vision to the reader, and that can be a ticklish job, depending on how well you work together. I have often said that being a good editor combines the skill-sets of the psychologist, the lion-tamer, and the fly-fisherman: understanding, courage, and patience; as well as empathy, clarity, flexibility, and humility — the last of these probably being the most important. Some editors, thinking themselves in the right, will handedly try to impose their view of the text on the author, but it is crucial to remember that ultimately the book belongs to the writer, whose name goes on the cover.

Are you more of a psychologist, a lion tamer, or a fly fisherman with the more epic works like A Song of Ice and Fire? Do you need spreadsheets to keep up?

I’m George’s UK publisher. I read and feed any comments through to Anne Groell, his primary editor at Batman, New York. She works through the text with him. He has a brain the size of a planet and a remarkable memory bank for all his characters, histories, and facts about his world; but also a team of dedicated fans (particularly Linda and Elio at who check and doublecheck details for him. And of course now there is The World of Ice and Fire to provide a background encyclopedia.

With other writers of long epic series — like Robin Hobb — I keep notes and a style sheet to check from, and in that particular case, Anne feeds her editorial notes to me: a very reciprocal arrangement.

With a series like George R.R. Martin’s, do you find that you approach the material differently now that his series has become so big? Or do you try to tune out the fact that his books have such a passionate and widespread readership?

Your responsibility is still making the book the best it can possibly be, no matter the success or fame of the author, and I know George wouldn’t thank either of us for treating him differently. If anything, it would make you even more critical and careful, since there are so many more eyes on the work.

What would you say are the primary qualities you look for in works you agree to edit?

For me, it’s all about the voice. Reading a book, any book (and I don’t just edit SF and fantasy, but also thrillers — I’m the UK publisher of Dean Koontz, Jonathan Freedland/Sam Bourne and recent UK #1 bestseller The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne) — is like taking a journey with a travelling companion with whom you’re in conversation. The voice that comes out of that book needs to be engaging, to hook you in, make you want to spend time in the author’s company.

Recently, two brilliant examples of that for me have been Mark Lawrence — author of the Thorns books (Prince, King, and Emperor Of Thorns), Prince Of Fools, The Liar’s Key and The Wheel of Osheim — and Joe Abercrombie, whose brilliant YA series Half a King, Half the World, and Half a War I’ve just published. Mark’s voice is terse, acerbic, lyrical, and shot through with more memorable one-liners than just about any other writer I could cite. Joe has complete mastery over his storytelling, and the voice is sharp and clever and laugh out loud funny; but also dark, and sometimes very romantic.

Of course, the story is crucial: you have to want to turn the pages: but the voice is the thing that makes an author unique.

How have you seen the fantasy genre evolve over the course of your career — particularly since your own role in Voyager and its growth put you at the heart of it?

Fantasy has become grittier, darker, and more realistic over the years, moving away from elves and magic. I saw the start of that with Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books in the 80s, and certainly GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the epitome of fantasy powered more by realpolitik than magic. But you know, there are some very dark moments in The Lord of the rings, alongside the poetry, elves, and lyricism. If I were to sum the change I’ve seen in my 30 years, it’s that we’ve moved from a black and white moral universe to one with many more shades of grey.

You’ve worked intimately with several series that have critically acclaimed screen adaptations, from TV shows like Game of Thrones to films like Lord of The Rings. What are your thoughts on adaptations — do you watch them, or try to stay away? And as someone who is in a unique position — you are far from a casual viewer but you’re also not the author — how does your relationship with the work impact your viewing experience?

In an ideal world as an editor working on an ongoing series, you’d avoid the adaptation in order to keep the primary creation pure in your mind…but we don’t live in an ideal world, and watching and being aware of the differences of the adaptations are as much a part of my job as working on the text. I must say I was nervous about the Peter Jackson movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings — I couldn’t imagine how any filmmaker could possibly do Middle-earth justice, let alone the characters I had grown up with.

But when I stepped out of the production car that had collected me from the airport onto the slopes of the hills above a wet and foggy Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island in September 2000, and saw Gandalf and Boromir emerging through the mists, I was in Middle-earth, and completely enraptured. I spent months with the production across the 3 years of filming (as Jude Fisher, I wrote the Visual Companions that accompanied the movies), and then returned for the Hobbit adaptation. I went fishing with Aragorn, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin, watched football with King Theoden, drank with Frodo, Sam, and Boromir; ate fish and chips with Eowyn. They dubbed me ‘the 10th member of the Fellowship’. I love the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies: they’re not entirely faithful to the book, but film is a different medium to the written word, and that’s the very nature of adaptation, but they capture so much of the truth and spirit of the original. I fully accept that changes must be made — and that can sometimes be frustrating if you know the original well — but sometimes changes can give greater clarity and sharpness to the story.

I didn’t have the luxury, or the luck, to spend time with the Game of Thrones production, but I must say I have loved watching the series and am so impressed by the cast and the look of the series: the costumes and sets are glorious. and I can’t imagine Tyrion anything other than as personified by Peter Dinklage.

That’s the problem with being in the modern age: the visual image has such primacy that it overwrites the written text for you. I don’t think there’s a way to keep the two entities separate except by completely avoiding the TV and internet.

Do you have any stories about fishing with Aragorn, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin? What was that like?

Couple of photos here - one of the Voyager team in 1995 - all girl-team!

And from Viggo’s article in the Christmas edition of Empire magazine 2011 showing Dom Monaghan with the trout he caught on the day we went fishing at Te Anau.

We took our catches back to Viggo’s bungalow where we argued about how best to cook them (I suggested cooking them in foil: Viggo went his own way and the fish exploded in the oven…. BK and Fon, the scale doubles for Merry and Pippin, made curry sauce) and we served them up to the rest of the Fellowship: It was a lovely evening. Many good memories like this — too many to list. We’re still friends.

What are some of your personal favorites in the fantasy genre? Do you think genre fiction is marginalized in the literary world, or do you think boundaries between mainstream, literary, and genre fiction are breaking down?

I’m a very lucky editor — I’ve been involved in publishing many of my absolute favorites in the genre — Kim Stanley Robinson, George RR Martin, Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Guy Gavriel Kay, George RR Martin, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Raymond Feist, Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings, Mark Lawrence, Michael Marshall Smith, Joe Abercrombie, Megan Lindholm, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Peter V Brett. I also love Patrick Rothfuss and Ben Aaronovitch.

Recent favourites include Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir — Voyager’s answer to The Hunger Games — and Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.

I read widely, though, and not just fiction (last reads were Us by David Nicholls, Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam, Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, Wild Swans by Jackie Morris); and the internet has broken down a lot of marketing barriers that used to consign genre books to a dark corner of the bookshop. And the immense popularity of Game Of Thrones has opened the genre to people who never saw themselves as fantasy fans: we must all be grateful to George for that.

What advice would you give to any aspiring editors?

I say to all young editors: Don’t follow the market, follow your gut instincts! Read as widely as you can outside your job and look for quality in the writing and storytelling, learn what makes different structures tick so that you recognize something special when you see it. And then stick to your guns. If you think it’s excellent, fight tooth and nail to acquire it, and then get stuck in it for the long run to publication. That’s the job of the editor: to keep enthusiasm high around a new author, reminding colleagues it needs their attention and backing. It can be exhausting, but you’re the only advocate an author has at a publishing house, so if you take a writer on it’s your responsibility to give them them best possible experience of being published by your company.