a v a j a n e ‘ s latest interview is with Ellen Morrissey, who edited books and magazines for Martha Stewart for 16 years, until moving on one year ago to start her own business. Her books have been seen by millions and published around the world. I am lucky enough to call her my friend and to get a few questions answered for this piece on my site.
a v a j a n e : When did you first get your start in book/magazine editing?
Ellen: A little more than 20 years ago, I started working as the assistant to a literary agent who specialized in cookbooks and other lifestyle books. She was super helpful and encouraging, and she tried to train me to become an agent. After trying (and failing!) to sell a couple of proposals, however, I knew that I wasn’t cut out for that part of the business. I guess you could say that the art of the deal was not something that motivated me. I was much more interested in editorial work. That same agent, Carla Glasser, helped me get a job assisting the cookbook director at a major publishing house, and that was my big break. I worked for her for 2 years that felt like 10. She was very demanding, but working for her gave me a wonderful education in the editorial process, specifically how cookbooks get made—all the way from the initial book idea through publication, promotion, and publicity. From there, I went on to work in the books division at Gourmet magazine, and eventually to Martha Stewart. I worked for Martha for 16 years and edited close to 50 of her books, as well as dozens of magazines and special issues. My job there lasted as long as it takes to go from first grade to college graduation, which gives you a good idea of how much I learned and grew in that time.
a v a j a n e : Do you offer any services as a consultant in editing or publishing since you have moved on from working for Martha Stewart?
Ellen: I’m working on a few different projects now, in a few different capacities, including writing, line editing, recipe editing, and project managing.
a v a j a n e: Are there any self publishing houses you would recommend for people with smaller projects? There seems to be a lot of options out there!
Ellen: I honestly don’t know very much about self-publishing. I wish I did, as the industry has changed so much and it seems like many of the old barriers to distribution have changed. I’m curious to know more about it, so maybe I should spend some time figuring it out now that I have more time to research.
a v a j a n e: I ask this question because the last 3 books I have purchased have been from self-published authors: Danielle Laporte’s “Desire Map Planner,” Carrie-anne Moss’s “Fierce Grace Collective,”and Peta Jean’s “Earth is Hiring.” There seems to be an increase in self publishing (more and more people are doing this). It helps to have a social media audience already in place, but it is still very expensive and I often hear how theses books are just breaking even. Any advice?
Ellen: I wish I knew more about that side of the business. I will say, however, that books in general are not big money makers for most authors. The rare exceptions do more than break even, and that includes books that are published by major houses. So much goes into the production, and it’s very hard to sell enough copies to earn back the advance against royalties, especially with fewer bookstores and traditional retailers, and general declines in sales.
a v a j a n e: What are you working on now?
Ellen: I’m working with a ceramist on her first book. It will be more than simply a “how to” on her craft, and more about how to build a creative life and a business on your own. It’s taken some time to put it all together, but it’s been very enjoyable and inspiring. Part of my decision to leave my previous job was a desire to recharge my brain and my own sense of creativity, so it’s been nice to fulfill that somewhat on this project. As much as I loved working for Martha and am grateful for all of the opportunities she granted me, it was time for me to try something new and to reset my perspective.
a v a j a n e: How to have a creative life and build a business. That right there is the spark of many businesses I have been coming across lately. Do you believe in this idea?
Ellen: Yes, this is actually the subject of another book project I am considering. If you look at successful publications like Grace Bonney’s “In the Company of Women,” you realize that there’s a real demand for good information and full-service content on this subject.
a v a j a n e: Good information on having a creative life and building a lucrative business. This sounds like freedom in a sense. It is living fully with purpose. Finding the benefits of your service or product and reaching people’s lives and the greater whole.
Ellen: Many, many people (especially women) are asking this question as they consider getting off the corporate spinning wheel. I’ve talked to so many others who are trying to figure out how to make a life for themselves that is more autonomous and meaningful—but still lucrative.
a v a j a n e: This is very true, there is also a lot of information out there and filtering through it all is a job in it self. Any advice?
Ellen: I would be happy to give advice on putting together book proposals and helping women frame their thoughts about content into something cohesive, with a narrative thread or organizational structure that helps pulls it all together. I think the most difficult hurdle for would-be is figuring out how to say something original, with a point of view that is distinct and singular and has value in the very crowded and noisy landscape of lifestyle content. But the number one piece of advice is to sit down and write a mission statement. It can be just a few sentences, but it should really sum up what it is that you want to say. It doesn’t have to be brilliantly written, but it does need to express your point of view. From there, someone can help you edit it or rephrase it or attach visuals to it that will help strengthen your story. But you should begin there. You cannot begin a book project without first taking that step.
a v a j a n e: Yes. I think people are craving what you can offer Since you have worked in the lifestyle business (for Martha Stewart for so long) you know many of the day-to-day ins and outs, but being able to see a narrative where one may have missed is vital. I always feel all the information you need is always right in front of you but often times you do not see it because you are too close.
As an editor, I value your insight and experience.
Experience is key here because it is a developed skill to be able to see a whole concept in its entirety.
Thank you for your time Ellen
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