For International Women’s Day we had the pleasure of speaking to Alumna Rowena Skelton-Wallace, Managing Editorial Director at Vintage, Penguin Random House. She talks us through her career path after leaving York and how her path was made possible by the help and support of an incredible network of females around her.
I did not know what I wanted to do when I left York in 1985 with a degree in English and Related Literature. Home was a good place to start. Not long after leaving school my mother had became the youngest bookshop manager in Sheffield at 17. Just before she married the man she loved (my father) she was offered a job with a publisher in London, but the conventions of the time dictated that women had to stop work once they married. So she didn’t take it. I think my brain had been mulling this over for years without me even realising it – a publishing job, in London!
I knew by the time I left York to go home to Sheffield that I wanted to live in London. I needed to try being in a bigger city. I looked at publishing jobs in the Guardian. (At the time the majority of publishing jobs were in London). I had by now a post-graduate diploma as a Personal Assistant (PA) from my local college under my belt – I had to do something useful during my time off after York and thought this course could give me some handy skills to help me get the job I wanted (all publishing job adverts said you had to be able to type); and if that failed I could temp until something came along – my shorthand was very good!
Literary agencies seemed to offer another route into publishing so I applied to those too. No one told me any of this – I worked it out for myself. Eventually, I landed a job with a publisher . . . which I turned down because I had also been offered a job at an agency as a PA to the plays agent, the late Sheila Lemon, which, crucially, paid £500pa more! For two happy years, I helped look after scripts for plays, films, radio and television in Holland Park. It was during that time that I realised I was more interested in books and missed them, so with Sheila’s generous help, I chatted to a friend of hers at Faber & Faber, and she gave me a long list of publishers to write to ask for jobs.
I wanted to be an editor, not a PA, but the week I wrote to Carmen Callil (who had founded the women’s imprint, Virago, from her kitchen table, a decade before taking over at Chatto & Windus) she had just lost her PA so it seemed churlish not to apply. I applied. I got the job. I promised her five years as a PA. But after two I told her I really wanted to be an editor, and so, to my joy, she made me the assistant editor of illustrated books. That was the springboard (you need to be very organised to publish highly illustrated books) to me coordinating editorial work for editors and employing freelances, which developed into my current role as Managing Editorial Director of Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, looking after the editorial needs of 8 imprints (individual publishing houses). The publishing industry has changed enormously over the years; it has been fascinating to watch and be a part of it and help shape it. And incidentally, two of my assistants have been York graduates (though that wasn’t what got them the job!)
What does International Women’s Day mean to you
My career path has been fairly straightforward, but what IWD highlights for me, and the yearly reminder is welcome and still much needed, is that women’s lives haven’t always been so straightforward, and still aren’t for millions of women around the world. Even in this country we are still fighting for equality – big things like parity in pay, and smaller things, though no less important of course, such as the ability to walk the city streets at night without fear. So, as well as being a time to reflect on, and celebrate, all the wonderful women who had the real courage, to put their heads above the parapet and say ‘Oi, what about us, what about half the population of the world, when will it be fair?’ it is also a time to take stock and work out what we, in the developed world, can do to help all those women who aren’t as fortunate. Who can we help up the ladder? For many women a year is a 365-day struggle, so every day should be IWD, but one is a start.
What female/s do you look up to, either in the industry ie professionally or personally?
At my age, I don’t look up to anyone. The women special to me personally are all those I have mentioned here and who helped shape my career (with one exception they were all women). But I particularly salute all the women writers around the world who tell it like it is and keep doing it – from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Caroline Criado Perez and Helen Lewis, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood (all of whom I have the privilege to help keep in print). And I could not be more proud of the fact that my Division, Vintage, pitched for, won and is about to publish, Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb.