After five years of working in close collaboration, the Wellcome Collection and Profile have together built a list that truly mirrors the museum’s values and interests in connecting science, medicine, life and art, along the way generating sales of close to 600,000 copies and securing 71 foreign rights sales—ranging from Azerbaijan to Ukraine.
While mining the collection’s rich archives and year-round exhibitions for inspiration, the imprint’s modus operandi is to come at subjects from "unexpected angles", whether that’s matching an author with a genre outside their usual remit, or looking at a subject through the prism of a wholly different discipline. After first teaming with Profile in 2014, the Wellcome Collection’s inaugural publication was "Queen of Crime" Val McDermid’s first non-fiction outing in 15 years, a book on forensics that went on to sell all over the world. Another backlist gem, showing its willingness to marry subjects not often considered together, is Gavin Francis’ Adventures in Human Being. Ahead of the craze for medical memoirs, the Scottish physician drew on literature, philosophy and art’s relationship with the body, and his time as a GP, encompassing topics from pregnancy to death, via body-building and jetlag. "We are always looking for a slightly different way in," says Wellcome Collection publisher Kirty Topiwala of the list, currently kept "special" at a "deliberately small" six to 10 titles a year. "It’s really feeding into the wider aims of the Wellcome Collection: to challenge how we think about health and medicine, and make links between science, life and art, all the things we are here to talk about."
Before the Wellcome Collection-Profile partnership, the museum’s books were mostly exhibition tie-ins. And, without much consistency in approach, they "weren’t doing terribly well", concedes Topiwala. After taking the reins at the collection in 2011, she subsequently embarked on a mission to find a publisher partner.
"It was quite clear to me from the beginning that it would be challenging without a publishing relationship," she recalls. "We wanted a much closer collaboration with a publisher to really build an identity, an imprint and a list of publishing that would reflect the collection’s values and brand and areas of interest, and to make the most of the exhibitions we were presenting."
Although hastening to add there is now "some really interesting exhibition-related publishing", the development of the imprint’s strand of standalone titles has evidently become a source of pride. "[Before], they were interesting books but I don’t think we were really thinking about the opportunities," she says. "When I first started, I wondered, ‘Should we be doing beautiful illustrated catalogues, like the V&A and the Tate, and trying to sell lots and lots of copies during the exhibition?’ I’ve learnt that sometimes that might be the best way to respond to a subject, but there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach because at Wellcome we’re dealing with such diverse subjects, from consciousness and identity, to forensics, to architecture and health. Our visitors might want more of a reading experience than a catalogue experience. And if you get that right, it can be incredibly rewarding, because it means the book has a life well beyond the walls of this building, all over the world, hopefully."
The Wellcome Collection and Profile have been bedfellows since 2014, but the way in which they work together has "definitely evolved", Topiwala says. "We’re now much more embedded, and we’re an imprint of Profile, which we didn’t describe ourselves as before."
How does it work in practice? When a book is acquired, it is published by Profile as any non-fiction book would be, making use of Profile’s production, publicity and marketing teams and sales force. And for its pains—notably taking on the financial risk—Profile takes the greater share of the profits. Commissions can come via the in-house Wellcome Collection editorial team or through Profile, and Topiwala and her staff are tasked with attending the same strict acquisitions meetings at Profile’s offices, fortunately only a stone’s throw from its own HQ in King’s Cross. The end result is that the Wellcome Collection benefits from rigorous quality control and the commercial discipline of a publisher.
"I am in there a lot—it’s just up the road, which helps!" laughs Topiwala. "You have to put in the effort, but it’s really important to have people around you who are prepared to challenge and say, ‘Actually, I know we’ve got quite far with this, but I don’t think that is the right cover’, or, ‘Should we be changing this?’ You want people around you who are always asking those questions, in order to make the books as good as they can be."
She adds: “Even though profitability has been less of a concern for us than engagement because of the organisation we’re a part of [the collection is backed by the Wellcome Trust, which manages an investment portfolio on behalf of its arts and charitable activity]—we realise those two things go hand in hand and it’s important for us to have that discipline."
A Wellcome future
Suffice to say, the benefits flow both ways. Adding "a special layer" on top of what Profile has to offer, the Wellcome Collection can help with the research for a book, providing access to its archives, or link projects to something else the organisation is doing (for example, for Francis’ follow-up Shapeshifters, it curated an event series in its auditorium). Most obviously there is also Wellcome’s own marketing reach, boasting many interested networks and audiences among whom the organisation will actively raise awareness of its books. "I think we are good partners for one another because Wellcome is sort of a big beast, and Profile is very sharp and nimble and slightly smaller," says Topiwala. "We bring out the best in one another."
Topiwala believes all museums are now trying to think about ways they can publish books with appeal to those other than exhibition-goers. Looking to the future of its imprint under Profile, chief among Topiwala’s priorities is plumbing new topics and doubling down on its ambitions for every single book published. "I’m ambitious, but I don’t think that ambition needs to mean publishing twice as many books," she says. "This is how I think about it: be ambitious for the individual books, rather than churning out more and more. We are in an unusual, privileged position to be able to keep this really special."