On 19 July 2017, a fine array of editors took part in our London Writers Network event at IdeaStore Whitechapel, to answer questions about their careers, the publishing companies they work for and the writing that excites them.
The panellists were:
- Emad Akhtar, Publishing Director, Orion. Find out more about Emad here.
- Tom Bonnick, Business Development Manager and Commissioning Editor, Nosy Crow. Find out more about Tom here.
- Emma Goldhawk, Commissioning Editor, Hodder Children’s.
- Francesca Main, Publishing Director, Picador. Find out more about Francesca here.
- Shreeta Shah, copy editor, Penguin Random House, children’s division.
The panellists described their routes into publishing. Both Shreeta and Emma started in TV – Emma as an unpaid researcher. Shreeta entered publishing through Spread the Word’s Flight 1000 Associates scheme that supports writers who also want to work in publishing. Emad came to the joy of reading late. He learnt English after arriving in England as a child and after a number of jobs, including unpaid ones, found his first editorial job. He gained his initial experience from asking a panellist at a Dipnet (now Equip) event. Francesca talked about her role as an editorial assistant at Hamish Hamilton – most jobs in publishing start at entry level. She described the pleasure of working with generous, supportive people.
The editors described their pleasure at finding books they wish to acquire. Francesca often knew that she wanted a book from the opening line – She stressed that this is different from knowing whether a book is going to be a bestseller! Little Deaths by Emma Flint was one such book. Francesca praised the concept, the details of the world-building and being pulled into 1950s New York. She found the protagonist compelling and Francesca’s emotions and allegiances changed.
Emad discovered crime via Agatha Christie. He reminded us that good crime fiction is a blend of tropes and fresh perspectives. He talked about the TV series True Detective. On paper, it is cliché – world weary, troubled detective, limited roles for women, ritualistic, sexualised murder – but on the screen it was transformed into quality, compelling TV.
Tom Bonnick talked about Sue Durrant’s Little Bits of Sky, a book acquired by a colleague. The voice was so authentic everyone thought it was a memoir, but it is entirely fiction, the story of siblings growing up in care against the backdrop of the 1990 poll tax riots.
Emma Goldhawk acquired Patrice Lawrence’s debut, Orangeboy. It was Emma’s first acquisition. Emma described the process. She is a born and bred Londoner and she also feels strongly that all young people should see themselves represented. The characters in Orangeboy were young people she recognised. She then had to make a case for the book at an acquisition meeting. In spite of it not being an obvious commercial prospect, it was acquired and was subsequently shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award and won the Waterstones Children’s Older Fiction Award and the Booksellers YA Prize. It is also being sold in Tesco outlets.
For an overview of acquisition meetings see here.
The Commissioning Editors work with writers on the structural edit to make sure that the book works as a whole in terms of plot, pace, characterisation, etc. For instance, in Orangeboy, Emma recalls recommending that an action scene be moved later in the book to build suspense. Both Tom and Emma read books all the way through once without making notes. After that they set to work with queries and comments for the writer.
Shreeta’s role as a copy editor is to make the book as professional as it can be – spelling, grammar, clarity and internal consistency. Different editors have specialities – for instance, some may be more experienced and passionate about historic fiction.
All the editors agreed that the one element that could not be edited is narrative voice. That is distinct to the writer.
The editors were asked about diversity in publishing and how their organisations are trying to improve this. It was agreed that this is essential to increase the diversity of writers as new acquisitions rely on editors championing them. The more diverse the editors, the more diverse the tastes. Publishers are trying to make sure that internships are paid – some like Hachette Fresh Chapters Traineeships are targeted. Income is definitely an issue, particularly as much of the publishing industry is centred in London. The Spare Room Project was set up to help address this. Nosy Crow is a smaller, independent children’s publisher. Tom put a call out for manuscripts from BAME writers. He received around 1500 submissions and connected some writers with agents. Penguin Random House runs WriteNow, in partnership with Spread the Word, New Writing North and Literature Works, for under-represented writers.
However, there are some provisos. Avoid primarily allocating the BAME writers to the BAME editors. (It has happened.) Also be aware of BAME writers being restricted to certain subjects. Emad mentioned the African acacia tree cliché. (The article also nails the veils/Arabic women covers and something called Asian sleaze.)
There were a number of questions from the audience, for instance about the relationship between editors and agents and between editors and writers with and without agent representation. Ideally, editors and agents build good relationships as they are mutually dependent. The relationship between editor and writer is one of trust as it relies on listening to and acting on criticism. Editors often want to develop a long term relationship with writers. Writers also rely on editors for more than the words. Editors brief the cover designer and production team and have a say over the look and feel of the book. They are also involved in entering books for prizes and pitching to festivals.
One writer queried whether a manuscript should be professionally edited prior to submission. The editors suggested that this could be a good idea if the writer feels that their spelling and punctuation may distract from reading. However, a writer may wish to consider asking a trusted, well-read friend to give an objective and obstructive view. Emad described reading a manuscript and shaving 65,000 words off… Tom also mentioned that length could be an issue. Long books are costly to translate. Another writer, who described herself as ‘inexperienced’, asked about how she finds her voice. Shreeta offered tips including reading the work out aloud. The writer was reassured that it may take a while – and some confidence. Many writers have written several books before one is published. There was also a question about opportunities for translators. The market is quite small though the taste for Scandi-noir and books such as Elena Ferrante’s Naples trilogy has increased its profile. Pushkin Press publishes books in translation, including children’s and YA.
The formal panel ended and the networking began …
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