What Life as an Editor Entails, Series One

Ian Drury, Publishing Director at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, describes what life as an editor entails

One of my authors made indecent sums of money in the City before returning to his real interest, history. He asked me to explain the economics and business conventions that govern publishing, and stared open-mouthed as he learned what a deeply anachronistic trade this remains. However, from most authors’ perspective, the process of ‘consolidation’ within publishing groups (big predators snapping up smaller ones) is not especially relevant. A more immediate source of puzzlement is why it takes a publisher twelve months to get an author’s book into print. And why can it sometimes take them almost as long to decide if they want it in the first place?

The purpose of this article is to complement Andrew’s ‘diary of a literary agent’. This is not a day-by-day account, but a general overview, which I hope will offer an explanation – if not an excuse – as to why your editor still hasn’t replied to your last email.

Publishing houses are never knowingly over-staffed, so the book ideas submitted by agents must compete for space in a crowded diary. We publish about sixty titles a year on the W&N non-fiction list; I have eleven proposals on my desk this afternoon, all of which have potential, yet, realistically, I am unlikely to offer for more than one or two. I have a slush pile of unsolicited scripts approximately three feet high and that is with regular, brutal winnowing; left unchecked it would soar towards the ceiling until ‘elf and safety’ intervened.

Publishing deals can still be done over lunch and a handshake, but the majority of titles are bought after being presented to a publishing meeting by the would-be acquiring editor. The degree of influence and involvement of different departments varies from company to company, but in most houses nowadays there will be input from sales, rights, marketing and publicity.

The widespread use of EPOS data means that an author’s previous sales can be verified, regardless of their publisher. It is often the sad lot of the sales manager to report that so-and-so’s last book netted 2,300 copies nationwide, so bookshops are unlikely to display much enthusiasm for the sequel. Editors, passionate about the book they are championing, are sometimes inclined to shoot the messenger.

Book acquisition is a stark demonstration of capitalism in which the collective wisdom of the market usually prevails. Agents receive wildly differing responses to the same proposal from different publishers; even within the same companies or departments, reactions can be polar opposites. We turn down books that other companies make into best-sellers; we watch in despair as books we love fail to attract the audience we think they deserve. By the same token, we witness major titles by rival companies crash and burn (‘celebrity publishing disasters we have known’ is a favourite drinking game) and, just occasionally, stand back proudly as one of our own books exceeds even the most sanguine expectations of author and agent. Victory does not always go to the big battalions. I thought it interesting that the same Christmas Lynne Truss came from left field to grab the coveted No.1 spot, none of the major record companies’ star acts could match a cover version of a Tears for Fears track recorded by a guy in his mate’s garage.

The editor who currently has your proposal on his desk will eventually read it – but the job of editor involves an increasing element of salesmanship. Persuading colleagues and managing directors of the virtues of the book is only the start. Once acquired, a title has to be presented to the marketing and publicity teams up to 12 months prior to publication day. The sales managers who deal with the big accounts from Asda and Amazon to Gardners and Waterstone’s must be briefed and enthused at the proper time; sales representatives will be briefed at another meeting before the book is sold-in, some four months ahead of publication.

Major titles will also be presented to annual or six-monthly sales conferences – and then there are presentations to book clubs and other special sales accounts. While this process involves a degree of repetition, in a good publishing house it is also a mechanism for getting the best out of a book, recognising that some evolve enormously during writing and editing. I presented a title to a sales meeting a few years ago, saying that it was the best narrative history debut I had seen in twenty years. The book was promptly repositioned as a ‘key title’ and given a real hard-sell treatment, with the result that it sold well in excess of its original projections. Such flexibility demands a high level of trust between editorial and sales departments.

One reason publishers prefer submissions from agents is that the script is more likely to be printed on one side of the paper only, double-spaced, paragraphs indented, the pages numbered . . . all those fundamental details repeated on most publishing websites and in the yearbooks, yet ignored by so many would-be authors. Editors want scripts that can be broken down into briefcase/handbag-size chunks for reading on the tube or train. My wife, Jo Fletcher, publishes the Gollancz fantasy and science fiction list and edited one script on a train, a plane, a bus, a taxi and a boat. Her top tip is to fill her luggage with scripts that can be jettisoned during the course of a ‘holiday’, leaving only her editorial notes, and freeing space in the case for loot of all kinds. The point is that we will read your treasured words in the most unlikely settings, simply because there are not enough hours in the day: when not compelled to do something else, we will be reading.

The majority of our agented submissions consist of a synopsis, sample chapter(s), author biography and market analysis of the sort described elsewhere on this website. Given the relatively slow growth in the market and the prevailing wisdom that publishers should take on fewer discrete titles and make more of them, this is the bare minimum we need to make a decision. Yes, there are publishing legends of best-selling memoirs snapped up at book fairs for eye-watering advances, but the overwhelming majority of books are sold on the basis of a well-thought-through outline.

Time spent developing the proposal is not wasted: in the worst case, it might expose fundamental flaws with the whole concept of the book; in the best, it can transform a middling project into something with far greater potential. Terry Pratchett said that the trick of writing was to have something on page one that would lead a reader to want to turn to page two . . . and so on. This is especially true of an author’s outline. You are not just asking a very busy person to keep turning the page, but to stump up tens of thousands of pounds when they get to the end.

All the things an editor does when starting out; as you go up the food chain you delegate more, but you are still ultimately responsible for the following:

external mail, snail and email: dealing with anything urgent, for you and your authors internal correspondence, both via email and on paper prioritising submissions reading submissions rejection letters for publishing meetings: writing AIS (Advance Information Sheet), circulating information, preparing P&Ls (Profit & Loss accounts — for previous titles), soliciting views from colleagues presenting proposals to publishing meeting making offer to agent, negotiating contractual details and forwarding summary to contracts department Reading manuscripts with editorial pen: structural & line-edit of manuscripts edited manuscripts sent to author; booking copy-editor and/or proof-reader sending mss to said copy-editor returning copy-edited manuscripts to author collating author/c-editor’s corrections sending final script to production department sending proof pages to author & proof reader collating & checking proofs, inputting author/proof-reader corrections, return to production, check revised proofs, ensuring all corrections have been properly marked up and made MEANWHILE. . .brief art department on cover design. write cover copy, proof and final jacket design. solicit quotes from other authors/authorities where appropriate write marketing brief: what’s needed, what’s agreed with author/agent, what’s expected etc. liaise with production, marketing and publicity departments throughout check cover copy organising bound proofs, liaising with art department on covers, bound proof covers and, where necessary, internal artwork deal with agents’ and authors’ queries, plus booksellers, sales reps, key accounts teams, etc., preparing for monthly sales conferences, key accounts meetings, specialist booksellers’ meetings, presenting books at same Presenting to rights and foreign editors at conferences, book fairs, and buying trips briefing, designing and producing prelims and endmatter writing, checking and rewriting catalogue copy, advance information sheets and website information organising submissions for awards both in the UK and abroad

So it isn’t all lunching the great and good at the Ivy. . .

Ian Drury read Modern History at New College, Oxford before joining a partwork company in 1984. He edited various weekly partworks such as War Machine and Real Life Crime before becoming Editor of Combat & Survival magazine in 1988. He went to HarperCollins as a Commissioning Editor in 1994, developing a new list based on Jane’s Defence Group reference books. He joined the Orion Group in 2001, first to the Cassell imprint and then to W&N,where he publishes a wide range of history, military and current affairs titles.