What Life as an Editor Entails, Series Three

Continuing the series on life as an editor, Helen Coyle outlines the sort of books which interest her.Helen read English Literature at the University of Leeds and has worked as a bookseller and in the publicity and editorial departments at Virago and Little Brown. She lived in Paris for a year, studying French literature and working for a literary agent, before returning to London to be a non-fiction editor at Hodder & Stoughton.

Being an editor always struck me as just about the most romantic thing one could be, short of being a lion tamer or a spy. The thrills of reading and specifically, the joy of discovery implied in the notion of being an editor, seemed to represent the pinnacle of job satisfaction. My principle discovery to date, that publishing is in fact a nakedly commercial business that nonetheless feels itself constantly beleaguered by pressure from retailers and others, hasn’t completely destroyed my romantic ideas.

The day to day routine of being an editor has nothing to do with the fantasy of contemplative reading and is concerned to an almost eye-watering degree with frantic rounds of salesmanship and negotiation, diplomacy and detail checking. And it is an uneasy mixture of the highly individualistic and the collegiate. The primary quality required by any editor, other than luck, is passion. In order to commission something, you have first to find your project, read it, love it and then communicate that enthusiasm to your colleagues in sales, marketing and publicity departments. It is virtually unheard of for any single editor to be in the position to publish whatever he or she likes. That sort of free rein comes with a great deal of experience and commercial success, after many years of slog. For the rest of us, we must be single minded about what we want to publish but also able to bring others with us. Decision-making, especially during the commissioning process, is collaborative.

I commission non-fiction in the areas of life-writing and popular culture. Much of non-fiction is dominated by ‘personality’ books, lots of them by or about celebrities. If you want to publish ‘ideas’ books, where the identity of the writer or subject is less important, you need to be particularly clear about your market and especially confident about reaching it. It is clearly easier to sell an autobiography of a famous sportsman than it is to sell a memoir about working as a dominatrix or a book about capitalism in China. The readership for one is obvious and relatively easy to reach, for the others, considerably less so. And of course, publishers need a solid base of reliable ‘bankers’ to support the presence of those smaller projects on their lists. Where once they might have bought something with modest aspirations, to sit in what used to be termed the midlist, these days the rationale for buying small is more likely to be that of taking a punt. A small project might just take off and turn into a big one, a la Eats Shoots and Leaves or How to Walk in High Heels. If it doesn’t, though, it will almost certainly sink.

Personally, I love ideas books but I also love a good story. More than anything I love good writing that is mindful of a reader’s needs but not indulgent of them, and that avoids clichés. An author who can deliver this sort of writing is by definition a good thing and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re 25 or 60, although it helps if they are a well-connected expert in their field. More than anything it helps if they’re on the telly. A new author has all the allure of the unblotted page. An established author with a good sales record is a highly desirable commodity. An author with a diminishing sales record or who has moved between various publishers is eyed with suspicion - it is hard to reinvent people in the eyes of the trade. Contrary to what some people maintain, it still happens that a publisher will nurture a career over a series of books, particularly in fiction where repeating authors are very valuable to a company. Jodi Picoult was bought by Hodder with exactly such a plan in mind. The fact that she has since gone stellar in no time at all is a good example of a punt paying off in spectacular fashion.

I take only about one in ten of the proposals I receive to our acquisition meeting. And of those I pitch, I am authorised to offer for only about one in three. (The proportion of those I actually succeed in buying goes down again…) A constant lament from authors is that it is hard to get published. This is true, but it isn’t due solely to conservative, profit-obsessed publishers. Sometimes it feels as if there is nothing fresh to buy. This feeling inevitably precedes the arrival of a fabulously fresh project that all your rivals all over London love too and that triggers a furious auction.

Auctions are nasty brutish things, individualistic in the extreme. It is hard not to take them personally. Both winning and losing make the editor, however bolstered by group decision-making, feel very alone in a state of either exultation or abject self-doubt. (Or is that just me?) But on a good day, when you have found and bought something you love and the mood of excitement is untainted by any future failure to secure a promotional slot, or a scathing review, it doesn’t feel romantic to say that being an editor is the best job in the world.