The Commissioning Process

Trevor Dolby, the Publisher of the Penguin Random House imprint Preface, outlines the commissioning process.

What’s on your bucket list? Seeing the Northern Lights? Swimming with dolphins? Skydiving? Getting a tattoo? Visiting the Great Barrier Reef? Doing a bungee jump? The chances are that in amongst your top five is writing a book.

A click of a button and anyone can publish a book these days. Some become colossal international bestsellers, some are read just by the author’s family. Most remain on the laptop.

Getting into print is not a modern ambition. Time was people would write and their efforts would disappear into a bottom of a draw never to see the light again. Even a generation ago this was the case. You can learn a lot about yourself writing a book, or even attempting to write a book. But like the proverbial tree falling in the forest if no one reads it have you really written it?

Over the last ten years the internet has allowed anyone to get his or her efforts out there. Ebooks and Amazon have democratized people’s ability to disseminate what they write. I was on a panel a few years back blathering to a group of hopefuls about how to get published. It had all gone well. Then someone in the audience addressed a question to me. ‘What right did I have to decide that her book wasn’t good enough to be published?’ ‘None at all,’ I suggested. She went on to say that because of me, and people like me (publishers), there might be another Ulysses out there languishing under someone’s bed. If there is then no longer will it languish.

If anyone can get their book out there why is it that so many writers still see being published by one of the established publishers to be a the holy grail. A badge of quality? I hope so.

How do publishers go about choosing the books they publish? Many, many criteria, from an editor’s personal taste to the perception of commercial viability to what an imprint or publisher have a track record in, and much else. Publishers try to be very proactive these days. Their nets are cast very wide. Today publishers have no feeling of entitlement. We are required to be professional, and like any professional occupation to succeed there’s no room for the dilettante. One good ground stroke at Wimbledon can mean the championship or out in the second round. That goes for publishers and it goes for authors as well. We buy fewer books today than we ever did and each one has to have all the attention we can give it. To create a book that competes for eye-space with millions of others on-line and on shelves needs fierce tenacity and focus.

The traditional high street book trade market has shrunk almost disastrously over the last few years, though this has partly been made up for by on-line sales and ebooks. We now live in a world of spreadsheets and analysis. We live in a world of day-to-day sales figures and floors of people who attempt to predict the future. We live in a world where colossal amounts of sales and marketing information shape our publishing decisions. A world where a book can be deemed a success or failure before it’s even published. But this is the same for all businesses today. It is the world we live in and we must embrace it. As Bishop Jeremy Taylor the great 17th theologian, concluded after listing all the downsides of marriage, ‘…it lies under all these burdens, but is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and these burdens are delightful’. Well perhaps not all our publishing burdens are exactly ‘delightful’ but because of this modern analysis I think we actually do make much better informed publishing decisions today. Are they better decisions? Some years ago I believe there was a tradition in the city where ten thousand virtual pounds was given to three groups of people to invest and any profit send to charity. The three groups were a group of experienced long-time stockbrokers, a group of new recruits, and a group of primary school children. The story goes that the primary school children always won.

Yes ‘insight’ is king. But insight is often only as valuable as gut instinct in predicting the future. The publishers’ task is to use all the tools we have to our advantage, be more rigorous than we have even been. Yes, we have bookscan, social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube - Sysomos, Google and a hundred other lines of data, but publishers, good editors, are still in the business to discover and nurture talent, still in the business to find good writers.

Sometimes there’s a misconception that mansucripts and outlines and synopses have to be as slick and as finished as an AA Gill column. That we don’t have the time to do anything but skim read and discard. If it’s not in tip-top, straight-to-the-copy-editor condition we will not even skim it. Emphatically not so. There’s nothing an editor likes more that seeing past the rough-and-ready to the gem of an idea and helping an author craft it to a state that allows them to take it to a publishing meeting and wow his or her colleagues. The germ of a good idea is often all that’s required. Almost every book I publish is from an idea that’s intriguing, something with a hook that’s different or alluring. There’s nothing better than a unusual turn of phrase, a few lines that make an editor think here’s a different take, here’s an intelligent mind, here’s someone who sees the world a little skew. These things are as important today in our world of statistics and information as they ever were.

Perhaps the most important question we ask ourselves is ‘is this person a writer’? Publishers buy authors as much as books. Is this person serious, tenacious, professional? Publishing companies are businesses. We invest in talent and in the talent of the people who can spot and cultivate talent. We invest in not just the writer part of a person but in the person themselves. Do they collaborate well? Will they put in the extra mile? Will they listen? Will they deliver?

In our fast and furious age we expect everything to be easy. I just Googled ‘writing programs’ and the first web site popped up saying ‘The magic of NewNovelist is that it does not feel like you are writing a book’.