Last Wednesday, as mentioned in a previous post below we had a visit from a real-life commissioning editor — Francesca Main from Simon and Schuster. I think I’d been expecting a visitor from ‘an editor’ so was quite awestruck when Francesca described one large component of her job as being THE person who decided whether to publish a novel or not. I didn’t go quite so far as one of our group who made the blunt, but fairly accurate, observation from our side of the table — ‘You’re like God’.
It turns out that, while aspiring novelists might see the commissioning editor as a deity, that within the publishing house there appears to be a hierarchy of the gods worthy of Greek mythology and that a large part of the editor’s job is to convince the supernatural beings in other departments, notably the marketing department, that a novel is worth taking on.
I won’t go into a great deal of detail about the insights Francesca gave us, fascinating as they were. (I’m conscious these meetings are one of the attractions of the novel writing course so join up for the course next year if you weren’t there and want to find out more). However, I did check with Francesca if it was ok to write up the general drift of her comments on this blog.
There are a few sobering points to mention up front about the commissioning editors job, as it relates to up and coming novelists. Firstly, she almost exclusively deals with agent submissions — and not unsolicited manuscripts. This is an important quality filter that works to the advantage of the writers represented by agents as Francesca will endeavour to make a decision based on the whole of any manuscript that she receives. It’s not judged on the first few pages or chapters — the whole lot is considered. Of course this means the author has to have a completed novel to put forward in the first place — which again is a filter of quality and commitment.
Another sobering aspect is the ratio of novels considered (even those filtered by agents) compared with those published. She receives between two and five novels a day but will tend to only see six to eight novels a year through to publication — which works out at a list of about 25 authors. So in a working year of perhaps 200 days that means she must publish something under 1% of the novels that cross her desk. How much those odds sound depressingly pessimistic depend, I suppose, to the quality of targeting of editors by agents (perhaps some that are rejected are not her genre and so on) and also to the number of other editors also on the lookout for novels (the closer that number gets to 100 then the slightly less glum those odds start to look — once you have an agent).
With such a small percentage selected it’s clear that the editor has to be passionate about the work — something mentioned in the previous post. One comment stuck in my mind — “you must feel you are in good hands” as a reader (i.e. the author has a confident, clear and consistent style and that the reader feels the novel is going somewhere). She also re-iterated the point about avoiding florid prose — the famous over-use of adverbs and adjectives marks out authors trying too hard — but general pretentiousness shows through as well. Â Originality and quality of the authorial voice are also clinching factors.
The editor needs to champion the work to the marketers, accountants, publicists, foreign rights department and so on. That’s why throughout the process the people involved have to be completely committed to the novel from the start — author, agent, editor and it helps to have reviewers, booksellers and so on as advocates too.
That’s why the temptation to ask someone like Francesca a question like ‘tell me what I need to write to get published’ needs to be resisted at all costs — not that any of us did — as if we don’t believe in what we’ve written as writers then we can’t expect anyone else to.
And at the end it’s a commercial proposition and it was salutary when the subject of subsequent novels came up. Perhaps surprisingly, debut authors are reasonably attractive to publishers — they’re more newsworthy, possibly more original, perhaps easier to work with and, a factor that seemed surprisingly important, they’re eligible for more literary prizes! There are perhaps as many barriers for the many published authors whose sales figures for their first or second novels haven’t set the world on fire — and they end up dropped from the list. There’s not much an editor can do in that case — even if they have a passion for the works — your books don’t sell and the bookshops won’t buy them. Tough.
The second part of the commissioning editor’s job apart from performing Herculean efforts to get the book published in the first place is to work with the author to improve it. This isn’t a case of checking the spellings — proof readers do that and other readers can also check for continuity and historical consistency and so on. Francesca tends to develop her writers’ novels at a more abstract level. Common issues that might be addressed include the following.
Are the characters real? A writer can write all the great prose in the world but if no-one cares about their characters on an emotional level then they’re in trouble. Structure: writers are ok at beginnings and ends but the middles of novels often need work. It’s also Francesca’s experience that good dialogue is very difficult to write. Also, don’t underestimate the reader — they don’t need every action explaining and, quite often, would err on the side of using their own imaginations where possible — don’t describe everything and every character in great detail.
As for first-time novelists, there’s a temptation to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their debut — the editor will tend to murder quite a few of the debut-novelist’s babies. That’s why the relationship between the editor and author needs to work — good writers will always value constructive feedback.
It was a fascinating hour and Francesca was answered all our questions with a really useful combination of general advice to us and anecdote from her own experience. In the end, as mentioned previously, there’s no magic bullet — at least beyond the one that gets you through the door called ‘getting an agent’ — and we will meet a real one of those tomorrow evening.