How to choose submissions

Editors and busesSubmissions really can be like buses, especially if you work for an independent publisher. You can go months without anything arriving in your inbox then ten appear in a week. This usually happens around the publication of titles from your imprint; it’s the time when authors and agents remember you’re still in business and might stay around long enough to publish something of theirs.

Consequently you have to develop a filtering system that streamlines the process. Remember, you may only choose one of those ten submissions, or none at all.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that reasons for rejecting a submission may have little to do with the value of the manuscript as a work of art. The story and writer has to be right for you and your imprint. As a commissioning editor the first thought at the front of your mind should be “How can I pitch this to my publisher?”

There are a number of factors that enable you to decide which manuscript to take to the next level. The first line of defense for a busy editor is your established submission guidelines. In my case, I want a covering email, a one or two page synopsis and three chapters. I’ve not arrived at these requirements in an arbitrary manner; they enable me to assess the experience and aspirations of the writer, to sense how the story is structured and to get a feeling for the author’s writing style.

Can you work with an author if they cannot be bothered to follow your submission guidelines? I know there are people out there who’ll claim you should be able to work with a tyrant if the novel is a piece of genius. Well… no. The publication of a novel is a collaborative process, and first and foremost I need a collaborator. Prima donnas are not serious writers who want to publish their work. If a writer is not going to abide by your reasonable requirements, then how are they going to respond to the editorial process?

I have received emails from writers asking to send me a different package and I’ve always accepted. This is because the writer is immediately showing me courtesy and explaining why they’ve got a better solution. The writer is already engaging in an editorial conversation; he, or she, wants to work with me and it is only right that I show I want to work with them. (Agents can, of course, be very helpful in expediting this process, and in other factors mentioned in this piece.)

So once you’ve decided you can work with this person, the next consideration should be – is this submission commercial? I have to convince my publisher that they will make their money back on this venture. The commercial considerations of print books are tight because of the distribution and promotion costs of a physical product. As commissioning editor, you have to apply your knowledge of genre and commercial trends. I have rejected submissions because I cannot identify a clear readership or position for a manuscript (or concept) in the market. I’ve always explained this to an author; it may be something fixable, or it may encourage the writer to focus on a new project rather than flog a dead horse. (It may also encourage them to submit something else to you in future – the next project might be a winner!)

If the submission has passed the commercial test, the next factor has to be – do you like it?

I have eclectic tastes in my particular area of publishing, some editors have quite specific areas they ‘like’ and should always communicate this to potential submitters. You have to have enthusiasm for a project; if it doesn’t catch you then how can you possibly play your part in catching a readership?

As a commissioning editor of an independent publisher, I’m going to be intimately involved in every stage of the publication process. There are things that can be fixed: structure, characterisation, writing style (to a degree), but if the submission does not excite you then you’re better off rejecting it. It could be that this is your subconscious telling you this is something that really won’t work, or it could simply be that you (and by implication your imprint) are wrong for the job.

And finally comes the most unfair reason for rejecting a manuscript. You may already have a very similar project in the works. A publisher is like a gambler; they know several of their projects will ‘fail’ so they need to spread their bets. Two similar books from the same publisher at the same time are just not commercial. They will also invite unhelpful comparisons from potential reviewers. As a commissioning editor, you must avoid projects that clash; you must reject the submission.

If the submission has passed all your self-imposed filter systems, if you’ve then read the full manuscript and you’re still excited by the thought of this potential project, then it’s time to get to know the writer. We’re still at the very beginning of a journey that could last up to a year, but, by following a few simple rules, you’ve found the right bus.


Stories matter: commissioning fiction and personal influences

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollFor me, good fiction makes sense, revealing our waking lives to ourselves (and sometimes our dreams) in ways we may not have before considered; which is a rather round-about way of saying that stories matter.

Stories have been a vital part of my life for as long as I can remember. Alice in Wonderland cracked open my imagination when my mother read it to me as a child. The reason I connected so strongly with the book is because it’s about a child interacting with a chaotic and seemingly nonsensical world, and when you’re five that’s exactly how the world feels. When I went through my first bad bout of depression as a teenager, I stopped reading horror, having somehow convinced myself that dark fiction had contributed to my mindset. Low and behold, reading mainly light comedies had absolutely no positive effect on my illness. Instead, a drop of the dark stuff helped pull me through. I can remember the book I was reading when I first started to date my wife – it was Light by M. John Harrison. When Maia, our daughter was born, I’d just set out on the epic journey of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, not quite aware of the true nature of the huge adventure we were now embarking on as a family.

Even when fiction deals with the fantastical, it reflects our lives and our world. Erikson’s aforementioned Malazan books brilliantly explore the nature of power, both political and religious, and its corrupting and potentially liberating effects. To use a personal example my first novel, Twilight of Kerberos: The Call of Kerberos, had as its central threat a massive flood and a baby as a core part of its cast of characters. In retrospect it’s easy to see how I used fiction to work out a lot of the stress caused by being flooded in 2007 and the anxiety of trying for a child as we underwent IVF treatment. Again, we can see how stories make sense of ourselves.

As a commissioning editor it’s only natural that my personal preferences are going to influence the fiction that I buy. That’s not to say that I don’t buy with a view to keeping as broad a list as possible, but stories are going to have to resonate with me on an intimate level if I’m going to want to pursue them.  I’ve mentioned Steve Rasnic Tem before in this column but it’s precisely because his stories are so honest, truthful and unafraid to explore potentially uncomfortable issues that his fiction resonates with me. When Steve and Melanie Tem wanted to explore the nature of their own family they did so in fiction, with the brilliant novella The Man on The Ceiling; a truly incredible work of fantastical biography. Steve’s heartfelt phantasmagoria, Deadfall Hotel, possibly connected to me so strongly because it deals with the issue of how you protect your child from a chaotic and indifferent world. At the time of commissioning this work, we’d just welcomed our daughter into the world, so the themes of fatherhood in this extraordinary book really struck a chord with me.

It’s when we stop telling stories, stop using narrative to enrich and talk about our lives, that the darkness can set in. For a time, my father used counselling to help artists who had stopped painting rediscover their art. There is a piece in my parent’s house that’s one of the most incredible portraits I’ve seen. It’s a portrait of my father and my father’s work, but instead of being a naturalistic picture of the man himself, it is instead a picture of light battling through and overcoming a nebulous darkness. This, to me, shows the importance of talking about our lives, using whatever expressive medium best suits us in order to rediscover and express what is within. My friend and poet, A.F. Harrold, wrote an incredibly moving piece shortly after his father died, using verse to express his grief and to say goodbye in the best way he knew how. Listening to Ashley the night he read that piece was an incredibly moving experience, one that reminded me what stories – in whatever form – are for.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing – be it dragons and wizards or social realism – what matters is that you write truthfully, telling the best story you can. Because stories matter; they deserve to be well told.


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

An expert’s introduction to structural editing

Bloodshot eyes editorThere are two things an editor should always bear in mind when faced with a manuscript:

  1. All novels are too long
  2. The writer has already edited the manuscript until his or her eyes have bled.

I put these thoughts upfront because a lot of what I am about to say may suggest I am promoting the butchery of manuscripts, when I am in fact demonstrating how an editor should be proactive in improving the structure of a novel.

When I say all novels are too long, I’m not suggesting a particular word limit; I mean every novel that comes to me is overwritten.  It is the hardest thing to edit your own work effectively. Emotional investment trumps intellectual engagement every time.  There are writers who are very good at it; Lil Chase talks about reducing a first draft from 74,501 to 49,501, and I’ve known writers who edit very effectively as they write, but in my experience it takes an expert second pair of eyes to perfect the structure of a novel. In 100% of these cases, this will mean cutting.

So how do I cut a novel?

Well the first question to ask is do we need that Prologue? If yes, how much can I shave off it to get the reader into the main bulk of the story as quickly as possible? Indeed, in the world of expanding electronic publishing, the need to get a story started quickly is an absolute given – think Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature; this is the battleground where readers choose or reject books.

After this I systematically go through every chapter, and every scene, looking to see if it can start later in, and finish earlier.  This is a good exercise for any writer and can profoundly change the pace of a novel.

And then there are the things that will hurt the most. If a scene does not lend itself towards advancing the story of a novel, it should be cut. No matter how good it is, how beautiful a description, how delicate a character reveal, it is junk.

I often find myself reading published novels and my attention beginning to drift just after the middle and into the last third. This is basically because the editor has not been ruthless enough to sacrifice good scenes that slow the story down. Now I’m all for a novel with a consistent leisurely pace that fits the style and thematic drive of the story, but to have an inconsistent pace often results in an uneven reading experience. This is down to bad editing – the buck stops with me.

An editor is not a tyrant. If I change something and a writer comes back at me saying this subverts the original vision of their story, character, or theme – then I will back down. The writer is right. I have a duty to be ruthless and proactive, but I must be willing to defer to the writer on fundamental ideas that he or she brings to the story. It is never my novel. If a writer trusts that you understand where they are coming from, they are far more likely to accept radical change that will improve their novel.

With this in mind, nothing is off the table. Sometimes it is possible to remove one, or two characters. If they are minor, exist only to provide background colour, and do not serve the story, what are the advantages of deleting them? Well, by removing two characters I have been able to completely lose a chapter in the middle of a book, tighten the story and keep the reader’s attention on the main characters and the primary drive of the story. If you can show this to your writer, and they trust you, they will go with you.

Of course cutting is only part of the process. The editor brings an overview to the novel that is invaluable.

Is everything in the right order?

Scenes are moveable, and it can greatly improve the structure of a story if certain events happen earlier, or later.

What is missing?

This is where the trust shared with your writer really pays off, because you have to go back to them and say the story needs new scenes to smooth transitions and make the novel logical. Not only that, but there may need to be things added which reflect deep story-structure, for instance, we need the main character to refuse the ‘call of adventure’ for as long as possible, we need perhaps two scenes that see him/her in conflict about this matter. And remember – you never write scenes for a writer. You might make alternate suggestions that solve a problem – you might work very closely with a writer on a particular passage – but you NEVER indulge in re-writing the writer. Apart from the ethical reasons for this, the writer is the driver and you are the navigator, undermine these roles and you destroy the process that makes a good book.

All these factors bring us to the end of a novel. Here the big-picture view of the editor means I must make sure that every loose end is tied up, that all characters finish their journey, that the resolution is satisfying. At the same time, we have to get out quick. Do we need that epilogue? Is it so long because the story conclusion is inadequate? If it is essential, how much can we reduce it?  If you’ve taken your writer on a journey of trust, he or she will see the need to make changes and will always, in my experience, rise to the challenge.

I always look at the structural part of a novel first – it is my particular way of working. The production of a novel is an evolution, a complex process of collaboration that moves through many stages. When these matters have been resolved, a whole new stage is started, one that involves a far finer, more detailed, approach. In the end everyone’s eyes will bleed.


Steve Haynes, EditorSteve Haynes lives and works in Cornwall. He is the commissioning editor of Proxima Books, the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Salt Publishing.

How to find an editor to suit your needs and budget

Editors to suit your needsOver the course of the previous articles, I’ve been explaining exactly what it is a book editor does (and what they don’t). As promised, in this short article I will go on to explain how to go about finding an editor to suit your needs and pocket (unless, of course you get picked up by a major publishing house, in which they’ll have in-house editors).

The first, and best piece of advice, anyone could give would be, simply: do your research properly! In one of my previous articles on here, I mentioned that, just like publishers, editors also specialise in certain types of literature, so your first point of action should be to look for those editors who list your genre as one of their specialities. Doing this will also save you a lot of time in the long run and, more pertinently, save any editor’s time, too. There is nothing more irritating for an editor, especially after explicitly stating what types of manuscripts they are willing to work on, than to receive something entirely out of their purview. You’re wasting their valuable time, and you are also wasting your own when you could be out looking for someone more knowledgeable about your specific genre.

So, how do you go about finding one of these creatures? The best and most immediate source of information is the internet, of course, but there is one treasure-house of essential information that is always worth investing in: The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. This is an annual publication and is an absolutely indispensable sourcebook, containing everything that you should ever need as a writer who is absolutely serious about their work. However, if such a book isn’t your kind of thing, it goes without saying that the majority (if not all) of those featured in the listings have their own websites, all of which can be found through a search engine: however the Yearbook will save you an enormous amount of time, enabling you to hone in on those editors who work within your particular area in fairly quick order.

Once you find some likely candidates that match your criteria, contact them (via email). One point to emphasise here: don’t send them your manuscript with your first email! The purpose of that initial email is to make contact and get some discussions going. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I would say it’s expected. Conversely, they’ll want to ask you questions as well, as they’ll also want to satisfy themselves that they can work with you. A further point to ponder is does their website have testimonials from those they have previously worked with? This can be like gold to an editor: unsolicited testimonials from satisfied customers praising the work of their editor counts for a heck of a lot, and what they have to say should also be taken into account when making your choice.

In making the decision on who to employ, don’t go for the least expensive option: just like in all other fields, you pays your money and you takes your choice.  Neither should you go for the most expensive – it doesn’t necessarily follow that someone who charges top whack is any better than someone else whose fees are absolutely rock-bottom. The only gauge of quality should be how well they’ve edited a book or two, and whether the edits they’ve made are unobtrusive and appropriate. It also goes without saying that you shouldn’t take on the first person you find – it may be convenient and save time, but ultimately it might not represent value for money in the long run.

Other methods of finding an editor are social media platforms and conventions – being a writer, chances are your social media friends list is full of authors and, naturally, conventions are the ideal place for meeting editors in real life. At least at the latter events, you and any potential editors can discuss needs and requirements without having to wait for email replies and what have you. In addition, personal recommendations from other writers is a very good way of being introduced to that particular person who will help you craft a good piece of work, plus you can also find out what they are like to work with. You not only want someone who can do a good job: their approach also has to be professional, they must be willing to work with you, to produce work to a deadline and they should be completely open to discussion about your material. (Of course, it also works the other way – editing is an exercise in mutual reciprocation: you want your story to shine, which the editor also wants because it ultimately reflects well on them, BUT he/she has the experience to know what works and what doesn’t. You are paying for their expertise, after all – as an analogy, if you want an extension to your house built, you employ someone who knows what they’re doing – they would take umbrage if you started telling them how to do their job, but simultaneously they will do their level best to make what you want a reality).

As I’ve said elsewhere, editing is a collaborative effort between writer and editor. A good one will help shape your work to show it off to its best advantage. Whilst it is true that the author is the main star of the piece, a lot of credit must still go to that unsung hero, the editor. They can not only help sculpt your work into something to be proud of, they can also teach you about things which you may not have been aware of, such as hints on pacing, plot structure and the flow of the story. Above all that, a good editor will also give you a fair assessment of your potential as a writer – as an editor myself, I would dearly like to see all my clients succeed and do well for themselves, but if I don’t think they’ll make the grade then I will tell them what they need to work on to increase their chances.

After a while, some writers build up such a rapport with their editors that the working relationship is something akin to symbiosis – certainly the editor will understand the needs of the client, and how he/she works and writes. That kind of relationship is worth a lot and it is perhaps something worthwhile aiming for, because it means that it’s become more than just a customer/client thing, but something more vibrant and fundamental.  In other words, your goal is to find the editor who works the best for you and your writing – simply your work will ultimately benefit from it immensely.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on

Top 5 book covers (Judge a book by its cover)

Despite that old maxim, it is a truth universally acknowledged in publishing that people really do judge a book by its cover. This is true all the way from the distributor’s sales teams and trade book buyers all the way up to the customer. If you get the cover wrong, a bookshop is less likely to stock the title. I know, I know, it’s the inside that counts, the words themselves, but unless you get that book into the customer’s hands in the first place, those words aren’t going to be read.

However, this would seem to presume that the customer is part of a gestalt, that each individual buys a book in the same way. We’ve perhaps not taken into account the fan mentality; the buyer who will collect an author’s work because they love that author, not caring one jot what the design team and artist have done with his or her book. Also, a genre publisher has to make sure that a book is aimed at the right audience, and that necessitates a certain look. But while a publisher is very happy to publish books for its faithful fan base, it must also keep an eye on the wider picture – the book that appeals to everybody; the breakout titles that sell a million copies or more.

Consider Harry Potter. That was a breakout title in the fact that adults as well as children were reading it. The publishers responded by issuing editions with more ‘mature’ covers – a monochrome photo of a steam-train instead of a colour illustration of Harry Potter waiting for the Hogwart’s Express.

So, while making sure that their core market is targeted, a publisher may also consider making the cover a little wider in appeal, in the hope that it will encourage a greater audience.

China Mieville is a case in point. China is certainly a brilliant and incisive writer, producing novels as rich as anything in literature, but China is also a genre writer. However, rather than going for what we would think of as typically genre covers for China’s books (fantastical beasts or cityscapes), the publisher has gone for much more design-led covers. China has broken out of the SF ghetto and the look of his books reflects that.

That’s not to say that a publisher has to go for a design-led look. Science fiction, fantasy and horror have produced some great fully illustrated covers over the years. And if your book has a kick-ass, beautifully illustrated dragon on the cover, chances are that it’ll reach your intended audience no problem. The important thing as a publisher is that you get the best possible cover art you can and make sure that you have a design team in place who can do justice to the art you have commissioned.

But, dear writer, beauty is the eye of the beholder, so you may well be wondering what pleases my eye. Therefore, I shall give you a roundup of 5 of my personal favourite covers from the Abaddon/Solaris stable.

Death got no mercy by Al Ewing1. The Afterblight Chronicles: Death Got No Mercy by Al Ewing (art by Mark Harrison)

I always consult with the author before commissioning a cover for their book and when I asked Al what he wanted to represent his ultra-violent post-apocalyptic hell-ride, he said “How about a man punching out a grizzly bear?” Fortunately, artist Mark Harrison was well up for the task, and what we have is, I think, the most audacious cover of the Abaddon Books range.

Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem2. Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem (art by John Kenn Mortensen and D’Israeli)

This was originally going to go out with a D’Israeli cover, which we all thought was gorgeous, but when we presented it to our distributor’s sales team they weren’t keen, saying that it didn’t tell them what kind of book it was. So, we had to go back to the drawing-board, as it were. Fortunately we didn’t have to go very far as John Kenn Mortensen had produced stunning artwork for Centipede Press’s hardback edition of the title and was happy for us to license one of those pieces. What’s more, D’Israeli was happy for us to use his original cover artwork as illustrations for the interior. So, we ended up with the best of both worlds and a gorgeous paperback.

Blood and feathers by Lou Morgan

3. Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan (art by Pye Parr)

This is one of those design-led covers I told you about. At Rebellion Publishing we’re fortunate to have a brilliant design team led by Pye. We wanted to shy away from your traditional Urban Fantasy cover for this as we didn’t want Lou to immediately be dropped into a niche. Her book is unusual and brilliant and we wanted to give this debut title as much of a boost as possible. Pye did a wonderful job with his blood-splattered angel and storm of feathers.

Hell Train by Christopher Fowler

4. Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (art by Graham Humphreys)

Hell Train marked Christopher Fowler’s return to horror. The nice thing about Chris is that he’s massively well connected to the film business. Hence, for this book, we managed to get the legendary Graham Humphreys. Graham has produced many incredible film posters over the years, including The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elmstreet. True to form, Graham produced a great cover that wouldn’t look out of place as a poster for a classic horror movie.

The noise revealed Ian Whates5. The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates (art by Dominic Harman)

Dom is a BSFA award-winning artist, for this very cover no less! When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy art, Dom is certainly one of the hottest talents there is. His beautifully illustrated covers always do a book justice and if you’re looking for great genre artist, then look no further!


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.


The biggest mistake an editor can make


Don’t butcher a writer’s work without consent.

Last time I talked about what the process of editing involves – this time I’ll discuss what editors shouldn’t do.

Recently there was something of a major flurry in the virtual universe of the internet concerning a particular small-press publisher, upon whom much vitriol was poured (and rightly so, considering his actions). A writer we shall call M submitted a story to publisher A for a themed anthology. The story was accepted within a matter of days, much to the delight of M as this constituted her first ever acceptance. Naturally she was very excited about the prospect of seeing not only her story in a book but her name in the table of contents and her by-line under the story’s title. She duly signed the contract and waited.

First warning sign that something was amiss was when she had to buy copies of the book she’d contributed to (the only time that ever happens is in vanity publishing and they’re nothing more than scams in my opinion – no author should be asked to pay for their own work). No matter, this was her first official publication so she let that one slide. Turning to the table of contents, she looks for her story and, to her horror, her name is spelt wrong as well as the story title. Flipping to the page where her story starts, she finds the story title misspelt again but in a different way. At least they got her name right (I think).

Those mistakes turned out to be quite mild in comparison to what else she discovered about her story. It had been completely rewritten in parts, nameless characters named and others renamed, and a quite questionable subtext added to the tale by the author. And all this had been done without her knowledge or any form of consultation by the editor, Mr. A. In the publishing world, this is considered to be a heinous crime. And, to top it all off, when Miss M emailed the editor his reply said something along the lines of “you should be grateful for what I’ve done because it was unsaleable otherwise.”

I am not here to debate the merits or otherwise of the story itself as I haven’t read it, but what I am going to say is that even if the story was completely rubbish the level of editing it received went far beyond the remit of the editor. Of course, all authors expect some form of editing of their work, even if it’s just the odd typo, spelling or grammatical mistake. I would think that’s acceptable without consultation (unless there’s a specific reason why there are misspellings e.g., they’re part of the process of delineating a character whose education isn’t up to scratch – but then a good editor would infer that from context or, if they’re unsure, would automatically contact the author in order to clarify) but to rename people and then add whole chunks of text along with a completely inappropriate subtext is totally taboo. For a start, even if the changes are needed, the editor suggests them in consultation with the writer and the same goes for any rewrites. The ultimate authority on any story is the person who wrote it.

Certainly, the editor exercises his knowledge and experience in order to bring the best out in a story, suggest where it could be strengthened or to delete unnecessary passages or sentences. I emphasise that word suggest. I see the process as a collaboration between two different spheres of expertise – writing and editing. Each requires different skills and knowledge, but there’s also a certain overlap, a meeting ground in the middle where the two work together. It’s a form of negotiation, in other words, which looks to secure a mutually beneficial result i.e. the fully formed, publishable story.

In this case, Mr. A overstepped the boundaries by several miles. First, he left out the most important element in the process, the author, without whom he would have nothing to edit. On top of that, he displayed sheer unalloyed arrogance by assuming that, by submitting a story to him, that meant the author gave him carte blanche to do with it whatever he wanted. Thirdly, he felt so confident in his own literary abilities that he thought he could just add things where he felt like it, without any consequences. If the story needed any additions or rewrites he should have asked the writer to do them. It’s as simple as that.

Now, since the furore blew up quite spectacularly on the internet (and those of you who have been paying attention over the last couple of months or so should be able to figure out which editor I’ve been referring to) a lot of stuff has come out about the editor and his ways, namely running and shutting down several different imprints, bringing out an anthology a month (which, apparently, nobody ever read), overpricing of eBooks and generally shafting a few people in the process. Needless to say, his name got spread quite unceremoniously over the entire virtual aether and within a few days he’d shut another imprint down. No doubt at some point he will re-emerge under a different guise and carry on as if nothing had happened. This is the way of such people.

So, if you want to become an editor or you need to deal with one, the above (as well as my previous columns in this series) will give you an indication as to what an editor does and doesn’t do – the good ones anyway. It’s especially important for those writers who are just starting out and entering the literary arena for the first time to take note of these things, because many unscrupulous types take advantage of the fact that newbies are unaware of how things work. My advice at this point is not to give them that chance.

Next time, I’ll look at how to go about finding an editor.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on

How to be an editor (and what to do)

EditingInevitably, the question which follows my telling some people that I am a book editor is “What do book editors do exactly?” This question is usually based on the assumption that a writer writes the words, sends it off to the publisher and then it gets printed as is. When told this isn’t the case, that in fact there are numerous steps between submission of manuscript and final placement on the bookshop shelf, the response is often one of surprise. So, in this week’s column, I shall be telling you exactly what a book editor does.

Before I go any further, however, there’s one undeniable fact about editors: no matter where you are in the literary world, whether you’re just starting out or an international bestseller, editors are an essential requisite if you want your work to be taken seriously. Even stellar writers like JK Rowling and Stephen King get their work edited: however, in some quarters, it appears that editors are considered to be nothing more than an unnecessary luxury that can safely be left out of the process. I’ve read many reviews in which it’s been pointed out how badly spelt and grammatically incorrect a book is – something which leaves a bad impression. The bottom line is that, if writers want their potential readership to finish the book and come back for more, it behoves them to treat readers with the utmost respect. Uploading your newest literary masterpiece to Kindle or whatever is one thing, but uploading it with typos, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes is more or less telegraphing the notion that

a) you don’t care about your work strongly enough and

b) that you couldn’t care less about your readers.

What you’re saying in essence is that readers don’t count: if that’s how it comes across then why should they care about your book?

Having established that, let’s now explore what the art of editing is really about. Make no mistake about it – editing is an art. As I’ve mentioned before, I liken it to music or, specifically, learning an instrument. There are basics which everyone needs to learn, like chords, chord progressions, scales, and technique. Those are just the starting ‘mechanics’ of the instrument – the tools which will enable you to produce something melodious and not an undifferentiated atonal caterwaul. But there is something beyond that, which marks out the truly gifted player from the merely pedestrian journeyman: musicianship, a quality which can lift an already beautiful piece of music into something truly and unforgettably moving. That is what any serious musician aims for and, in a similar way, this is what a good editor also aims for in his/her own way.

Anyway, let’s now move on to the meat of the article: what editing actually involves. Of course, a good working knowledge of your native language is an absolute must, allied to a modicum of common sense. First thing I usually do, if I have sufficient time (if there’s no specific deadline, in other words), is to read the manuscript to get a sense of what the story’s about as well as what the writer’s trying to say and how they’re saying it. The real work starts on the second run, where I go through it with a fine-toothed comb looking out for such things as spelling mistakes and typos, long unwieldy sentences, grammatical errors, inconsistencies in tense, character or narrative history, needless repetition or even unnecessary passages that don’t add anything to the narrative (of course, some writers need less or very little editing than some others do). Sometimes I may feel that certain things would be better placed elsewhere, or events swapped around (these latter especially may be based on nothing more than intuition, born of experience of course). There’s also the possibility that certain aspects of the story provide an opportunity for expansion or elucidation, or that something ‘extra’ needs to be added to give the story the necessary X-factor to make it better.


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The Art of Editing (and how I set up a small press)

ArtLast time, I talked about my somewhat roundabout route to becoming an editor, at the end of which I promised I would delve into how Spectral Press got its start and how I learnt the art of editing. And that is exactly what I will be writing about this time.

The first question I should answer is: ‘who in their right mind would want to set up a small press in the first place?’ After all, it’s a time consuming exercise at the very least and it involves a great deal of work, with things like attempting to get people interested (authors AND readers), sorting out issues such as finding a suitable and sympathetic printing company, and raising capital with which to finance the whole operation, just for starters. Plus, there’s the sometimes quite mind-numbing realisation that you will be in competition with hundreds, if not thousands, of other outfits vying for punters’ money, and it becomes something of a mammoth undertaking. It’ll take up great chunks of your free time as well, something you might not be able to afford easily with a family, for instance.

In my case, it was simply because:

a) as clichéd as it undoubtedly sounds, I wanted to give something back to the genre I’ve derived a lot of reading pleasure from and

b) there are a lot of very talented authors out there whose work I wanted to showcase.

A simple enough premise, one might assume, but the problem then was deciding in which format to showcase these talents – that was solved when I was handed a couple of Nightjar Press chapbooks at FantasyCon 2010. Whilst reviewing them for a website, it hit me that they were a perfect way to show off writers’ works, with the added benefit of being relatively ‘cheap’ to produce and distribute, meaning that I could keep the price reasonable for readers. The one thing I was not prepared to do, however, was compromise on quality – one of the other aspects of pitching yourself into the publishing industry is that you should at least attempt to offer something new to the paying audience, and simultaneously offer value for money.

Physical quality isn’t the only issue when it comes to an imprint, of course – being able to spot a good story and tight editing are also essential prerequisites. You can have the most amazing-looking volume ever, but if the story isn’t on a par with that attention to physical detail then people won’t buy into the ethos behind the imprint. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are an absolute no-no, as they’re an enormous turn-off (I’ve been known to stop reading a story which has too many typos and mangled English in it). Knowing a good story when you come across one isn’t just a matter – at least in my view – of personal preference (although it does play some part), but also knowing what elements go into creating a successful tale. That can only be learnt through wide reading across all genres, not just your favourite one, so you can pick up the rhythms and pacing necessary to what makes a particular story work and what doesn’t, for instance. There are some stories you might not like on a personal level, but which nevertheless scream out quality and readability.

Editing, in my case at least, I learnt through a combination of reading extremely widely through all forms of literature (non-fiction as well as fiction, lit-fic as well as genre offerings and classic as well as modern) and common sense (plus a dose of reading online interviews with several eminent editors). It also helped that my parents were avid readers themselves who were always encouraging my voracious reading habits. I also particularly loved English in school. A lot of my editing is as much intuition as it is consciously knowing what constitutes a story that will enthral readers –for instance, I have sometimes ‘felt’ that just by moving one passage somewhere else or omitting it entirely would improve a story immeasurably yet, on a conscious level, I couldn’t have told you why. It just felt right.

There are correspondence courses available out there which, I would think, at least teach you the basics of what editing involves. However, I also think that there’s an element which goes beyond the mechanics of the editing process, which I can only describe as a natural affinity or talent for editing – that intuition I talked about above. I’m not saying that correspondence courses are unnecessary, not at all – I can see them being extremely useful, especially if you’re looking for a career within the publishing industry itself. However, I liken it to music: you can be taught how to play an instrument and read music, but it takes a particular talent to push beyond that into musicianship. However, it is also true that you need to know the basics in order to become a musician.

I didn’t do a correspondence course because I couldn’t afford it and that’s the only reason. As Stephen Jones, one of the horror genre’s pre-eminent editors said to me, “you learn editing by doing it”. So that’s what I did: threw myself into the thick of it by actually starting an imprint, inviting writers to submit their stories and then editing those submissions (and working closely with the author – another essential prerequisite). I can proudly say, however, that not a single typo has crept into any of the Spectral Press chapbooks or the sole novella I’ve issued. But that, I believe, is what makes the difference, paying such close attention to detail – to do otherwise is ‘commercial’ suicide. People will take notice of your mistakes and will let you know by taking their custom elsewhere.

Next time, I will go deeper into the elements of editing, so stay tuned for the next episode.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on

An editor’s guide to choosing the right story

The girl with the dragon tattoo by Stieg LarssonI choose stories for a living. Hopefully, I choose the ‘right’ stories. “But Editor Jon,” you say (or, at least the voice in my head does), “what is the right story?” And the answer is that I’ll know it when I see it. But it would be a rather dull article if we left it there.

First off, I’m fairly convinced that nobody can predict a best-seller. If those of us in the publishing industry could consistently do so, we’d all drive swanky cars, live in mansions and holiday in space. A lot of the time big hits seem to come from nowhere. Bear in mind that JK Rowling was paid a very small advance for the first few Harry Potter books; it was word of mouth that made them such a storming success. Stephen King threw away the manuscript to Carrie before his wife persuaded him it was worth keeping at it. And who knew that Scandinavian crime would be the next big thing?

Publishing may not be able to accurately predict a hit but what it is good at is playing a trend. Witness the glut of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-esque titles that currently flood the market; the huge success of Twilight and the like leading to bookstores having a whole section of Paranormal Romance, and the rise of steampunk with such authors as China Mieville now being hailed (though somewhat retroactively) as heroes of the genre. However, the thing about trends is that they end, and they can do so suddenly and unexpectedly. So it’s all very well adding a raft of love-sick vampires, or Scandinavian cops to your list but what if, by the time the book has come out, people are done with that sort of thing? As publishers we think a year in advance when choosing our titles, and accurately predicting the future is awfully hard to do.

All you can really do as a commissioning editor is choose a story you believe in and you think other people will enjoy. It sounds simple, but that’s the basic truth of it. If you merely chose a novel on the basis that you think this is what folk like these days, that that ‘kind of thing’ is big so surely this will work, but the novel hasn’t bowled you over first, it’s not going to work. A story has to connect. If it doesn’t do that in the first instance then it’s back out into the wilderness with it, to contemplate the error of its ways. Of course, you say potato and I say potartoe (No, actually, no one says that (And no one, simply no one, says ersturs for oysters)), so what doesn’t work for me, may well work for another editor. Many different publishers makes for a more diverse spread of titles and often the different nature of imprints will give you an idea what to expect from their outputs. (I don’t see Baen branching out into romance any time soon, for example.)

So, when asked what I’m looking for, the only accurate answer I can give is that I’ll know it when I see it.

Of course, we all have our personal likes. I’m a sucker for the dark stuff, for a good, intelligent horror story, but that’s not all I publish. It’s important that I keep my remit fairly wide, otherwise the two imprints I oversee would become too narrow. Most of all, I simply like stories. And that’s the basis I use for choosing the ones I publish: is this story good, and does it connect with me? I wish, in a way, that there was some magic formula. That I could say “this here is how to engineer a best-seller.” Because then my latest paperback would obviously be topping the charts and you’d see me around town in a swanky car, smoking embarrassingly phallic cigars and laughing maniacally. (See, one thing money doesn’t bring you is taste.) However, stories have to be given their own space and no two evolve in exactly the same way. Some writers write very quickly, knocking out a book in four months or so. Other writers may have slaved over a novel for almost a decade before you get to see it. Neither way is the right way.

The important thing, as a writer, is to make sure that you write the right story, for the right reasons.

There, don’t you feel the benefit from all that sage advice just coursing through your creative veins?

Good. I’m off to roll around in money and cackle to myself. Which is actually what us editors do, you know.


Confessions of an editor (and how I learnt from my mistakes)

Fractured Spaces RecordsLike most things in life, and like most people in all probability, I came to my calling via a circuitous route. I’d always enjoyed studying English during my school career but, rather than go on to pursue it at university level as I should have done, I chose art. Looking back to my late teen years, I realise now with a measure of chagrin that I was typically bloody-minded and rebellious – just for the sake of it. Commonsense, especially back then, has never been one of my strong points. Whatever sense I do possess nowadays has been fought-for and hard won, although my wife would probably tell you otherwise.

My first foray into publishing was way back in the early 90s, when I became involved in the then nascent industrial music scene and decided to launch a fanzine. FRÄCtüred (and yes, that’s how it was written) was quite successful in its own little way, selling all over the world at a time when the internet was still some years away. I managed to put out three issues, before life got in the way and I just let it all go – again I would say that this was typical of the person that was me then. With hindsight, I should have kept the thing going, although having said that, if I had it’s likely that Spectral Press wouldn’t have come along, as I would still have been heavily involved in the underground alternative music scene. Certainly FracturedSpacesRecords might have done better had I stayed in touch with what was going on, and not been the disaster it turned out to be.

But let me tell you this – I loved editing that fanzine, despite me having no idea of what editing actually involved. Remember, there was no internet or email, so I had no-one around to advise me. I thought it was simply a matter of commissioning articles, reading them as well as the unsolicited submissions, choosing which of them would go into a particular issue, maybe correct a spelling mistake here-and-there, and then collate it all to be sent off to the printers. And that, to my knowledge of the time, was the extent of it. Luckily, even though I made a few mistakes, I seemed to have got away with it and even received praise for what I’d created. I must have done quite a good job, despite my cluelessness.

Anyway, around this time (1991), the place where I was working had acquired one of the then ‘new’ PCs, a clunky old thing with limited memory which used massive floppy discs on which to store data and whose graphics capabilities stretched solely to badly pixellated images which made identifying what they were supposed to be quite difficult. Alongside the usual packages it came with there was a desktop publishing program, which the company let me use to typeset the fourth issue of FRÄCtüred (which never saw the light of day in the end). Here was an opportunity to make the affair look professional, and I could already see the possibilities inherent in the proto-digital publishing technology. It was an exciting time, knowing that a revolution could be just around the corner.

And then Fate intervened, in one of those moments that leave you wondering in the small hours. I’d just lost my job, and been herded into the dreaded Job Club initiative. After several unsuccessful applications for unsuitable jobs, I happened to look through The Guardian newspaper one day, and noticed that the University of Plymouth were looking for students to apply for a new course they’d just created – MediaLab Arts, a fancy (and somewhat pretentious) way of describing the emerging field of digital media. Included in the advert were the words ‘Desktop Publishing’. I called them up, arranged a telephone interview and then, after talking to the Head of Course, was told I’d been accepted.

An over-hyped course and poverty

Okay, so in the end the course failed to live up to its promise, and the only things I came away with were an intense dislike of computers (since cured) and the advent of a stroke, which finally hit me in the winter of 1997. So, the next decade, or so, was spent struggling with recuperation and learning to deal with physical disabilities, as well as poverty resulting in a journey down the bumpy path which led to alcoholism. I admit that I could have done a lot more to help myself, but I was mired in booze and living in an isolated (and somewhat rundown) area, was incredibly depressed and had no desire to lift myself out of the rut I was in. It took two people (a best friend and a future wife) and a move to a new town to drag me out of that vicious circle and make me realise that I had untapped potential.

I still wasn’t quite clear of the woods yet – I came into publishing and editing via the music business by setting up a record label, devoted entirely to obscure genres created by bands that only about ten people listen to (okay, so that’s not quite true, but still…). As intimated above, it was an unmitigated disaster – and my wife and I are still paying the price for my failure. Several factors contributed to its demise: my unfamiliarity with the industry, compounded with the undeniable fact that I’d been out of the scene for too long, and launching it in the middle of a global recession, in addition to making a series of poor decisions. So, after two years of spasmodic trading, I closed its doors for good.

No experience is ever wasted, however, even the bad ones. I learnt my limitations in terms of business and how to go about it. I vowed never to get involved in something about which I knew very little, and that attempting to substitute enthusiasm for sound commonsense and knowledge of your market definitely won’t help you succeed. Enthusiasm is an essential attribute to possess it goes without saying, but it has to be allied to something grounded in the real world. You have to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, otherwise all manner of mess can result, as it did in my case. But like I said above, no experience is totally wasted and I can honestly say that I don’t regret going ahead with starting the label as it taught me some very valuable lessons. Because of it, Spectral Press is in great shape and is continuing to grow, slowly but steadily.

Anyway, that’s enough to be going on with for the present – next time, I’ll explain how Spectral started, and how I learnt about the art of editing. So, until then, onwards and upwards!


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on