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.

STEVE HAYNES
PHOTO: GILDERIC

When the words won’t come (the struggles of writing and editing)

The Wrath of Kerberos by Jonathan OliverI should be writing. Obviously I’m writing this, but I mean writing writing. Fiction writing. Because as well as being an editor, part of what defines me, mostly to myself admittedly, is that I’m a writer.

I’m not a very prolific writer. Over the years I’ve scribbled a bunch of short stories and had two relatively obscure novels published. I’ve never garnered huge critical acclaim, but neither has the criticism been harsh or unpleasant. And I’ve certainly never made bags of money from it. So, why do it at all? And the answer, as corny as this sounds, is that I can’t not.

But the fact of the matter is that right now I’m not. I finished a story recently, one of which I’m very proud – ‘Raise The Beam High’ to appear in the anthology A Town Called Pandemonium this November – and that was nice to do, but I haven’t written any fiction in about a month now.

I know roughly what I want to do. I’ve had this character in my head for at least 8 years and I know roughly the story I want to tell. But will the words come? Will they fuck!

I’ve written about four lines of dialogue and that’s it.

I think that the problem is that this next thing is a novel, and having written two already, I’m well aware of the challenges writing a novel poses. I have a full-time job, a wife and an eighteenth month old daughter. Novels take a long time to write. Finding the time in such circumstances is tricky. And, let’s face it, when I get home from work, having read fiction all day, sometimes I’d rather put on the Xbox or watch a movie than deal with more words. But like I said, I’ve written two novels before. Maia – our daughter – arrived half way through the second and I still managed to write it.

So, why can’t I this time?

The answer, of course, is that I can. The only solution to the problem of not being able to write, is to write. There’s no magic formula, no amount of planning or prevaricating is going to be a substitute for getting words onto the page. That, at its base level, is really all there is to writing.

That’s not to say writing is easy. I’ve never ever found the experience easy, and yet I still do it. If it’s going badly, I convince myself I’m rubbish. If it’s going really well, there’s a part of me that’s saying to myself, “this is coming too easy, there must therefore be something wrong.”

Writers, huh? Neurotic buggers.

This self-doubt, these common concerns experienced by pretty much every writer ever, (although maybe Dan Brown sits typing on his throne of $1000 dollar bills, wildly grinning to himself and cackling, “Solid gold, Brown! Solid Gold!”) are also experienced by the editor.

I would love (absolutely fucking love) to be that ideal of an editor: that suave, slightly academic individual, who chooses his words with care, holds forth with great wit at dinner parties and has absolute confidence in every one of his decisions and knows the formula to success. But that’s the ideal. It doesn’t exist, even though I really really want it to. The truth of the matter is that editors are as neurotic as writers. I worry about every single one of my babies (and by babies, I mean the works I publish [see, I told you I was neurotic, this is all getting disturbingly Freudian]). I commission the books and stories I love and I desperately hope that everybody will love them as much as I do and that they’ll find a place in people’s hearts and make everybody wealthy and happy and artistically fulfilled and… and.. and that truth and justice will prevail…and our children are the future… and

And, relax.

You can see, I’m sure, how difficult it is for me. And I’m sure your heart bleeds. No really.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m not writing.

I guess I’ll take another look at those four lines of dialogue, and maybe, if I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll add four more.

JONATHAN OLIVER

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.

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The biggest mistake an editor can make

butchering

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.

PHOTO BY FOOD THINKERS
SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

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 spectralpress@gmail.com.

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.

JONATHAN OLIVER

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

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 spectralpress@gmail.com.