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