Despite the impression we authors like to give, publishing isn’t just about us. There are people who work behind the scenes and they work extremely hard in producing novels each month, and what’s more, they get little acknowledgement. These are the people who help shape careers, as well as an industry, yet they don’t often get a voice. So I thought it would be enlightening to ask a few questions to my own editor, Julie Crisp, queen of Tor UK, in order to get a glimpse into a scary publishing mind. We cover topics such as writer submissions, author egos and cover art. So here we go.
You’ve been on the throne at Tor UK for over a year now, and have inherited an established author list from the legendary Peter Lavery. What was that like for an introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing?
I did work on some SFF books previously – the Dune books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert, and Ben Bova’s novels when I worked at Hodder and Stoughton many years ago. So the Tor list wasn’t really my first introduction to SFF publishing.
However, taking over from the ‘legend in his own lunchtime and he of the terrifying red pencil’ Mr Lavery was, admittedly, rather intimidating. He’d been working in publishing for years and knew pretty much everything there was to know about the genre, so he left some big shoes to fill and they’re still feeling rather loose around the ankles a year on. But I think I’m getting there…
What were you working on before Tor UK, and had you always been a reader of SF and Fantasy?
Before working on Tor UK I was an editor for the crime list here at Pan Macmillan, and before that – three years spent working in Australia as an editor on non-fiction, childrens’ fiction, and adult fiction – a real mix. Luckily, I’ve always read across the board. As a kid I’d get through about a book a day, now it’s probably two books a week (for pleasure) but across genres. My favorite obviously being SFF.
I blame my Dad for it. I’ve been a reader of SF and Fantasy since spotting the cover of Stephen King’s IT on my Dad’s bookshelves when I was ten. You know that 1980s version with those terrifying yellow eyes peering out of the drain? I devoured it in about a week. Then had nightmares for about a month afterwards. But that made me pick up Dune next and, from then on it was anything set in another world – pure escapism.
It gets asked all the time: “What are editors looking for in a submission?” But what writers might not realise is that every editor is in fact a different human being. What does Julie Crisp look for in a submission, and what’s the best bit of advice for a writer?
Editors are all different and we all have varying tastes but I think the one thing we all look for – no matter what the genre – is someone who can tell a story.
At heart, I’m a fan first and foremost, so I look for books that I’d read for pleasure and that I’d want to recommend to other people. We also have to be quite pragmatic about it though, and keep an eye on what’s doing well in the marketplace. It’s no good being a huge enthusiast of, oh I don’t know, dwarven adventures with magic ponies, if there’s a demonstrated sales record that proves this doesn’t work. So it’s a balancing act between passion and business.
The things I actively look for in a submission are: great characters, a fast paced plot with good story arcs, and a way with words. If I’m still reading after 50 pages then it’s a good story.
My advice to authors is twofold: write what you feel passionate about – don’t write something because you want to be published, write because you love writing. There’s no guarantee about getting published but if you get satisfaction out of writing then, to be honest, getting a book deal at the end of it is just a really nice bonus. And the other piece of advice: write the damn book! Don’t sit there expounding upon what a fantastic idea you have – get it down on paper and get it out there.
If you like a submission, who else is involved in the process of buying the novel?
Everyone! It’s a very democratic process really. If I’m passionate about something I’ll get Team Tor (that’s Chloe in publicity, Amy in marketing and James in Digital publishing) to have a look at it. If they all enjoy it then it will go out on a wider basis to sales and marketing.
Then I have to put a costing together based on sales figures, any marketing and PR spend we’ve forecasted and take this, and my enthusiasm, to the acquisitions meeting where we’ll sit down and discuss the book, figures, the market and the publishing strategy. It’s actually quite an involved process, we don’t buy books lightly and we have to be convinced that it’s the right decision for everyone, author included.
Doesn’t it get boring reading at home after a day ploughing through submissions?
Sometimes – but only very rarely and mainly because I have tired eyes! There’s a difference between work reading and reading for pleasure though. Submission reading tends to be quite analytical – and actually, it’s the submissions that make me forget I’m reading for work that really get my attention.
Authors are a rather demanding bunch. How have you found managing so many egos? Do you feel like a world-weary mother at times? Do you occasionally bash the computer keyboard in despair?
I’m glad you admit how demanding you are! And those author egos – well…of course, you’re the worst of the bunch. 🙂
I love working with my authors – I really do. And I’m not just saying that because you’re one of them. Where else would you get to work with people whose writing you’ve already read as a fan, who you admire for their passion and dedication to their work and actually enjoy hanging out with at conventions and fairs because they’re genuinely fun people with similar interests to your own?!
Most authors don’t tend to need – or want – ego massaging, thank goodness as I’d be terrible at it. I’m far too candid! What they do want is someone who’ll talk to them honestly, do the best they possibly can for them and their books and someone they can talk to easily if they have concerns or worries about their writing. That’s what I try to do anyway…I’m not at all mean. Despite what you say…
How long can it take you to work through a novel when an author submits it? What’s the process?
Did you want a breakdown of manuscript to bookshelf? Blimey – could take a while. Maybe I’ll do a separate blog on that and post it at Tor.com if anyone’s interested.
Actual editing is very dependent on the author and their experience. Established authors tend to need much less editorial work than a debut author who’s new to the publishing process.
I’ll read a script through once for clarity, make a few notes on the way, and then read through it again making more detailed notes. What I’m looking for is the structural work that needs addressing: plot weaknesses, areas where the pace is too slow or too fast, timing inconsistencies, whether characters need more development, if the storyline is gripping and convincing. I also keep an eye on realism, style and consistency – whether character names change halfway through or someone who had blue eyes and blonde hair at the starts ends up with brown hair and green eyes at the end. My structural notes can be anywhere between two pages and thirty! The manuscript also gets marked up. All of the suggested changes are attempting to make the book stronger, faster – a better read.
In general, it will take me maybe three weeks to work up a detailed editorial report. The author then gets everything back and, after they’ve had a chance to digest my notes and cry into their pillow for a bit :), then we talk everything through. Everything is negotiable. At the end of the day the book has to be one that both author and publisher is happy to see on the bookshelves, so editors certainly aren’t tyrannical about having every single one of their suggested changes implemented.
Although, of course, the editor is always right.
Bloggers are famous for complaining about clichéd cover art. So here’s your chance: what would you like to say to all those who might not like one of Tor UK’s covers?
Do you know, I really enjoy the discussions about covers. Honestly. It’s the only genre I can think of where the readers actually care enough about the books to talk so openly and intensely about what they like and dislike about book jackets. In what other area of publishing would you get that much passion and enthusiasm?
The only thing that does frustrate me is when publishers are accused of just ‘slapping’ a cover on a book. That, I do tend to take personally as it’s a sleight on how well I do my job. You have to remember that, to an editor, every book they take on is like a personal crusade. We’ve fought to buy it, we’ve spent hours researching what other books are working well in the market place. We’ve looked at Bookscan figures, comparable authors, held discussions with the art department about which artist might be suitable to use. We have cover briefing meetings, sales and marketing meetings all to discuss cover strategy.
After briefing a jacket I’ll see between 5-20 different versions of artwork. From that we have to pick one that we feel will attract the most number of people. And then that will be tweaked, and retweaked until it’s as close to perfect as we can get it. We show it to the author and agent and if everyone’s happy with it then we show it to the retailers.
Sometimes, we have to compromise, make it look a little bit more like existing authors who have already sold really well because the market tells us that readers like familiarity and books they can identity easily with other books.
Then, finally, we have something everyone thinks will work. We put it out there nervously…some people like it, some people don’t. We don’t mind – we can’t please everyone. But then someone says – well there’s no thought gone into this…and well… the air around me turns a delightful shade of blue. 🙂
What annoys you the most about being an editor?
The only thing that annoys me about my job is that non-publishing people think that all editors do is sit, drinking coffee, and reading books all day. It’s a terrible misconception. I don’t drink coffee…
Seriously, nothing about my actual job as an editor frustrates me. The only, single, frustration I have is that more people don’t buy and read books. Not because I feel they should be spending loads of money and making publishers rich (although that would be nice), but because I genuinely feel that they’re missing out on something that’s completely wonderful and life changing. I can’t imagine a life without books…