Six publishing departments. Six excellent speakers. 360 seconds each.
How did it go? Well…
Commissioning: “Publishing is the purest form of gambling.”
“Publishing is a great, great career,” says Adrian Searle of Freight Books. Someone writes a manuscript, signs a deal, makes loads of money, gets a better boyfriend or girlfriend, then wins prestigious book prizes, right?
“Publishing is the purest form of gambling,” he counters, but reinforces it’s still an excellent career to have. It’s a risk of money and time. His company are small but profitable, though Freight has another money-making element of the business so they don’t face quite the struggles as some start up publishers.
It means they can take risks and invest in future authors, ones they feel the 2nd, 3rd or 4th book could do well. There are different models to acquisition and commissioning, in some cases people pay them to produce their project, which is a particularly good one.
Ultimately, they’re looking for a long term relationship with creative people. There have been times when he’s had to pass on excellent books. Key considerations are who would buy it, does it fit and challenge the audience? What is the book? If you can’t condense the essence of a book into one or two sentences, then you’ll probably be unable to sell it.
His advice that sometimes aiming for the less glamourous job and working up is a better idea than aiming big immediately. Be clever. Read. Enjoy books. Read about the industry. Get a good degree and be interesting.
Art & Design: Books are “an intellectual accessory”.
The old cliché goes that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but Canongate’s Rafaela Romaya takes her six minutes to convince us that you can, and do. In fact, a large percentage of your cortex processes what we see, so it’s incredibly important: it gets the reader interested.
The design, text and image all work together as a doorway into the story. Covers get you in the frame of mind, while books say something about the reader whether you like it or not. It’s an intellectual accessory.
All books are talking through their covers – allegiances, their species of genre. “Books do finish a room,” she adds, which is why designers make nice spines too. It’s a balance of detail and shape, form and functionality. We form emotional bonds with books, and it’s a lot to do with covers and the associations attached are often nostalgic in time. None of this means anything if the book remains on the book shelf unread.
Hopefully, she concludes, it’s clear now that people can and do judge books by their cover, and that her role is built around making sure they judge it well.
Editorial: “You can turn it into the manuscript of your dreams.”
“This is my rebellion to compressing everything I do day to day into six minutes,” says Floris Books’ Eleanor Collins, explaining she’ll be presenting editorial in novel-form – in this case, it’s a romance.
You’re at work and are met with the all too familiar slush pile, seeking love. You turn to the slush pile, let out a sigh, but then your eye is caught by one. Your first impression is negative, hostile. But soon you find yourself laughing at its jokes, spending time to get to know it, finding an authentic voice, credibility, it’s smart and sassy, fabulous sense of humour. If only it followed its promise, if only each punchline was as sizzling as it had to be.
That’s the brilliance of being the editor – you get to take this manuscript full of promise, and turn it into the manuscript of your dreams.
You make sense from the nonsense. You’re falling for it, even ready to introduce it to friends, you’re ready to make a promise (contract), spruce it up with some new jeans and a hair cut (copy edit). You and your manuscript have become very close, but if you love it you have to set it free: production takes a hold of it before you get reacquainted, to find out if they have led it astray (proof).
But then, out of the corner of your eye, a new manuscript catches your eye, and it all starts again…
She takes a moment at the end to add that the author wasn’t mentioned (“the threesome thing would be too icky”) but they do have solid input throughout the whole process – either way, an excellent way to present the editorial side of publishing.
Production: “You’re loyal to each book.”
Leah McDowell, also of Floris, takes us on a whistle stop tour of what she feels is the best department: production. They have to transform all that has gone before them into the book.
It’s (apparently!) similar to the British Army in sharing six key traits. The first: discipline. Lots of stages of deadlines can be missed and they seek to destroy sloppy scheduling. The next is selfless commitment (to order). They like a good grid, the sign of good typesetting, making books enjoyable for the eyes.
Courage is next. They have to get quotes on paper, binding, cover material, making sure it’s on time and under budget. When things go wrong, or are overpriced, they need to have the courage to stand up and say.
Then comes integrity, in which you have to stand up and own your mistakes, especially given that you’re the last to work with the book pre-print and it’s immortalised in a product. Next, respect for others. Printers, for example, need their digital files in CMYK, not RGB, so be respectful and make sure it’s correct.
Last is loyalty: you’re loyal to each book, making the book sexy every time. You fight harder when you’re loyal.
Leah adds that production is often overlooked for more glamourous roles, but it’s obviously an excellent part of the process.
Marketing: “Our job is to tell a good story.”
“In publishing, we’re in the business of stories,” explains Canongate’s Lindsay Terrell. “They’re crucial to who we are.”
A marketer has to be a story generator and you need to understand how the stories we tell can turn into a brand. Cake flour doesn’t seem to have an obvious link to publishing, yet a 255 year old, family run American company became a huge marketing venture. They understood what flour means to people: cooking, baking, family. They see how those themes began a story and the narrative spilled into their campaign to make them extremely successful across a number of business strands.
With publishing, the question is: is it easier since the stories have already been told? Yes and no. We have 140 characters, or a strapline to be complete, resonate or draw an audience in.
You have to ask: Who? Where? What? Who are the audience, how do you reach them, and what story do you want to tell them. It’s not a burly sales pitch but a point of emotional engagement with the customer. “Our job is to tell a good story,” she concludes. It’s not a new concept, but there has never been a more exciting time to do it.
Sales: “You have to be a cheerleader for your book.”
Finally, Birlinn’s Vikki Reilly, takes us through sales. She spends most of her time in bookshops – she handles sales tasks both in house and through repping. She presents titles to booksellers, but also keeps an eye out while driving for additional sales points: she once sold some cookery books to a smokehouse she passed.
She deals with quantities, promos and events, to name but a few facets. Vikki is always keeping an eye out for places in little towns that could use their books as an added tourist buy, recounting trips in the Highlands, thinking “I don’t really want a candle.”
Beyond the bookshops and car, she spends a lot of time in spreadsheets. Big chains work months in advance through spreadsheets to get an idea for what to take on.
She could, it’s noted, launch into rhapsodies on metadata, but she doesn’t have the time. Note: it’s really important.
You must also be a master of deduction: problems solving when the supply chain process goes awry or printer mistakes, you have to go into fix-mode.
It’s not about the hard sell, you just have to be a cheerleader for the book and be determined. They can’t stock everything, so you need to take away all the chances or excuses to say no, make them think “Yes, I will stock that book!”