Monday, 23 February 2015

Dear Editors...

Most of you are very lovely and a joy to work with. Some of you have also become valued friends. Some of you - while still lovely - are rather young or inexperienced. Which is fine - everyone has to learn their job before they are good at it.This is not a stroppy post at all. This, I hope, is a helpful post for new, young editors.

Firstly, as an author, I am very pleased to welcome new editors into the publishing world. The more editors the better. We need you. And, sadly, editors get older and retire and we don't want any gaps in the supply. I hope you will enjoy working in publishing and that we will become friends.

No doubt when you took your new job someone in-house told you all their procedures, and how to work the coffee machine and all that. I doubt anyone told you how to deal with authors, though, and we have more buttons than the average coffee machine. So here is a little guide to working smoothly with authors.

Five steps to a good relationship with your authors

1. Authors are people, too
We have families, friends, domestic commitments, lawns to mow, supermarkets to visit and existential crises to fit in. Please assume that we work around 35-40 hours a week and those hours are not all overnight or over the weekend at the time of your latest crisis. Do not send work late on Friday that you want back on Monday. If we choose to work weekends, that's our business. In exceptional circumstances - and that doesn't mean when the in-house people have taken too long to turn things around and eaten into the schedule - you may politely ask us to work over a weekend if you already have a good relationship with us, have not made the same request already in the previous 12 months, and as long as you will be polite if we say 'no.'

2. Authors need to eat
We don't write these books for fun. Or not only, or always. We need to earn a decent living. Let's do some maths.

Say you pay an author £1500 advance or flat fee. How long do you think the author can afford to spend on your book?

Let's assume an experienced author with years of expertise would like to earn £35,000 a year. That's not unreasaonable, is it? That's not very much for the expertise the author brings to the job. A senior author should not be paid less than a senior editor - they are comparable jobs.

So imagine an author works for 5 days a week, 46 weeks of the year (four weeks' holiday and 10 bank holidays; no time off sick). In general, 20% of an author's time is not productive in that it doesn't directly earn money. It is time spent chasing the invoices publishers haven't paid, reading and arguing about contracts, writing outlines for books that don't go ahead, attending meetings, computer admin, going to and from places for research or other purposes, ordering stuff, buying stamps, doing tax returns, picking up books from libraries and bookshops, fixing the network, fixing the printer, calling the ISP when the internet doesn't work for three days in a row, and all the other things that are magically done by someone else in your office. So we need to earn about £27 an hour to make £35,000 turnover, not profit.

My expenses during a year are in the region of £5,000. So I need, let's say, £40,000 turnover. This comes to £31 an hour. Call it £30 to make the maths easier. Your £1500 buys you 50 hours. OK? If you want a 48-page book, you're looking at just over an hour a page. And that includes the hours spent writing the outline, answering emails, talking on the phone, writing a picture list, dealing with editorial queries, checking layouts, suggesting replacement pictures when the ones chosen are inappropriate or the ones we wanted are not available or too expensive, checking the layouts (twice). Oh, and writing the text.

3. We have the same number of hours in the day as you do
This is related to point (1). Try to remember this when you send a request for a book outline that you want in three days' time, especially if two of the days are Saturday and Sunday. For a book of less than 30,000 words, the outline is most of the work. That's when we have to feel the shape of the project, set the parameters for the book, do most of the research, divide the material (that we are not wholly familiar with yet) into workable chapters or spreads, find out what could be used to illustrate it, search for artwork reference, and persuade you we know what we're doing. Do you really think that is going to fit into three days? Especially as we will also be answering emails from other publishers, checking layouts of the last project - and quite often answering queries from you, too. Plus sleeping, eating, getting dressed (optional), going to Waitrose and dealing with other people in our lives.

3.5 and the same number of days in a month
You go on holiday sometimes and leave an auto-response email saying you are away. Sometimes (rarely) authors like to go on holiday, too. We try to give you good warning so that you can build it into your schedule. If your schedule slips, we will still be on holiday. We will not cancel our holidays to do the work. We will not take it with us - or we might if you pay a lot extra. I have done that once. It was an extra £770 to check colour layouts on holiday. Just so that you know.

If your schedule slips (your end) it is NOT our fault and NOT our responsibility to make up the lost time, though we will try to help you with that. If we have booked out time - following a schedule you wrote - to do your work and it doesn't turn up, that is wasted time when we earn nothing. We can't push other publishers' projects out of the way to pick up yours when it comes back, all late and urgent. You won't have thought of this, because if the designer doesn't send the book back to you on time, you will still be paid to sit at your editorial desk. We have to suffer a week or two unpaid because of those cock-ups. We can't just magic work out of the air, and no one pays us extra because the work didn't come back on time.

Further - if we said we could do something in two weeks, that was because we had set aside time in those two weeks to do something. It doesn't follow that we can do it in two weeks if you send it at a different time, because we will have other work then - or maybe we will have gone on holiday for a fortnight. Letting your schedule slip a week means it might take us four weeks to do the work, alongside our other commitments. And the less you are paying, the less likely we are to prise our schedules apart to make a crack to fit in your late project. So don't pay £1000 for a book and then say, 'It took ages for the designer to do this, so can you just turn it around for tomorrow, please?' Because the answer is often 'No, sorry.' We will always try to help - but you can't rely on us being able to. There was a schedule to help everyone plan their time, including us.

4. We are proud of these books and want them to be good
We like this job or we wouldn't do it. After all - we'd hardly do it for the money, would we? To you, this book is one of many that you are struggling to get finished, or off your desk for a while. For us, it represents a piece of us, and it will go out into the world with our name on it, and will represent us to readers and to other publishers. So we will put in more effort than you are paying for.

Please do not introduce random errors because you can't be bothered to check something. Don't think of extra things to put in - there is usually a good reason that thing you just thought of is not in there. By all means make suggestions: we welcome suggestions, and sometimes we did just overlook or not know something. But please don't make changes without telling us. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and we check everything carefully. So you found a nice snippet on Reddit you thought would fit in that book about Nostradamus? I read Nostradamus in the original, and that 'quote' is not in there. If you want to make changes, give us the chance to check them. We won't always just spot them when you send the layouts - we don't remember every word we wrote, and our minds have moved on to a different book in the weeks it has taken for the book to go through design. And don't introduce grammatical errors. The proofreader should pick them up, but it doesn't look very professional and it's very annoying.

5. We are proud of these books and want to see them
Don't forget to send our contractual copies of the books when they are published. This is what we have to show for our work: a shelf of books. There is no excuse at all for not sending the pitiful number of copies you are contracted to give us. We need them. Not just to gloat over, but to show other publishers at meetings what we can do. Don't imagine we are going to accept that it was an unusual oversight that you didn't have them sent out. Unusual oversights like that happen with about half the books we write. You are not special in your discourtesy. You know what [some] novel-writers get? A note of thanks and some flowers when their book comes out. We usually discover they have come out because the publisher advertises the book on twitter, or we notice the publication date posted on Amazon has passed. Do you really think that is a polite way to treat the person who put more work into the book than anyone else?

Oh - and please also tell us when new editions come out. This is not just a pride thing, and we won't hassle you to send a copy (though it would be nice if you did, especially if it says in the contract that you will) - we need to register all editions in order to get our payments from PLR. This is not money you have to pay. It's money we are entitled to and you prevent us getting (but can't get yourselves) if you don't tell us the book has come out with a different ISBN. So please tell us.

That's it
That will do for now. There are other things you can do, but if you could do these five it would be a great start. It would make working with you even more of a pleasure. And you will learn, as you ease into the job, that good writers are easy to work with. That you need good writers on your list of contacts. That when you are promoted, or move to a different publishing house, you will need people to commission, people you know can write, know can follow a brief, know will deliver on time. And you don't want to have pissed us off, because we do turn commissions down. We turn them down if the book is ill-conceived (or just not interesting), if the schedule is too tight, the fee/advance too low or the editor impossible to work with. Don't be that editor.

Enjoy your career. We look forward to working with you again, many times, in your many different publishing houses over the coming years. And let's meet for a drink at the London Book Fair.

[This post was not prompted by any recent experience with any specific editor. Please, lovely editors, don't try to work out if it's you - it isn't.]


Saturday, 14 February 2015

The flipside of PLR: the books people don't want to buy

The media have just started their annual assessment of what can be learned from the library loans (PLR) statistics. The answer is - not entirely what they think can be learned. Someone needs to teach these journos about statistics. An article in the Guardian, for example, claims that fiction totally dominates borrowing because  most of the top 100 most-borrowed titles are novels. That doesn't follow. Bestsellers are less of a thing in non-fiction. There could be more non-fiction loans in total than fiction loans, but just spread over far more books so that few make the top 100. Indeed their table of 'loans by genre' puts fiction in second place (largely because they didn't include children's fiction, probably - but no matter).

But that aside - PLR figures tell you which books people borrow. Or, looked at another way, they tell you which books people don't buy. The Guardian is surprised that the only cookery book in the top 100 is Jamie Oliver's book on cooking for cheap (laughable, really, as his view of cheap is not everyone else's). That's not at all surprising. On the whole, you want to have a cookery book in the house so that you can use it again and again over a period of years, not borrow it for a couple of weeks. Cooking for cheap (whatever it's called) is an exception, and  is presumably borrowed because the book is so expensive that people who want cheap food can't afford it. (£26! WTF?)

The books people borrow from the library are those they can't afford to buy or don't want to buy. Some people can't afford any books (or think they can't - some just have different priorities) and so borrow anything they read. Then there are people, including me, who will borrow books that are very expensive and which they don't expect to use repeatedly. I do occasionally buy books that cost over £30 but I try not to.

Children's books are heavily borrowed. This is good, of course, as the children get to read the books. But it also indicates that people are unwilling to buy books for their children. Fine, many kids get through books at a rate of knots and it's too expensive to keep up with them. But that's not all that's going on. There is a perception of value related to book length. Picture books in particular are heavily borrowed - often because people think it's 'not worth' paying £5 or more for a book that's only a few pages long and has few words. I won't even go there. I've read the 19 words of  Duck is Dirty about 200 times in the last fortnight. And will read them again and again and again over the coming months. Plus all the times I read them 23 years ago, and 19 years ago. That was money well spent. Looking at my own PLR figures, I get way, way more PLR on very short illustrated children's fiction than on anything else.

What else don't people want to buy? Blockbuster/bestseller novels they would read once and give to the charity shop - hence Dan Brown being top of the 'not bought' chart. Obviously lots of people do buy these books - that's why they are bestsellers. But if I ever felt the need to read a Dan Brown novel, which I can't see happening, I would be quite likely to borrow it from the library and leave my book-buying budget for books I will value more and want to own.

Anyway, the cheque should come soon, so I shall be happy enough to benefit from people not wanting to buy my books. I hope those who don't get very much PLR are comforted by the thought that there are not many people who don't want to buy their books.

Why use the web when you can use a book?

Evolution, Hachette, 2014

Over on ABBA, a quick summary of my talk to the Hampshire school librarians on defending books to pupils and teachers keen to turn to the web.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Paper or online? (Paper)

Is it a map? Çatalhöyük, Turkey, 6000 BC
Today I'm working on The Story of Maps, the next in my Story Of... series. The principal source I want to use for the theoretical history and development of cartography is the seminal work on the subject, The History of Cartography, edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward and published by University of Chicago Press in 1987. But.... although I have Cambridge University Library on my doorstep, there is only one volume of the series available in Cambridge. (It is, happily, in Newnham College Library and as that is my current college affiliation, I can easily see it.) Here are my options:

go to London and use it in the British Library. Can't afford to - £15 a day each day I need to go, which will be many - perhaps 20

buy it.
Can't afford to - each volume changes hands at around £150 and there are seven.

use it online.
This is what I'm doing. The whole thing is available as PDFs from the UCP website - which is a brilliant resource and very generous of them.
It is a map - Jianxi, China, 18th century

 I am hugely grateful that it's there, but I would SO MUCH prefer to use paper copies. Then I could flick through to find pictures of maps I want to discuss. I wouldn't have to wait for hi-res images to appear on the page (not normally a problem, but after my poor computer has buffered about 50 of these it starts to get tired).

The frustration with using the electronic version will probably boost sales of the paper copies. I'm going to be filling in recommendation slips for CUL to buy all the volumes. But this is just the sort of book that should be a real, paper book.





Saturday, 23 August 2014

On the shoulders of giants

Phew. Just finished the creative writing summer school I teach at Pembroke and King's Colleges in Cambridge each year. It's always very sad to see the lovely students heading home, as I love those manic eight weeks that come along just as everyone else is planning to wind down and go on holiday.

The format of the course is simple. There are two of us teaching it; my partner in crime is children's author Brian Keaney. Every week, there is an evening lecture (with wine), sometimes with a guest lecturer, but more often just our double-act. And the rest of the week, the students write, and each have an hour-long, one-to-one supervision (=tutorial, outside Cambridge) on their work.

But of course it's not just us two. We have lots more guest teachers, many of them dead. Each year, we drag many other writers into the lectures - sometimes as reference points, sometimes as illustrations or examples, sometimes for proper discussion and sometimes just mentioned in passing. Of course, none of the students will have read all those we refer to (they aren't old enough, they haven't had time yet) but many will have read a lot and all will have read some. The range is huge - last week's 'mentions' stretch (in time) from Aesop to The Hunger Games, taking in Sophocles, Euripides, Hamlet, Macbeth, Shelley, Pride and Prejudice, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rosetti, Edgar Allan Poe, Dubliners, Ulysses, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and Anne Lamott amongst others. During the course, there have been many, many more.

Previous writers are our currency of debate as well as our models. We don't want the students to write in the style of Jane Austen or Matthew Arnold - they would never sell anything. But we do want them to learn from the structures, the intensity, the insights into human psychology, the depiction and development of character and all the other universal aspects of their predecessors' writing.

So as they all go off into the world, back to Yale and Cornell and Berkeley and all the other places they came from, and ask us what they should to do improve their writing, we tell them to keep reading. To read the type of books they want to write and the types of books they don't want to write. To read recent books and to read books by people long dead. To read books they like and books they don't.

The course is not about writing literary fiction - we are as happy with them if they write a decent fantasy or sci-fi story - and it has a commercial aspect: how to write books that will sell (if they want to make a living as a writer). We tell them there is no shame and a lot to be gained by writing (and selling) books of many types and that reading widely will help with all of it. One of the questions we ask them to come back to when they are reading contemporary books is 'why was this published?' There is always a reason. If there is a book they hate, we encourage them to work out why they hate it, and not stop reading it until they know. Of course, no one has to carry on reading a book they don't like, but if you haven't worked out what you don't like, your work with it is not done. And then they have to decide whether it is a badly written book (and how) or a well-written book that is not to their taste. We don't have to like things to recognise their qualities. There are plenty of good books I don't like.

And so to all our students, just past and longer past, and to everyone - just keep reading, and read thoughtfully and critically. You don't need a living tutor - there are plenty of dead ones that will let you climb onto their shoulders and see far into the distance.



PS - and these two came out last week when I wasn't looking.
Both from Arctuturus, both adult/teen books. All types of writing - it's what you need to do to make a living.