ASK THE EDITOR
Melissa, welcome to The Littlest Bushranger Blog tour.
It’s a pleasure Alison – thanks for having me!
What career path did you follow to become an editor?
I did a few different degrees and postgrad courses at uni with no real idea what I wanted to do; only knowing that I wanted to do ‘something’ creative. I had lots of odd jobs in between uni and worked for a short time as a high school teacher in the UK. When I got back to Australia, I was really just desperate to find a career that I was passionate about. I was always a book nerd, and I loved the idea of a hands-on creative job with a tangible end result – so publishing seemed like the logical place to be. It took a very long time to get a foot in the door though. After about a year of applying for anything remotely publishing related, I was lucky enough to get an entry-level position as a production assistant and general office dog’s body, and worked my way to editorial while also studying Writing and Editing.
What for you makes an author’s voice original and compelling?
For me, it’s really obvious on the page when an author has their own story to tell, the story that they are passionate and excited about. It’s also usually pretty obvious when an author is writing only what they think is going to get them published; when they are trying to be ‘on trend’ or trying to emulate someone else’s voice. It’s hard to quantify originality, but I guess it is that special ‘X factor’ – the magic that makes one story stick with you long after you have finished reading, while another disappears as soon as you close the page.
What is the most important element that makes you connect with a character?
For me, the best characters are the ones that have a life beyond the page; those that you can easily imagine being out there somewhere living their life and continuing with their story. It’s the little details of their personality, life and friendships that help shape a living, breathing 3-dimensional person; someone who hasn’t just been created solely in the service of the story.
Sometimes a manuscript can be great literature, but not a commercial proposition. Sometimes a manuscript may appear very commercial, but is not great literature. How do you deal with this conflict?
All editors have at one time or another held on to a project that they are wildly passionate about but that would be considered not obvious commercial propositions. Sometimes these projects can make it through the acquisitions process based solely on the editor’s tenacity (badgering and cajoling the rest of the team does occasionally work!) Though sometimes, pragmatism does win out. There is little point publishing something if it the general belief is that people aren’t going to want to read it or buy it. In the second instance, I would hope that I am working with an author who is open to a long and potentially challenging editorial process.
If an author is waiting a few months, does this mean that they are in a being considered pile or just that you’re very busy and haven’t had time to look at the slush pile, or a bit of both?
It really could be a bit of both. The publishing houses I have worked with don’t have dedicated people whose job it is to read unsolicited manuscripts – while we’re always excited about finding new work, going through the ‘slush pile’ is something that happens in between all the other day-to-day business of the job. And those manuscripts that do spark our interest have to go through a lengthy process before we would consider contacting an author. It does take much longer to say yes than no, so a few months wait may not necessarily be a negative.
What are the main issues that cause friction between an editor and an author?
From an editor’s perspective, I guess the main source of friction would be rigidity. The most difficult relationships to manage are the ones with authors who don’t see the value in the editorial process, or who don’t appreciate that publishing is a collaborative effort. Believe me, editors do understand how gut wrenching it is for an author to hand over their work and to have it seemingly pulled apart, but, the only goal of the process is to help the author get the best out of their manuscript as is possible. The most productive relationships are the ones where the author and editor and able to chat freely about all suggestions and issues; there really does need to be a great level of trust, where everyone is willing to bounce ideas around and consider feedback openly.
How long do you ponder a manuscript before you take that first step to contact the author?
It depends on the manuscript. Obviously there are manuscripts that everyone just falls in love with, that fit a market or have some other ‘hook’ that makes them easy sells at an acquisitions meeting. These might not sit around on a ‘to be considered’ pile for very long! Other manuscripts might spark some interest or excitement, but might require more consideration and discussion before a decision is made.
What is an acquisitions meeting and what happens there? Does the editor have to fight for a manuscript that they have fallen in love with?
An acquisitions meeting is usually the final stage of in-house discussions before an offer is made to an author; the process really does vary depending on the type of manuscript, but typically, the editor or publisher will be pitching it to the rest of the team who are involved in the decision making process – usually, sales and marketing and management. The goal is to get the whole team excited by the manuscript that the editor has loved enough to want to pitch, and hopefully have everyone on board so that the project can proceed. Sometimes it’s an easy sell, sometimes, an uphill battle to get the rest of the team to see the potential in a manuscript at a raw stage. If it’s a picture book manuscript, this usually also involves showing sample art or folios from illustrators in styles that you think would work.
Are there any manuscripts that you wish you had accepted? Any that got away?
There are always great manuscripts that cross your desk that, for whatever reason, are not the right fit for your publishing house at that time. Maybe you have already published a few books in a similar genre or style, or there simply isn’t room in the program at that time for that book. These are always the hardest ones to write rejection letters for; I have had a few wonderful books that I have rejected that I know have found homes elsewhere, which is always bittersweet. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible to publish everything you love!
I loved working with you and found you an extremely empathetic editor who I trusted completely. As a published author yourself, do you think that influences the way that you edit?
Why thank you, that is very nice to hear! And yes, I think being a writer definitely influences my approach. I guess I approach the editorial work with the belief that there are few hard and fast rules. I can offer suggestions and – most importantly for me – justifications of the issues and why I think those suggestions might help solve them, but, I’m also aware that at the end of the process, it is not my name on the book! I would hope that my authors feel comfortable enough to pick up the phone and have a chat about my feedback (like the many sessions you and I had discussing single word choices and so forth!) I really do love the collaborative process; often, the best work comes from those back-and-forth chats and a willingness on both sides to be flexible and explore all options.
Thank you so much for answering these questions so honestly and for being part of The Littlest Bushranger blog tour.
Melissa Keil is the author of the fabulous YA Lost in Outer Space
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