One of the lovely perks of being a publishing student at Stirling is that we were allowed to turn up at the last event of a day of masterclasses in crime writing with crime writer Craig Robertson, Sara Hunt (Saraband Books) and Jade Chandler (Little, Brown UK).
While a lot of it was tailored to the writing aspect, with a lot of aspiring authors in attendance, it still gave a really good insight into the publishing side of things. Talk begins with the notion of trends in publishing – when one book makes it big there’s always an attempt to ride the wave of its popularity.
“I don’t think you should do anything because it’s a trend,” says Sara, with Craig adding that, even though it’s a cliché, writers should “start a trend rather than follow one.” To create a whole project in line with a current trend is often pointless, with it having moved onto the next one by the time you’ve latched on.
But what is the preferred size of a book? Jade says her preference is 85k-120k words, although all agree that if a book can tell a story successfully in less without needing more, or uses more word space without big fillers, then they’re open to it. Books are judged on merits as well as company preference.
As for how far they read into a book before trying to judge it, there are variations. Sara’s company accepts open submissions meaning they have a rather large slush pile, and try to read most (generally a few chapters, size depending). Jade, being from a bigger publisher, generally reads the first 50 pages minimum of any book submitted; she deals only with agents, not open submissions, so the reading pile isn’t necessarily quite as big.
There’s been very few occasions where either have passed on a submission they absolutely adored – Sara never has, and Jade can only think of two occasions. The key is to sell yourself in the cover letter, then draw them in with the first few chapters.
While both admit that having an agent is a great advantage – many large publishers won’t take any submissions openly – Craig is keen to reinforce the importance of his agent. They’re a buffer between him and the editor; while their relationship is key to the creation of his final book, having a middle man can also help with the more difficult questions that need asked, and can sometimes offer recommendations that the editor mightn’t catch.
One audience member admits they were naive in thinking that you write a book, hand it over, then it gets published, questioning over the original art being destroyed in the editorial process. All three are quick to debunk this, as both the author and those at the publisher have one goal in mind: to create the best product they can. No one has written a perfect book, notes Craig, so it can always be improved.
Editors read so many books in the style of the lists they’re looking to release from that they see the pitfalls that can ruin a book and the trends integral to it and offer suggestions in line with it; their work goes beyond mere typo-catching, with their expertise offering changes that could really improve the original work, but also help the author.
Journalists are the best writers, they joke. They are used to submitting copy and having it thrown back and told to completely re-write it, so the need to edit and change isn’t taken so personally; sometimes newcomers can be so attached to their work that they can’t imagine the need to edit it in any way.
The key notion of the talk, in terms of both writers and publishers, is that the goal is to create the best product possible. Everything is done with a view to making a success of the book, no matter how big or small the print run. Though crime writing was the backdrop, the advice and conversation was applicable across the board. It would definitely be beneficial to authors looking for insight into the industry, but as a new publishing student with a scattered knowledge from my past experience and reading so far, it helped slot a few pieces together into some parts of the process.