Interview with Helen Garnons-Williams
Editorial Director for Fiction at Bloomsbury UK
(Part one of three) by Jen
Finding the unexpected seems to be what many editors relish in publishing. When Helen Garnons-Williams read 24 For 3 by author Jennie Walker, she thought she had a potential Orange Prize winner on her hands. Unfortunately she had to make do with the McKitterick Prize instead, since Walker is in reality male author, Charles Boyle. Helen began her career in publishing as an Editorial Assistant at Hodder & Stoughton, working on fiction, non-fiction, TV tie-ins and audiobooks. She then became Editorial Director of Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton's award-winning literary imprint, where she acquired and edited authors such as Jasper Fforde, Mil Millington, Carolyn Parkhurst, Gregory Norminton and Tariq Goddard. In June 2003 she moved to Weidenfeld & Nicolson an imprint of Orion, where her acquisitions included Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon and Belle de Jour—the call girl confessional. She was headhunted to become Editorial Director for Fiction at Bloomsbury in 2007. "We simply could not be happier," said Bloomsbury Editor in Chief Alexandra Pringle. "Helen has an impressive track record and great taste and instincts. We see her appointment as a vibrant addition to our team and an important new step for Bloomsbury."
In the first of three parts of this interview, Helen talks about the acquisitions' process behind the scenes, securing significant deals and what she's looking for.
You have been quoted by Danuta Kean as saying, “I absolutely did not buy Belle de Jour for the sex...” What did make you want to buy the manuscript? What makes you want to buy ANY manuscript and how do you “know”?
In the case of Belle, I just thought she was a fantastically funny, clever writer. Obviously, her book contains sexual content, but what I loved about it was the fact that she wasn’t interested in writing pornography (and there’s plenty of that out there in the market already, of course), she was interested in writing. So I bought the book because I could honestly testify to the quality of her prose; to her originality and wit – and this was important to me personally, but also to W&N as a literary imprint. Of course my sales team didn’t mind the fact that the sexual content and her job description were likely to generate something of a publicity buzz…
To answer your second question, I wish I knew – or rather, it completely depends on the book in question. As a publisher on a literary imprint, I’m lucky enough to have a pretty wide brief. I can buy historical novels, contemporary novels, comic novels, poetic novels, novels that skim the edges of fantasy or crime, ones that will hopefully attract the attention of prize judges, and ones that will become word-of-mouth successes and still be read in several years’ time. So rather than looking for any specific criteria, I have to go with my gut. If I find myself unable to put a book down, if I race to the end and then immediately want to go and tell someone else about it, if I find the characters hanging around in my head a couple of days later, or if I read and reread certain paragraphs because I am struck by the author’s descriptions or observations, then I begin to suspect that I have something special in my hands. At that point, I then have to put on my rather more commercial hat and try and think about where (and when) we would put it on our list; if it competes too closely with another similar title and whether my sales team will actually be able to go out and sell it. By this I mean, whether in the one-minute slot they have to pitch a book to a retailer, they would be able to convey the essence of this particular novel or memoir in a way that will make the bookseller choose that book over the hundreds of others competing for the same slot. This doesn’t mean it has to boil down to a one-line pitch, but it is important that I bear in mind that I can only ask my sales team to use the argument ‘but it’s such a beautiful novel you just have to read it’ very sparingly.
To secure the upcoming Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman you reportedly fought off no fewer than eleven other interested UK publishers to acquire the novel for a high six-figure sum. Was this a typical acquisition?
No. It’s very unusual for a debut novel, although in the current feast-or-famine climate, publishers do seem to be piling into big auctions more often. Having said that, the reverse is also true and I know that agents are finding it harder to sell debut novels that aren’t ‘obvious’ big sellers at first glance. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed to be a big seller, but the herd mentality can be both infuriating and comforting (as indeed it is in the market among bookbuyers).
Can you take us through the buying process?
Stephen’s agent sent me the manuscript and I read it that evening. I fell completely in love with the book and spoke to my boss the following morning to say that I thought this could be something extraordinary and we should try and buy it straight away, with a pre-empt. Normally I would have waited until more of my colleagues had read the manuscript, but I was so sure about this novel that I was willing to take a gamble on it. We did attempt a pre-empt, but the agent – wisely as it turned out for the author… – turned it down and instead called for everyone to make their first bid in a few day’s time. By that point, my colleagues had all read the manuscript and were incredibly keen, so we made a good first offer and threw our hat into the ring with the other 11 publishers. Stephen then met with most of the publishers in the auction, to give him a sense of where he thought he might fit best, and then we continued to go forward in rounds until the agent asked for ‘best bids’. We made ours, as did the remaining publishers, and thankfully, in the end, Stephen chose to come to Bloomsbury.
What is a pre-empt and how often does it happen in an acquisition?
A pre-empt is a pre-emptive offer: i.e. when a publisher makes an agent an offer that on balance, seems better than (or as good as) an advance they are likely to get were they to call an auction. So the publisher takes the book off the table. Of course, this is a risky game on both sides. The agent doesn’t know whether they have settled on an advance that is lower than they might have got at auction, but on the other hand, the publisher and agent don’t know whether every publisher would have turned down the manuscript anyway, in which case the publisher could have acquired it for far less.
When we hear the word “auction” readers may imagine people standing in a room making bids - what does it really mean?
It usually happens by email or phone. The agent, once they’ve established that more than one publisher is interested, sets a deadline for first offers. We then offer. She or he then tells us how many offers came in and what the top offer was (although she won’t tell us who the other publishers are). If publishers then want to raise their offers, then the agent first goes back to the publisher with the initial lowest offer – by phone or email - and asks them to improve it. She or he then goes to the publisher with the next lowest offer and does the same, until the publisher with the highest offer is then told whether or not anyone else has matched or beaten their initial offer, and if so, would they like to go up? If they do then the whole process starts again until the agent senses that things are slowing down (or wants to end the auction without it dragging on for weeks) and asks for best bids. The publishers make their best offers ‘blind’ – i.e. they have no idea what anyone else is offering, although they do know what the highest bid was in the last round. They also outline their proposed royalties and subrights splits (i.e. all the nitty gritty in the contracts) The author then reserves the right to choose which publisher he or she would like to go with, and this isn’t always the one who offered the most money. In the course of the auction the author will nearly always have met with the publishers in question to get a sense of where they might like to end up. Publishers call this a ‘beauty parade’, and it does feel a bit like that at times!
Considering the future market, how far in advance are you looking at any given time, i.e. when do you think the acquisitions you are making now will be on the shelves?
I tend to acquire novels that will be on the shelves in 12-18 months time, depending on how much editing is needed. Sometimes it can be up to 2 years, however, simply because of the way our schedules turn out: i.e. they may be particularly full, or 18 months time could end up being right in the middle of the Autumn period, which is traditionally a tricky time to try and publish debuts (with the odd notable exception).
"of course there are the ones that I thought really weren’t very good at all, and which go on to become big bestsellers or prize winners."
How do you deal with the ones that get away, acquisitions you wish you’d made but missed out on?
If I’ve missed out because I couldn’t compete with the level of advance, I don’t mind so much. So very few books actually end up being profitable that the higher the advances are, the scarier the whole process is and the likelihood of earning back that advance (that I will have had to persuade my bosses is worth paying) diminishes. So with those books, I wish them well and watch their progress with a kind of detached affection – they’re like a great pair of shoes that you’ve enjoyed trying on, but you know you can’t really afford. The ones that really hurt are when we’ve offered the same amount as another publisher, but the author has chosen not to come to us. It’s hard not to feel a little personally rejected when that happens (although there are of course myriad reasons why an author might choose one publisher over another). But the books that keep me awake at night are the ones where I didn’t fully trust my instincts and was too cautious to try and pursue them, or didn’t fight hard enough to persuade my colleagues that we should buy them. Those are the ones where I know that if I had been bolder I could have acquired it and worked with the author to make it great, and so I watch those books, doing well with a mixture of happiness that the book has found the readership it deserved, and envy for the editor who had the vision to pursue it.
And then of course there are the ones that I thought really weren’t very good at all, and which go on to become big bestsellers or prize winners. I think pretty much every editor has a clutch of those, and that’s what should give authors hope and keep publishers humble!
What are you looking for now or in the coming eighteen months?
Just really great literary fiction: great narrative voices, something that feels unusual and unforgettable. You know. The elusive bestselling/prize-winning/word-of-mouth kind of novel we all want to read (or indeed write) …
Part two will follow on Wednesday with Helen's insights into working with authors and her advice and top three tips for debut authors. Part three on Friday completes the interview in which Helen discusses the ever changing publishing industry, working at Bloomsbury, and a little of her own life and hopes for the future.