Interview with Helen Garnons-Williams
(Part two of three) by Jen
Interview part one can be found here.
Do you prefer to work with an agented author as opposed to one without, and why?
It’s not a question of preference. I’ve worked with both and when it comes to the editing and the nitty gritty of getting the final book right, that’s pretty much always done one-to-one with the author anyway (with an agent only stepping in if any issues need resolving). But when it comes to submissions, because I receive so many manuscripts a week I will give preference to those that come from agents because I can be confident that at least one level of filtering has already taken place – and I also know that the agent will have sent it to other publishers and will probably be setting a deadline for responses. If the agent is any good they will also have an idea of my taste and will therefore have sent that particular novel to me because they think it will sit well on my list. Once a book has been acquired it’s usually more comfortable to do the contractual wrangling with the agent rather than the author – it means that if things become fraught as we argue over royalties, my relationship with the author isn’t affected.
"I don’t often offer solutions to editorial problems; rather I point out the problem and then engage in a dialogue with the author about it"
How does the editorial process work between you and author and/or agent after an acquisition is made?
It depends on the author and the book. But as I’ve said, it’s usually a one-to-one process with the author (with the agent being copied into my notes, or sometimes with me having a conversation with the agent beforehand, particularly if there is a tricky editorial issue that the author might take issue with). I tend to reread the manuscript several times and then write up my notes – anything between 2 and 30 pages! Often I will then meet with the author to talk through the notes, or I will email them over to them and we will discuss them by email or on the phone once they have had a chance to digest them. I don’t often offer solutions to editorial problems; rather I point out the problem and then engage in a dialogue with the author about it, and the author then, having worked through the problem comes up with a far more elegant solution than one I could have dreamt up. It is a very collaborative and organic process. We bounce ideas off each other and then the author goes and turns them into something wonderful! We’ll then repeat the process as necessary (usually only once or twice more as we move from structural questions to smaller line-by-line issues). And in some cases, the novel may be so polished that I’ll have almost no comments to make at all.
What do you look for in a prospective client, other than the quality of writing? Is there a key to ensuring a good partnership between author and publisher?
From an editorial perspective, not really. Great writing is really the key, and you then hope that the author will be open to editorial suggestions (it they’re completely intransigent and the book suffers as a result, then I guess the relationship between the author and publisher might be a short-lived one anyway!) It’s obviously helpful from a publicity point of view if an author has a certain level of self-confidence and can hold their own at festivals or at book signings, and increasingly, with the market being so tough, authors are expected to ‘sell’ their books far more than they used to – through blogging, signings etc – and it’s also lovely if the author turns out to be a nice person. It does make the whole publishing house more inclined to put all their efforts into making the book work. But the canon is peppered with lots of terrifying, irascible authors, so there are some notable exceptions to this rule.
How reliable is a typical publisher’s forecast how many copies of a book might sell?
There are two ways to answer this. The first, most negative answer is that fiction debuts very rarely sell to any great level, so sales tend to give rather low forecasts, and they tend to be right. The exceptions are when a novel gets a bit of luck: it wins a prize, it’s picked for a TV Bookclub or equivalent, or all the stars align in terms of reviews and bookseller support and it just suddenly takes off and then gathers its own momentum The second answer is that when we have really high expectations for a book and believe it has the potential to sell a huge number of copies (as opposed to a book that may be more of a reputation-establishing debut) we then spend a great deal of money trying to make that happen – i.e. we pay for retail promotions/advertising etc. Because of the costs involved, we can only do this for a few titles a year, and it may backfire horribly if people still don’t fall in love with the book, but when it does work then some books can more than match publishers’ forecasts for them.
What do you wish an author would always do to support sales?
Ideally an author would be prepared to meet their readers: to go to readings and events even when there are only 8 people and a dog in the audience; to think about ways to promote themselves and their book so that newspapers and magazines might pick them out from the crowd; to give their publisher some freedom to sell and pitch the book in the way that they believe is most effective, even if the author perceives their book in different terms. For example, we often have to negotiate with authors who think that they have written a book that will appeal equally to men and women and want a jacket that will appeal to both (those jackets tend to end up appealing to neither), when in the fact the market may be predominantly a female one, with a few men who may come on board regardless of the jacket treatment.
Do you believe that “publishers are becoming increasingly risk-averse”? What if any implication does that have for authors?
I think booksellers are becoming increasingly ‘risk-averse’ and this obviously has a knock-on effect. They want to be certain that they are backing sure-fire winners and one of the best ways to do this is to go for homogeneity: i.e. if the bestselling novel in the UK is a novel about vampires, then they think, let’s stock dozens of other books about vampires because vampires ‘work’. Until, all of a sudden, they don’t, of course. So in bookshops and in publishing, there can be a certain tendency to play safe with books that seem (the operative word is seem) to tick a lot of boxes. But, thankfully we have all been burnt enough by experiencing a sudden shift in public taste, or a fatigue over a certain kind of book (whether it’s misery memoir, lad lit, celebrity autobiography, to name a few) to allow it to rule our acquisitions process. This means that publishers can still acquire exciting new novels and look for fresh new voices but in general they are cautious of paying out large advances for them, because without a great deal of luck, the sales of those books are unlikely to be very big. So I would caution any author against deliberately trying to write a book that seems to be ‘in vogue’ if it’s not a book that they would have written otherwise. For a start, an editor can smell this a mile off, and it tends to mean that the book feels like a cardboard cut-out; in addition, by the time the book would actually be scheduled for publication, the market’s taste will have moved on. In terms of implications for authors, I would say, as always, don’t expect to receive an advance that will enable you to give up your day job, but do have faith that editors are still looking for great novels, for unusual and unforgettable new voices – and, interestingly, it’s a lot easier to get booksellers and indeed the media interested in a debut than it is to try and pitch a fourth or fifth novel by a good writer who has yet to really make a splash with their books. In fact, the question of publishers being ‘risk averse’ is actually one that perhaps relates more to writers who have a few books under their belt, whose work has traditionally been seen as mid-list and who have been unable to break out in any significant way. The bookshops no longer want ‘mid-list’ books, so these authors run the risk of not having their contracts renewed with publishers.
One hears of cases involving novels being accepted but cut before the catalogue was published or losing a deal when an editor moves to another house. What should authors do when they come so close?
I’ve never actually heard of this. In my experience, once a publisher has accepted a novel they will always publish it, regardless of whether the editor is there or not. There are times when the second-book in a two-book deal is delivered and the publisher doesn’t think it is acceptable. But in those cases, the author and editor will work together to try and make the book better – so I guess all I can advise for authors to whom that happens is to try and take the criticism on board and not to give up. It is very very unusual for contracts to be cancelled.
What are the top three most common mistakes authors make en route to publication and what are your three top tips?
- Not doing their research into either publishing house or agencies: i.e. blanket emailing editors or agents with synopses and sample chapters instead of working out who is most likely to respond to their work. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a great help in this.
- Not reading enough contemporary fiction or not reading enough in general. I’ve spoken to would-be-writers who say they don’t like to read other peoples’ work for fear it will muddy their own. But writing is a craft and it takes practice, and writers also need to be open to learning techniques from their peers, and, on a related point, open to taking on board constructive criticism from readers of their own work.
- Giving up if they don’t get an agent straight away. Most of the ‘debut’ novelists I’ve published actually have two or three unpublished novels under their beds: books they needed to write to learn their craft. So I would say don’t be disheartened by rejection letters (an agent or an editor would be crazy to take your book on if they didn’t love it, but ‘loving’ a book is a very subjective thing), but do listen to any constructive criticism you may get in those letters. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on a manuscript can really help.
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.