Interview with Helen Garnons-Williams (Part three of three)
How do you perceive the changes brought about by e-books and their apps, and the effects on publishers or editors over the next five years?
It’s a very exciting and unpredictable time in publishing, and the idea of ‘enhanced’ e-books, particularly in academic books and non-fiction is a rather wonderful one. I love the idea of being able to see a 3D diagram or a 360˚ photograph as I’m reading a non-fiction book. On good days I think that the emergence of e-books can only be a positive thing: i.e. it’s just another medium through which people can read great books (and arguably it’s one that will allow them to considerably increase their holiday reading!), and anything that gets more people reading has got to be good. As such, considering an editor is essentially responsible for finding and acquiring ‘content’, I’m not sure my individual role will change all that much. On bad days, I fear that if we don’t get the pricing and royalty rates right on e-books, and the general public get used to the idea that they can download novels for free, or almost-free, then books will have become so devalued that no one, authors, agents or publishers will be able to make money out of them. And I still think it will take several years (and a generation who grow up using e-books in primary school), for the printed book to take second place to the electronic one.
Book rights are tied to territory (geographically). Do you think this will change in the near future to better fit the e-book market?
Yes, I think it has to. In this global, virtual world, territorial rights become increasingly meaningless. This is why UK publishers and US publishers are fighting hard to acquire English Language rights to books, rather than UK or US ones. But, agents and publishers have built their entire sales models on territorial rights so there will be some bloody battles before this will be resolved at a contractual level.
If a British based author writes in English, he/she may consider pitching an American based agent. Would you consider this of any benefit or a disadvantage?
I would say it’s generally a disadvantage. Ideally the author-agent relationship is a close one, and it helps to be in the same time-zone and ideally the same country. Publishers often like to meet authors when they are offering for their books, and these meetings usually involve the agent as well, so having the agent in the UK is obviously an advantage here. But most importantly, I think one of the main reasons for having an agent is that they know the industry and the players in that industry better than the author, and UK agents know UK editors far better than US ones do (because US agents rarely sell to us directly). Indeed this is why US agents tend to use UK sub-agents to sell their books over here and vice-versa. I suppose the exception would be if an author has written a book that they are convinced will work in the US but not in the UK (I’m not sure I know what that kind of book would be), then going direct to a US agent might be a good idea. But any good UK agent will have a good US agent who will sell their books in the States, so going to a US agent direct seems convoluted and unnecessary.
What does the term 'rope book' mean?
Ha. Well in one of the companies I worked in our Managing Director used to say that he would allow his editors one ‘rope book’ a year, meaning that we could push through a book that our colleagues didn’t particularly see the potential in because we believed so strongly that it would end up being successful (and by implication would work tirelessly to prove them all wrong). I.e. it was the book we could hang ourselves with. Although it’s important for bosses to trust their editors’ judgements, I’d pretty much always rather acquire a book when I know that at least a couple of other people can see the same merits in it that I can. Enthusiasm is, after all, the fuel that drives all successful publishing and it’s hard going when an editor is the only one doing the enthusing from the start.
When a publisher pays an advance against future royalties it is generally accepted that they are almost always greater than the actual royalties earned. Is the author ever expected to pay back the difference?
No. And no publisher makes an offer of an advance with the expectation that it won’t be earned back. Whether it does or not is a different question, but the risk is all on the publisher(we would never ask an author to pay back the difference) and that is why we need to be as accurate in our guesswork as we possibly can. Of course, if the gap between the advance and the earnings is painfully big then the author should expect a considerably reduced advance next time around … or find themselves having to look for another publisher who can better afford to take the risk again!
Do you foresee a time when the royalties system is replaced by a flat fee payment for the standard rights valid over a fixed time period?
No, but I do hope there will be a time when we can simplify our current very complicated royalty structures (which have been adapted rather clumsily over the years to try and cope with the incredibly high discounts and marketing spend we now have to give to retailers) to a more straightforward profit-sharing model, and when the expectation is that advances will be at a realistic level, so that they can be earned back and royalties paid out.
Which current trends do you think are on their last legs and what do you predict in the coming eighteen months?
After my earlier answer I don’t think I dare hazard a guess at this. Although surely the world will have had enough of vampires and werewolves pretty soon …
Are you a classically trained harpist or is that another person of the same name?
I am, I’m afraid. I went to music school before going on to read English at University. After a brief, misguided stint as a Management Consultant I realised that I really missed working with books. I was lucky enough to meet one of the managing directors of one of the major publishers who suggested I write to the other MDs and use her name as a reference. This was incredibly generous of her because it meant that my letters were read. And one of them landed on the desk of the MD of Hodder & Stoughton on the day that one of his editor’s assistants handed in her notice. My first boss always told me that he employed me because of my business experience and not just my English degree. He said publishing was full English graduates who all loved books, but not many of them knew one end of a balance sheet from another.
What qualities do you think make an excellent editor?
Taste (although how you define and quantify that I wish I knew), boundless enthusiasm and passion for books, creativity, diplomacy and tenacity.
Do you ever pick anything from the slush pile (unsolicited queries/submissions) if you have one?
We don’t have a slush pile at Bloomsbury so the only unsolicited manuscripts I receive come from people I’ve met, or from people who have been recommended to me. I have acquired a couple of novels via these channels (and a couple from bloggers whose writing impressed me and who I contacted to see whether they would be interested in writing novels), but in general I receive so many submissions from agents a week that I find it very hard to ever have a chance to read the unsolicited manuscripts that turn up on my desk.
What makes working at Bloomsbury special for you?
So many things: the amazing authors on our list, the relatively small size of our company, the wonderful, enthusiastic people who work here and the collegiate sense you get of all publishing a book together – and the fact we are based in an old house in Soho Square.
Bloomsbury has a list of great authors, including international best-selling authors Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini and Margaret Atwood, which may be daunting to many unpublished authors considering submission. What would you say to encourage them applying to any major publisher?
Don’t be daunted – be inspired. Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini and Margaret Atwood were all first-time novelists once and we are always looking out for new writers to follow in their footsteps.
Is there life at Bloomsbury after Harry Potter?
Definitely (although I should say that Harry Potter continues to sell on and on). Before Harry Potter we build our reputation on publishing fantastic writers fantastically well, and we continue to do so, on both our adults and childrens’ list. As I write we have Eat, Pray, Love at number 1 on the Bestseller lists, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel on the Booker longlist and A Thousand Splendid Suns selling upwards of a million copies. I’d say Bloomsbury was positively teeming…
What are you most excited by at the moment?
Several things: the publication of Pigeon English next March, but also the launch in January of a debut novel by Elizabeth Day (pictured) called Scissors, Paper, Stone, which is an astonishingly assured, delicate and painful book. And I’ve just acquired a wonderful collection of magical and mischievous Cornish short stories by a young, first-time writer with a great future ahead of her.
If you gave up this work for something else even better, what would it be?
I don’t honestly know. I have a pretty great job really: every day is different, I get paid to read; I get to meet and work with fantastically creative and smart people and I feel a little like a midwife who has the privilege of helping to bring something into the world that has the ability to change things. Mind you, I suppose I wouldn’t mind having a shot at teaching creative writing. It would be lovely to be involved in the very early stages of a novel’s life, and at a point when everything is still to play for and I wouldn’t have to worry about sales figures all the time…
What’s your perfect working lunch?
It makes me sound very antisocial, but it is lovely to sit on the grass in Soho Square with a sandwich and a great manuscript and enjoy reading like a normal person for a while.
Many thanks to Helen for the enormous generosity of her time given to providing such detailed insights. I was fortunate to meet Helen at the London Book Fair this year, when Eyjafjallajokull's eruptions disrupted travel across Europe and the schedule of most Fair attendees. She's also a working Mum with a great sense of humour, and has an unmissable passion for new books.
Two of Helen's recent acquisitions due for upcoming release:
Stephen Kelman's 'Pigeon English' is out next March 2011
Elizabeth Day's novel 'Scissors, Paper, Stone' out in January 2011.