Earlier this week an e-mail popped into my in-box from a student on a Masters course in publishing. A questionnaire was attached; she was researching editors’ attitudes and motivations, and how much we’re influenced by commercial considerations when we commission a book. Or, to what extent we think with our hearts, and how much with our heads.
She caught me at the right moment: partly because things are quiet around here as we move towards the end of 2010’s list, and partly because I was starting to think along those lines anyway as I look towards 2011’s. In fact, she asked some questions which I have to ask myself when I’m planning for a new year. So, since that’s where I’m at at the moment, here are my answers to some of those questions – though not entirely the ones I gave the student.
What do you feel has the most influence on your decision to commission a book?
That one’s easy – I have to fall in love with it. Crème de la Crime doesn’t publish many titles in a year, so I have to believe totally in the ones I take on. I can only feel enthusiastic about a book that makes my skin prickle with excitement. I suspect the same goes for any editor whose job includes commissioning new work.
Would you commission a book by an author whose previously published title had not reached a high sales figure?
That’s a tricky one, especially over the past couple of years. The short answer is probably, if I believed strongly in the author.
With very few exceptions, first-time authors don’t hit the bestsellers with their debuts. With that in mind, if the sales figures after a few months make it plain that I got it very wrong indeed, the answer is no, I wouldn’t commission a follow-up – but in my defence that’s only happened once in six years. And sometimes there are other reasons for not following up a debut.
In a post-recession climate, is the commissioning editor under increased pressure to solicit manuscripts on their profitability alone?
The answer I gave to this one was not in my case; and in larger publishing houses, where there is rarely one commissioning editor with control over all titles that are taken on, editors fight a constant battle against that pressure whatever the economic climate.
But here in the real world, how on earth is an editor meant to make that profitability judgement? Even products of that great cash cow the celebrity biog have been known to bomb. And who would ever have guessed that a much-rejected little book about wizards (which 20 years ago were a big no-no in children’s fiction) would kick-start the biggest phenomenon in publishing history?
In the end whether a book gets published is all down to someone’s gut feeling.
Then there was a quote from some pundit or other, about the need for the profitability factor to pervade every function of a publishing house all the time if a spiral downturn is to be avoided. Well, duh! Isn’t that a basic principle of running a business? The ones that don’t watch the pennies don’t last long.
The next question was an interesting one:
In your decision to commission a book, which of these factors are most important?
The book’s literary merit
How the book contributes to your list
How the book fits into the current market
The potential sales of the book
The author’s notoriety
For literary merit I’d substitute brilliant example of the genre, and for potential sales I’d prefer proactive author prepared to pull his/her weight with promotion, but the principle holds.
For the questionnaire I did list them in an approximate order of importance, but with the exception of the last one (badly chosen word – celebrity would be better, and in any case it doesn’t cut it at all for us unless the book’s brilliant), I’d have to give them all pretty well equal weight.
Taken overall, this was one of the more sensible and businesslike questionnaires I’ve been asked to complete. They come up now and again. It’s good to know the students are being encouraged to look beyond the lecture theatre and seminar room and find out how things work in the real world. And it helped me focus my thoughts.