Let’s Hear it For the Editors

so. Indeed, Dallas Manderson, group sales director at Orion, actually made a point at a recent sales conference of stressing that the sales department did not decide what was to be published. This is true in theory, but only up to a point in practice. As sales estimates are required for the compilation of the aforementioned P&Ls, sales departments are asked what they think a book

E DITORSARETHE rainmakers of publishing. Without the books they acquire and the authors they foster, there would be no business. If that sounds obvious, then consider the current state of editors as a new year approaches. Their position, their authority, is not what it was. When, twenty-five years ago, I entered publishing from journalism as a senior editor at Hodder & Stoughton, the business was so different from today as to be hardly recognisable. In 1980 publishing was mainly the preserve of modestly sized and often family-owned firms (Hodder among them). Bookselling, W H Smith apart, was similar. Tim Waterstone’s revolution in that industry was a couple of years away. Prices were still fixed by publishers; discounting only took place each new year when a National Book Sale offered reduced prices for what were mainly overstocks. The editor in 1980 was a power. Every firm was slightly different from the next in the way it was run: but the process of appointing someone and giving them authority to purchase rights in books was not subject to layers of approval. At Hodder & Stoughton the acquisition process too was straightforward. Modest purchases of fiction and non-fiction were made via an editorial meeting. If the money needed was more substantial, the company’s paperback arm was asked if it would like to join in. The final decision was made by one man – Michael Attenborough, the group’s publishing director and a Hodder in all but name. He had a nose for the commercial and he recognised quality. Thus it was possible to receive a proposal, like it, share it with colleagues, react to spontaneous enthusiasm and make an offer in a matter of hours. That was how the firm acquired its first Booker prizewinner, the book by the Australian author Thomas Keneally that would become Schindler’s Ark(or List in the United States). It was an acquisition based on an enthralling, if sometimes horrifying synopsis. Keneally, who had been published elsewhere, moved to Hodder for this book and is still being published by the firm a quarter of century later. Today, I suggest, it might not be so easy to make such an acquisition. It would certainly take more time. The major firms are mostly owned by international conglomerates, which have elaborate procedures for the spending of their money. Forms have to be filled in, P&L (profit and loss) forecasts produced. But the major difference in 2005 from 1980 is the involvement of sales departments. At Hodder, sales teams were not usually consulted on the purchase of books. No salesman (or woman) attended an editorial meeting. The view then was that editors and directors made the decisions as to what would be published; sales departments were told what they had to sell. If the pendulum then was too firmly fixed in the editorial direction, has it today swung too far in the other? Editors when gathered together will often say they think

might sell. And so, in their turn, they often ask the buyers at key bookselling chains what they think about a proposal. At this stage it is a matter of opinion. Where track records are available they are consulted; sales of books of a similar type are quoted. Therefore something original and different is truly frightening. On what can one base an estimate? Would Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves – a book about grammar, for goodness sake! – have got through this process if it hadn’t been for the faith of her publisher, Andrew Franklin, at his own, then modestly sized, Profile Books? Editors often work on a professional gut instinct. That’s how some of the surprise successes in publishing actually happen. From personal experience I remember reading in 1992 the first hundred pages of the Alan Clark Diaries, which were being offered by his agent, Michael Sissons. I had to sign a confidentiality letter, I had to read the pages in Sissons’ office, and I wasn’t allowed to take notes. All good agency hype, with a touch of theatricality to heighten the senses. At that stage, who had heard of Alan Clark? He hadn’t been a Cabinet minister; his earlier books had mainly been military history. Indeed, at the Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishing meeting fewer than half those attending recognised who I was talking about. I do wonder in these P&L-dominated days whether we bid at the level we did? I like to think that my passionate presentation would always win everyone over, but how could anyone possibly have forecasted sales figures for those diaries? Yet they went on to spend twenty weeks in the bestseller lists, and made Clark’s name known across the nation. To bid for the rights was an editorial decision based on enthusiasm, a recognition that they were superbly written and that they told us more about the Thatcher years than we had known previously, and a belief that here was a once-in-a-lifetime book. Editors need encouragement, freedom. They must be allowed to make mistakes. The ultimate sanction is always there – the sack. The business of books – like the theatre and films – is an unholy mix of art and commerce. Like oil and water they don’t naturally go together. Books require all the skills of marketing, publicity and sales departments before they can be put before the public. But I suggest that first and foremost they need the foresight of editors who identify quality amidst dross, who can massage apparent sows’ ears into silk purses. Sales departments have their vital place in the publishing food chain. But let’s hear it for the editors – they come first!


LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006