Wednesday’s Interview with #Honno: Today With Caroline Oakley, Editor for Honno

Today I’m really pleased to be chatting with Caroline Oakley, Editor for Honno (and,  by the way, Editor of  two of my Pattern trilogy)  Besides letting us learn a little about herself and her career as an editor, Caroline gives us an insight to Honno. It’s fascinating, I promise.  

Please introduce yourself

Hello, I’m Caroline. I’ve been working in publishing since 1985, after studying English and Drama in London. I’m from Staffordshire, originally, and moved to Wales in 1999. I was taught to read by my librarian mum before I went to school at four…which was just as well because when I got there I had learn all over again through ITA, or the initial teaching alphabet, which was an innovative and not wholly successful 1960s initiative supposed to introduce children to reading and writing before moving on to standard spelling. Some of my fellows never quite got the hang of it! However, once we got back to normal English I throve and my nose hasn’t often been out of a book since.

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What brought you into editing as a career?

An advert in one of those freebie magazines they used to give away outside Tube stations in London… I’d been working in Bond Street for a cosmetics company (though one of my tasks was to buy crime novels for the boss’s wife from Hatchards!) when the opportunity came to move on. I was interviewed by one person but offered a job with another. It was a joy to be paid to read books for a living – rather than pay for books and try to find time to read them outside of work!

Life before Honno?

Ten years at the Centre for Alternative Technology as Publisher of their small list of ground-breaking titles on renewable energy, sustainable water provision and treatment, organic growing etc. Before that, 20 years in London culminating in a position as Editorial Director of Orion Paperbacks editing luminaries such as Ian Rankin, Michael Moorcock and writing cover blurbs for Maeve Binchy.

How long have you been Editor for Honno?

I started part-time in 2005 and full time in 2008 – so around ten years overall, including a year out to do an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University (which Honno kindly allowed me to take and then return to my job – a literary sabbatical, if you like). I thought I’d better see if I could ‘do’ it myself having spent decades telling others how to ‘do’ it!

Please tell us about the background of Honno. When and how Honno was founded?

Honno is a mutual and provident society – a non-profit organisation – founded by a group of women interested in promoting Welsh women’s writing to a new audience in the mid-eighties. They began by publishing one book at a time and sold £5 shares in the company to fund their publishing activity. After a couple of successful years they got funding for titles on a book by book basis from the Arts Council of Wales and then, with the founding of the Welsh Books Council, a revenue grant to enable the publication of seven books per year and the employment of permanent staff – as opposed to the volunteers that had begun the Press, who continue to manage the company on a voluntary basis today.

What are the philosophies/principles/objectives of Honno?

To publish great writing, by great women born or living in Wales… The ethos of the founders was to provide a publishing space for Welsh women writing in the English language – and of women of previous generations whose published works had fallen out of print. Also to provide work in publishing for women in Wales. Honno publishes genre and literary fiction and non-fiction; its authors have been awarded prizes and shortlisted by the Crime Writers’ Association, The People’s Book Prize, the Theakston’s Old Peculier Award for Best Crime Novel of the year and the Wales Book of the Year among others.

Do writers come to you or do you deal with agents only?

We have an open submissions policy – anyone meeting Honno’s criteria (you must be female and born or living in Wales, or writing work of interest to women in Wales) is able to submit work to Honno year round. This means we still source most of our writers and books through the ‘slush pile’, as it’s known in the trade. In this way we are able to spot talent at an early stage and often work with writers on several titles before they receive an offer to publish. You’ll remember this process well, Judith, as that’s how you came to Honno! As did Thorne Moore – who is now reaching the giddy heights of top ten best-seller for eBooks in trade magazine the Bookseller. We also offer workshops and ‘meet the editor’ mentoring sessions which bring new writers to our attention. On occasion literary agents will send us work and we’re always happy to liaise with them, too. Sometimes I or another Honno member will approach a writer with an idea and commission a title that way.

What advice would you give to a writer about to submit her work to Honno?

Read the submission guidelines on the website carefully – this applies to all submissions to any publisher. Also take a look at the range of books we publish – do we have anything similar on the list in terms of genre or tone? Have you read any of our books and, if so, do you think your work will appeal to our readers? These are the questions a writer should ask herself.

How do you decide that a manuscript is one you can work on?

That’s a tricky question – it depends on the material. I would usually read all of the fifty pages asked for before making a decision. It’s not often I reject something after a glance at only a page or two. I always try to include a tip or two on how to improve the work when I return it, or give a reason for not taking it further. If I like the material, I will either write and ask to see the balance of the book, or perhaps call the author and ask them to meet for a chat about the book and how we might work together. Very rarely I might write with an offer of publication after reading a full manuscript and then discussing it with my colleagues and the Honno Committee.

In the main, I’m looking for a genuine feel for the genre the book is written in, a winning voice, a great sense of place, a twist in the tale; something that makes me want to read on, whether that’s a character, a plot line or beautiful writing – which of those makes it a winner will depend on the sort of story it is.

How do you feel when you first discover a talented author?

Excited! And interested. I want to know how they got here and what motivates them.

Has there ever been a writer whose work you had to reject but who later found great success elsewhere.

Lots of them. There won’t be an editor who can honestly say no to this questions. J K Rowling was turned down many times before a junior editor at Bloomsbury took a punt on her. The same is true for all of us. There are lots of books I offered for and didn’t win, too. You have to concentrate on the ones you won not the ones who got away. I wanted to offer for Lesley Pearse’s first novel, but was told no by my bosses at the time. She didn’t do too shabbily. Another one that got away was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

Does Honno deal only in hard copies of authors’ novel or are they produced in different forms? For example, eBooks, audio books, large print?

Honno publishes across all formats, but some of them, such as large print and audio, are not produced by Honno but by specialist companies who purchase from us the right to publish in that format. All our titles are now published simultaneously as print and digital (or eBook) editions. Our titles are distributed in Wales, the rest of the UK and internationally by a range of established companies in print and eBook. So wherever you are in the world you should have access to Honno titles and great Welsh women’s writing.

How do you see the publishing world progressing?

That’s interesting. I wish I knew…that way we could make a fortune! I don’t think the book as ‘big papery thing’ (to quote Blackadder) will disappear, but the formats might change. It could be that the paperback is priced out by the eBook, but that the hardback remains and becomes much more of an elaborate gift object or beautiful self-purchase. Something like the leather-bound editions the Folio Society has been printing for eons. You might read the ebook, love it and the author and then move to buying beautiful, enhanced hard-cover editions to keep on your shelves and admire, reread. Collector’s editions if you will… After all, lots of people said DVD and video would kill the cinema, but in fact more people now watch films at home and at the cinema than used to when the new formats were released. Perhaps the children growing up today will become a generation of avid short story and serialised fiction readers on their phones and notebooks (don’t forget that Dickens’ classic works of literature began life as serials in the London Daily News). Short fiction has languished in the sales doldrums for some time, as has poetry, but there are now new and growing markets for these genres on-line and for download; their time to shine may be coming round again.

How do you see Honno progressing in the future?

I’d like to see the organisation become financially sustainable – funding can never be truly guaranteed – and growing eBook sales are helping us towards that target. I’d also like to see Honno grow its commissioned non-fiction list: so if any of you out there have a fascinating untold story of a forgotten woman, town or trade from, in or relating to Wales do get in touch! We’re after great stories that demand to be read rather than celebrity biogs. What have you heard about that’s incredible and little known? Honno has just published the amazing story of Lily Tobias, a little known Welsh-Jewish writer who took an active role in some of the most famous movements of the 20th century from women’s suffrage, to supporting conscientious objectors in WW1 and the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1930s; she lived through a momentous time writing political polemic and gripping fiction. She deserves to be read and known about, and not just for being the aunt of more famous men (her nephews Danny and Leo Abse are known for their writing and politics, why not Lily?)… http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?lang=en&ISBN=9781909983236

Thank you for your time, Caroline. Is there anything you’d like to add?

 No, not really, just that Honno is the only remaining UK independent women’s press in existence and that we aim to stick around for at least another 30 years publishing great writing from women in Wales. If you can help us do that – either by writing for us or joining Honno Friends (http://www.honno.co.uk/friends.php) – please do get in touch! You can find us at www.honno.co.uk

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Wednesday’s Interview with #Honno: Today With Janet Thomas, Freelance Editor for Honno & Editor for Firefly Press

Today I’m really pleased to be chatting with Janet Thomas, Editor for Honno and Firefly Press.

Janet-Thomas

How did you come to be an editor?

I studied English at university, which taught you to analyse writing and also how to explain your views of a text, which isn’t always easy. I did it because I loved the subject, I had no idea what I was going to do afterwards. After college I got a job as a secretary to an editor at Hodder and Stoughton, and worked my way to editor from there. All the editors I was working for were willing to explain their decisions, etc, so I learned from them. I was very lucky in who I worked for, but I was also incredibly lucky to have support from my family so I could live in London on a tiny salary. After doing that for a while, I wanted to move back home so I went freelance, which suits me as I don’t really fit a big business environment.

Now (years and years later!) I work as a freelance editor, I am on the Honno management committee and I’m Firefly Editor. Honno has been a fantastic part of my life since 2001 — I get to work with the brilliant staff and committee and to work on some wonderful books with authors I think the world of (like you, Judith, though I’m not your editor). Last year Penny Thomas, Firefly Publisher, and I set up Firefly Press, specialising in children’s books, and that’s been a whirlwind but such an exciting project. Penny’s extraordinary. We’ll have 17 books by the end of 2015, and each one makes me burst with pride. Small publishing is very exciting because it’s really personal. The downside is that we never have enough money or time for all we want to do!

My great enthusiasm is for stories. I love working on fiction and children’s books — that’s where my heart is. Editorial is a lovely job, but like anything it has its negative sides. Nobody knows what will sell — you have to have (or fake!) tremendous belief in your own opinion, and when you have times when you lose faith in yourself, you can’t get the job done. Juggling all the different books is hard, and it’s always horrible to have to turn down books you know a writer has put their heart and soul into — but we can’t do every promising book, we only have limited resources. I have to tell myself that I can only do justice to the authors I have taken on if I don’t overstretch the press. That’s what I want to do — to do justice to each book in every element of how we publish it. I’m not saying I achieve that at all, but it’s the aim.

What do you look for in a manuscript?

It’s really hard to put into words. You know that feeling where you only meant to read a page and you’ve read ten pages before you could stop yourself, because the story pulled you in? I love being surprised. As a reader, I love an author who does whatever they do full-bloodedly, whether it’s escapist entertainment or tiny eccentric stories or a literary epic.

Generally, the mistake I see most authors making is trying to stuff too many good ideas into one book, and ending up not doing justice to any of them.  Sometimes that’s because they don’t have enough confidence in their ideas, so they keep adding more. Sometimes it’s simply that structuring a novel is hard. I think it’s one area where an editor can really help. And sometimes I think authors get caught up in the sheer fun of making stuff up and just get a bit carried away!

Write a book you would love to read. Imagine yourself in an enormous shop or library, as a reader what are you naturally drawn to? Write that, and then find the right publisher for it, rather than trying to second-guess what a publisher wants and copying it. Write what you love, whether it’s genre or literary, fantasy or historical — stories connect to the reader’s heart more than their head and you can’t generalise about how to do that, but it’s more likely to happen if you are writing something that you feel passionate and brave about. A story that people will lose themselves in, that they’ll love and remember — and talk about. Almost all sales for new writers come from readers recommending books to each other. To succeed your book needs to inspire such passion in a reader that they must tell their friends all about you.

What are your tips for submissions?

All the obvious stuff really. Read the agent or publisher’s website, see how they want work submitted, and do that. Do your best with the synopsis, but don’t agonise over it — nobody says, ‘Brilliant sample chapters, poor synopsis, let’s say no.’

Your first job is to get the reader to care. Give us a character and situation we can invest in, start focussed on one storyline, and once we’re invested, then you’ve got us for the rest of the book — then you can expand the story, build the world and weave in the other plotlines, etc.

s well as starting the plot, your beginning tells the reader what kind of story it is. You need to have the confidence to say to the reader, by how you begin: ‘This is the kind of book this is. If you don’t like this kind of book, you should stop reading now. If you like this kind of book, you’re going to LOVE this one.’

What does an editor do?

At a big publisher an editor is the middle person, working with the author and making sure the production, design, accounts, contracts, marketing, PR and sales departments all know what they need to do and when. At a small press, the editor has cover many more of those areas themselves. It will vary from small press to small press which ones.  Generally you don’t have anyone to delegate to, so you do everything from the big business decisions like which books to do, right down to the admin, masses and masses of admin!

Honno’s an established firm with a staff of four and a management committee of nine volunteers. I simply help with some of the admin for the meetings, attend meetings, take part in some of the grant bids (Honno is supported by the Welsh Books Council) and edit a couple of books a year to help Caroline Oakley, Honno’s editor, with her huge workload. Most of Honno’s authors are Caroline’s. It’s a privilege to be part of it.

Firefly Press is new and is Penny and me, with several people helping us with marketing, particularly at the moment the brilliant Megan Farr. It’s a completely different game from working as an editor for someone else. We read the scripts, select them, plan them, book the printers, commission the covers, get everything designed, send out review copies, organise events, store books in every spare corner of our houses, etc etc, and do all the admin. Masses of admin!

All that work has to be done before the unsolicited manuscripts are read. It’s a constant battle to find any time to read them. I have to prioritise the books we are doing. We’ve just come to the difficult decision that we’re not going to accept any more submissions at Firefly for the next six months, as our list is full till the end of 2016 and we’ve had so many submissions I’ve not been able to keep on top of managing them and replying to everyone. I apologise very deeply to anyone still waiting to hear. We will still read everything we’ve already been sent thoroughly.

I think an editor’s job in the editorial process is to help the author but at the same time represent the reader, the person who paid their money to read this book. Writing is hard work and sometimes things get fudged when the writer is tired, so it’s my job to find those points in the story and push the author to come up with a better idea. It’s not my job to tell them what to write, only which bits to look at again. Or sometimes the writer is too close to the material to see that they haven’t said what they think they’ve said, or they have a little tic that they don’t notice that they repeat too often. It’s picking up things like that. And then there’s all the issues of what books to do, when to do them, how many to print, what market to aim for…

I think if you get useful advice, you know it straight away. Sometimes you might have to compromise on smaller issues, but if any advice will make your story something you never intended, that goes against why you were writing it in the first place, don’t do it. Even if you have to pull out of the deal, don’t do it. I think that when advice is right, you already knew it really, you were just too tired or scared to do it. Sometimes an author needs an editor to give them permission to tell the story they want to tell.

Any tips for building a career as a writer?

As I say, I don’t think you should worry about what a publisher wants till at least you’ve finished the first draft. But I will say that you make life easier for a publisher if you choose a type of story and concentrate on that at least for a few books, to build a readership. Sometimes writers feel they should be able to turn their hand to anything, and I meet writers who want to show me a fantasy novel, a historical novel, a children’s book and a radio play, and that’s great, don’t get me wrong. But thinking as a business person, a writer who chooses a type of story to specialise in, and builds a reputation in that, writing books at consistent intervals, is more likely to do well in the current trade. But if that’s not who you are as a writer, then you must trust who you are.

The best advice is the hardest — keep going. Tell your stories.