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