There was a hint of autumn in the air last week as Words Away returned to the Tea House Theatre Cafe after a long summer break. A packed house of published and aspiring writers gathered to join in the conversation with our guest, Virago Press Chair, Lennie Goodings. We could not have wished for a more perfect speaker to illuminate what every writer needs to know about being edited and being published!
Lennie grew up in a small town in Canada. After studying English Literature at university she worked as a bookseller before moving to England in the early eighties. Around this time the publishing industry had figured out, if you sell the author you sell the book. Lennie found work as a publicist and her first book was Colleen McCullough’s, The Thorn Birds. She also worked for The Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. Meanwhile feminism was on the march, social change was afoot and Virago Press had been established by Carmen Callil alongside Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe. It seemed a natural progression for Lennie to write to Carmen Callil saying, ‘I think I can help you!’. Her initiative paid off, she was hired as a publicist working one day a week. Virago’s unique mission was, and is, to champion women’s writing for the widest possible audience.
In the pre-digital age there were lots of ways, via the print media, (City Limits, Time Out, women’s and other magazines etc) to publicise books and bring them to attention of readers. The publishing landscape has changed dramatically since then. During the early nineties Lennie continued woking in publicity and marketing, and also learned how to edit and work on the page. Lennie’s authors include Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Marilynne Robinson, Maya Angelou, Linda Grant, Natasha Walter, Naomi Wolf amongst many others. Lennie has been through all of Virago’s transformations over the years, from trailblazing independent to an imprint at Little,Brown. She is currently writing a book, The Idealistic Publisher, while still acquiring and editing books for Virago.
An editor is by definition a hyper or super reader. When reading as an editor, Lennie’s conscious of how she’s feeling (bored, confused etc?) and guided by her gut. But it’s an educated gut - an editor/publisher will know what’s selling. For Lennie, it’s very difficult to publish cynically. The book has to speak to her. It’s all about the voice. She has to believe in the book and and feel that she’s in a safe pair of hands. In the age of Amazon it’s difficult to compete and sell fiction, especially an original book. At an acquisition meeting the various departments will assemble, (sales, marketing, finance, publicity) and ask the editor, ‘who’s it for and what’s it like?’. An editor has got to be passionately in love with the book to sell it.
The reader-editor relationship is an affair of the heart. Managing a writer’s expectations is a big responsibility. Before a contract, if a book is under consideration, Lennie tries not to raise expectations. If the work has potential, she may offer general pointers or pass it on to someone else. Being an editor requires courage. Sometimes you have to say, ‘park this one’. Editing is labour intensive. Lennie will read a book closely at least four times. It’s a laborious, time costly process. She must remind herself to tell the author all the good things about the manuscript along with the criticism. For an editor, problem solving can be like finding the right key to unlock the writer, who then goes on to solve the problem. She doesn’t make notes the first time she reads a manuscript. She’ll meet the author to have a general conversation so that they are starting from the same place. She’ll try and establish what the author’s exploring. Then the author will go away and rewrite it. Lennie likes to keep it quite big till all the emotion of the book is more or less in place. Line editing only take places after all the problems are solved.
We talked about “second book syndrome” and how it can be tricky to navigate for all involved; the writer, editor and publisher. First books often have a very long gestation period over several years. By contrast, second books have to be delivered within two years and probably with very little money on offer. Some writers can pull this off, (Sally Rooney is a recent example). Some authors get going on their second book well before the first one is published. The demands of the market place make it a challenge for the writer but as far as Lennie is concerned, the worst thing is not to deliver a good book.
In addition to publishing fiction, Virago’s non-fiction titles reflect who they are as publishers, highlighting how women are placed in the world. Publishing trends and topics of interest are cyclical. Feminism is hot right now after a long period in the wilderness. This particular resurgence in interest could lead to the industry jumping on the bandwagon, churning out thin product and flooding the market.
We also touched on the gender divide regarding reading and writing. According to Lennie, there’s gendered reading but not gendered writing. Books about families and relationships in a domestic setting are not necessarily the preserve of women authors, (think of Colm Toíbín, for example). Lennie quoted Helen Simpson, the brilliant short story writer, “domestic fiction is a political accusation not a literary one”. It does appear that women tend to read more fiction while men tend to read non-fiction. Generally speaking, women read books written by women and men, whereas men tend to read books written only by men, (less true for crime fiction). Publishers may play a role in perpetuating gender stereotypes, as author, Naomi Alderman has said, “I don’t want a flower on my cover just because I have a vagina.”
Publishers have to make a profit, they publish things that make money. Perhaps give up the idea that everything you write must be published. It may be the story you are writing will be just for the benefit of your family and friends. Perhaps you’ll put it in a drawer. There’s value in writing for writing’s sake if it’s something you love doing. The good news is, you’re never too old to publish your first book. Lenny cited the ages of various writers when they first published, including Toni Morrison was 40, Annie Proulx 57, Frank McCourt, 66, amongst others.
Key advice for aspiring writers :
Give your book to trusted others to read. Select your readers with care. Ask them to be tough.
Read your work out loud to pick up dead words, repetition and to test dialogue.
Keep an eye on the market.
Get a good title for your book.
Imagine a reader in a bookshop picking up your book. Have a good beginning - the first five pages must be right or else the reader will drop the book for another.
The end must be good too. The ‘Richard and Judy book club’ mantra is ‘what’s the takeaway?’. No rushed endings.
Consider working with a small independent press rather than the big publishing houses. A publisher can only submit two books for prizes. You might have a better chance with a small press, like Salt or Alma, who only take on a few titles a year.
You can do a lot to help yourself: show a publisher you have a following. Get out there: go to events.
Develop a portfolio of work; get some short stories published.
If you’re a good writer - keep the faith. Make sure you get a good agent! Getting an agent is only the first hurdle.
Once you are under contract, put yourself at the service of the publisher.After your book is edited there’s usually the six months till publishing time. Hang in for a good title and jacket.
Campaign for a marketing budget (but don’t argue for advertising). Try and secure an early proof - it costs £5.20 to produce one, according to Nick Ross, production manager at Little Brown, who was in the audience! Also try and secure an endorsement for the cover from a well known author. But be nice about it and politic; this is your chance! A good agent relationship is essential to back you in this process.
A big thank you to Lennie Goodings for sharing her insight and wisdom about all things publishing & editing.
Last week’s salon also marked Words Away’s second birthday. I started out after a chance conversation with Emma, not quite sure what I was doing or how it would all turn out. It’s been great fun to meet so many lovely and interesting people along the way, from our brilliant audience to our guest writers. I’m delighted that Words Away seems to have evolved into a community of people who are as book obsessed and fascinated with the process of writing as I am. So on we go! Our next salon on the 15th October is almost sold out; All Is Not What It Seems: How Memory & The Past Drive a Narrative, with Claire Fuller. If you can’t make October’s salon do come along on the 12th of November for, There Will Be Blood: Writing Violence with William Ryan.
Hope to see you soon!
References & Links:
Lennie Goodings, Virago Press, Colleen McCullough: The Thorn Birds, The Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Richard and Judy Book Club, The Forest for the Trees by Besty Lerner, Sarah Dunant, Sarah Waters, Sally Rooney, House of Glass by Susan Fletcher, Deborah Frances White, Alma Books, Salt Publishing, Clare Clark, Rachel Seiffert, Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Apignanesi, Rachel Holmes & Susie Orbach, Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us by C.N. Lester, Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon, Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends by Mark Bostridge, Alan Bishop (Ed), Margaret Atwood, Helen Simpson, Naomi Alderman