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21 Things I Didn’t Know About Publishing {Vintage Books Open Day}


Mmm, delicious BOOK SWAG!

GENERAL IGNORANCE WARNING: There are many, many things I don’t know about publishing. At this point, seeing my novel in print is such a distant (and frankly improbable) dream, exploring the curious world of publishing probably shouldn’t be a priority. I do find it fascinating, though.

This term my Masters course is laying on a variety of speakers – writers, agents, editors – to help demystify the whole process, but when @vintagebooks tweeted they were holding an Open Day at Random House, I figured the more the merrier.

I wasn’t the only one. The 35 tickets, priced at a very reasonable £30 each, sold like hot cross buns. As well as the lovely goodie bag and a slap-up lunch, the lucky few enjoyed a packed programme of talks, illuminating a book’s journey from acquisition through production and jacket design to marketing, publicity and sales. Two fantastic authors (Kevin Barry and Rose Tremain) chatted with their editors and agents about their writing and publishing experiences, and editors and indie booksellers explored the future of books and bookselling in a very interesting panel discussion.

All in all, an amazing event. In celebration of Vintage’s 21st birthday, here are my top 21 nuggets of bookish goodness:

  1. Since the 2008 slowdown, around 20% less books are published each year. The ‘interesting first novel’ is often the hardest hit : (
  2. Copy-editing is not a dying art, it’s just outsourced to freelancers. Commissioning editors still offer fairly large structural feedback, although some (like Jonathan Cape’s Dan Franklin) are less likely to buy manuscripts that need a lot of work. American editors are “unbelievably interventionist” compared to those in the UK.
  3. These days, a £10k advance for a first novel is considered pretty good going.
  4. Kevin Barry (author of City of Bohane) feels increasingly that “you should get in and out of [writing] a novel fairly quickly”. He wrote a draft in three months which left him “technically nuts” but with “the world… the characters… the language” of his story.
  5. When Barry’s agent sent his previous novel out to 8 publishers and it received positive responses but no offers, he had three options. To do more work on the manuscript, to send it out to more publishers (up to 18 is OK for a literary novel), or to work on something new. He chose the latter.
  6. Kevin Barry wears an Official Irish Writer’s Hat. It is bequeathed by the spirit of Seamus Heaney in a misty glade. It is a trilby.
  7. The biggest dates in the publishing calendar are the London Book Fair in April and the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. There is also “Super Thursday” at the beginning of September, when everyone is trying to get their books published for Christmas.
  8. When there’s interest in a manuscript, publishers may offer a “pre-empt” to get the agent to take it off the market and prevent a bidding war.
  9. Studies have shown when customers walk into a bookshop, the jacket design has 1.5 seconds to catch their eye. Small wonder this part of the process is often so contentious, with so many departments and stakeholders keen to have their say.
  10. Recent trends in cover design have included handwriting and hand printing, cloth covers and typographic design.
  11. You don’t necessarily need a huge marketing budget to be innovative. To promote Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, the team collaborated with a film school to produce a trailer film. And in the build-up to Leo Benedictus’ new novel The Afterparty, fans were able to tweet messages to the author to get them included in the endpapers of the published work. He also invited them to suggest characters for him to insert into the party scene, or write reviews for the paperback jacket.
  12. Supermarkets make up a surprisingly large part of the bookselling market, yet there are only 16 new chart positions every fortnight across all publishers.
  13. All books, in all book retailers, are sale on return. So the publisher has to be confident a particular retailer can sell a particular book, and stop them from over-ordering.
  14. All retailers charge publishers to offer their books on promotion. A lot, apparently.
  15. With the growth of digital, the ever-evolving publishing industry is like “the Wild West”. No one knows the rules yet, and battles are still being fought over what is a fair price for an e-book.
  16. Patrick Neale, owner of the fab-sounding Jaffe & Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton, believes “books need to become so beautiful” to compete in this changing landscape. He has diversified to meet the needs of his local community, offering a cafe, gallery, gifts and events, and understands his customers aren’t there for a bargain. “I don’t discount, because I don’t see an uplift in sales… If someone comes in on a Saturday morning they’re in leisure mode, looking for a beautiful gift for someone, or themselves.”
  17. Rose Tremain has enjoyed a fruitful, 35 year partnership with her editor Penny Hoare. When Rose has a new idea, she sends Penny a couple of pages of outline and then they meet for a chat. Penny asks “sensitively geared questions” to probe and develop the material. This is a delicate stage, as too much discussion can weaken the writer’s sense of mystery and ownership towards the work. Rose goes away and writes a first draft. Then the pair go to her home in Norfolk and spend a couple of days “talking, talking, talking” about everything from large issues like plot shape to smaller points on logic and language. In essence, “everything the book could be but isn’t yet”.
  18. Tremain believes the writer’s mind has two composite parts: the “knowing, analysing, judging, censoring” side that is concerned with technique, and the other side, “a wonderful state of imaginative unknowing”. Keeping both alive is important. Too many years of teaching creative writing, for example, can make the inner editor too powerful and censorious.
  19. Tremain writes to a plan – “to work absolutely plan-less is too frightening” – but doesn’t plan minutely up to the end. “I know what kind of point the book is on a journey towards. Usually there is a beautiful or shocking or inspiring image attached to it. From about 3/4 in, I tend to know where the story is driving.”
  20. Research is vital, but it has to go through a kind of alchemy; it should never be just plonked down in the narrative. “The novelist is like a wicked dog, rushing along the hedgerows and gathering things as he goes.” Time has to elapse so the material can be changed, altered, owned.
  21. Tremain, who taught creative writing at UEA for several years, remains convinced such courses are on the whole a great thing. They bring the writer out of a sort of existential loneliness and into a peer group, and their fears can be rounded up week by week. Penny agreed writers that come out of CW courses are often better at giving and taking criticism, and are more open to editorial suggestions.

Bonus nugget: Rose Tremain revealed she is currently working on a sequel to Restoration. ‘Citin’!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 19/04/2011 10:58

    I am so jealous! I really wanted to come to this. But other than the author-specific info, I’m quite relieved to say I already knew about 95% of this publishing stuff ^.^ (nearly all the ideas, but not much of the statistics).

    Although I did read in Mslexia this week that £5k was considered a pretty standard offer for a first book advance… so I guess £10k would indeed be considered pretty darn good… Quite a shocking salary if you break it down by the number of hours worked on a novel! (I wouldn’t say no, though…)

    Thanks for this summary – really interesting!

    • 19/04/2011 11:16

      Thanks Soph. Yes, got the impression £10k would be on the large side for a first time advance, especially as author are now paid in “quarters” rather than “thirds”! I think the event was probably more geared towards noobs such as myself, but still an impressively huge amount of information for one day.

  2. 19/04/2011 11:00

    I was fortunate to be at the Open Day myself and this post brilliantly summarises the main points of discussion that took place at the extradordinary day that Vintage arranged.

    At times it did feel like a ‘taster for a two-day event’ but that is only because the team at Vintage put so much work into sharing every single facet of their publishing expertise.

    It could very well be a watershed day that leads to other publishing houses opening their doors in the same manner.

  3. 19/04/2011 11:23

    What an interesting and enlightening event:) You came away with lots of interesting insights into a business which most of us readers never really get to see. We only ever see the finished books.

    • 19/04/2011 11:32

      Keep an eye on!/vintagebooks as I’m sure there will be similar events in the future. And I’m sure James is right that other publishing houses may well follow suit. It certainly makes them look more forward-thinking and inclusive, so fingers crossed.

  4. Mary Stoneman permalink
    19/04/2011 13:48

    Thank you very much for this blog post on the main points of discussion at the amazing Vintage Books Open Day yesterday. I too was there, and I had my eyes opened about the world of 21st Century publishing -and it is good to know there will always be a place for books in the world. Now sat out in the sunshine looking at the books in the fab goody bag , and thinking about what a unique day we had yesterday with Vintage Books.

  5. 09/05/2011 23:18

    This sounds amazing!

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