Writers must face up to the reality of the publishing marketplace. Random House senior editor Kelly Cauldwell speaks at the May instalment of the SCBWI –BI professional series.
We unpublished writers all dream of being taken under the wing of one of those legendary editors we read about. The kind who nurtures you from book to book until finally, you produce a novel destined for immortality.
Well, publishing doesn’t work like that anymore.
“We don’t have the scope to build a writer up over a number of books,” explains Kelly Cauldwell, senior editor for children’s fiction at Random House. “Our job is to see the book right the way through, not just to edit it – unfortunately.”
Kelly tacks on the “unfortunately”, to acknowledge that this might be a painful realisation for her audience of writers – to whom a finished novel may be the end rather than the beginning of the publishing process.
With economies of scale, cutthroat competition and a global market, what today’s editors are looking for is not necessarily brilliant talent but a brilliant product – although one could come from the other.
It’s a reality that many would-be authors will find difficult to accept. But ignore it at your peril.
“My working day is not a lovely, book-filled day as many people want to think,” says Kelly, who has been working at Random House since she started as an assistant to the managing director. “I spend very little time reading in the office. I spend all my time running around and chasing marketing and designers. Meetings are limitless.”
Anyone still entertaining romantic ideas of discovery and nurturing by an editor should find Kelly’s description of her work instructive.
“We spend time looking at the backlist and working out how we can revitalise it – how we can republish old titles again for new audiences who have grown old enough to appreciate it. We look at the practicalities of how we want to publish a book.”
She pulls out a bright, pink paperback sprinkled all over with glitter, unmistakeably a product of the “chick-lit” genre. “How do you make this one the one that everybody notices?” The answer: “We sent flowers to reviewers in pink tissue paper!”
“We have to publish more cleverly in some areas,” says Kelly. “There has been a change of culture. For example, we used to do Corgi Pups (a 64-page early reader) that did very well because of the book clubs. We used to be secure in the knowledge that we would have a 3,000-book order coming in from the book clubs. But times have changed. Book clubs don’t seem to sell them (early readers) anymore. Their focus is on selling Jacqueline Wilson or Harry Potter which are easier sales. In the past, we just did not bother to look at that area and now we are trying harder.”
“Trying harder” involves understanding what makes people put their hands in their pockets, whether it be the collectible playing cards such as the ones that come with Random House’s new Astrosaurs series; or the glitter on the covers of chick-lit titles for girls.
One of the biggest bookselling conundrums, says Kelly, is the way booksellers display books. “The problem with the six-to-eight-year-old market is: they don’t get much space,” she explains.
Books for six to eight year olds get a particularly bum deal because their slim spines don’t stand out on a shelf at Waterstones or Borders. And parents buying for their kids think they are not getting as much value for money as they would from a nice thick book.
“We have responded a little bit to this market,” says Kelly. “We are making the books fatter!”
Random House has also re-launched Corgi Pups as Young Corgi. “We are trying to broaden their appeal and we are focusing more on known authors, the aim is to develop a library built on one author’s books. Young fiction has always been a problematic area. That’s why we are changing the way we are doing things.”
The drawback to so much marketing – thicker books, bigger branding, glittery covers, free collectible cards – is the expense. “We are looking for something to make a splash about,” says Kelly, “but because it is quite expensive to produce, we rarely sign up individual titles for this age range.”
WRITING TO ORDER
From the new, more stringent demands of publishing has emerged a phenomenon that will have old-fashioned editors scratching their heads: writing to order.
Getting books written to order suits publishing houses under pressure to perform in such a demanding market. “Writing to order is a new concept. We have deadlines, targets, dates to hit. It is quite a difficult process and there is no room for writer’s block. It’s quite a talent required of an author.”
Working Partners Ltd offers a service that, quoting their website, includes, “Coming up with ideas for new projects, creating detailed storylines, or working on manuscripts … The starting point for a new series might be an idea from someone in the nine-strong creative team or a request from a UK or US publisher looking for fresh and original concepts to publish within a particular genre and/or age range.
“If the idea survives a series of challenging early brain-stormings, we will contact literary agents in order to find writers to put flesh on the bones of a fully worked up concept and storylines.”
WP claims it has already helped launch 40 titles and series ideas, with more on the way. Unpublished authors take note: its website seeks to recruit new writers as well as literary agents.
One of WP’s projects is Lady Grace, the girls detective series from Random House.
“These are writers who are not just writing what they like,” says Kelly. “It’s fantastic. They are a series concept provider – they come up with ideas, basic story lines and characters. They go away and find an author, matching the style to the story. Lots of their authors are established authors.”
Getting books written to order may make life easier for editors but nothing beats the prestige and sales of a good author. Robert Swindells, Chris Riddel, Jacqueline Wilson all belong to Kelly’s stable.
Big names get to deliver what they like, says Kelly. “Among our known authors, Jacky Wilson is very professional. But she won’t tell you what she’s doing. She’ll say something like, ‘It’s about a girl and her dad’ and that’s it. It’s always a fantastic surprise when you see it! Chris Riddel, on the other hand, likes to talk about his projects. He will phone three times a week to discuss ideas.”
“Author care” takes a big slice of her time, but it’s no longer about agonising over craft or nurturing yet-to-blossom genius. “Working with an author a lot of the time involves asking their opinion about everything: what format the book should take … what cover look they prefer. Random House prides itself as a publisher that listens to its authors. We don’t just bulldoze through and say we want to do it this way.”
The process is rewarding “because you feel that you have been there every step of the way”. “You read the books as a fan. When we are working with an author on a book, it is all about suggestion. It’s all about diplomacy. You have to work out how to say things. It’s very tricky asking someone to change something they don’t want to change. Sometimes you touch something that is the most precious thing in someone’s book – we’ve had authors take out every single change we made in their books!”
Random House recently bought a literary novel for teenagers based on a true story about abandoned babies. “Now and then we find an absolute gem that we don’t want to change at all. It was hard editing it, having gone through it, we didn’t actually want to change anything. I have never read a more polished first novel.”
At the end of her talk, Kelly sighed. “I probably came across as quite commercial. But when you get involved in the publishing process from manuscript to finish, it completely changes the way you think about a book.”
Once that last chapter is written, done and dusted, the process changes. “It will be all about getting the book into a child’s hand, getting the book noticed by trade, sellers, libraries. Children’s publishing is becoming more like grown-up publishing in the way we spend more money on marketing.”
BUT IS GETTING PUBLISHED ONLY ABOUT PUBLISHING?
“It’s all a bit of a chicken and egg situation. How much marketing will you put behind a book? When you get a good manuscript, you are even more keen to put more money behind it. And that is difficult. Because when you submit your manuscript, it must sound like the most original voice to people who have already read 500 manuscripts this year. ”