'In my opinion, great writing is original. The themes might be shared by other writers, but the author is exploring them in unique ways. I need to feel a connection with the work – with the characters, and/or the setting, and/or the themes.'
This is a Q&A with Bernadette Foley who has worked as an editor and publisher for over 30 years. She teaches at UTS and the Australian Writers Centre; was awarded the Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship; helped establish the REP (Residential Editorial Program) and the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program; and received the George Robertson Award for Service to the Publishing Industry. After nearly 12 years as a publisher of fiction and non-fiction at Hachette Australia, Bernadette decided to make the leap and go out on her own to see what else was happening in the world of books.
Bernadette now runs her company Broadcast Books, offering ongoing writing workshops for emerging writers in Sydney and via Skype; mentors writers to help them bring their work to a standard where it is ready to submit to publishers and agents, or to publish independently; and she runs the Broadcast Books Writer’s Talks every couple of months. The next is on 4 April with fabulous novelist Kali Napier – book tickets here.
You can contact Bernadette at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You’ve published and edited a lot of books across genres. Who were some of the writers you most enjoyed working with?
I am incredibly fortunate. Throughout my career I have worked, and continue to work, with talented, passionate, smart and often funny people who write brilliant books. There are so many but two stand out. William McInnes and I worked together from the start of his writing career and over many books. I wrote to Mr McInnes and asked if he’d like to write a book about one subject, he came back and said yes, but could he write about his childhood instead, and I jumped at it. The book, A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby, was a bestseller and a classic insight into Australia in the 1960s. Another author who has become a dear friend is Di Morrissey. I was Di’s editor when I worked at Pan Macmillan years ago and this year we started to work together again. Publishing is a small world and in it you can make friends for life.
What role does the publisher vs editor play?
While in the UK and US a publisher is called an editor, in Australia the roles are quite different. A publisher has to be across everything to do with a book and its author – such as the budget and schedule, the market, the cover, the marketing and publicity campaigns, etc., as well as the words in the manuscript. You also need to have a long, broad view of the author’s career – what will they write next? What more can your company do to promote them? Do you need to remind the MD to send them a birthday card? Plus you should know their writing intimately and, with the editor, help the author to make their book as good as it can possibly be.
The editor’s role is also critical to the success of every publication. Their focus is more on the book itself. A good editor will recognise the author’s ‘voice’ in their writing and do everything they can to protect and enhance it, while also keeping the readers in mind. A good editor will also be aware of the budget, schedule and, importantly, the market.
Both the publisher and the editor must work with these three stakeholders always in mind: 1. The publishing company. 2. The author. 3. The reader.
Can you please give a brief overview of the production process at a publishing house?
Each book is different but in general, this is the general production process for a novel:
Once the contract is signed between the author and the publishing company, the process begins. The publisher briefs an in-house editor who becomes the project editor.
The first step is the structural edit – the big-picture edit. This might be done by the publisher, the in-house editor or a freelance editor; or the publisher and editor together.
The manuscript (ms) goes back to the author for rewrites; while that is happening work on the cover design will begin.
The final draft comes in from the author ready for copy editing, which is usually done by a freelancer.
It’s returned to the author for final changes and approval. Then the edited ms comes back in house where a text design is prepared and the book it typeset.
First and then second typeset pages are read, checked and approved. All the while work is progressing on the cover design; specs are given to the printer; book proofs are produced for the marketing and publicity departments.
A final cover, including the back cover blurb, is approved by everyone: the publisher, the publishing director, the author, and sales and marketing colleagues.
The final typeset pages are checked and the cover and text files are sent to the printer.
This is a very sweeping overview of a process that takes a long time and much thought at every step. It’s important to note that the author should always be involved in the production of their book. If you are an author, ask questions along the way, and remember that everyone is in this together. Every single person in the publishing company wants your book to be a success and will do whatever they can to make that happen.
Can you discuss what some of the main problems you need to solve when editing a book?
Again it is important to point out that every manuscript is different and comes with its own delights and challenges.
Authors need to remember that they are writing for an audience. With that in mind, they should check that they are giving their readers all the information they need. For example, is something that is clear in their heads not so clear in their text? An editor is a reader who has the benefit of being able to ask, ‘What do you mean here?’ ‘I can’t quite follow this.’ ‘Do you want to expand on this?’ We can help the author to give the readers all the necessary information.
Some writers fall in love with their topic and write much more than their readers want or need. Then the editor has to offer suggestions about ways to cut, trim or condense.
Often it is a case of the author being too close to the subject or idea they are writing about and they need the editor to come in and ask ‘Why?’ ‘Where?’ ‘When’ ‘Who?’ and a million other big or small questions to draw out the storyline or the discussion.
How is fiction and non-fiction different or are the issues the same?
There are many similarities. In fiction, though, it is essential to respect the author’s voice and the tone of their writing. That might be its primary appeal for the readers and you don’t want to change it in the editing.
Many non-fiction books are written by experts or someone with an original idea but they are not writers. Then the editor might have to work more heavily on the text, even writing it with or for the author sometimes.
With fiction and non-fiction, the writing should be engaging and appropriate for its audience. And the author should know exactly why they are writing and what message they want to convey.
Can you please list some advice for new writers you’d suggest before they send their book off to a publisher/agent/editor?
Take your time. If an agent or publisher agrees to read your work you will usually only have one opportunity to submit it to them, so make sure the manuscript is as polished and outstanding as it can possibly be. Okay or good is not enough. It is better to take time and work on another draft than send off work that is not ‘fully cooked’.
Send it to the right publisher and check their website for submission details. Don’t send a cookbook to a publisher that never publishes cookbooks, just because your love their fiction list. This sounds far fetched but is has happened. Do you research by looking in bookshops, talking to booksellers and to other writers. Then, when you have decided which company you want to approach check the submission guidelines on their website to see: 1. Are they accepting unsolicited manuscripts? 2. If so, what exactly to they want you to send? Follow their requirements to the letter.
Be patient. Publishers and agents usually take a long time to read and make decisions about manuscripts. Some take much longer than I think they should, but that is the reality for better or worse. So, go into the process knowing that you shouldn’t expect anything to happen quickly (read ‘expect it to happen very, very slowly’). Then you will be pleasantly surprised if you do receive a quick response.
Should authors always start with trying agents?
Not in Australia. Authors in the UK and US must have an agent to represent them but that isn’t the case here. There are more publishers than agents in Australia so it can be easier to find a publisher than an agent. Publishers want to publish books! So they are always on the lookout for original stories and original voices, and many companies run writing prizes and fellowships so they can find new writers and work with them directly. Join your state writers’ centre and their newsletters should announce all the writing prizes and fellowships being offered throughout the year, which you can enter.
Is there a checklist of key elements that writers should go through to improve their manuscript?
This is the most general list because, to say it one more time – every manuscript is different (or it should be). Some tips for when you have finished a draft:
- Print out a hardcopy and read it right through. You might be amazed at how your perception of even your own writing changes when you are reading it on paper instead of on screen.
- If something sounds clunky or unclear, reading it out loud might help you work out what is wrong and how to rewrite it.
- If it is fiction, are the characters and the world you have created believable? You might have written a fantasy novel and created your own world, but you still need to make sure that everything is credible in the context of that world.
- If it is non-fiction, are you meeting the goals you gave yourself before you started to write? That is, if you wanted to show your readers a different way to look at something, do you think you have achieved it?
You co-founded the QWF/Hachette Manuscript Development Program. How can you tell if the writing is strong when you start reading a manuscript? What is great writing to you?
I did, with the wonderful Kate Eltham.
You can tell a lot from the first chapter – what the tone is like; whether you are connecting with the characters and/or the subject matter. Is the writing drawing you in because it is original, or do you feel that you have read it before? To be fair to the writer, if the first chapter doesn’t grab me I still try to read about 50 pages. That is usually enough to know whether or not I want to keep reading. As a publisher I read for the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the connection with the potential reader; I don’t let my personal taste dictate what I think of the writing.
In my opinion, great writing is original. The themes might be shared by other writers, but the author is exploring them in unique ways. I need to feel a connection with the work – with the characters, and/or the setting, and/or the themes.
Reading for pleasure I want sentences that are perfect; that the author has carefully constructed but read as if they have slipped effortlessly into the text. I want to read lines that show the author’s delight in the language, without ever seeming pretentious.
Also, I want the writing or the ideas in it to give me a new way to look at some aspect of the world.
What genres do you prefer reading?
Nearly all. I can’t read violent books, or books that are degrading to women in any way. I tend to choose a book by the quality of its writing, storytelling and subject matter rather than making a choice by genre.
Are there particular genres where the narrative is more important than style?
The expected answer might be that the commercial genres need strong stories and characters perhaps more than style. However, I think commercial genres, such as romance, crime and fantasy, should be well written, and literary books can’t only rely on style. They also need three-dimensional characters and a compelling story. Answering these questions has reminded me that I expect a lot from the books I read – strong original stories and exquisite writing!
How do writers make a living from their work?
I am always impressed with the many professional women who are members of RWA (Romance Writers of Australia) and support themselves and their families with their writing. It is their passion but they also treat it as their business. Many of these women each write one or two novels a year, which are published by traditional publishers, and novellas throughout the year that they publish independently; they build their readership via social media; and they are aware of their market, what it wants now and in the future. This is the way to make a living from writing.
Do you think there’s a future in self-publishing?
Absolutely, although I prefer to call it independent publishing. I am excited by the possibilities this model of publishing offers writers and readers. Two things to remember though: 1. A book published by the author still needs to be edited, proofread and designed professionally. 2. Work out how you are going to distribute and sell it before you plunge into the book’s production and start to spend money on it. These points apply equally to printed and ebooks.
Who are your favourite writers and what have you learned from them?
Di Morrissey and William McInnes, who I mentioned above, have taught me the importance of telling stories about regular people, who are always extraordinary.
Ursula le Guin’s wizards guided me through those odd years from age 10 to 12.
Zadie Smith gives me new ways to look at the world.
William Trevor crafted the most beautiful sentences.
Sarah Winman, Rumer Godden, Ruth Park, Katherine Scholes, Jane Austen, Judith Wright – so many authors have given me so much from their books.