A first in the series of Publishing Uncovered interviews. Our first interview is with Kirsten Armstrong, a former editor at Penguin Random House
Kirsten worked as an editor for 7 years, including at David Fickling Books and Penguin Random House. After editing hundreds of children’s fiction books, she now works as Creative Manager at Unicef where her job is to bring real children’s stories to life.
A year ago you were an editor at Penguin Random House: tell me about some of the authors you worked with’?
Kirsten: I edited many fantastic authors, ranging from established bestsellers to debut writers. I was incredibly privileged to work with the late great Sir Terry Pratchett on his later children’s publishing, including Dodger, Dragons at Crumbling Castle, The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and The Shepherd’s Crown.
I also edited Andy McNab’s action-packed books for young adults, featuring battles, blood and bullets; I worked with Jamila Gavin on a beautiful fairytale collection; I even found myself working on abridging Bradley Wiggins’s autobiography for children.
How many submissions did you get a week? How many could you actually read?
Kirsten: Our editorial team would get anywhere between 10–30 submissions a week, depending on the time of year and whether a book fair was taking place. At any given time, I’d have around 8 submissions queued on my Kindle. I would try to read at least the first three chapters.
I prioritised ‘buzz books’ that I knew might get snapped up quickly. As an editor you build relationships with individual agents, so they have a good idea of your personal literary tastes and what you are looking to commission. So submissions from certain agents would get bumped to the top of my reading pile, as I knew the material they sent would be more relevant to me.
Editors turn down manuscripts they love, right? Do you remember you doing that? Why did you turn it down?
Kirsten: Sadly I’ve had to turn down a number of books that I thought were brilliant. A lot of it depends on your acquiring remit and the focus of your publishing house.
I once fought hard to acquire a book that I loved — a very brave, literary YA that I felt was incredibly powerful. But to secure in-house support I needed to be able to edit the manuscript to make it more commercial, and we would have needed the opportunity to buy certain rights in order to make the P&L sheet look healthy enough to get signed off.
Ultimately we were unable to offer for the rights we wanted, and so the business case just wasn’t strong enough. Also, after exploring potential edits with the author, it became apparent that they felt strongly about changing certain parts of their story.
While their reasons were completely understandable, I felt that the changes suggested would have enabled the book to reach a bigger audience. I still think that the submission had incredible potential — I remember it vividly many years later — but as a result of these factors I had to turn it down.
It’s easy to romanticise the publishing industry — after all, there is certainly more than a pinch of magic to be found in the incredible story or first finished copy that has just landed on your desk.
But publishing is fundamentally a business, and for the industry to survive it needs to make money. So even if a submission was really strong, I needed to ask other questions: what would be a realistic sales level, based on the market? Is there a knock-out USP or story hook that would help the publicity team create a splash around the book? What level of advance would we need to pay to secure the rights we wanted? How are similar books performing in the market?
Are there colleagues who share my passion for this project, who would help me champion the book internally? Based on all this, what financial margin do I think this book could make? And am I so convinced of this book’s potential for success that I would invest all my own money in it?
There are always exceptions to the rules, and editorial passion can go far to galvanise a sales team. But as the industry faces increasing pressures, business considerations come to the fore.
Would you recommend that authors submit directly to publishing houses or to agents? Why?
Kirsten: Always submit to agents. They will leverage their networks to give your manuscript the greatest possible opportunity. The best agents will also provide early-stage editorial feedback, so your manuscript is in the best state possible when it’s sent out to editors.
Becoming a published author is a lonely and sometimes challenging experience, and so agents can be an invaluable source of moral support — as well as using their expertise to negotiate the best deal for you when it comes to advances and royalties.
What advice would you give an author who is getting rejected from publishing houses and/ or agents
Stay positive. As I said earlier, there could be all sorts of factors at play, and it isn’t necessarily a reflection on your writing ability and talent.
Listen to the feedback you are receiving, and if you are consistently hearing the same comments then try to take them on board. However, if you fundamentally don’t want to change your manuscript, or if you have exhausted all your contacts, it may well be worth exploring self-publishing.
I think a lot of it depends on your motivation for writing. If you simply want to share your ideas with readers, go for it and self-publish. If you want to become rich from writing then stop right there! Regardless of how you become published, the reality is that very few authors make a lot of money from it. Most have part-time or even full-time jobs alongside their writing. Write because you are passionate about it, and have ideas you want to share.
Do publishing houses always get it right, with what they accept?
Kirsten: No! There’s always a risk in accepting any manuscript. Even with vigorous interrogation, there are some books that end up losing the company lots of money — and others that got away and went on to perform brilliantly elsewhere.
What would you say to writers who have been rejected but are still keen to be published by a traditional publishing house?
Kirsten: Read widely and get to grips with the market. Build a social media following — having a good Twitter network can help to reassure an editor that you will be proactive in promoting your book but don’t prioritise it.
And develop a thick skin — if your manuscript is acquired by a publisher, it must go from being a purely personal work to a creative collaboration.
Even the strongest manuscript will be subject to some editorial changes. An editor is there to preempt any negative comments that a reader might have, and to give your book the best chance of getting stocked in bookshops and into the hands of readers.
You may not always agree with their suggestions, but remember they are on your side and want the book to be a success just as much as you do.