Interview With A Commissioning Editor
"I want to find something that connects with me in some way, whether that’s a character trait, a worst fear, a compelling crime case, a psychological slant that makes me think or something that is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I want authenticity more than anything. Something original that compels me to read on, that grabs me by the hand and pulls me in."
In Part 3 of our series we meet Lauren Parsons, commissioning editor of UK publisher Legend Press (part of Legend Times Group). Lauren shares her insightful thoughts on the western publishing industry and gives some great tips for new authors.
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 3
How did you become a commissioning editor for Legend Press?
I first started at Legend Press as a part time sales rep. The publishing industry is notoriously difficult to get into so I grabbed the role with both hands!
We then received Arts Council funding to run two initiatives: Exclusively Independent, a project focussed on building relationships between independent publishers and independent bookstores, and ReadGeneration, a project to promote reading in the ‘reading gap’, those aged between 18-26.
I always had my heart set on editorial and slowly, but gradually, I was able to take on more and more editorial work from Tom, the MD of Legend Press. Back then there were only three of us in the company, and now, Legend Press is one of five companies within the Legend Times Group – Legend Press (fiction publisher), Paperbooks (non-fiction), Legend Business (business books), Write-Connections (online writers site) and New Generation Publishing (print on demand company). It’s been fantastic to witness the company’s growth and build a wonderful list of talented writers.
What are you looking for in a novel?
As I’m sure any Editor would say, I’m looking for a book that stays with me long after I’ve finished reading. I want to find something that connects with me in some way, whether that’s a character trait, a worst fear, a compelling crime case, a psychological slant that makes me think or something that is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I want authenticity more than anything. Something original that compels me to read on, that grabs me by the hand and pulls me in.
I want to spend those few minutes, hours, weeks or however long I have to read, to be totally consumed by another world.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E.B White
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I’d definitely transform into my mum’s cat, Jasmine. She’s totally pandered to!
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Suncream and Aftersun…
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Particular, strong-willed and enthusiastic.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
I read such a variety of authors it’s really difficult to narrow it down to one. I’d probably go with books that sparked my love of literature. That would then be of course E.B White and Roald Dahl.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Legend Press has published books by authors from all different ethnicities – Chinese, Sri Lankan and Nigerian. Yet, many Asian authors are still struggling to get published by western publishing houses. Do you think the publishing industry is overly cautious when it comes to novels by ethnic minorities?
The industry is most definitely cautious when it comes to publishing ethnic minorities. It seems to be the case that if a publisher has one Chinese author, or one Nigerian author, then they don’t need any more.
The UK market is very conservative. Publishers find something that works, and then ride it until the wheels fall off. It’s dangerous to take risks, so they stick with a winning formula. The result is a lot of formulaic fiction, a lot of similar looking books and similar, predictable plot lines. While I understand there is a need to make money, we shouldn’t shy away from a challenge.
For us, it’s all about quality. If something deserves to be published, then we’ll find a way of making it happen.
How many submissions do you receive in an average week and do you really read every submission?
Legend Press receives three types of submissions: unsolicited, agented and foreign.
I’d say on average, we receive 3-5 unsolicited submissions a day. Agented submissions are ongoing and foreign submissions tend to fluctuate around the Book Fairs. We certainly do read every submission – a lot of my time is taken up with reading!
We tend to publish about 2 books a year from the so called ‘slush pile’. While it’s difficult to handle the sheer volume of submissions, we have found hidden gems in there that, for one reason or another, haven’t managed to secure an agent or publishing deal. We’ve had great success with unsolicited books and there’s a feeling of satisfaction when you find something hidden, and watch it go on to be reviewed well and sold into numerous territories.
To us, it doesn’t matter if the author has an agent. What matters to us is the book. Whether the author is passionate about their work, committed to it and something that our lists could benefit from.
How much input do you give your authors?
It entirely depends on the book.
We work very closely with our authors and I believe it’s that close working relationship that can greatly benefit a book. At the end of the editorial process, we want a book that everyone is completely happy with so that it has the best possible chance when it’s published and out there in the real world. If you’re convinced about something, and passionate about it, I believe that passion in contagious and the reader will pick up on it.
Sometimes manuscripts come in and they are very polished. Other times there are areas that do need work. Ultimately, there has to be something about the book that makes it worth the investment. Spelling and grammar are of course editable, but the very core of the book, the heart of it, this needs to be standing out above the rest. Then together with the author, we can shape it to become true to its word and at the same time sellable.
It would be great if you could share with us the average time frame it takes from when you receive the novel to when it hits the stores.
As a small independent press, we can react very quickly to current trends or previous successes. We prefer not to sign our lists up 2-3 years in advance because this may impact on how fresh and topical the books are.
I would say, on average, it takes a year from when the book is first signed up to publication. This is working at a swift pace, with editorial, publicity and sales working very closely to ensure the various campaigns and promotions can tie in with the book’s progress.
Do you think it is important for authors to write stories taken from their own experiences and what they know?
As I’ve mentioned, authenticity is one of the most important elements of a book. Readers will be able to spot a fake. Whether you’re writing about the criminal justice system, family issues or mental illness, there needs to be that level of detail so that when a reader is reading your novel, and can relate to an element of the plot, they feel as though you truly understand what it is you’re talking about.
If you cannot take stories from your own life, then the research needs to be thorough. I’ve read brilliant novels in the past from authors who have never experienced the topics first-hand, but that just means that they researched every possible angle so that the reader can trust the narrator. For example, if your book is set in Thailand then it’s not just about what we assume Thailand to be like, it’s the flavour of the country, the food, people, culture, heat, smells and everyday life that will immerse the reader, and leave them in no doubt of what Thailand is really like.
Give us some examples of the worst submissions you have received.
Well I couldn’t really say what the submissions were themselves, but we’ve certainly had some bizarre pitches in the past. Everything from authors coming into the office to personally pitch, to food packages and bundles of manuscripts given to us at book events.
Now, give us some examples of the best submissions you have received.
Of course I am biased, but the best submissions we have received, we have published.
It’s best when the books speak for themselves. No gimmicks, no shock factors and certainly no bombardments! If your book is suited to our diverse list, is of high quality and from a passionate author, it’s more about whether we are the right publisher for the book, rather than the book being the right title for us.
What is the next step on your literary staircase?
I’m currently working on the 2015 list, finalising covers and getting ahead on edits. We have a few exciting titles in the pipeline for the non-fiction side including the second title in Matthew Small’s ‘Notes From’ series. We have two long awaited titles released next year from our bestselling author, Ruth Dugdall, so I’m really excited to be working with Ruth again, and sharing her character Cate Austin’s new case. We also have a few debut titles scheduled for next year including Chelsea Fisher’s ‘When We Were Alive’ and Rosie Millard’s ‘The Square’ – two totally different books but both told with originality and imagination.
With Frankfurt Book Fair just past, we are keen to read more translated fiction, and seeing how we can incorporate that into our lists to add another dimension to the wide variety of titles we publish each year.BW