BLOG: LBF 19/BookMachine – The Art of Commissioning

In March and April I was lucky enough to attend a couple of talks on commissioning – one at LBF looking specifically on finding debut novelists, and another hosted by BookMachine Unplugged which talked about the intricacies of list-building and how you choose books which fit the identity of your imprint (click on the links for the live-tweeting I did at the events). The talk on debut novels was aimed primarily at writers, whilst the list-building panel was for publishing professionals, but the topics seemed so interlinked that I wanted to discuss them together. The speakers across both panels were from a range of publishers as well, traditional, specialist, non-fiction, and non-traditional were all represented which meant that there was a real range of experience and insight into getting your books published.

The traditional understanding of routes to publishing says that you need an agent to get your book into print, and thus pass through another round of gatekeeping even before it goes to a publisher, but it also means agents can find the right home for each book. Harvill Secker, a literary imprint at PRH, receives the majority of their work through agents, and so they have already been edited and a relationship has been built with the agent so they understand the list. The decision is then about the quality of the book and whether it fits with the other works they have published.

Agenting is not the only way to find work which is right for your list, however. Publishers who are actively seeking unique voices – such as Dialogue Books, Own It! and Jacaranda – need to look outside the box because the voices and stories they want to represent often don’t know how to get into publishing, or feel that it isn’t a place for them. The gatekeepers are perceived as barriers, and some authors take that as a message that they are not welcome. They Shall Not Pass. So Dialogue, Own It! and Jacaranda, whilst they do use agent submissions, are also proactive in looking elsewhere for writers, for people with unusual stories to tell.

Some digital-first publishers, such as Harper Impulse and Hera Books have perpetually open submissions without agents necessary, meaning that editors are able to look at submitted work and correspond directly with authors. This doesn’t mean that the process is any quicker, mind you – often these inboxes have several hundred submissions in them. Digital first publishing allows a slightly more dynamic approach than a traditional publisher, as the up-front costs are lower than in print publishing, and it allows the editors to test the waters of a book, as it were, to see if would do well in print or whether it is better remaining as an ebook. It also means that they can react to trends more quickly as the lead times on producing an ebook are a lot smaller than printing and binding (which is often done in China, so has to be planned months in advance, as books are then literally shipped, on a ship, to the UK).

Other publishers, such as White Lion, will sometimes have ideas or actively seek out writers to explore subjects which are have growing interest (in the same way my own home, Igloo Books, sources writers for books where they see market need), but occasionally they will be approached by authors or agents with a pitch for a book.

Farrago, an independent trade publisher who specialise in humour books, have open submissions and find a number of their authors through direct submissions, but they will also approach people who have not written books previously to open a discussion about writing. Having spoken with Abbie Headon, the editorial director for Farrago, this may be because there are so few specialist humour publishers, in a similar way Jacaranda, Own It and Dialogue are seeking voices from diverse backgrounds and with inclusive narratives who struggle to find homes elsewhere in UK publishing.

The one thing which became clear across all publishers was that there were a mix of factors which informed whether a story was commissioned – business factors, whether it fit the tone of the list, and whether or not the editor loved it. An editor’s enthusiasm for a book can help them to work on it, but they also have to convince other departments – sales, marketing and rights, to look at the feasibility of selling it. By the time a book has made it to the meeting with these departments, however, it has often been through discussions between other members of the editorial team to see if it works. If a book has got the whole team excited enough to bring to that meeting, it can be a good sign.

For editors and writers alike, it was fascinating to hear across both panels the variety of ways which editors find books. Aside from open submissions, agent submissions or direct submissions, editors are also seeking out writers through their other works and also through their twitters – the hashtags #amwriting and for the Pitch Frenzy and Pitch Wars events which allow writers to put forward pitches for their novels and agents and editors to contact them if they are interested in their work. Far from the perception that there is a single, funnelled path into publishing, there are ways to contact publishers directly but also for publishers to find writers and for writers to make themselves visible. As I advised in my post on querying, the most important thing is to get to know your publisher. What this post shows is that different publishers will use different methods to find their authors. Some only accept agented submissions, some will accept direct submissions and pitches, others will be actively scouring twitter hashtags to find new voices and novels, or contacting people who are prominent in their fields to see if perhaps they can work together. There is such a huge swathe of opportunity for authors to be seen and for rapports to be built.

I would like to give immense thanks to all the wonderful women who spoke across the panels, and to me afterwards: Sharmaine Lovegrove, Liz Foley, Crystal Morgan, Charlotte Ledger, Abbie Headon, Keshini Naidoo, Valerie Brandes, and Zara Anvari.

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