There is no better day in an author's working life than when you sign that rather large document stating that within a few months your first book will be published. All that hard work, enjoyable though it was, spread over hundreds of hours, becomes the past, and the future, once so abstract, suddenly tightens to the size of a pin hole on the horizon - a very clear, bright shiny pin hole that draws almost all of your attention: publication day!
I, like many, hadn't actually considered what happened between signing a publishing contract and the book hitting the shelves. Thankfully, my first experience was in the hands of the good folks of Accent Press, who guided me through all the intricacies of transforming my manuscript into a proper, readable and enjoyable novel.
Central to that process was the Managing Director of Accent, Hazel Cushion. She was kind enough to take time out to answer a few questions about publishing, including a number kindly put forward by Creative Writing MA students from Queen's University in Belfast.
I do hope the answers help them as they set out to conquer the publishing world in a few short months!
What was the process like to start your own publisher?
Hazel: I started Accent Press in 2003 having completed an MA in Creative Writing. As part of the course we learnt how to put a book together and I was hooked! At the time I was a single mother to seven year-old triplets so I was looking for a business that I could work around them.
The internet and developments in desktop publishing software made it viable to set-up a publishing company in a very small way. I had previously worked in charity and loved short stories so started with an anthology that raised money for a breast cancer charity. I managed to get big names like Katie Fforde and Carole Matthews to donate stories and so sold it into WH Smith’s top 300 stores – that’s how Accent was born!
The company rapidly grew and we expanded into mainstream fiction. We were very early adopters of eBooks and this was of great benefit to the business as the costs are low but enable you to reach an international audience. Marketing through social media also enabled us to develop sales in emerging territories – no longer were the major retailers the gatekeepers. We could bypass them and engage directly with our readers.
What do you look for in a manuscript?
I have the attention span of a teabag so look for books that hook the reader in quickly and engage them in a series of books. We have always concentrated on series rather than standalone books as the marketing costs can get spread across the titles. Top tip for new authors – write a series of at least three books as these are more commercially attractive to publishers.
Does the role of MD edge more towards the business side of the business?
Yes, I tend to be involved in managing the business side of Accent and the editors tend to commission titles and engage directly with the authors. Having said that we are a small team and all have our say on the cover design and marketing plans for titles.
When is cover art decided upon?
The cover is usually commissioned at the same time as the author is signed as we need it for our advance marketing. Having said that the cover may change once the editor is more familiar with the content and genre of the book.
Authors are always asked to provide cover ideas and we like to work with them on covers although contractually, we have the final say. Often authors do not have a full understanding of the current commercial market and so are not always the best people to influence the cover design. The designer will usually work up three cover concepts which are shown to our sales team. They will often get feedback from the retail buyers. It can be a very long process and even when published, we will refresh and update covers.
Is the title decided upon by the author or the publisher?
Both usually but ultimately, the publisher.
Would a publisher prefer to work with an agented author?
We prefer to work with unagented authors as we like discovering our own new talent. We often sign authors who have successfully self-published such as Jodi Taylor – she already had 400 five star reviews for her first book, Just One Damned Thing After Another when we signed her. We do of course, work with agented authors too but publishing has evolved so much in recent years that I think their role is now quite compromised.
What is the role of an editor? Is there a difference between a commissioning editor and a copy editor?
A Commissioning Editor signs up authors, they may also do the structural edit. This is all aspects of the plot and structure of a book – pacing, dialogue etc. The copy editor will look at the sentence construction, grammar etc – these days the copy and structural edits are often combined. The proof-reader will then check the facts, grammar, typos etc.
How long does an editor take to go through a book?
The publishing process always works best when we work as team because ultimately we have the same goal – to sell lots of books! An author can learn a great deal from working with a good editor and it should be a good relationship built on respect and understanding. No author would be happy to have their book slashed and burned by an editor but that shouldn’t happen anyway. The editor wouldn’t have commissioned the book if they felt major rewrites would be required. Usually the authors are happy to make the suggested changes but if not, a compromise can be reached.
What are the main things that publishers consider when determining if they will publish a book?
Is it a commercial proposition – is there a market for it right now? Is it a series – or has the potential to be? What is the audience and the competition? What rights are available – publishers offset their investment by selling translation, large print, audio rights. If these aren’t available and it is only for a limited territory it becomes a more challenging acquisition. The market changes quite rapidly so is it a genre that is popular and still likely to be in a year or two’s time? What length is the book – thin books don’t sell and fat ones are expensive to produce. What is the author like – do they seem like someone we’d enjoy working with?
How much control does the marketing/promotional team have over the product?
Again – teamwork works best. I have learnt not to publish shy authors as we need their support with social media marketing etc. We welcome authors' ideas for marketing but also have to manage their expectations. There simply isn’t the budget for Underground posters or London bus campaigns!
Do publishers mostly look for something that hasn’t been done before, something really original?
Something very original can be a real challenge to market so most publishers like to play quite safe. You will notice that many cover designs are very similar because they want the reader to feel comfortable and engage with the book from all the visual clues. If it looks similar to a book they have already enjoyed they are far more likely to buy it.
There is a great deal of luck involved but the savvy author learns about the current market and pitches their book accordingly. Proving a track record of sales and reviews through self-publishing is also a good strategy these days.
How do book fairs work?
They are international forums for selling rights. The two main ones are the London Book Fair and Frankfurt. Publishers gather from across the globe and they are a very intense three days. These days they often have very good events and seminars for authors too. They are not a good time to pitch your book to publishers though – this is a rookie mistake that many authors make!
How do you feel about eBooks? Has the resurgence of paperbacks surprised you?
eBooks offer a great opportunity and are very cost effective. Authors earn higher royalties on eBook sales as the publisher doesn’t have the same costs and risks in producing them. They are an ideal way of breaking into new markets and developing a global readership. Audio books are similar – there is a massive surge in people listening to books. I am also delighted to see the resurgence in print sales – they are all great ways of enjoying books.
What is the most difficult thing about being the director of a publishing house? What is the best thing?
The most difficult thing is trying to make the numbers work. Retailers demand ever higher discount, print and paper prices continue to rise, as do wages and rents, but the price of your average paperback has remained at £7.99 for over 14 years.
The best thing is making peoples’ dreams come true – helping an author launch their career and seeing their work in print for the first time.
Does a publisher have its own printing press? Or is it an outside company that does that work?
No, all printing is done by external printers. We get everything ready as print-ready PDF’s and they then take over the process from there.
How does someone get a job in publishing?
The Bookseller has a vacancy column and the IPG has a jobs area too. Writing and offering to do work experience is usually a good entry into the business – be wary of taking unpaid internships though!
Ruadh: Many thanks to Hazel for taking part in this illuminating look into the world of publishing, and also to everyone who sent in a question from the MA class!
Visit ACCENT PRESS
Buy SWORDLAND by Ruadh Butler
Buy LORD OF THE SEA CASTLE by Ruadh Butler
Find RUADH on Facebook
Find RUADH on Twitter
Check out Creative Writing opportunities at the SEAMUS HEANEY CENTRE at QUB