Time for the third interview in my series where I talk to people from the publishing industry. I’ve already asked a reader in a literary agency, and a literary agent about their jobs, and in the coming weeks I’ll be speaking to editors, designers, publicists, sales people and many others. This week I’ve interviewed Juliet Annan, Publishing Director at Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin. (Juliet is my editor, and Fig Tree / Penguin publishes my books.)
Claire: Hello Juliet. When I tell people my books are published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin, they don’t always understand how that works. As Publishing Director at Fig Tree, can you explain what your role is and how Fig Tree works within Penguin?
Juliet: I started a small hardcover imprint at Penguin ten years ago. I publish fiction and non fiction – some memoir, history and art history, some weird off beat self-help, and a few cookery books each year. I choose, edit and look after all the books I publish, shaping them and chivvying them through design, marketing, publicity and sales: the joy of having a small imprint is that it allows a control freak like me to do everything, while being able to rely on the might of Penguin to get them out into the world. Some of the books I publish each year are Fig Tree hardbacks, some the Penguin paperback edition of the hardback I published in the previous year, some of them are original Penguins – i.e. only published in one paperback edition.
Claire: Can you give a flavour of a day in the working life of Juliet Annan?
Juliet: I cycle to work – this is really important as this is the half hour a day where I really think in an off-the-wall creative way. As soon as I am in the office I deal with tons of things: email, I write and edit jacket and catalogue copy, talk to writers and agents, talk to sales people, publicists and marketing people who are working on my books, try to buy some books (if there is anything I want to buy – rare!), and edit my books. We work open plan and it’s noisy, but I don’t find it difficult to concentrate. There are the minimum of meetings at Penguin – really cover art and acquisition meetings are the only weekly ones. But I may be meeting an author or an agent. The one thing I don’t do at work is read new material – you need to be lying down for that, I find, so it’s better at home.
C: Reading lying down is always good.
J: Sofa is best.
C: So, how did you get into this role?
J: I have been in publishing all my working life. I started as a book publicist in the UK in my early twenties and then moved to the USA, then moved back to England and into rights, then was invited to run a large imprint here at Penguin, before setting up Fig Tree ten years ago. But this is my dream job – I work with one other editor, so all my time is taken up not with managing upwards or downwards, but just picking, editing and publishing the books Fig Tree has.
C: And what part of all those things do you like the best? And why?
J: I like success! I get an incredible high when positive things happen: I love winning an auction; taking delivery of a non fiction book and finding it is BETTER than the outline on which I bought it; seeing my books take off and sell; seeing the writers I publish get sublime reviews or win prizes. All the little things that happen, building toward publication are exciting: arriving at a cover look everyone likes; getting a quote from a well-known author; persuading BBC Radio 4 to take a book for Book of The Week. Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is spotting new talent: reading a novel and falling in love with it, getting that buzz that yes, this book is different. But then you’ve still got to successfully buy it and see off the competition.
C: And what do you like the least about what you do?
J: All of the above in reverse. Plus: turning down the new book by a writer you already publish.
C: Can we talk about the editing part of your role? How much much hands-on editing do you do?
J: I do more editing than when I was a publisher of a large imprint. I love it, to get into the guts of a book is fascinating, and to talk to the writer and simply help them express themselves better, get across the heart of the book in a more succinct and eloquent way, is so rewarding. I didn’t read English at university which means I don’t come at editing in a lit-crit way (which I think is an advantage). After twenty years doing it, I am definitely a better editor than when I started, and I have more time to do it, too.
C: I know you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts from authors, only via literary agents. Can you tell me roughly how many you receive?
J: I can tell you exactly – 256 a year! We keep a log, and amazingly it was the same figure two years in a row in 2014 to 2015.
C: And how many of those do you read?
J: The editor I work with and I read all of those 256. Or at least a part of all 256. And then I make an offer for about 10. And we publish about ten hardbacks and ten paperbacks a year, and everything as an e book too.
C: What are you looking for when you read a manuscript?
J: To be surprised.
C: You mentioned earlier, that you publish non fiction too, such as cookery. Does the acquisition process work same way with these, or do you see a proposal first?
J: With almost all non fiction, whether cookery or any other area, we buy on proposal. But sometimes – and this is exciting – we have actual ideas for books, seek out potential writers, have discussions with them and then offer.
C: Once you read a novel or non fiction book that you’d like to make an offer on, what then? Unpublished authors are often told that editors have to convince the sales team in the publishing house that a particular manuscript is worth buying. How does it work at Fig Tree / Penguin?
J: All publishing jobs are about selling. While ultimately what we buy is an editorial decision, I much prefer to buy projects where I have got everyone on side. So I ‘sell’ a new project to all my colleagues: it’s good practice because it forces you to think about how you would sell a particular book not just to your colleagues but also to the consumer.
C: Can we go back to editing for a moment. Tell me about the actual editing you do with your authors? How does it work?
J: I read a physical print out of a manuscript (probably for the second time, if I have read it before acquisition) and make notes on the page. Then I make those changes as track changes and comments on Word at my computer: that gives me the opportunity to read the manuscript a third time, and refine and elaborate on my scribbles. I write what I call big notes separately – things that can’t be addressed on the page – bigger issues like character, or narrative arc, or plot detail (although I pick these up on the track changes too).
C: Can you give an example of when it works well, and when it doesn’t?
J: It works well when the writer is open to change and improvement. Most writers are. It doesn’t when the writer won’t make the changes you suggested, or works on it but doesn’t make enough or makes too many changes; or, an increasing problem in our industry, when there are several editors (US, Canadian and UK) all simultaneously making comments. I think that’s insane for the poor writer… but some writers (ahem, Claire) actually like that.
C: Well, I’m not sure I like the juggling of working with three editors at once, but I do love having my work edited, and then making those changes – or sometimes rejecting them.
C: And finally, what’s it like when a book you’ve bought and edited is published? Does it feel like your project?
J: If you love your writers and their books, (and I do) yes, totally!
C: Thanks so much for these fascinating answers, Juliet. I’m off now to lie on my sofa for a while…
I’d love to hear what you think of these publishing interviews. Is there any particular role you’d like to read about?
Read myinterview with a Reader in a literary agency
Read my interview with a Literary Agent
Read my interview with an Art Director at Tin House
Read my interview with a Foreign Rights Agent in a literary agency
Read my interview with an Editor at Tin House
Read my interview with a Translator