Publishing Interviews: The Publicist


This is the last in my series of publishing interviews. I’ve discovered so many things about how this world works including answers from a publishing director, to an art director to a literary agent, and many roles in between. And of course there are a lot more people who help get a book written, published and on the shelves that I haven’t managed to talk to: booksellers, writing course teachers, sales reps, editorial assistants, and many more. But I need to take a break because I have lots of Swimming Lessons events coming up; if there are any roles in particular you would like me to interview, just drop me a line, or comment below, and I’ll store up the suggestions for later in the year.

Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Copy-editor


I’m a little nervous about today’s publishing interview; what if there are any mistakes? An unwanted comma, a typo? This interview is with my copy-editor, Caroline Pretty. Penguin and other publishers use her to check manuscripts before they go to print, and I asked her a few questions about exactly how that works.


Claire: How would you describe the role of a copy-editor?

Caroline: Once a manuscript’s been typeset, it’s expensive for publishers to correct mistakes, so the main focus of my job is a close reading of the manuscript before it gets typeset. I’m editing primarily for sense and consistency. Sense is about making sure the author has conveyed what they intend, without repetition or ambiguity (unless this is deliberate). Consistency involves checking spellings and punctuation, following a publisher’s house style or an author’s preferred style; in fiction, it also includes checking plots for any holes, making sure the action can realistically take place in the time the author has outlined, and character details such as names, ages and eye colour. There’s often a lot of fact-checking too, and I also mark up the typescript for the typesetter – coding headings and different design features. So it’s very much a technical process as well as a creative one.

Claire: What’s your copy-editing process from when you receive a book from a publisher, and do you work on paper or onscreen? Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: Head of Sales


This week I’ve been asking questions of Samantha Fanaken, Head of Sales at Penguin General. Penguin General is a publishing division of Penguin Random House, dealing with the imprints Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Ireland, Penguin Life, Portfolio and Viking. Read on to find out how many meetings Samantha has to cram into a day, and whether she reads all the books.


Claire: It seems to me that Head of Sales in a publishing house sits right in the middle of things: talking to editors, marketing and booksellers. Is that how you see it? Can you give a job description of your role? Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Translator


I’m lucky enough to have had my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, translated into eight languages, with a few more on the way. Swimming Lessons, my second novel, has so far only been translated into German for the publisher, Piper, by Susanne Hoebel, and she has agreed to answer my questions about what it’s like to be a translator of fiction.


Claire: Hello Susanne. How did you come to be a translator of fiction?

Susanne: It′s what I always wanted to be. (Short of becoming a writer, of course.) French was my first choice, and I remember when still at school trying to translate the opening sentence of L′Etranger by Albert Camus and getting stuck immediately.

Claire: This may be a naïve question, but you only translate from English into German and not the other way around. Why not?

Susanne: This was a hard truth for me to learn: Translators of fiction only translate into their mother tongue. (Translators of technical or legal texts or conference interpreters go both ways, they also  often have more than one foreign language). It turned out alright for me because as a student of English literature I was interested in translating works of English language fiction.  But it meant I couldn′t continue living in England as intended while trying to establish myself with publishers and trying to find translation work.

Claire: When you’ve been given a book to translate by a publisher, what’s your process, and how long does it generally take?

Susanne: Publishers have quite a rigid timetable and assign a translation with a deadline. Usually I have four to five months for a project, and usually that is sufficient.

The process is quite mundane. I start at the beginning and translate every sentence and continue until I have reached the end. I don’t read the book beforehand, as I will be reading it four times at least before I am done with it. I do a first translation that gives me a good idea of what the book is about and what difficulties and tricky aspects there are. I then revise it bearing everything I have learnt about the book in
mind. Choice of vocabulary, tone, register, etc. Quotations, repetitions, place names.
I use real dictionaries, but most other research for which I used to have an encyclopaedia and go to the library, I now do on the internet, although I have books about plants, a technical dictionary, a pictorial dictionary in both English and German and various other reference books which I love. To get a better feel of a word I often use the ODE (a short version of the OED), and with an idea of what the German should be I use a German
thesaurus.Once the revision is done – which can take as long as the initial
translation – I read the whole text again.

The fourth reading comes later when I get the proofs. My last chance to
make changes, so I always take that stage very seriously.

Claire: What type of person do you think makes the best translator?

Susanne: Someone who loves books. Who loves language, both the language and culture of the original work and their own language. Who has the self-discipline to organise their working day and doesn′t get distracted easily. Who has perseverance and stamina. Who can sit down and write day after day (you don′t have to wait for inspiration, it′s all there on the page). Who is interested in details and niceties and never tires of caring for them. Who likes working in solitude and doesn′t miss the camaraderie of the office. Who doesn′t mind disappearing behind or in the original work. Also someone who doesn′t mind not earning a lot of money.

Claire: What is the hardest thing about translating from English into German? Have you come across anything that you would say was untranslatable?

Susanne: There is something untranslatable practically every day. I consider the art of translation as an approximation. Similar to communication, really. Take a word like “lunch″. There are many connotations, not one of which is conveyed if you translate it as ″Mittagessen″, which has a myriad of connotations of its own. Or consider the ambiguity of this sentence: “Flying planes can be dangerous.″ You need two sentences in German to render this. Okay, so you can translate both meanings, but the highly satisfying cleverness of the sentence structure is lost. Hence it is untranslatable.

Claire: What are you trying to achieve when you translate a book?

Susanne: I want the book to be as good a read in translation as it is in the original. Ideally I want the reader not to think of the fact that it is translation. (Most people don′t anyway.) I want the German to shine and be completely idiomatic. I don′t want the original to shimmer through.

Claire: You’ve translated over 80 novels, including books by Nadine Gordimer, John Updike, and William Faulkner. Which has been your favourite to work on?

Susanne: The Novel Light in August by William Faulkner is the highpoint of my life as a8764189 translator. Not only is it the most brilliant book I know, with the most compelling language creating incredibly powerful images and scenes and several storylines that are so cleverly intertwined that the reader is often unaware of being shunted backwards and forwards by the author. It is also the book that my partner Helmut Frielinghaus and I worked on together, and we gave it our complete attention and concentration and worked on every word and every sentence until we had the desired result. It was the most joyous and fulfilling time of both our professional lives. We both loved the book and the work on it.

But there are two – in terms of world literature far less significant – books that I loved to bits when I translated them, and these are Helene Hanff′s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Letter from New York. I was enthralled by Hanff′s loving and engaging look at England, her eagerness to explore everything about it, from leaky showers to Cream Tea at the Ritz, her enchantment with what she discovers. Perhaps this is so because it echoes my own 515qtv75ecl-_sx288_bo1204203200_enduring love affair with England.

Claire: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in becoming a translator?

Susanne: This is a question have been asked by young translators, and every time I have felt moved to say, ″Make yourself a sponge.″ Meaning, soak up everything you can about the culture, the literature and language of your chosen country. Never allow your curiosity to tire, learn as much as you can about it day after day. Read the dictionary. And the literature.

Of course they should also be proficient in their own language and broaden their outlook by reading voraciously in their target language.

Claire: And this is a bit of a cheeky question – were there any particular challenges in translating Swimming Lessons, or Eine englische Ehe?

Susanne: I loved Swimming Lessons from the start, although it has something decidedly weird about it. What fascinated me was the elliptical nature of dialogues and descriptions and the brevity and succinctness with which you render scenes and characters.produkt-13255 I liked the peculiarly hovering language that rarely tells the reader what anything is and leaves everything to conjecture and interpretation leading to different readings of the story.

Sometimes I feel it is sufficient to translate faithfully what is there on the page. At other times I feel I want to creep inside the text and translate form the inside out. The result may not be that different, but obviously with the second approach you employ more empathy, and I felt that it was the best approach for your book.

Claire: Finally can you tell us anything about yourself and your job that would surprise readers?

Susanne: I still love my work and feel lucky every morning when I sit down to work.

I am incredibly grateful when an editor rings up and offers me a new project.

I am glad I am not a writer (despite of what I said at the start, but that was when I was very young) and glad that somebody else has worked out the plot and the action and is in charge of the characters.

I sometimes feel I have stolen the author′s book, because there it is, his or her book, but they haven′t written a single word in it, nor do they understand what is written.

I love being a translator although I often have doubts that translation is really possible or even exists.


Read my interview with a reader in a literary agency
Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
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


Swimming Lessons

My second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in January 2017 in the UK, and Canada, and February 2017 in the USA. Click on the country links to pre-order.

Publishing Interviews: The Editor


Today’s interview is with Masie Cochran, Editor at Tin House Books, an independent publisher based in Portland, Oregon. As well as publishing books Tin House also publishes a renowned quarterly magazine and run summer and winter writing schools.


Claire: Hello Masie. Can you tell me a bit more about Tin House and the kinds of books that make it onto the company’s list?

Masie: I love working at Tin House. It’s a wonderful combination of a small house with a big reach. We publish about 18 titles a year, so each book gets a lot of detailed attention. All of the editors, everyone in publicity and marketing, and everyone in the art department reads every title. Pub day is a family affair. The collaboration Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Foreign Rights Agent


This week I’ve interviewed the lovely Juliet Mahony, Foreign Rights Agent at Lutyens and Rubinstein (L&R), a London-based literary agency. Juliet has handled the sales of both my books to non-UK publishers as well as the audio rights. Read on to find out how she does it and to discover something that might surprise you.


Claire: Hello Juliet. When I was starting out as a writer I had no idea that there was such a thing as a foreign rights agent, let alone what they did. Can you tell me about your role at L&R and what an average day is like for you?

Juliet: I oversee the L&R authors whose rights we handle, being published into foreign languages and also in subsidiary rights, like an audio edition for example. I work directly with publishers in The Netherlands and in Scandinavia but in most other territories I work Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Publishing Director


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.img_4309

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.

figtree-logoC: 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


 Swimming LessonsMy second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in January 2017 in the UK, and Canada, and February 2017 in the USA. Click on the country links to pre-order.

Publishing Interviews: The Literary Agent


This is the second piece in a new interview series with people from the publishing industry. I’ll be asking them exactly what their jobs entail, what they like about them, and what they don’t. I’ll be interviewing editors, designers, publicists, sales people and many others. This week I’ve been speaking with Jane Finigan, a literary agent, and Partner at Lutyens & Rubinstein. The agency is based in Notting Hill, in London and represents a broad range of authors and books including fiction, non-fiction, cookery, YA and children’s. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say Jane is my literary agent.


Claire: You’ve been with Lutyens and Rubinstein [L&R] since 2006, and recently you’ve been made a partner. Congratulations! What does your role involve; what’s an average day like for you?

Jane: My role involves working with authors at every stage of their career, from helping to develop and shape a first draft, to negotiating a publishing deal and holding their hand through the publication process and beyond. I’m always looking for new talent Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Agency Reader


This month I’m starting a new interview series with people from the publishing industry. I’ll be asking them exactly what their jobs entail, what they like about them, and what they don’t. I’ll be interviewing editors, agents, designers, publicists, sales people and many others. To kick off, today I’m posting an interview with Susannah Godman, the person who reads all the manuscript submissions received by Lutyens & Rubinstein, a literary agency based in London.


Claire: What exactly is it you do as a reader for a literary agency?
Susannah: I work at home so all our unsolicited submissions come into an email address.  I log them onto paper for my records (which I type up for the office grid), have a quick look, call anything promising in, highlight anything else that is promising to read first, reject anything completely unsuitable and then they get read and considered in turn.

C: Roughly how many submissions does Lutyens & Rubinstein [L&R] get in a month, say?
S: I’ve never counted them, but well over three hundred…

C: And then you call in the full manuscript from those you like? How many is that? How much of them do you read before you decide whether it’s a yes or a no? What percentage of them get through?
S: Whole manuscripts I’ve called in?  No more than ten a month probably.  I try and stop as soon as it is a no, sometimes carry on.  Oh, too tiny a percentage to measure I’m afraid.

C: It sounds like a perfect job: to be paid to read. How did you get to do this for a living?
S: I went to work at L&R nearly 20 years ago as office assistant (I was a Waterstone’s Bookseller in Charing Cross Road before that), when I was their only full time employee. With their help I worked my way up to being the Foreign Rights person, and eventually had a few clients of my own too.  All that time I also read the submissions pile, which was a proper tower of paper then, so am quite good at knowing what every agent at L&R would like.

C: What’s your average day like?
S: Sitting at a laptop in the dining room.  I’m part time self-employed now, so try not to spend all day on it, although I do more than my designated hours because I love it and sitting down is nicer than housework.

C: Most things are nicer than house work. Do you actually call the unsolicited manuscripts you get sent a slush pile?
S: I might do…

C: What kind of person do you think you need to be to be a reader?
S: I’m not sure I could read for anyone else, but am well attuned to what the agents at L&R would love.  Usually.

C: What about your own preferences for books you like to read? Do you try to quash them?
S: I don’t really need to.  I like all sorts of things.

C: Do you also see the covering letters and synopsis?
S: Yes, If they’ve sent them in. I try not to look at the synopsis until I’ve read the chapters, but a good letter does make one prick up one’s ears.

C: Interesting. What makes a good letter for you?
S: The sort that makes you quite want to meet its writer:  warmth, lack of bumptiousness, unforced humour if appropriate, about the writer as a person rather than a form letter (I don’t mean screes and screes: all this can come across in a couple of sentences).  Some letters are brilliant but then the book isn’t, which is always a huge disappointment and one just wants to say, gently, Just Be You.  Oh and DO find out who to address your submission to, if you can.

C: What do you love about what you do and what’s not so good?
S: I love reading, and there is such variety coming in, I love it when I find something wonderful and pass it on to the office, and I try to make my rejections bland but kind.  A cross rejectee once responded with ‘Lick my boots, bitch’ but that is mercifully rare, and she apologised a YEAR later, claiming to have been hacked…


The agency is in the basement of Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop in London

C: Hah! Sounds unlikely. What about the craziest submission you’ve received?
S: Oh, guided by the spirit of Lady Di, or the actual crazy stuff from people who clearly have mental health issues, which actually is the worst thing about this job because it does make one worry about them.

C: Are there things that put you off a manuscript?
S: Sometimes you can just tell the writer is a wrong’un (sexist, racist, that sort of thing).

C: Do you ever manage to read for pleasure now?
S: Of course, but not as much as when I lived in London and commuted for upwards of two hours a day.  I sort of miss that. Unhelpfully, I recently read an old book about donkeys called People With Long Ears by Robin Borwick, and Miss Mole by E.H Young, and A Big Storm Knocked it Over by Laurie Colwin.

C: Thanks so much Susannah. One final question –  what advice would you give to unpublished writers who are submitting their work?
S: Write a nice, human letter to the right person if you can.  Do multiple submissions rather than one at a time (the beauty of computers, no stamps).  Gently nudge if you’ve waited forever.

To submit a manuscript to Lutyens & Rubinstein, visit their website to find out exactly what they’re looking for and how they’d like to receive it.

Do let me know what you think about this interview and my plans for the series, in the comments below.


Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
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

Swimming Lessons

My second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in January 2017 in the UK, and Canada, and February 2017 in the USA. Click on the country links to pre-order.