Speaker Meeting – January 2008, Editorial Trends

Posted on March 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

The Bearded Tit, that ‘Gut Feeling’ and the Dangerous Lure of Richard and Judy:  Society of Young Publishers Consider the Reality of Publishing in 2008

Sarah Jones reports from the first Speaker Meeting of 2008

Barlow, Schlingmann, Shelley 

SYP members and committee congregated at Foyle’s on Wednesday 27th February to listen to the first talk of an exciting line up of Speaker Meetings for 2008. ‘Publishing Trends: Editorial Forecasting’ was organised by newly appointed Speaker Meeting Representative, Ragna Heidweiller and given by Daniela Schlingmann of Daniela Schlingmann Literary Scouting, Ken Barlow of Ebury Press and David Shelley of Little, Brown’s Sphere imprint. After the usual pre-talk catch ups, a revitalising glass of vino and a charasmatic introduction from Ragna, members settled down to hear from the experts what skills will be required for editorial forecasting at the dawn of 2008.

Shelley tells an anecdote

Schlingmann pinned down what she called the ‘matchmaking’ process of finding, for a particular publisher, a suitable foreign title to purchase for translation. She said: “Finding the right book project is one that requires sharpened skills of perception and awareness that each country has a unique market.” A lot of the decision-making process was guided by what Schlingmann referred to as trusting that ‘gut feeling’. Schlingmann stated: “The ‘gut feeling’ is not something that can be actively learnt, but something a good publisher will develop over time.” Schlingmann also commented on the aggressively competitive relationships that are perceived to exist between fellow literary scouts. She stressed that in the UK this is not the case and literary scouts live in relative harmony. She added, “Only at London Book Fair does the atmosphere get a little more heated!”

Whilst Barlow and Shelley look on intently, did Schlingmann fail to spot something in the corner of the room?

Barlow, who works on non-illustrated non-fiction, stated that a lot of what goes into book publishing is about making snap decisions. He said: “The most important thing is finding a product which stands out. Being objective is important. Being realistic about what is going to sell is essential”. Barlow described how publishing is primarily to do with prioritising: “Identifying and understanding previous successes and failures will help this process”. Barlow elaborated on Schlingmann’s point that each country has its own market: “Some books do not travel well. They might have been a massive success in the US, but not all American books do well in the UK – different cultural values and different ideas about humour. For instance not every country is going to go nuts for The Bearded Tit!” Barlow recommended that above all a good publisher should be proactive and think ahead of their competitors, adding that “It is acceptable to follow external trends, but taking a new spin on it will give your concept more resonance.”

Shelley highlighted that intuition was the key to assessing the potential for a new book. He said: “You can tell when a book is a good idea when you can visualise it as a product. You should be able to see the cover and the blurb in your mind’s eye and imagine the sort of marketing campaign you would use”. He pointed out that the book trade responds to a confident arrival and remarked that self-belief is fundamental. Shelley disputed the current editorial trend for commissioning titles with pound signs and ‘Richard and Judy’s Book Club’ in mind: “The Richard and Judy effect has had a compulsive effect on publishers like Orion who dangerously spent their budget pushing Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale based on the conviction it would be chosen for ‘Richard and Judy’s Book Club’ only for it to fail.” Shelley claimed to be a firm advocate in publishing a book for traditional reasons: “Publish a book because it is brilliant!” He also stressed that above all one must keep as sense of proportion: “Failure is part of the game. You have to get back in the saddle and try again.” Lastly Shelley stated that the key to success is to keep a good business head and contests the common misconception that an editor’s job is solely about creativity. He said: “You need more than a love of stories and language. Commercial awareness is mandatory. You must nurture the ability to match figures to your ideas.”

The Society of Young Publishers looks forward to a range of talks from publishing experts over the forthcoming months. After an influx of surprise offerings from the likes of Madonna and Katie Price, the topic for March will be ‘Children’s publishing: The age of the celebrity author?’

Sarah Jones is studying MA Publishing at University College London