What does an editor do?
Before delving into what editors are looking for in new books – what is an editor, and what do they do?
An editor's role is very similar in a way to that of a project manager, as they oversee all parts of the book's life cycle. From reading the manuscript and commissioning an author, to identifying an audience and helping to decide the direction of a book cover, the editor is there for the whole process.
A common misconception about editors is that they are insular, when the reality is quite different. "My job actually involves talking to people a lot," says Transworld editorial director Andrea Henry, "Whether that's to colleagues, agents or authors... it's about trying to bring all the different strands together, so really good communication with other people is key."
They also don't spend all their time reading manuscripts with a red pen in hand, "If I'm lucky I'll find some time to read, but it's not always the easiest thing to do!" says publisher of Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, Simon Prosser. Joel Richardson, publisher for Michael Joseph adds, "People may think we're some kind of a glorified spellcheck function, but if my job was just looking for misplaced commas then it wouldn't be nearly as fun – and to be honest I'd be a bit rubbish at it!"
Instead, they concentrate on the book as a whole, problem solving, guiding the plot, sometimes adding or removing characters, and making the writing its very best. But they do all this alongside their writer: "It's a really collaborative process between the author and editor" says Joel.
And it all comes down to three things, says Simon, "How do we help this writer to write the very best work they can, and then to publish it in the very best way it is possible to publish it, in order to reach the widest possible number of readers?"
What are editors looking for in a new book?
Editors will look for different things in a book, depending on which category or genre it falls into. As a writer it's always worth having a sense of which genre your book could be considered as - although, of course, sometimes it's not always clear-cut, and many books will overlap several.
This article from one of our partners Spread the Word summarises the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction nicely (and how some pieces blur the lines between the two).
Joel is a Crime and Thriller publisher who can easily spot a great manuscript when keeping two themes at the forefront of his mind: "When I first read something I'm really looking for two things: the pitch and the pace. The pitch is what is going to make me start reading, and the pace is what keeps me hooked once I start reading - what's keeping me turning the pages?"
It's not always about the luxury of personally enjoying a manuscript though, as editors have to consider the whole publishing process and targets when reading a new book.
Andrea says you have to know there's an audience there, for it to be viable: "Sometimes I've read something and almost immediately wanted to talk to other people about it. But is there a market for this book beyond me being excited about it? Can we find an audience for it?"
"Plot and character and other aspects obviously matter hugely, but style - particularly if you are a literary publisher - is one of the first places you start." says Simon.
"For me, I'm always looking for something fresh, alive, witty, surprising. Surprise is a sure sign for me that somebody is doing something interesting on the page."
In literary fiction, there is slightly more room for publishing something that may have a smaller audience: "Occasionally we might make the decision to publish something purely on literary merit, but on the whole we're looking for books that will be profitable for us to allow us to keep going and invest in new writing."
Children's and Young Adult Fiction
Picture book editor Joe Marriott highlights how picture books aren't an 'easy' area for a writer, even though they might be much shorter and with fewer words: "Picture book texts are deceptively tricky to write – I’m looking for original texts and ideas that are funny, clever, surprising or heart-warming. Key elements to think about are a clever or thought-provoking scenario, memorable characters and a structure that allows every page, and word, to count."
Similar to children's book cover design, with children's publishing you have to remember that although the child is your core audience, so are the parents and relatives. Not only are they going to be the ones to purchase it, they'll also be reading it (and re-reading it, often again and again...). "It’s important not to lose sight of the adult reader, who needs to enjoy reading and re-reading the book to their child," says Joe.
"Most important is the child’s reaction – it’s key that they are engaged and entertained, but there should always be something that makes them think, and opens a conversation – however silly or serious."
The children's team publish books for babies all the way through to teenagers, so a young adult editor is looking for something very different. Carmen McCulough, commissioning editor highlights how immersive young adult writing should be: "I'm always looking for voice-led stories with distinctive characters that you feel invested in from the very first page. I also feel strongly that every child or young adult should be able to see themselves in a book, so I am particularly keen to publish diverse stories that reflect the world we live in."
"More than anything, I want readers to enjoy the books we publish – whether a story is funny or sad, dark or uplifting, I want them to feel that they were able to really engage with the story and characters and that the experience encourages them to keep reading."
"The first thing I look for in a non-fiction submission is confidence," says Robyn Drury, commissioning editor for Ebury Press. "That might manifest itself in different ways, depending on the book: it might be a bold idea, an unconventional style of narrative, or an arresting voice on the page, but it leaves me feeling that I’m in the hands of a writer who really knows what they want to say, and how they want to say it.
"After that initial encounter, if a submission leaves me wanting more I start to think about the proposition, the author and the audience. The proposition is the central argument or story of the book. Is it original? Is it compelling?"
There isn't a blanket choice for a non-fiction author, as genre and subject can vary so widely, "I’m looking for someone with authority – for a history or science book, for example, that might be someone with strong credentials in their field, whereas for memoir or other forms of narrative non-fiction it might be to do with the authenticity of the writer, whether they truly embody the ‘journey’ of the book and its themes. I love it when those two things line up and you feel that the author is the perfect person to tell a particularly original story, offering a perspective no one else could."
Similarly to fiction, the audience is always at the forefront of an editor's mind - who is this book for? "We also think about the audience – questions around who might buy a particular book, and what we could do to reach those readers."
"Non-fiction writers might be interested to know that editors really enjoy receiving proposals that might seem counter intuitive. We read a lot of submissions so it’s always exciting to be surprised, whether it’s an idea that shouldn’t make sense but does, or an ‘I can’t believe that happened!’ life story. Truth really can be stranger than fiction, and I love finding that in a proposal."
Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin