Book editor Helen Bolton talks about the excitement of working on Mhairi McFarlane’s debut novel You Had Me At Hello.…
I count myself as one of the luckiest people around. I am an editor at HarperCollins Publishers, working on one of its fiction imprints, Avon. I’ve been here for the past four years, but to this day, as I walk up the steps into our office every morning, I look up at the HarperCollins sign over the door and feel a familiar buzz of excitement: the joy of being able to work on books day in, day out for a living.
I know this bookish excitement is something that many people share, and so it was with this in mind that I decided to open up the doors here at HarperCollins, and offer a sneak peek into what it takes to publish our books. Over the course of a year, I charted what it takes for us to publish one of our books. To start, I chose a debut author of mine, Mhairi McFarlane, who has written the most incredible first novel, You Had Me At Hello. Starting with Mhairi writing the novel and finishing with the books rolling off the press at the end of the process, this is a real insight into our work here – and all in just three minutes flat!
When I reveal that I work in publishing, I am so often asked about how the process happens, or indeed, how someone can get their book published. As an editor, I have manuscripts submitted to me each week via literary agents. As you might imagine, with so many arriving weekly, it takes a lot for a novel to really stand out.
It’s virtually impossible to read everything that lands on my desk, so as a rule of thumb, I read the first 100 pages of a manuscript, before deciding whether it is or isn’t for us. If it looks like it has potential, I’ll then read to the end and share it with the rest of the team. So you can see just how important to get the opening of a novel just right. We read 100 pages because that’s approximately the length of time it will take to turn and reader on or off – often taking even less time than that.
For a book to make an impression, it’s all about the elevator pitch. We look for a strong concept that drives the book – one that we can pitch in a single soundbite. As soon as You Had Me At Hello landed on my desk, I knew I was onto a winner. Immediately, the tagline ‘what happens when the one that got away comes back?’ came to mind, and this has stuck with the book ever since. As a tagline, it’s simple, to the point, and you immediately know what’s at the very heart of the novel. Remember this, because however brilliant your novel may be, if a reader doesn’t understand what it’s about then your book will be left languishing on the shelf.
Of course, for a book to have potential I need to love it. After all, by the time the editing process is over I might have read the book up to eight times. It also needs to make sound commercial sense. The book industry is an increasingly tough nut to crack, so I am on the lookout for novels that give the market what they want – whether they follow a trend we’re currently seeing, or whether they bring a new twist to an old favourite.
It also has to fit the list that I work on. One of the most frustrating things for me as an editor is finding a book that I love, and then not being able to take it on. This may be because it’s not the sort of book we take on at Avon, or perhaps because it’s not something that’s working in the market at the present moment. But don’t be disheartened if you ever get this sort of feedback from an editor – your time will come.
Of course, all of this is important because at the end of the day, I’m not the one who makes the final decision to take on an author or not; that lies with the people who hold the purse strings. So I have to pitch the book and author to them. It’s at this point that I’ll get a real grilling: what’s so great about the book? Why do I think it will work? Who are its main competitors in the market? What vision do I have for the book – for the author, for the artwork and for the following books? And so on. It’s quite an interview.
But it makes it all worthwhile once I finally get my hands on the book and start to work. It’s then that I will work alongside an author to make the novel the best it can possibly be. Over the course of a year we work closely to get it into the best possible shape, giving it a title, cover, shoutline, blurb, and everything else that’s key to turning it from a manuscript into a book.
It’s a long process, and there’s no time that’s more nerve-wracking than when you’re waiting for those first sales figures to come in. But after all that it’s an unbelievable feeling when it all pays off – as has happened with You Had Me At Hello. It’s just been announced that it’s the Christmas number 1 ebook in the UK, and both myself and the author Mhairi couldn’t have hoped for better news to end 2012. This is exactly what I dream of the day that I first see a manuscript, and know that something quite incredible has just landed on my desk.