This is a Building Blocs piece, in which we talk publishing with a powerful editor about how you can get published.
Cate Blake is a Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House. She’s the woman who will read your manuscript and decide whether or not her house will publish it. Her job probably has all kinds of nuance and complexity to it, but who even knows what?
We don’t, so we asked her. Here's Cate answering questions sourced from our readers, touching on publishing, book deals, and what aspiring authors should know when they are looking to land their first book deal.
So what exactly is your job? What do you do all day?
Lots! I have editorial responsibility for my list of books, which includes, you know, editing, but also other stuff like briefing covers, writing sales and marketing copy, assessing submissions, attending meetings to help position and publicise my books, sorting out budgets and schedules, etc. That’s a pretty rough overview but should give you some idea.
If you find a manuscript you like, how does it become a book? How does the publishing process actually work?
If I read something I’m excited about and want to publish, I then take it to our acquisitions meeting to make sure others in the company shares my enthusiasm. Then I’d make an offer to the author (or the agent representing the author), and if they accept it we go into production. There’d be several rounds of edits before we typeset the manuscript and proofread. We also start the sales and marketing campaign long before publication, usually about six months out, so the author will be working with a publicist and a sales manager on that side of things as well.
How many manuscripts do receive in a year? And do you get to read them all?
We receive manuscripts via our Monthly Catch process (details here: https://www.penguin.com.au/getting-published), and from agents and international publishers, and also directly from authors. At a conservative guess, I’d say we receive around 3000 manuscripts a year. And yep, they all get looked at! If an editor ever takes a while to get back to you about a submission, this is why…
How can writers do to make their MS stand out from the pile. What makes you more likely to say "yes" to a book?
Treat your cover letter as you would a job application – be professional, clear and convincing. It makes it much easier for an editor to prioritise a submission if the cover letter makes it look like something we’d really want to publish. Also, get your manuscript itself into the best shape possible. Don’t finish your first draft and submit it immediately; edit and redraft until you think you’ve made it as strong as possible, and make sure it’s been proofread and well formatted. And check out what else the publisher is publishing – will your book be right for their list?
Here's a question an Australian university student studying creative writing. 'I would like to be a novelist one day. What can I do now to help make that happen? Where can I start? It all seems so daunting.'
Just write! You have to love writing more than you love the idea of success or the idea of being a novelist. And, like other professions or crafts, there are things you can do to make yourself more professional. Read as widely as possible – don’t just read the genres that you enjoy or that you want to write in. Study character and story and style in the writers you admire most. Read Australian books – know the market that you want to publish into. Subscribe to Australian literary journals and work on smaller pieces of writing to submit to them. Join a writers’ group. Work on your writing as much as you can until you feel ready to get stuck into writing a novel.
Another student: 'I've had friends who only got signed after they got an agent. Do I need an agent?'
It’s up to the author, really. Plenty of Australian writers get signed without an agent, and most publishing houses now accepted unagented submissions. If you feel confident representing yourself, then go for it. However, having an agent would mean an editor would approach your manuscript knowing that it had already been vetted by an expert. An agent’s also especially helpful during contract negotiations, if you don’t feel comfortable approaching that part of the process on your own. And it gives you someone else in your corner throughout the publication process, which has to be a good thing, right?
What advice do you have for aspiring editors? What can they do to be where you are?
I did an arts degree with honours, majoring in English literature and political science, and then got a job at a newspaper typesetting company. I also did a bunch of interning and volunteer stuff at various media and book-related places, both during my degree and while I was doing full-time work. About a year after I graduated I got a job as an editorial assistant with Penguin, and I’ve been here ever since.
That makes it sound pretty straightforward and maybe even easy to get into publishing – it’s really not, unfortunately. Whenever we advertise an entry-level job, we get hundreds of applicants, and end up having to turn down plenty of very qualified and talented people. The things that make applicants stand out include practical experience (editorial work for something like Voiceworks, say, or interning with a lit mag like Kill Your Darlings or The Lifted Brow); knowledge of the Australian book industry (maybe through working in a bookstore, or volunteering with an organisation like a writers’ festival or the Stella Prize); and some burgeoning editorial skills (there are plenty of courses that teach copyediting and editing, from short courses through to Masters degrees, and a lot of publishing houses offer work experience and internships). And, of course, you need to be very well read, and particularly in contemporary Australian fiction and nonfiction.
Thanks for you time!
My pleasure. I'm always happy to talk to new and emerging writers, and thrilled to read what a new generation of writers will bring.
This is a Building Blocs piece, part of a series where we discusss the art, craft and business of writing. To read more like this, click here:
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