Sometimes I get an email that goes, “I hope you or someone on your team sees this,” and I always smile, because in my mind it implies harried PAs organising my life as I lie sprawled across a sofa dictating my majestic prose while someone feeds me grapes from a silver tray. This is, alas, not the case – although there was that one time a friend was staying in the flat and she brought me a hot chocolate while I was finishing up a short story, and sometimes when I’m in the last 20000 words and a bit too preoccupied for speech or food or stuff, my partner brings me tea and the occasional sandwich. They are great.
As a technician it seems appropriate to tell you a bit about who the Real Team are, who actually make shit happen. I only know a small fraction personally, ‘cos it’s a big bunch of people, so apologies if I miss anyone off, but the rough shape of it goes like this…
Meg has been my agent since I was 14 years old. I met her on a very wet winter evening after school, soaked through and in my not-even-slightly-dashing uniform of baby pink and grey. My parents had recommended I send my first manuscript to her with the immortal words: “Nothing will come of it, but Meg is a good enough person that she’ll probably at least skim it and maybe say something nice when she rejects it.” 20 years down the line, it is hard to express the admiration and adoration I have for this woman. In the first few years she would send me extensive editorial notes, helping me tidy shit up to increase the chances that someone might actually buy the books. These days I’ve written enough that the covering email from me to either my agent or my editor usually just consists of the word “nooooovvveeeelllll!!!” and an attachment. I’m not very good at pitching my own stuff. But if you’ve read any of my pre-Claire North books in another language; if you’re holding out hopes that a film or TV adaptation might happen; if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have a bad-ass who’s got your back and can fight your corner when all you want to do is curl up and cry; if you’ve ever wanted to have someone guide and shape your career because frankly, you haven’t got a clue; or if you can’t quite believe that it’s been 20 years and this stuff is still going… that’s Meg. That’s all her. There is also sometimes cake.
I have had a lot of editors down the years. My current editor is the Amazing Anna. She is the person to whom all my books are sent with the afore-mentioned covering letter – unless Meg has sent it in which case the covering letter is significantly more professional – and she is the person who, if she likes what she reads, then has to convince a whole team with a limited budget that this is worth paying money for. As well as then sending me editorial notes, she is the chief point of contact who fights the fight for the book, briefs the art department, writes the blurb and has to decide what the best – and frequently the most realistic – way to sell it is. All while handling so many other books. Just so many books. Orbit might be a big publisher of SF, but they are a small team of awesome, and many is the day I receive emails at 2300 on a Sunday from Anna. Publishing it seems, does not sleep.
Her editorial notes usually go something as follows:
I loved [book x]. It was such a [powerful, original, inspiring, moving] read. I really loved how you [a specific point] and [another specific point]. However there are things I think we can do to really make this even more [insightful, rich, layered, incredible]. I’ve divided my thoughts into the following categories:
Do let me know what you think, and how long you think it will take to get this done.
Within each sub-section she’ll then usually do another, tight version of the shit-sandwich, which every author appreciates, outlining all the excellent things that are happening while suggesting that This Thing Here doesn’t quite work and perhaps my intention was To Do This Thing Instead? It’s a great way of editing, to be honest, as she mainly raises questions and flags things that don’t make sense in clear, clean language, without actually trying to bulldoze a solution or tell me how things are wrong, so much as how things could be even more amazing. Authors are notoriously bad at taking editorial notes, so I really appreciate both how right she invariably is, but also how well she manages to communicate it. I have had edits in the past that have fallen into “There’s something wrong but I’m not sure what” category, which is a nightmare, as well as people explaining how “x doesn’t work for me” without being able to explore and enquire into why. Anna is great. She throws so much work into the books. It blows my mind that she also throws so much work into everything else too, ‘cos frankly I feel exhausted just thinking about it.
There is also one recurring bit that Anna usually gets me to add during edits, at least for most of the Claire North books – and this is what has become known as the Russian Prostitute Scene. In most Claire North novels (you can try and find it if you wish) there’ll be a scene where Character X meets Random Stranger Y on a train or a boat or generally speaking away from society, and Stranger Y will look at Character X and proclaim: “You seem sad. You seem burdened by the weight of the story that is unfolding around you. It must be strange to be so lost. It must be sad.” This scene is generally inserted because most of my primary protagonists never express what they’re actually feeling. However going an entire novel without anyone expressing anything at all is considered Not Top Literaturing, and so you too can now play the game of finding those 4-5 pages per book where someone else expresses it for them.
You can also find the tongue-twisters I add for Peter Kenny. More of that anon….
In twenty years it feels the single most consistent, reliable person in my universe is Joanna, who runs editorial for basically every book you’ve ever read that has ever passed through the presses of Little Brown since time began. I genuinely don’t know how she does it. I also don’t know how, after 20+ novels, she hasn’t killed me. Here are some of the reasons why she should have:
I think I have abused all of the above at some point in every single novel I’ve ever written. Also, 84K was technically speaking, lacking in most grammar, which I can’t imagine was a bundle of laughs for any well-meaning editor. And when I do disagree with an editorial note in a manuscript, a lot of the time my comment will read, “Nah, the music ain’t right – this makes the sentence sorta peachy. Stet.”
Joanna has a team of freelance copy editors who she’ll send a manuscript to, if she’s not editing it herself. Their job is to go through and fix any obvious grammatical and spelling errors, but also to highlight inconsistencies in terms of stuff like who’s speaking where, or if someone has say, picked up a cup on page 9 but picks it up again on page 10, or repeated words, or where a sentence just doesn’t make sense. They all vary – I particularly adore the amazing Jane, who like Anna is really good at explaining her question so you can actually fix it, unlike some who will simply highlight a line with the immortal query “??”, which I love significantly less. My Mum was a copy editor for years and taught me everything I know about the art, which is a dance between trying to offer solutions to messy bits of writing, while at the same time not damaging the author’s meaning, voice or intention. Once the copy editor has had their run at the book, it’s sent back to me so I can fix the stuff they’ve highlighted as a problem, answer any queries or reject any changes I dislike. I’ve had both good and bad copy editors, and a good copy editor is a categorical life-saver.
So technically this is done by the same team, managed by Joanna, who is also in charge of making sure deadlines are met as part of a publishing schedule that is packed with launch dates literally years in advance. Proofs are when the book is set for print, and then you and another editor scour through it one last time looking for any tiny errors that still remain. It’s now too late to fix big stuff, but you still sometimes stumble on gratuitous cock-ups that have entered the text – or which were never removed. Again, my Mum taught be about proof reading back when I was a kid, with her particular pleasure being words that ran over lines annoyingly, with leg-
… being one of her favourite examples.
A lot of writers can be dickheads about their covers. I have been a dickhead about some of my (less wonderful) covers in the past. But generally speaking, to be honest, I’m a little bit like “dude, I have no idea how to design a cover, you be you”. I’ve had some gorgeous covers too – 84K by Duncan Spilling was especially sexy, and you can always find who designed the cover on the inside flap of a book. To minimise just how much of a pillock I can be, Anna tends to email me the cover brief that she’ll be sending to the art department. This usually consists of a brief summary of the book and some sample images to serve as inspiration. There is no expectation that the person who is designing the cover will have read the novel, because the art department has so, so, so many books to handle. When a sample cover comes back that Anna feels won’t be too traumatising, she’ll usually send it to me with an accompanying email that goes something like this:
Attached is the cover for [book x]. I really love how [dramatic, powerful, enthralling, hypnotic, moving] it is, especially with the [detail of x] and the [bold colours, strong font, intricate image].
Do me know what you think,
all the best,
At this point one of two things can happen. Either you can agree that the cover is [bold, enthralling, dramatic] but suggest minor changes to [the figures, the eyes, the colour], or you can have a fit and be like “but my vision!” If you go down the latter path, be prepared for a bit of a fight, because did I mention, there’s like, four different departments with their views of how things should be here, and things are on a clock? Such battles are best embarked on if you have the blessing of your agent, who can judge more accurately than you probably can whether it’s worth having a stinking row over this kinda thing. Generally speaking, it ain’t. Chill and be grateful, dudes. Your book is gonna be published and you didn’t even have to design the cover yourself.
These two departments are often spoken of in the same breath, even though they do different things. They are also the departments with, in my experience, the highest turnover of humans, which is a shame. Publishing in general has always struggled a bit, industry-wide, with how it sells books in the 21st century. My Dad was a publisher back when ebooks started to become A Thing, and I remember him being confused/a little bit bleak about the changes that were befalling the bookselling world as the market was squeezed, independent bookshops were shut and way, way too much selling power coalesced into monoliths like Amazon. It is also still something of an irony that in an age in which every major movie release is SF/Fantasy and with a huge and dedicated SF/Fantasy readership in the UK and US, we are still culturally in a position where time and effort is still dedicated into promoting, reviewing and celebrating ‘literature’ as if SF/Fantasy isn’t worth the time, sigh. (Interestingly though, crime and erotica are your two go-to genres for a significant profit margin.)
Anyway, despite this, there are teams of dedicated people desperately trying to convince you that this book, why yes this one, is what you need in your life now. The person I spend most time talking to in that regard is Nazia, who runs all of Orbit’s publicity – making her the contact point for more writers and reviewers than I can possibly count. She organises reviews, events, interviews; drags me to signings and conventions, and sometimes has to sprint with me to catch trains in Birmingham in the pouring rain. I genuinely have no idea how she manages the sheer volume of work on her plate, but at least there is also sometimes cake.
There’s also the digital stuff that publishers try to do – this blog being an example – and the central responsibility for again, all of it, rests with the awesome Maddy. I hope by now you’re getting the impression that everyone is doing 20000 jobs for 2000 writers, because that is genuinely how it is. Writing is in many ways a terrible career choice of unreliability and self-doubt, but every now and then it’s also worth remembering that in the grand scheme of publishing as a whole, you got it easy.
In recent years, my foreign book rights have been handled through Orbit – so again, if you’ve read a Claire North book in another language, give thanks to Andy and the foreign rights team whose job it is to try and secure translations. Translations for just my book? Oh no. Translations for so many books, selling hundreds and hundreds of different works to hundreds of different publishers across the world. Be still my spinning brain.
There is a whole world here I know very little about, though shout out to Sarah who manages this excellent and expanding universe. My personal experience is that a Sagely Figure at Orbit will use their Mysterious Powers to contact an actor and ask them to read a sample of a book. I will then be sent that sample or, as is sometimes the case, I will be sent an email asking me if I would like Peter Kenny to read it, several weeks after he and I have already chatted merrily about it on Twitter. There is a whole world here of experts I have never met, although again, a bit like the art department, they are flooded with books every hour of every day, meaning a bit like the art department it’s not always guaranteed they’ll have had a chance to read more than the first page of a text. They probably also need cake. In the particular case of Peter Kenny, ever since I heard his reading of Harry August and decided that he was clearly an astonishingly excellent audiobook reader, I have gone out of my way to add gratituous tongue-twisters in silly accents, as the nearest thing to salute I can muster. Apparently my ‘she stood upon the balustraded balcony’ attempt in William Abbey was a mere trifle, so the next one is in Spanish.
I have, to my knowledge, met someone from Little Brown’s sales department once, on a balcony several years ago; but to my regret I am practically face blind otherwise I’d totally salute them personally now. So let me tell you what my Dad told me about sales, back from when he was a publisher. “Young one,” quoth he, “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the greatest book on the planet with the nicest cover and best blurb ever written. What matters are bums on seats. All this arty-farty literature stuff doesn’t mean shit, if no one reads it.” This was back in the days when, once a year, he would attend a sales conference and attempt to fire up the sales reps whose job it literally was to go out and get booksellers to stock your stuff with the power of their persuasive voices and profound charms, two qualities that remain an absolute mystery to me, who has the charm of a bruised banana. I have no idea how sales work in the 21st century, but I know that my Dad’s adage held true. All this is for nothing, if you can’t actually sell the damn thing. To the sales team I haven’t met yet: thank you.
(Fun fact: also in his capacity as a publisher, whenever we went on holiday my Dad would pause and proclaim, “For the nice things we are about to receive, let us thank Buffy and Star Trek tie-in books.” And we would.)
Everyone I’ve outlined thus far are in the UK office. Imagine all of this, but starting from scratch, and scaled up for the USA. The only people I have much contact with are my US editor – Priyanka – and Ellen in publicity, who has nailed the sacred art of sending me only the very nicest reviews.
I know what you’re thinking. Who writes the contracts? Who’s drawing up royalty statements? Who’s running the finances? Ensuring that the printing presses work? Managing the warehouse? Driving the vans to deliver the books? Sending out author copies? Typesetting? Negotiating percentages with booksellers? Checking books for libel? Keeping everyone in coffee? Looking after the actual physical office? Running the in-house post office? Making sure the computers work? The honest answer is I don’t know. Lots of people. Lots and lots and lots of people. To whom I say: hello. And also: thank you.
Before publishing this post I actually sent it to Anna, to make sure she wasn’t blind-sided by my nuanced and philosophical representation of her soul. To my relief, she didn’t phone to cry, but did reply – at 23.08 on a Wednesday afternoon – to fill me in on some names I don’t know! So to Hannah, Caitriona, Sinead and Jack (who Anna summarised with the words “ALL THE EBOOKS EVER”) – all the waving and all the gratitude and as always, more cake for all forever.