Towards an editorial policy: some notes for prospective authors

Wilkins Farago is far too small to have much of an editorial policy as such. But I’ve been rejecting an increasing number of proposals from authors recently and it’s struck me it might be helpful to them to set down some of the things we’re looking for or not looking for. Given E M Forster‘s immortal question,

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say? (Aspects of the Novel, 1927)

it also might help us to clarify our own thoughts too.

While we initially published somewhat opportunistically (you seldom know what’s going to come your way as a small publisher), we’ve published enough books now for a pattern to be emerging of our tastes and interests.

Here are some criteria which I’ve retrofitted to our list:

  1. Profit is not an dirty word.
    The most important thing to bear in mind is that we need to make money from the books we publish. I often ask an author: ‘are you confident enough in your own work to take your last $15,000 and spent it on producing it as a book?’ Because that’s pretty much what we do when we take on a book. We don’t have any secret investors, or an inheritance to waste, or real estate interests pumping funds into our enterprise. Every book we publish has to make money for us to keep going. Thankfully, so far, every one of the 21 books we’ve published has turned at least a modest profit and this is absolutely vital. Without profits, we don’t have the money to invest in new books.
  2. How big is the market?
    Given that the key to successful publishing is to obviate the financial risk of publishing a book wherever possible, we have to consider not just if a book will work in bookshops, but what secondary markets it might also be sold in. Will it travel overseas? Can it be sold through non-book retailers (Davide Cali’s book I Love Chocolate, for example, was sold by a number of chocolate shops)? Is there a substantial school library market for the book? Is there a book club or other bulk sale that help us build an economical print run for the book? Will this book suit discount and department stores (DDSs) such as Big W or Kmart? (The DDS channel has become increasingly important sales channel for most trade publishers. We are less reliant on this channel at this stage because, frankly, our small size makes us less interesting to these larger retailers.) The overall thing to remember is that publishers don’t survive by selling books through bookshops alone.
  3. Is the work special?
    Every month I reject well-written manuscripts by literate, educated individuals. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the bulk of them but a publisher won’t publish something just because it has nothing wrong with it. What’s right about it? What’s special about it? What makes it truly outstanding? That’s what we’re looking for. It may be the language, or the theme the work addresses, or the viewpoint of the narrator, or a particularly strong set of characters, or a treatment of a story that is unusual, iconoclastic or surprisingly different. Often it’s a combination of these. I know some publishers who are looking for works that resemble other works, because that makes them easier to publish and sell (‘this is the new Twilight’). We don’t do that. What we’re looking for is something that is truly outstanding. Why? You may be familiar with Fannie Hurst’s saying ‘A woman has to be twice as good as a man to go half as far’. The same applies to small publishers. We need to have pretty special books to force our way past the Penguin parade.
  4. What do you know about us?
    Sometimes authors can waste a lot of time and expense sending us material completely unsuited to our list. I can only assume they’ve take our details from a directory and just sent us stuff on spec. The best way of finding a suitable publisher is to visit some bookshops, looking though the shelves and seeing who is publishing the kind of work you’re producing. Most have terrific websites you can browse too. It’s amazing how many prospective authors don’t do this very basic piece of research.
  5. What genres do we publish?
    Right now, we are looking at publishing in the following genres:

    • Children’s illustrated fiction books (ages 5 and up)
    • Children’s fiction (mid primary to teen/young adult)
    • Adult nonfiction, particularly books of appeal to parents
    • Adult literary works of outstanding originality

    These works can be from Australian or overseas writers (we prefer to buy rights from overseas publishers for international authors). That’s not to say we won’t publish other genres, but it would have to be pretty special.

  6. What don’t we like?
    • Books about fairies (unless the fairy gets turned into a pig)
    • Imitations of genre stories about vampires, ghosts, BFFs etc. We try not to be a ‘me too’ publisher.
    • Most books that rhyme. Poetry is really, really hard to do well.
    • Saccharin books about fluffy talking bunnies or cars. Anthropomorphism is also really hard to do well.
  7. What do we like?
    • Books that stimulate a children’s heart and mind. That make them think about the real world and their own place in it, than encourage them to explore different perspectives and ideas outside their own frames of reference. That make them experience emotion.
    • Books that don’t follow predictable plotlines, which surprise.
    • Books with quirky, unusual and well-drawn characters.
    • Books which are funny.
    • Books that help people do things better.

That’ll do for now. I shall add to this article as I think of more things.