In two weeks’ time, a group of BookMachine-goers will be joining the TLS in London for an event which focuses on small, independent presses and the current trend which has seen a 79% increase in sales by sixty of the UK’s smallest publishers. Here Norah Myers interviews the event host Thea Lenarduzz. Thea is commissioning editor at the TLS and the co-host of Freedom, Books, Flowers and the Moon, the TLS’s weekly podcast. She is also a freelance writer and, slightly sporadically, the literary editor at Five Books.
1. Small independent presses have been experiencing an increase in sales. What difference does this make for you as an editor?
I suppose the increase in sales makes a difference to me in a slightly indirect sense – I’m not really impressed by lots of sales per se, but rather by the quality of the thing itself. But, of course, healthy sales means more money means that press can do more – whether that’s dedicating more resources to the same number of titles, perhaps increasing the print run, or putting that money towards new titles, recruiting new talent, devising new schemes etc…. And that’s the point at which I really start to appreciate the impact.
For me, working in an office that receives hundreds of books a week, from publishers around the world, the health of small presses often makes itself felt through the element of surprise. The books that catch my eye tend to be the ones that you can’t quite imagine the big publishers bringing out – because they’re niche or experimental or foreign, or all of the above.
2. You host a weekly podcast. How have podcasts and other forms of audio contributed to an increase in book sales?
Well, I suppose it’s all about conversation. When you’re writing/publishing it’s generally with the idea of spreading the word – yes, it’s also about self-fulfilment but, perhaps especially at the writing end of it all, you wouldn’t be seeking a publisher if you didn’t want others to read/think/talk about your work. Sales are the result of exposure – of telling as many people as you can about a work – so a podcast about books is simply another channel. It’s similar to when you read a book and like it enough to tell a friend about it – you might even lend it to them. Of course, doing that wouldn’t result in another sale for the publisher, so a podcast is a little better in that respect; if a listener likes the sound of a book we’re talking about, he or she will have to go out and buy a copy.
3. Has this rise in popularity affected the way you commission work?
The TLS has always had a strong record of commissioning reviews/ running extracts/ working with small independent presses in various ways, so I can’t say the recent rise has made any real difference to the way we work – it’s more a matter of vindication and continuation, really. For example, we were, I think, the first to review A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – I’m pretty sure we caught it when it was still only in Galley Beggar’s first 1,000 print-run, so that counts for something! Also, we have always reviewed more works in original language and in translation than any other magazine so this makes us kindred spirits with many small publishers.
One thing that has changed recently is that the TLS has partnered with the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, to encourage and celebrate everyone’s hard work, and to throw a little bit of money into the mill – because you can’t over estimate the difference a couple of thousand pounds can make to a small press and its authors.
4. What do you look for in a good editor-author relationship?
My favourite kind of commission usually goes something like: a half-idea materialises in my head or a new book (or clutch of books linked by a theme) comes into the office, and I think “hmmm…. that’s interesting…. who could I ask to excavate this for us? Who could take this rough idea and wrestle it into beautiful, challenging prose?” I’ll approach a writer I think may have sympathies – usually because of the loose areas they’ve written in before, or on a strange editor’s hunch – and see if it sparks anything with them. That’s how this piece by Patricia Williams [https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/intimate-injustice-black-girls-williams/ ] came about; and this one by Leslie Jamison [https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/guilty-innocent-incarcerated/]. I also like to surprise my writers by finding things for them to write on that they might not have chosen for themselves – quite often they’ll write to me afterwards to say, “I had no idea how interested in this I was”. Because often if you commission someone who already thinks they knows how they feel about a thing to write about said thing, it comes out rather lacklustre… the writer is so at home in the argument they tend to forget to explain it fully to you, who is coming at it cold.
I’m also quite old-school and like to work collaboratively, so it’s important that we – editor and writer – trust each other and discuss everything. An editor is really a kind of test reader – if you can’t convince the editor, you won’t convince all the other readers out there – and once it’s out there, it’s too late to fix it. I always couch my edits as suggestions and up for discussion, all part of the process of trying to make the writing as clear/evocative/cutting/polished etc as possible. Because I’m a writer as well as an editor, I can appreciate the process from both sides. So I guess openness and a willingness to take an idea and turn it over and over until something jumps out, to really spend some time and thought on something, to look again at something you thought you had done with (whether a whole topic or a simple word choice) – these are all things I look for.
You can join Thea, along with her chosen speakers at BookMachine London with the TLS on Wednesday 16th May from 6.30pm. For tickets and information click here.