Commissioning: The insider’s guide to building strong lists

Tech in Publishing

Bookmachine Unplugged: Talking Editorial, 3 April 2019

Acquiring books for six-sum figures, huge advances and bidding fights for undisclosed sums of money do not usually represent publishing as a whole. These types of headlines are actually worlds away from much of the industry. So how do commissioning editors build their successful, strong, balanced lists? Many stimulating insights and tips were shared with a very attentive audience at the second Bookmachine Unplugged event of 2019, a galvanizing talk with a Q & A session on the topic of commissioning.

The eclectic, passionate, stimulating all-women panel was formed by award-winning, independent, African diaspora-focused Jacaranda Books founder and publisher, Valerie Brandes, Keshini Naidoo, founder and publisher of the new digital-first, commercial fiction independent publisher Hera Books, and Zara Anvari, commissioning editor at recently launched White Lion Publishing, part of The Quarto Group. Editor Abbie Headon organised and hosted the panel, introduced by Bookmachine Unplugged programme curator Suzanne Kavanagh, and sponsored by The Publishing Training Centre, Supadü and Typefi.

Origin stories

First of all, how did these publishers begin and what is their focus? Jacaranda started in 2012 as a reaction to the lack of diversity and has kept on growing, building its audience, and being shortlisted and winning awards because it constantly reimagines itself while keeping true to its commitment and publishing ethics. Hera launched in August 2018, with a diverse list of commercial digitally-led fiction including romcoms, crime books, sagas, and Bollywood bonkbusters. They aim to produce books that are as exciting as Netflix for today’s time-poor audience. White Lion wishes readers to enjoy the world around them, publishing high-brow popular culture and lifestyle books with a mix of commercial sense, strategy and creativity.

Finding authors

How do these publishers find their authors? Valerie Brandes highlighted the fact that being independent means having the freedom to develop Jacaranda’s list independently. To find authors, she went to events, talked to agents and publishers, read blogs and articles around diverse subjects, and often simply asked if rights were available for projects she wanted. The panel stressed the importance of Twitter for keeping up with news, finding new authors and making new contacts. Keshini Naidoo underlined the idea that having an open submissions policy for unagented writers works well, just like Jacaranda does, as well as following hashtags like #amwriting. Zara Anvari’s publishing model is different as White Lion’s editors start with a concept and pitch it to the team; if they get the go-ahead then an author is approached and commissioned.

Defining success

After discussing their different approaches and definitions of what success is (chart position and units shifted for Hera, international market traction for White Lion, and just existing and being visible at the very beginning while going on to achieve recognition through book awards now for Jacaranda), the panel recognised that it is misleading to think that great authors and books to fall in love with and instantly decide to publish will always quickly land up on your doorstep.

Data-led commissioning or gut instinct?

To an audience question about reliance on algorithms and data vs. gut reaction, the panel had different replies: Valerie relies 100% on guts as Jacaranda publishes what they love and what’s the best fit for their list, also as they do not have a direct relationship with Amazon; Hera being a digital commercial publisher has a 50/50 use of analytics while thinking about what is going to work for them (if there’s something Keshini loves but doesn’t fit into Hera’s genres, it’s not published); and Zara highlighted the fact that as Quarto is a bigger publisher, there are many people an editor has to answer to while data takes a lot of time to accumulate, so she likes to call it “a well-informed gut decision”. In order not to damage the publisher’s list when choosing the first and following books, everybody stressed the importance of thinking about what the imprint’s ethos is and staying true to that, and remembering that every book counts.

The Marie Kondo school of publishing

And finally, when they read a proposal, how do these diverse publishers know if that book has got what’s good for their lists and imprints? Keshini replied that it’s the voice, that “indefinable thing that can’t be edited”: as the reader needs to go on a journey with that character, can it be sustained for 250/300 pages? Zara mentioned that she asks herself what the promise of the book is. Is there an audience for it? Does it fit with her publisher’s plan? She also underlined that it must have character. Finally, Valerie mentioned that the good ones just stand out, it’s a very simple yet very difficult thing to explain, but not too difficult when a good submission springs up among the many not formed ideas, so look for your own reaction to what your reading. Keshini ended this brilliant conversation paraphrasing the Marie Kondo method: if a book doesn’t spark joy, don’t publish it!

Francesca Zunino Harper is a linguist, translator, and publishing professional. She worked in the British and international academia researching on comparative literatures,  translation, and women’s and environmental humanities for several years. She now works in the Humanities and Social Sciences area of publishing. You can follow her @ZuninoFrancesca.

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