Powered by Readers: Acquiring Books with And Other Stories
February 28, 2013 | by Faber Social
It is said that about 10,000 hours of experience are required to become skilled in a job, for example to be a good musician or carpenter, say. And what about the role of a commissioning editor? Is it the same? Is it a skill? And how do you use it to acquire books written in languages you can’t read? And if it is a skill, what the hell is And Other Stories doing asking our reading groups what we should publish, asks Stefan Tobler …
There are several skills needed of an acquiring editor – the main one might be to have a feel for books. (Developing your taste, to put it another way.) The thing is, the experience you need to develop that feeling and taste is something many people do without a job in publishing: through reading and thinking a lot about books and talking about them with other people who read a lot too.
Of course, in almost all publishing houses today, for example, the commissioning editor’s job is not simply to find great books that fit the list of that publishing house, but also to acquire what is good for the company. What Jeanette Perez, a HarperCollins editor, says in this interview seems quite representative of much corporate publishing culture to me: “Of course, we all want something that’s written well, but the book also has to have a hook that’s easy to pitch. Much of my job as an editor is selling the book in-house to our publicity, marketing, and sales teams. […] As for what I look for in an author, […] it’s wonderful to have an author who’s willing to spend some of their own time marketing the book.” In other words, editors learn to weigh up much more than just the text. It’s about an industrial product.
However, the learnt craft of acquiring well for the publishing house is also a conditioning of the job – or if you prefer: a professional deformation. Amazing books can remain unpublished in English, for example, to the astonishment of the people who have read them, and often for a combination of publishing reasons, such as: the author will not do interviews or travel or doesn’t speak English; the book does not have a hook or strong focus on plot, the book is too short or long to be what readers will expect. Plus, if the book is a translation, the editor may be relying on reader reports. And put together, those can all look like good reasons from a publisher’s point of view to be wary of a book. Who has money to burn, after all? But it can also lead to a lack of adventure in publishing – and less adventurous or literary choices for readers.
That’s why at And Other Stories we make a point of being open to book suggestions from people who are, we hope, less professionally deformed. Our reading groups gather translators and readers of fiction in different languages to discuss (in English) a few books that someone in the group has recommended. It works. Powered by intelligent, well-read people’s passions, most of our translated books have been discovered through our reading groups, including Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Guardian First Book Award shortlisted Down the Rabbit Hole and Iosi Havilio’s Open Door. By the way, everyone is invited to come to our groups – including editors at other publishing houses and any reader curious about literatures from elsewhere. As translators often supply samples in English, even without foreign language skills it is possible to read along and take part in the discussion. Come along!