The most public face within the publishing industry is that of the editor, and it is a role to which many young people aspire. To look at the editor’s role in publishing today, and to find out how one person got into editorial work I spoke to Helen Greathead who was recently promoted to the position of Editorial Director, Non-Fiction, at Scholastic Children’s Books.
Getting a Foot in the Door
‘I had never met anyone in publishing and hadn’t a clue what it would involve,’ says Helen Greathead. After university she had worked as a secretary for a while in various companies outside publishing before getting a job as Secretary/Editorial Assistant on the African Educational list at Evans Brothers. In 1989 Helen moved to be a Desk Editor at Scholastic. (A Desk Editor works in detail on manuscripts and proofs which have been commissioned by a more senior editor.)
‘I had an interest in children’s books and particularly loved picture books,’ Helen continues, ‘though I’d begun to read fiction, too. Contact with children especially interested me.’ To begin with Helen worked on both fiction and non-fiction books. ‘The non-fiction list then was mostly activity and humour books, which went down especially well in our book clubs.’ (Scholastic has its own book clubs and fairs which sell directly into schools.)
Helen began to specialise in non-fiction, which at Scholastic nowadays means mainly paperback black-and-white only books. ‘We’re keeping our options open about moving more into colour. It’s terribly expensive, and we would have to start thinking about co-editions with other countries if we were to do it in a big way.’ (Full colour books are so expensive to produce that UK publishers try to get costs down by printing with overseas partners to whom they have sold rights.) Scholastic have already launched a new series of educational sticker books for younger children, but for the time being, the paperback, black-and-white only format best suits their needs for most of their books.
Those Horrible Histories …
Things really started to take off for the non-fiction list, sales wise, in 1993 with the publication of the first ‘Horrible Histories’ title. ‘I had worked with Terry Deary on a number of books before then, and I knew what a very imaginative writer he was,’ says Helen. ‘He had started our ‘True Stories’ series for us and he always took a sideways look at the subject he was writing about, and gave it an interesting twist.’ The series title, ‘Horrible Histories’ was dreamed up in the office, and once everyone was agreed, it gave a specific edge to their planning. ‘We’ve sold over a million books in the series, and have just published our thirteenth title.’ The success of this series has led to the launch of the ‘Horrible Science’ series, the first two titles of which were published in August last year.
The Non-Fiction Team
Following the sales success of the ‘Horrible’ series, and others, the non-fiction list has expanded to such an extent now that to cope with the work of 45-50 non-fiction titles a year, Helen has three and a half staff working for her – she shares a commissioning editor with another department, but has an editor, a desk editor and an editorial assistant working directly for her, all with varying levels of experience and responsibility. This team works alongside the fiction and picture book editors, who have their own separate editorial meeting and work on books that they have created themselves as well as titles that they bring in and adapt from their American company. ‘We’ve expanded so much recently that we just had to separate out non-fiction from fiction as the editorial meetings were getting too unwieldy.’ In overall charge of both editorial departments is the Publishing Director, who in turn reports to the Managing Director. He is ultimately responsible to the company’s owners in America.
Where do the Ideas Come From?
Helen’s team plan most of their non-fiction publishing themselves. ‘We don’t get as many unsolicited manuscripts sent in as the fiction and picture book editors do, though we do get some letters with suggestions and synopses. We have worked out our approach for each age level fairly carefully, and couldn’t easily slot in a one-off idea that didn’t fit into one of our series.’
Interaction with other Departments
Within the company Helen and her team work most closely with the Design department, and Helen stresses the teamwork between editors and designers. ‘We bring the designers in at the earliest possible stage, to plan the artwork but particularly the look of the cover.’ The designers are responsible for commissioning and supervising all the artwork.
Unusually, Scholastic does not have its own in-house production team, so the editors deal with the Editorial Production Manager who acts as the key liaison with the outside production company who deal with all the printing.
‘Sales people attend regular meetings with us, and it is always important to ask their advice when we’re planning a new series. We are lucky also to have input from our bookfair and bookclub editors at the time we are deciding what to acquire and commission.’ Another close part of the inner circle is the publicity and promotions department who decide how much money to put into publicising new projects.
Helen has a number of teacher contacts that she uses to sound out new ideas or new directions, and she occasionally goes on school visits. ‘We also sometimes have 15/16 year-olds in the office doing work experience, and they can be useful sounding boards. In addition we send manuscripts out to teenagers and we really value their opinions. It’s not easy to use children much younger than that when you’re just dealing with ideas and early manuscripts. It has to be done through teachers.’ The editors also need to find experts to check their books factually, but this is not always easy. ‘We tend to treat our subjects in a fairly light-hearted way, so we can get a negative reaction from an expert who doesn’t appreciate that what we’re doing will appeal to a child reader. We just want them to confine themselves to fact checking, not to reacting emotionally to our style.’ Helen would like to spend more time in the shops with the sales reps, but does admit to ‘lurking in bookshops’ from time to time to see how shoppers are responding to her books. ‘We are also lucky to get a lot of feedback through our book clubs – sales details of course, but comments, too.’
Helen feels that the only limitation to the further development of the list is that there are only a certain number of titles that can be handled each month, ‘and we all have to be careful about balancing the workload’. She is lucky that her list (and the company) is doing well financially at the moment, but many financial decisions have to be taken, particularly at the start of a new series. ‘We work things out very carefully before we go ahead with something new, and once it’s established that the sums add up, the rest of the series follows to the same physical specifications, author advances and illustrator fees.’ Then it is a matter of looking at the sales figures each week, to check that sales are on target. ‘I look at sales in both the book trade and our book clubs, though it varies tremendously week on week and we usually need to take a longer view.’
Future Trends and Job Satisfaction
Asked if editors will still be needed if authors can go direct on to the Internet, Helen says emphatically, ‘YES – it’s so important for there to be another eye to see how best to present an idea. You are not the best judge of your own material, and you need positive and negative criticism to help shape it all to best suit the reader. We also sometimes find that the person with the good idea is not necessarily the best person to actually write the text.’
There are two aspects of the job that give Helen the most satisfaction. She loves working out ideas with authors and seeing it all come together in a coherent fashion, and she is always enormously thrilled to finally see the finished book months and months after the first discussions began. The most difficult aspect of the job is handling tricky conversations with authors. ‘You have to get your point across strongly without offending the author,’ says Helen, and she is aware that this can be a tricky thing for junior staff to have to do. ‘Basically it’s something you eventually learn by seeing how other people handle such situations, and by taking advice before things get too awkward.’
A Typical Day
‘There isn’t really a typical day in this job,’ says Helen. ‘It’s very hard to plan a day as it very quickly gets filled up with meetings and phone calls and things coming in for urgent checking, and I have to be ready to react instantly to whatever comes at me.’
Helen has attended the Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs, but doesn’t need to travel as much as fiction and picture book editors as her list is not co-edition dependent. ‘I would most like to visit our US company, with whom I have some contact already. We’re very excited that they have taken on some of the ‘Horrible Histories’ to try out there – Greeks, Romans and Egyptians – initial reports are very positive but it’s too early yet to gauge their success.’
A Good Job to Have?
Helen feels she is lucky in the work that she does: ‘When I left university I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted a job that was creative, stimulating, demanding and rewarding. I found exactly what I was looking for.’
Publishing Profile No. 2 will go behind the scenes in the Production Department.
Liz Attenborough was formerly Children’s Publisher at Penguin Books. She now works as a children’s book consultant.