What an editor looks for and why

This should really be called what a commercial editor looks for, as that’s what I’m talking about here! As part of my day job as a fiction editor, I need to commission a certain amount of titles per year to make sure that our division of the company makes money. This is, in fact, a wonderful job to have, as reading is my biggest passion, along with writing. However, it can sometimes be tough, as we get a lot of submissions per week and sadly, we can’t buy every book that comes into our inboxes. So how does an editor decide what to buy?

For me, there are two main reasons why I will make an offer on a book. The first is really simple – if I absolutely love it. If I read it cover to cover in a less than 48 hour period – on the tube, in bed at night, during the working day – then I will most likely seriously consider making an offer, because a book really is unputdownable, it must be doing something right. This is exactly what happened when I read the brilliant 99 Red Balloons, which we published this summer.

The second reason is if I think it will fill a spot on our list, and work well in the market. For example, at the moment our list is quite crime-heavy – we have a lot of strong crime writers but fewer women’s fiction writers – therefore, I am actively seeking women’s fiction (specifically Irish, with a younger sounding voice if you want specifics or are one yourself!)

 Now, the first reason (my loving a book) is actually not enough on its own. I have read books for my job that I have personally fallen in love with, but that I know will not work in the current market for one reason or another. It might be that they are too literary for our commercial list, it might be that they are just too niche for the mass market, it might be that the book is that bit too young for our audience. However, if I love the book, and it fits into a nice slot on our list, and I think it will work in the current market, then usually, I will be able to get it through acquisitions and make the agent an offer, which is when it all gets very exciting.

 So what can writers do to ensure that their books tick all three categories? Well, it’s very tricky for a writer to know what spots need filling on a specific imprint’s list, so that one needs to be discounted here. What is in the writer’s control is making their book the very best it can be, and being aware of the market. Quite a lot of people say that writers should disregard the market, but I personally don’t agree – I think a writer who pays attention to the market (the commercial fiction market, I’m talking about here as that is the field I work in) is actually onto a good thing and is an asset to any publishing house. Watching the market is not a bad thing – it’s just common sense. Understanding the market and being aware of certain trends doesn’t mean you’re not writing from the heart – it is possible to write the book you want to write but to also want it to do well in the market at the same time. There’s no shame in that!

For me, when I open a book, I want to be gripped immediately. I don’t want a description of the weather, or a large amount of back story – I want something that will grab the attention of the reader flicking open the cover, or downloading the sneak peek, and leave them with no choice but to buy the book because they simply have to know what happens next. I think there are a few ways to do this. One of them is voice – giving your first character a distinctive, clear voice that immediately hints at their character. For example, in the opening page of Obsession, a book I bought last year, we immediately learn that the leading character has a problem with alcohol and dislikes spending too much time with her children. And that’s on the first page! The protagonist’s voice isn’t necessarily likeable, but she’s immediately saying something a little bit subversive and unusual, and she’s saying it unashamedly which makes me interested in her character.

Another way to capture a reader is scenario – open with a scene where the stakes are already high. Another book I bought opens with a woman on the edge of a clifftop – it doesn’t always have to be as dramatic as that, but there’s got to be some point of tension, be it a crime thriller or otherwise. A hilarious women’s fiction submission I read recently opened with a character trying to put a positive spin on desperation (‘it makes you much more open minded!’) and because that made me smile, I read on. Editors get so many submissions that we really do want to love a book from the get-go, so make your opening the very, very best it can be. Revise it as many times as it needs, get beta readers to look at it for you, get your family to give you their honest opinion. Make sure you’re not repeating yourself, or confusing the reader. There is time to make your plot as twisty as you like later on, but for the first page, draw the reader in. Then once you’ve got them hooked, you can take them to all the corners of your imagination without worrying that they might lose interest.

In terms of market awareness, have a look at the kinds of books you’re seeing around you. Check out the Amazon top 100, the tables at Waterstones, the bookshelves in the supermarkets, the media picks in magazines. Can you spot any patterns between them? Is a certain type of genre outperforming others, and is that a genre you might like to write in? Are articles popping up about a new television trend that might relate to books as well? To give you an example, at the moment a lot of publishers are bringing out or buying novels about older generations – have a look at the Bookseller and see what you find there. There has definitely been an upward trend too for what the Guardian termed ‘uplit’ – uplifting books to combat the depressing political events of 2016-17. Of course, working in publishing helps me to see these things but the same information is available for writers, if they’re interested. Often, editors have wishlists online too in the same way agents do, saying which genres of book they prefer, and there’s nothing wrong with a writer making a note of this and keeping it in mind when pitching.

Of course, as a writer you should write the book that you love, that you will be proud of and that you enjoy writing. Finishing a book in itself is an amazing thing! But if you do want to secure a traditional deal, the above points might be helpful – and you will probably find that if you start researching your competitor books, you’ll find it quite interesting. It’s always good to be aware of your field, in any industry, and to be able to know where your books fits in. I truly believe there is space for a basically unlimited amount of books in the world, so if yours is strong enough, you have a brilliant opening followed by an equally strong book, then go for it. That’s what I did with mine. And if you’re an Irish women’s fiction author writing hilarious romantic comedies…please get in touch!

If you enjoyed reading this article, my debut novel is only 99p here if you wanted to check it out and make me a happy writer 🙂 Thank you for visiting my blog.

12 thoughts on “What an editor looks for and why

    1. Hi Sally! Ideally, a word count of 80k minimum, and 80-100k is ideal 😊 yes, my particular imprint (Avon HarperCollins) does only take agented subs at the moment although we are launching an open submissions period soon so do keep an eye out! Thanks for reading my blog! Phoebe x

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