THE ROAD TO COMMISSION By Donna Condon (Senior Editor: Piatkus Fiction – Little, Brown Book Group)

January 20th, 2011

After I contributed an article to the wonderful Horror Reanimated blog late last year I was asked by a few readers whether I could also contribute something with a focus on commissioning. Well, what better time than now: the beginning of a new year when we are all reassessing things and determining to make those dreams become realities. What I thought would be useful is an overview of how exactly fiction commissioning works. So here goes . . .

Editors work on lists (or imprints) which have their own personalities, subsequently meaning that editors will have a remit to look for something specific that fits comfortably on that particular list. Some editors acquire various types of fiction (like me, and in my case it’s commercial rather than literary), and some will specialise further and, for example, will publish crime fiction only. Even within a remit there is a remit: if publishing and looking for, say, urban fantasy, exactly what type of urban fantasy is missing from the list? Urban fantasy that is grittier, more series that are aimed primarily at women, more international settings to balance out the number of series with US settings? It’s the editor’s job to assess what is working for the list, what is missing, what opportunities exist within the remit they have, and also what opportunities exist that could stretch that remit a little – all the while making a profit, establishing new authors and publishing successful books. Balance is very important; very seldom is there space for a lot of the same types of fiction, as it makes it very difficult for the company’s sales team if they have the job of pitching books and authors to retailers that have an identical hook.

Most big houses very rarely assess unsolicited submissions so my first advice to aspiring authors out there is to secure an agent. As editors are so specific about what they are looking for (which isn’t necessarily concrete and is instead something that evolves as new trends emerge/people’s reading habits change etc) it’s really essential to have an industry insider championing your book who’s in a position to target exactly those people who are looking for the kind of book you’ve written. Also, if your book falls too much between two stools they are in a great position to advise you how to tweak so that its placement is not a problem that will result in your book being deemed not quite right for any list at all.

In terms of assessing a manuscript that has come to the editor from an agent who says, ‘this is exactly the book for you,’ there are also additional factors to consider along with the above. If it is indeed exactly what you have been looking for, and you’re really impressed by the content, you’ll look at sales of similar authors and novels. Experience allows an editor to assess sales data in such a way that you have a good idea whether there is room to publish more in this area or whether the trend is coming to an end. There has to be a market for each book published, else it disappears into the abyss. Also, increasingly, the author’s profile is important. If you have a debut crime author who is active on crime blogs (perhaps even has their own review site) and understands social networking, this knowledge/profile will definitely go more in their favour than that of an author who never goes online and doesn’t know the first thing about that realm.

Once the editor has decided there is a tangible reason to pursue a submission, the material is then assessed by the rest of their editorial colleagues and, if everyone believes in the content, it goes forward to be discussed finally with sales and marketing, the big question being: will we sell copies? If the editor gets everyone on board and gets the thumbs up to offer, the advance offered to the author essentially reflects the level of sales hoped for and, once the offer has been made via the agent, the author hopefully say yes!

I’m aware how far detached writers can feel from the realities of the commissioning process so I hope this overview today has been helpful. Best of luck with your writing!

About Donna Condon:

Donna Condon is a commissioning fiction editor on the Piatkus list at Little, Brown Book Group where she has worked for three years. Prior to that she worked at Piatkus Books (when it was still an independent) and Virgin Books. She commissions commercial fiction across a whole range of genres.

Entry Filed under: Uncategorized,Writing Chat

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Colin Leslie  |  February 16th, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Very interesting post Donna, thanks.

    Just a wee bit confused about your comment on the fiction you acquire “it’s commercial rather than literary”. Wonder how you define that? Obviously at extreme ends of the spectrum you may have Dan Brown and Salman Rushdie but I like to think that most authors would at least aspire to be both even if some fail to achieve either.

  • 2. Donna Condon  |  February 23rd, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Hi Colin,

    Thanks for the comment.

    As with any grey area, there is no clear-cut definition as to what is commercial fiction versus what is literary fiction, and many people struggle to agree but, in essence, commercial fiction is telling a story in a way that will really entertain a reader and has mass appeal, and literary fiction strives to arrive at the heart or essence of something and tends to be ‘serious’ fiction where the story (and pace of the novel) can often come secondary to the author’s own unique style etc. Generally (though, of course, there are some exceptions) literary fiction is viewed as being its own genre, whereas the term ‘commercial fiction’ can be applied to books in many genres.

    Hope this helps!

    Donna

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