Sunday, 28 November 2010

Interview with a Publisher: Strident Publishing

In the final post of Strident Publishing Month, tall tales & short stories talks to Strident Publishing’s Managing Director, Keith Charters and Commissioning Editor, Graham Watson.

Strident Publishing is the publisher of several award winning books including, most recently, Linda Strachan's Spider.

Spider won the 2010 Catalyst Award.  The winner is voted for by teenage readers and Spider was chosen as The Book of the Year 2010.

Keith and Graham, welcome to tall tales & short stories and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

* Commissioning Editor, Graham Watson:
Hi Graham, could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m the Commissioning Editor of Strident. I’ve been in the book trade since I was a teenager and have been involved in every part of the process from commissioning books in publishing houses to selling them over the counter in bookstores. All my heroes were writers, so being an editor is pretty much a dream fulfilled.

* Managing Director, Keith Charters: 
Hi Keith, could you tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to set up Strident Publishing?

It’s to do with history. Before I became a publisher I was an author ( and I still am). And before that I worked in business, running parts of other people’s companies. I always knew that one day I would set up my own business, it was simply a question of what.

By the time my first LEE novel (Lee and the Consul Mutants) was published I had already written the next two Lee novels and my publisher was keen to bag those. However, I’d started to get an idea as to how publishing worked and so decided at that point to set up Strident - to publish other people’s books. But it didn’t seem to make sense to pass up publishing the next two LEE novels too given that another publisher had given them the nod, so we went ahead, launching Lee Goes For Gold to 1,500 pupils in Glasgow.

 As a result, Lee and the Consul Mutants hit the no.1 spot in The Herald children’s bestsellers chart, with Lee Goes For Gold at no.4 at the same time. (Which only goes to prove that you always sell more of the first book in any series.)

As anyone who knows me will testify, I don’t know everything. Nor can I do everything myself. (Rumours abound that I’ve been cloning myself to fit in everything that needs doing in a day, but they’re unfounded.) And it’s important to know one’s limitations.

So I built a team around me that had a mixture of publishing and bookselling experience. The latter is particularly important because experienced booksellers instinctively know what will sell. They can imagine themselves in a shop having to recommend books and if they can’t imagine themselves recommending a book we’re considering…then we don’t make an offer for it.

* How would you sum up Strident Publishing’s philosophy?

Keith:  Strident is a publisher of fiction for children and young adults, with some of our titles (e.g. Firebrand) crossing over into the adult market.

We are ambitious. Our first book only came out 3 years ago, but our 5-year aim is for Strident to profitably become one of the UK’s top 3 independent publishers of high quality fiction for our market.

Our philosophy is summed up with our motto: we don’t do things by halves.

If we don’t feel we can get completely behind a book and its author then we don’t publish the book. And if we do publish it we throw all our efforts and resources behind promoting it. Readers are fickle, so it is inevitable that not all of our books will go on to win awards (although Linda Strachan’s Spider has recently won the Catalyst Award) and some won’t be as successful as we think they deserve to be. What is important to me is that that is never because we haven’t done all that we can to give it the best possible chance of succeeding.

* What makes Strident Publishing different from other publishing houses?

We have a clear vision of what we think readers are looking for and what we want to offer them. We also have a focused approach to making people aware of our list. It would be nice to think that people are searching for our books, but we know the reality is that we have to take our books to them. It is our responsibility to stimulate demand. Given that we don’t have a multi-million pound marketing budget to dip into, we have to find other ways of reaching our audience.

In particular we encourage our authors to present in schools and a festivals. We can’t organise all the visits for them, but we do help them in other ways: providing them with mailing and emailing lists for schools, pitching them to festival directors, making bookshops and libraries aware of their willingness to present and suggesting networking events they should attend. After all, if no-one knows who you are they’re not going to ask you to present.

This approach all comes out of my own experience. When I started out it was down to me to make contacts and generate events at schools (which authors are usually paid for) and I quickly realised what a difference it could make. (Obviously if you’re hopeless at presenting it can make the wrong kind of difference; happily I discovered I had a talent for making young people laugh – a talent I had no inkling that I possessed.) So I make a point of giving all of our authors as much of a helping hand as I can. I encourage them to come along and see me present, not because what I do is right for them – it won’t be, they need to find their own style - but so they can see that it’s not as scary as you think standing in front of 150 young people for the first time (honest!) because they ‘re keen to hear what you’ve got to say – they’re keen to be entertained.

* Which authors/stories did you both enjoy reading as a child/teenager?

Keith: After reading every Biggles book in my local library I read every Famous Five and & Secret Seven. So nothing unusual in that. But when I became a teenager I struggled to find books that interested me and I read what might seem like strange books for a teenager to be interested in: a 500-page biography of Stalin, for example. Why? Because the story was interesting. And remember this was in the days before there was a thing as a young adult novel to whet the appetite and stimulate the mind. The lack of books for that market is part of what encouraged me to publish for it.

Graham: I read a lot as a child, and preferred anything rooted in fairy tales or folklore but I particularly loved the books of Tove Jansson, Mary Norton and P.L. Travers and still think that between them they wrote some of the 20th century’s most beautiful children’s literature. As a teenager, my interests moved more towards non-fiction. The two books that had the most impact on me then were The Diary of Anne Frank and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

* How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today?

Keith: They were completely different. Roald Dahl aside, I don’t recall reading any funny books when I was younger…which probably explains why I write them now. And there simply wasn’t such a thing as a YA novel. You went from Roald Dahl to Graham Greene, and for many of my contemporaries I think that was simply too much of a jump and it put them off reading.

Had there been books like Dead Boy Talking or Firebrand or Bad Faith there would undoubtedly be a lot more enthusiasm for books at school. Happily those books now exist and I love seeing the impact they have on teenagers/YAs.

Graham: I think we’re in the golden age of literature for children and young adults.

* What do you think children of today want to read?

Anyone who challenges them – challenges them to laugh, to feel angry, to think deeply about issues, to suspend their imagination, to question why things are done the way they are…

And the good news is that there are some tremendous authors coming through who cater for exactly those desires.

* How would you describe your typical working days?

Keith:  There isn’t a typical day, but let’s take today...

0800 Catching up on emails, checking sales and stock figures.

1030 Arrive at Catalyst Awards ceremony to see Linda Strachan present…and then win the award. (Another Strident award success!)

1200 Leave award, drive to station, train to Edinburgh.

1325 Meeting with Matt Cartney, one of our new authors, whose 11+ novel The Sons of Rissouli: A Danny Kirkpatrick Adventure will be out in April.

1430 Meeting with the agent of one of our authors – agreed to buy 2 great new titles.

1515 Meeting with Children’s Programme Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pitching several of our authors & novels.

1630 Briefing meeting with my colleague Alison Stroak, then train home.

1845 Arrive home.

2000 Pack to present at Aberdeen & Inverurie school events (wearing author hat) the following day.

2100 Catch up on emails.

2300 Hit the sack early as up at 0545 the following day.

But some days I spend the whole time in the office, so it’s not always as manic as that!

Graham: My days tend to be long and varied! A lot of my time is spent close-reading texts, but on an average day it’s not unusual for me to be going over edits with an author, or discussing jacket art with a designer. I also oversee some of our online representation, so I check up on that too.

* Graham – What inspired you to become a Commissioning Editor and how did you prepare for this career?

It happened gradually. Books have always played a major part in my life and I gravitated towards a career in publishing. Like many editors I started off as an intern in a publisher’s office sorting huge piles of unsolicited manuscripts. After that I started editing adult non-fiction, until I was putting publication schedules together and editing all the books on them. Over the years I freelanced as an editor for several publishers and have been with Strident, commissioning children’s lit since it was founded.

* Could you explain what being a Commissioning Editor entails?

Graham:  I’m responsible for acquisitions, then seeing each of the books through to publication. In a larger sense I shape the overall tone of the lists by selecting titles to be published together so that there’s some variety and shape to the waves.

* What is the greatest challenge of being a Commissioning Editor?

Graham:  That I can’t add an extra five hours to my day. And that I mostly have to decline material that is good, but is not right for us.

* Trials and tribulations of being a Commissioning Editor: What do you love about your work? What don’t you love?

Graham:  There’s a lot to love about it. Talking plots and character developments through with authors is incredible once you can look back on it from the perspective of the finished book and see how the ideas have been realised on the page. Generally, having an internal view of the story is very exciting and is still probably my favourite part of the job. Turning a concept into a finished, bound book is less immediate, but just as thrilling.

I sometimes don’t love telling people what I do. Their first response always seems to be, ‘An editor? Oh that’s interesting because I’ve written a book. In fact I’ve got it with me. It’s like Harry Potter, only now he’s a forensic pathologist...

* When looking at a new manuscript what are the main things that grab your attention and makes a piece of work stand out?

Graham:  Before the plot kicks in and before I meet the characters I’m listening for the author’s voice. A tried-and-tested, confident voice should ring out from the first line. That’s what tells readers they’re in safe hands. I’m immediately turned off by writers trying to write their idea of literature. Usually they’re the same people whose covering letters are written in fine, plain English and you wish they’d had the confidence to write in that voice, and not tried to sound like Charlotte Bronte or Jack Kerouac because they thought that would be more impressive, more literary. Reading material like that is like listening to people sing karaoke all day.

* What kind of working relationship does Strident Publishing aim to build with its authors? Does Strident hope to work with a writer to develop their career?

Keith:  As mentioned above, I’m still an author myself, and that’s useful in that I know how I would want to be treated by a publisher. So that’s our starting point. We try to involve our authors as much as possible, not least because we don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. We also try to give them a steer in terms of building their profile and thus their career. We are completely upfront about the amount of work that needs to be done because we don’t want it to come as a surprise. I also make a point of setting out the economics of publishing so that authors can make informed choices. There is a great temptation to receive an offer one day and give up the day job the next. That can often be the wrong decision.

And we are always aiming to build a career, although we do also have to be commercial. A publisher needs to work hard to get a debut novel to sell in the market and you don’t normally see a huge return on that debut, but it’s a starting point. When the second novel comes along you’ve done a lot of the ground work, so there’s something to build on. That’s why our expectation is usually that we’ll be publishing at least two books by any author, though we’re always alive to the possibility of one-hit wonders!

Graham: We work very closely with our authors. We have some who are already published, or are being published by other houses, and with those who are publishing for the first time, so we tailor our work to their individual needs.

* Who can submit to Strident Publishing and could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you're both looking to acquire and what really excites you?

Graham:  We’re not looking for picture books or books for preschoolers.

Primarily we’re looking for quality children’s fiction: 7-9, 9-12, YA.
Within those categories I want to hear from writers who know how to tell a great story, who have unusual, interesting ideas, strong characters, and a sound voice.

* What particular aspect of a manuscript, if any, really appeals and why? Voice? Characterisation? Plot? Or all of the above?

Graham:  All of the above.
For me, the author’s voice comes first, then the characters, then the plot.

* Would you take a risk on a manuscript that showed lots of promise but needed a lot of work?

Graham:  Certainly. It’s rare for books to arrive at a publisher in their final fully-formed state, so it’s important to be able to see the possibilities of a work regardless of how close it is to being realised.

Keith:  We have done. We – and the author – need to recognise that editing costs money, so if it needs a lot of work we have to take account of that, but sometimes you get a feeling for a manuscript and realise it simply needs reshaping.

* From commissioning a book to final publication, how long on average would you work on a particular book?

Graham: It varies vastly from book to book. Commissioning to publication can be a couple of years, or it can be six months, and it can take anywhere between 2 and 6 months to edit the book. After the editorial process is finished I oversee the production of the interior pages and commission the artwork which can take another few months, so I tend to be a sort of custodian until the book is bound and in bookstores.

* How many books would you be working on at any one time and how do you divide your time between each project?

Graham:  This year has been incredibly busy for us, and at one point I was working on five novels all at once. Dividing time is less difficult than dividing the mental space it takes to jump between the universes each author has created. But I’m one of those readers who always has half a dozen books on the go at once, so it hardly feels like work.

* Are an editor’s suggestions set in stone or is there always room for discussion if the author disagrees with the suggestions made?

Graham:  Editor’s suggestions are not set in stone, but they’ve been made for a good reason: to improve the book, and better its chances of being bought and read all the way through to the end. If the choice for a writer is taking criticism from their editor or taking it from a reviewer – and there’s no shortage of them online – I’d suggest you listen to your editor. The process is about bringing an external perspective to the material, and is probably the most intensive discussion the author will have about their work. Even though the editor is on the author’s side, we must offer the kind of constructive criticism that might make some writers wince. Those further on in their careers will have learned some perspective on their material and understand that an editor’s job is to take a critical look at it, to highlight flaws that might not be apparent to them. Fortunately though, every publishing house is fitted with a special alarm that goes off when it detects a lack of perspective...

* Do you accept unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for an author to approach Strident?

Graham:  Yes, we’re still accepting unsolicited manuscripts, and might be one of the last publishers who are. Writers can post copies of their manuscripts to the address on our website, but the best – and cheaper – way is to email them to us at

* What advice do you have for writers interested in submitting to Strident Publishing?

Graham:  Don’t write about a mysterious boy at a wizarding school or a girl in an abusive relationship with a vampire. Be original, understand who you are writing for, and read lots before you start.

* When reading submissions what would you say are the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers?

Graham:  Where to start? Once you’ve read a lot of unpublished manuscripts you start to see the same problems over and over again and how they damage the integrity of the whole work. It’s worth investing in either manuscript appraisal services, or a writer’s guide like the indispensable ‘How Not To Write A Novel’ by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. But generally the biggest problems that put editors and publishers off are:

• Characters that don’t come to life. Idealised versions of yourself won’t ring true. Don’t shy away from showing us your characters’ less appealing – and generally more interesting – traits.

• Plot problems. It can become clear by chapter 3 that the author has no idea where the story is going and is hoping his characters will give him a clue. Know your destination before you set off for it. You don’t have to know all the details, as part of the fun will be finding them, but decide on a direction and don’t let yourself be sidetracked.

• Stodgy writing. The antidote to bad writing is lots of good reading. And practise. Write lots of things you don’t intend to publish. Write in your head. Keep pushing to find new ways to encapsulate new sensations.

* Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?

Graham:  Before submitting material, remember that your intention is to encourage someone who doesn’t care about your work to like it. So don’t make it difficult for them. Start by making it legible. Format your margins, double line space the text, and use a plain, unobtrusive font.

Be brief when it comes to the synopsis; there’s no need to summarise every scene in the book. Above all, let the writing do the talking. And be aware that using flashy stationary will not make your manuscript read better.

* Would you ever consider a proposal for a series from a new author, or do you prefer stand alone books?

Keith:  We’ll look at either. As explained above, with a series you have a longer period over which to gain a return on your initial investment of time, effort and money.

Graham:  Absolutely, we’re open to asuggestions. Obviously, acquiring a series is a greater commitment than a stand-alone novel, so we have to be confident they’ll all work well. We’ve published several stand-alone books and several novels as part of a series.

* What is one thing you wish every beginner writer knew?

That all the successful and talented writers were passionate about reading.

* Any final words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Keith:  Write for yourself, not for the market.
Submit your best work – don’t attach a note saying ‘I know this is a bit rough and will need lots of editing, but I hope you like the idea.’ Do that editing before you send it to us!

Graham:  It’s important to get rid of any romantic ideas you may have about being a writer. It involves an incredible amount of hard work and perseverance. Take the development of your writing seriously and keep looking for new ways to hone your voice. Remember that being published is not an impossibility – but it requires a longer commitment than most occupations.

Some other books to look out for from Strident Publishing


1 comment:

kathryn evans said...

Another great interview Tracy - one line will stick with me:
"I mostly have to decline material that is good, but is not right for us".
When they say that, they really mean it.....

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