Sunday, 19 June 2011


Catnip Publishing is an independent publisher of children's books for all ages from picture books to YA. Their list includes award winning authors and books, and new editions of old favourites. Tall tales & short stories talks to Catnip's Commissioning Editor, Non Pratt.


* Hi Non, and welcome to tall tales & short stories could you tell us a little about yourself?

I'm the commissioning editor at Catnip Publishing, an independent children's publishing house. I think books are rather wonderful things and I can get quite ranty about the importance of reading and extremely ravy about little things like cover finishes. I'm also a big fan of cats (I have two, who I often refer to in tweets as the Panda and the Tiger) and erm... mugs.

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

I don't think I'm unusual in that I started applying for jobs in publishing because I liked writing as a teenager, but I was lucky to secure a job as an editor in children's non-fiction, which gave me invaluable experience in actually writing for a young audience. I moved across to fiction and into a commissioning role because I wanted to work with authors, instead of writing the material myself.

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

We have a three-pronged approach to publishing: buying in books from elsewhere such as the excellent Scaredy Squirrel picture books from Canada.

Bringing back titles that no shelf should be without, like the Jinny at Finmory series:

And producing stand-out original fiction such as J.D. Irwin's Edwin Spencer books.

*  What makes Catnip Publishing different from other publishing houses?

Every book is a big deal – I'm the only Catnip employee so if we take on an author it's because I'm 100% personally invested in the project. This makes it easy to spread that enthusiasm through to the great freelancers that we work with.

*  Do you think smaller, independent publishers can afford to take bigger risks with the books they choose to publish?

Yes and no. I can commission a book that might have a risky subject matter, or a new author with no proven track record without a committee getting nervous, but we can't afford to write off a misfire as a larger company might. So, I can take a chance on editorial instincts, but not our business.

*  Can you explain what being a Commissioning Editor entails?

My primary role is to think about the shape of the list as a whole, then look for projects that will take us in the right direction by meeting with agents and looking at submissions. If I see something I like, I've got to be clear on target audience, costs and marketing before I make sure my boss and the sales team like the sound of it. I then negotiate the contract and start editing the manuscript. At Catnip I'm responsible for everything, so I've got to brief the cover, write the copy, make sure the right people know the right information, take the book through every stage of edits; through production until it becomes a finished book. Even then it doesn't stop because what would be the point in making a great book and then forgetting about it? I like to make sure everyone I can think of knows that the book is out and it rocks – after the author I'm the person who knows it the best so I reckon I'm pretty well positioned to explain why it's a great read. I'm not sure that's the role of every Commissioning Editor, but that's what my role entails!

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

I love *that* feeling every editor gets when they read something that they have to have. For me it's a slightly sick-making throat grab that renders me more than a little breathless. And shaky. I have been known to quake a little. And the first edit – I like to sit down with an author and go through my thoughts on their manuscript in a one-to-one meeting so they can see my frank and honest reaction to their work. I do not like saying no, although I've heard I'm quite good at it. You have to be. Oh, and costings. Yawn.

*  How would you describe your typical working day?

My typical working day involves what feels like a mammoth amount of emailing. I've just returned to working three days a week from maternity leave and a surprising amount of messages can build up on my two days 'off'. Then I try to make sure I do at least one admin job (costing? Print order?), one marketing and publicity job (send a book for review? write copy for a sales sheet?) and then I treat myself with a proper editor job (approve a cover! Edit that manuscript! Have a cup of tea in your favourite mug and think about books!). Reading submissions gets done in those 'off' days.

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

Voice. That's it.
Although there's a plethora of bad things that can grab my attention...

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

We’re always looking to further an author’s career, not just publish their first (or their fifty-first!) book. As an editor my focus is on providing a good reflection of how an author's writing will be perceived by the target audience. Beyond that I simply see my function as being whatever each individual author needs. I'm also quite friendly, so I tend to think of the author/editor relationship as being a fairly personal one.

*  Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you're both looking to acquire and what really excites you?

Gah! I'm so vague when people ask me this question. I like a good voice. Beyond that... I want something special, something heartfelt. I'm not overly commercial in my tastes and tend towards things that seem a little different. That's the editor in me. The reader in me yearns for something epic and exciting like the Chaos Walking trilogy, or His Dark Materials.
Or something a little dangerous like one of our recent books, Clash by Colin Mulhern.

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

Voice. Voice voice voice. I reckon if you've got that then you can learn those other things with the right guidance.

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

Absolutely. That's what I'm looking for. A perfect, fully formed manuscript is more likely to be snapped up by someone with a bigger budget or name – I'm looking for that glint of gold in the bottom of the riverbed and I'll pan until we make our fortune.

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

It depends on how I've come by the book. A buy-in or a re-issue can be out within six months (reps need some lead time to sell to the buyers and for that they need a finished cover image). A new manuscript could take a year if I'm pushing very hard, but more likely eighteen months to two years given everyone's schedules.

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

Objective issues should be straight forward agreement. Me [pointing]: There’s a plot hole there. Author: Ah. Yes. How about I do this...[fancy pants writerly magic] fix it? Me: That’ll do nicely.
Subjective matters, such as style of delivery can involve a bit of debate. If I think something should be changed I should be able to convince the author of my reason for doing so, otherwise, why suggest it? But equally I love a persuasive counterargument because it means that the author has really thought about that stylistic choice. But I want to be convinced not just dismissed.

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

We don't accept unsolicited material because there is only me to read them and I don't have the time. My best advice is to read the tips on our website contacts page and to find an agent. Having said that I'm super excited about a slush pile find coming out in January 2012 called The Court Painter's Apprentice by Richard Knight. So there is hope out there – just not at Catnip at the moment!

*  What advice do you have for writers looking to submit work?

My advice for anyone submitting anywhere is this: Read the submission guidelines. You will find these on the website, where you may also find a name of the person who will read your submission. Find out whether they are male or female – it's only polite.
Keep your covering letter succinct and professional as if applying for a job and only include detail that is relevant to the person you're sending this to.
Keep your synopsis short but don't stress too much, no one is good at writing these. They're meant to sound rubbish because they give away the story.
Check for typos and grammatical errors in your submission.

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

Not reading the submission guidelines.

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

I don't wish to seem rude but I have read a lot of covering letters introducing stories that were written as bedtime stories for the writer's offspring, who like them. Or from teachers whose pupils like them. Children are politic – they tell you what you want to hear. Don't include this information in your letter. I did receive a cover letter from someone submitting their mother's bedtime story because they enjoyed it so much: that was significantly more interesting.
Oh, and I hate being called Mr Pratt. Google me. I have lady parts. Or just call me Non.

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

I tend to curl my toes a little as if I'm actually digging my heels in when someone introduces a fantastic new series unless it's from an agent. I'd prefer to start with a standalone.

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

Something relevant. Fantasy can be relevant by showing true character in the face of unlikely danger and real world books can be irrelevant if they say nothing about the reader's life.

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

That you will only get better with time. Don't hurry to get published before you've found your voice.

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

Write because you love it, not because you want to make money. It shows in your words.

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