By Alysoun Owen
‘Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea.’
Margaret Atwood is expressing her views as an author of course in the above quotation, but it might just as well have been uttered by a publisher or an editor: a variant on the ‘publish and be damned’ theme. A strange maxim on which one’s whole working life has been based! And by one, I mean ME and my living and breathing of all things literary and publishing related for, ahem, the last 25 years. Ah, the wonderfully inexact, mercurial world of publishing, a put-your-finger-in-the-air, test-the-waters, wait-and-see sort of profession.
As we publish the 110th edition of the great red tome, all 816 pages of it, that is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (on 28th July), I’ve been reflecting on the two strands of my life and career that have led me to my current role as editor of the Yearbook: the love of literature and desire to see the best possible writing made available to the many combined with a need to get things right – to create saleable ‘products’ that are accurate, reliable and economically viable. That’s what we hope to achieve with the Yearbook: a successful book that readers, in their tens of thousands, want and need (what Susan Hill calls ‘the writer’s Bible’ and Deborah Levy, who penned this year’s foreword, describes as ‘full of information that all writers need to know’). A book that is full of reliable, factual information: who to contact at a book publisher or literary agency, how to write an agent submission, mastering social media, the dos and don’ts of self-publishing, copyright, tax and other financial advice AND which brings together the words of wisdom of great writers who were once themselves debut novelists, poets, screenwriters, journalists … to inspire each new generation of writers and illustrators who wish to try their luck in the turbulent waters of publishing; hurling their own message in a bottle into the high seas.
I started my own publishing life when I was little, making up little books of stories when I was a child. Not very good stories: I was always much better at collating my sister’s efforts and illustrating them into a creative whole than being an author. I was blessed: I lived in a house lined with bookshelves and chatter that was often about books and plays. My mother was an English teacher. My father, now I think about it and fittingly for a blog on the SfEP site (see the BSI symbols for proof-marks), worked for the British Standards Institute (BSI); he was an electrical engineer and concerned himself with international safety standards in that field. Often in the evenings, my mother would be sat marking or editing her pupils’ work at the kitchen table, whilst my father sat at his desk reviewing and revising (i.e. proofing and editing) the latest Standard. You could say it was no real surprise that I would then opt to take a degree in English Language and Literature: a three-year scamper through the literary canon from Beowulf to Woolf (with a smattering of more modern American writings thrown in). From university, I spent six months learning from experts how to print, desk-top publish, take photos, bind books and most relevantly to copy-edit and proofread using the correct marks. Armed with a degree in English, a diploma in Publishing and my trusty red and blue manuscript-correcting biros, I began my career shepherding hundreds of titles for students of literature in Longman’s Higher Education Division. What a delight to actually be working with and editing the texts of former tutors and the writers of edited texts and critical editions that I had relied on so heavily as a student.
Each of my subsequent roles in the industry has contributed to my present position: from Longman I headed to OUP to desk edit and then commission notable reference titles: The Oxford Companion to English Literature, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, The Oxford Companion to Wine … and one of my proudest and most lucrative (for OUP that is!) commissions, celebrating the magic of words, Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Forays into online publishing at the dawn of a new era of digital publishing, establishing a publishing consultancy and project management company and working with publishers large and small in a new freelance capacity offered me the chance to experience all sorts of editorial and strategic avenues: coming up with new ideas for print and digital propositions, establishing teams of freelance editors, project managers and designers residing in far-flung places, but working collectively to make each print book or ebook or CD or website the best it could be. I love being in charge of my own destiny, professionally speaking, not allied exclusively to any one employer. Yes, freelance life can be precarious, but highly rewarding and flexible. Which takes me back to the Yearbook – which I edit for Bloomsbury from January to June each year with a band of expert editors: as a group we commission, collect and collate the content for each new edition. It reminds me how lucky I am to be working in such a field.
Alysoun Owen is the editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. She has worked in publishing for 25 years, runs her own publishing consultancy business and is a regular speaker at literary festivals on how to get published. For advice, news, blogs and details of editorial services and events, visit www.writersandartists.co.uk.
SfEP members get a discount when buying the WAYB or CWAYB. Click on the book image above or go to benefits in the members’ area of the website.
Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP