Ever wondered what goes on behind-the-scenes at a top publisher? To kick off the new year I’m sharing interviews and insights into publishing from the inside. If you’ve ever wondered what happens AFTER your book is accepted (or even how to get it accepted!) you’re going to love this series.

When I first set out to get my memoir published, I trawled the internet for insights into the actual process once you’re snapped up by a publisher. I found almost nothing, just posts by writers saying their edits were ‘due’ – what did this mean? How did the editor work on the manuscript….? How did it even get to that point?

In my goal of pulling back the veil on the traditional publishing industry, I thought I’d start a series of interviews with key people in publishing who have made a huge difference to my journey, taught me priceless things you just can’t find unless you’re actually signed up with a publishing house, and who I think can help you, too!

It’s fitting that my first interviewee is the lovely Alexandra Nahlous.
When I signed the book deal for Love & Other U-Turns with Allen & Unwin, Alex was my assigned editor. I remember crying tears of joy when I received my edits back from Alex on my manuscript, she was so thorough!

If you’ve been working your way through the slog of writing and editing solo, trying to get it to publication standard on your own, to be ‘given’ your very own editor is one of the most wonderful parts of the traditional publishing process! It’s such an honour to be edited: someone takes your work and it’s their goal to make it even better. Alex gave me one structural edit (which, if I remember correctly, was marked up on the physical manuscript) and then we did a final edit that was closer copyediting. I’m told this is quite unusual: most memoirs (and books) need a few more rounds, but remember that I had been working like a maniac on that manuscript for over a year, and had two English teachers give me beta reads, which helped with the structure. With A Letter From Paris, I think I went through 5 or 6 complete rounds (including proofreading) so yes, Love’s path does seem unusual!

Read on for Alex’s insights into firstly how many manuscripts a typical in-house editor works on at one time, and the top three mistakes she saw in rejected submissions…

First, a little overview of Alex’s incredible publishing career:

AN: My first book publishing job was for Lansdowne Publishing, and that was all non-fiction, predominantly inspirational, self-help books and cookbooks, what we call illustrated titles (full colour, high-end photography and illustrations).

After that I worked for Allen & Unwin for almost nine years, and in the first four years there, I worked on non-fiction only.

I worked on the whole range, from business books to academic titles, Australian history, military history, biography, memoirs, you name it. I also worked on some custom publishing titles, which are books created for companies that had contracted Allen & Unwin to publish a book for their business.

After those initial years, I began working on fiction as well as non-fiction, and it was a wonderful range, from literary to commercial fiction.

After working with New York publishers for the Beatrice Davis Fellowship in 2010, I published commercial fiction for Pan Macmillan, and since 2013 when I began my freelance business, I’ve worked with a huge range of publishers, from HarperCollins to Penguin Random House, ABC Books, Scholastic and many others. I work on mainly fiction for adults, young adults and junior fiction, and narrative non-fiction, namely memoirs and biographies.

LD: Alex won the Beatrice Davis fellowship in 2010, which is an esteemed fellowship awarded to a senior editor in Australia to travel internationally and learn and share gained knowledge of other markets. Alex travelled to New York and was placed in top houses including Voice/Hyperion and Simon and Schuster, and the renowned agency Writers House. She also sat in on meetings at Harlequin, Grand Central Publishing, St Martin’s Press, Avon Books, HarperCollins and Berkley Publishing Group. You can read her report here.

Thankfully, I’d been assigned Alex as editor at Allen & Unwin before she won the award (!), but I wanted her to share with you exactly how a book is edited at Allen & Unwin.

LD: As editor at A&U, how many manuscripts would you typically work on at a time?

AN: It was a very hectic schedule at Allen & Unwin. At best it was thirteen simultaneous manuscripts and at worst it was eighteen manuscripts.

I was incredibly busy and often overworked. A full schedule for an editor really is twelve simultaneous books over a six-month production period. You certainly can’t edit every title with that many in production at once, but with fiction and narrative non-fiction, you are expected to read the manuscript and if not do the structural edit, then certainly be part of the trio discussion that takes place at the structural stage between the publisher, in-house editor and freelance editor.

LD: This is a LOT of stories to keep in your head from start-to-finish, at one time! This is why I implore writers submitting work to publishers to get it to the absolute best standard they can on their own first.

LD: Can you share the top 3 ‘mistakes’ you saw with manuscripts that were either rejected, or that needed a lot of editing work?

AN: The biggest reason for manuscripts being rejected is the narrative voice, which is to say, the power of the storytelling.

This really is the number one hook for all readers, publishers in particular. If you’re like me as a reader, you open up the first page and read to get a feel for the writing, and you’re either hooked right away or you aren’t.

This is that magical element that just can’t be manufactured. No matter how beautiful a writer you are, it’s highly unlikely that a story will be completely perfect after the first draft. Even the most successful writers in the world say that ‘writing is really rewriting’ – as in, editing. Most writers I’ve seen who have had success with publishers, have worked incredibly hard on rewriting and redrafting to develop the work before submitting it. (LD: Um, yes, that was me!! I remember someone asking me how many drafts of Love & Other U-Turns I’d written before I submitted it and I actually couldn’t tell you. 38?!).

The other crucial reason for rejecting manuscripts is pace. No matter what type of story you’ve written, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it has to be of a tremendous pace. Sometimes we say ‘healthy pace’, but really if you cannot get readers to turn the pages because they’re so gripped by the storytelling, then the pace is slow and as a result readers lose interest and therefore publishers.

When the pace is incredible – meaning, when it’s driven by action/events/drama/conflict/tension – in a manuscript, you can actually get away with a lot more in storytelling than you would in a much slower-paced novel. What I mean is that if the characters aren’t quite fantastic enough, or there are some holes in the plotting, when the pace is really fast and readers can barely wait to turn the pages, you will get away with that as a writer.

But if the pace is slow, then readers will instantly pick holes in your storytelling, in the plotting, in the characterisation and so on. Obviously, I’m not saying you should write a fast-paced novel or memoir that is full of holes and two-dimensional characters. What I am saying is that publishers will reject a manuscript if the pace is slow.

The third reason for rejecting manuscripts is of course the concept of the work. If, for example, they are a publisher of genre fiction and they’ve had lots of success with crime thrillers, then you have to present an incredible crime thriller to be considered for that list. So, if you want your story to be acquired by the publisher, then it has to offer them something new. That is, it has to present a new twist on the old or find a new way of telling a story that’s been told before. And that comes back to the hook – the problem the characters face that they’re trying to solve.

So it’s true, with non-fiction (including memoirs and biographies), a publisher can make an offer based purely on the proposal, but you have to have an amazing concept and/or have a terrific public profile.

LD: How many submissions would a publisher receive on a weekly basis, versus what’s accepted? Can be general here! I’m sure it really varies…

AN: When I was a fiction publisher, I used to receive between 30 and 50 email submissions from authors. Of these, I would be taking the occasional one to the monthly acquisitions meetings.

LD: Wow, that’s a lot of competition. This is why I say you need to get your book – and your proposal – as GOOD as you possibly can, before you pitch.

Next week Alex is going to share the ins and outs of the elusive “acquisitions meetings” and the key differences she saw in how these worked in Australian publishing houses, versus the US ones.

While Alex works mainly on fiction, she edited my memoir while at Allen & Unwin, and many others for major publishers, including Anne Aly’s Finding My Place and Tracey Spicer’s The Good Girl Stripped Bare.
If you’d like to hire Alex for your project  find her here – understandably, she gets booked heavily in advance!

Inside a top publishing house: Acquisitions Meetings
Find your story hook
Memoir: What goes into the First Chapter?