Jennifer Barclay is commissioning editor for Summersdale, and a travel book author in her own right. Read Jennifer’s blog to find out a bit more about her life on a Greek island. Recently she agreed to answer some questions about book publishing from the Itinerant Writers Group.
Do you expect manuscripts to be finished, or do you ever commission people after reading work in progress?
Successful travel writing needs an extraordinary story, and it’s hard to be sure that a book has a satisfying shape (beginning, middle and end), that it’s a really great read, if it’s incomplete. So although a very detailed outline can help, we prefer finished manuscripts. There is always a risk for both publisher and author that the final manuscript won’t be exactly what was proposed and that can cause problems, so a travel writing proposal has to have an extraordinary premise for us to take it on unfinished. But we very often start working with authors when their manuscripts still need revision – if I think something has promise I will advise an author at an early stage. Then I also get a sense of what kind of working relationship I could have with the author. If something I’ve read has promise, it seems a waste not to pass along my impressions.
At the moment, Greece is so much in the news. Do you look for works on pieces on particular countries that are currently making the headlines?
Hardly ever. The publishing cycle is surprisingly long – as I write this it is April 2012, and we are currently considering manuscripts for publication in April 2013. And we want a book to sell for several years. So what’s in the news today isn’t that relevant. Also, countries tend to be in the news because of problems they are experiencing, whereas people buy our travel writing books largely because they have travelled in a country or are interested in travelling there. What might be relevant is travel industry news: the popularity of a destination.
What would be the perfect/dream manuscript to land on your desk’?
Interesting question! We love publishing gripping stories of exciting but harrowing adventures in exotic locations, such as The Backpacker or Lost in the Jungle, where the author barely survives the ordeal. Unfortunately for readers (fortunately for travellers), that kind of journey doesn’t happen very often. So perhaps it would be an edgy, compelling personal story, by an author who’s great at self-marketing and has a growing profile. I’d also love to see a journey around Southeast Asia or Italy in search of great and interesting food, or a walk across an interesting part of Europe with an interesting angle. The story and the author’s ‘platform’ is more important to our making a success of a book than a perfect manuscript – we are happy to work with first-time authors editorially.
Do prefer being approached by agents on behalf of writers?
Not particularly. No offence to agents – I used to be one myself, and most of them do a great job – but I find the direct contact with the author very useful in determining how this person will be to work with editorially, what their expectations are, how savvy they are and how good they will be with media etc. Having said that, some agents have brought us great projects that we simply wouldn’t have found otherwise, because Summersdale is not as well known as the big publishers.
Do you ever look for authors or do they always come to you?
We do look for authors. Social media (Twitter and Facebook groups), websites and so on have revolutionised the way we find and connect with authors – it’s really useful being able to get a sense of an author so instantaneously if they have an online presence. I have found a few authors by going to travel/adventure-related speaking events too, or through travel-related newsletters. If we read in the news about something that might make a good travel book, we’ll send out an email. What I’m doing now, connecting with you, is a way of looking for authors by getting the message out about what we publish.
I took a peek at your blog and recognised the tug of love between your own writing and commissioning other people’s work – something I am very aware of since I started my small publishing company ‘Little Knoll Press’. How do you keep up the drive and enthusiasm to reach a wider readership and review pool after the first phase of using the obvious contacts?’
Thanks, Jenny. I like the balance of my editing work and my writing – I’m not sure I could be a full-time writer, and not only for financial reasons. Writing has always been something I do for pleasure, though gradually I’ve been able to make more time to develop it by going freelance and reducing my cost of living. Is your question related to my own work? If so, I have to say if I’m particularly fond of something I’ve written, I’ll be blatant about pushing it under people’s noses, but I take a slowly-slowly approach and haven’t been systematic about promoting yet – that’s something for me to work on once my current manuscript is finished. Having seen publishing from many different angles is very helpful – being a writer makes me a better editor, I think. And understanding publishing helps me to know what to do when as a writer.
In your Wanderlust interview you mentioned that cycling books are increasingly popular. I am writing a book about my recent cycle trip from Scotland to China with my husband, and am about 70,000 words into first draft. I am now trying to write a book proposal to find an agent/publisher. What particular things do you look for in books about a big adventure?
Congratulations on getting so far with this first draft. What I would want to see is a great, unusual opening that captures the reader’s imagination. There needs to be a reason for the journey worked into it somewhere, a motivation, and I need to be convinced that it was an extraordinary adventure with interesting characters (including the two main characters). The tricky thing with such a long journey is that it’s not about one particular place, and you probably passed through countries quickly – we aren’t going to learn a great deal about Scotland or China or anywhere in between, and so it isn’t for readers interested in a particular destination. So there has to be something else that will capture the imagination of a wide audience.
I guess that in travel writing, the writer (and in this case her husband) are the central character(s) in the story. I am having a bit of trouble finding my ‘voice’ right now and deciding how far to delve into my inner feelings. Do you have any tips for what makes for a good portrayal of the main characters versus what is annoying/boring?
You’re right that the characters and interplay between them are very important. Good portrayal depends on the story you want to write, the context; though humour and the sort of deeper reflection travel can bring can be a winning combination. I find it’s useful for new writers to read other books that have been successful and decide what you like and don’t like. When it comes to delving into inner feelings, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was too much for some readers but fascinating to millions of others. Too much complaining can be annoying to readers when you are writing about an adventure that most would dream of doing – unless it’s very funny (David LeVay complains quite a lot in The Hairy Hikers to great comic effect, but there are plenty of moments where he appreciates the journey too).
A few years ago travel programmes like “Holiday” reported on places in a factual way. Now the trend seems to be reports on places with a twist, such as cooking, or Three Men in a Boat etc. To make a book different (or stand out) does there need to be a story within a story?
Yes, although there is definitely a move away from the sort of gimmicky journey that was popular a few years ago (no-one needs to take a fridge anywhere again). If you only want basic facts, the Internet will provide most of them for free, which is why guidebook sales have been in decline. Travel writing provides something else – it can draw you into a country you might never have thought much about before, through great storytelling. I just finished reading Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing, which is about living in Kosovo – a place that I’d never been particularly interested in until her own love affair with the place drew me in. An interest in beekeeping or cooking, cycling or walking can draw a wider readership to your book. Ellie Bennett’s book Blood, Sweat and Gears about a cycling journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats is given an interesting extra dimension by her exploration of the real ale pubs along the way. Caro Feely’s upcoming book on moving to France, Grape Expectations, also teaches you all about the winemaking process. In general, we’re not looking for books that just give you the facts about a place – we’re looking for amazing human interest stories.
How important are photos to a travel story?
We rarely include photographs in a book of travel writing, because they add to the production costs and possibility of printing errors, and also they can detract from the reading experience (the writing should conjure up the pictures). Sometimes we can include them in the inside covers. But they are often essential for the promotion of your book – a magazine or newspaper will often lose interest in running an excerpt if good quality photos are not easily available
There are plenty of terrible travel books by professional authors/journalists who seem to be commissioned and re-commissioned because of their job title. Do publishers try to play it too safe by going for either a famous name (whether or not it is ghost written) or for a professional journalist?
This might be a good place for me to give you some sobering figures about travel publishing. With rare exceptions, most non-fiction best-sellers are by people already known through television. Most of our travel books these days, by contrast, sell between 2,000 and 10,000 copies in the UK. The RRP is £8.99 but a retailer usually takes at least half of that; from the remainder we have to pay the print costs, the sales team, the publicist, the editors, the designers and the author’s advance and royalties of course. Clearly we need to sell as many books as possible to make those numbers work. Because more books are published than the media can cover, the success of a book often depends an author’s profile and their ability to help get the word out to people about it. I’m pleased to say that Summersdale does publish authors who are not already well known, but you can see why it’s tough and many publishers don’t take the risk.
Would you ever advise a writer at the initial concept stage about their idea, or do you insist on an outline and first three chapters as your starting point?
I think this goes back to something I mentioning in answering question 1, but to be more specific: if it’s easy to give a quick answer, yes, I will often respond at initial concept stage, especially if the author has some proven writing ability. In fact we made an offer last year on a book concept based on a very basic proposal and sample material, but that was extremely rare (we didn’t get the book, sadly!). Usually I advise authors to put together some sort of proposal but I can also very quickly let you know if a book idea might be worth developing.
Have you ever published someone with no track record, someone who has never published a book or written a magazine article before? If so, who?
I can’t think of anyone we’ve published who had never written anything before; the skill needed to write a full-length book is generally acquired over years of practice. But it doesn’t have to be a book or a magazine article.
What is ‘good’ travel writing?
That’s a question of personal taste – it’s like saying what makes a good novel. If we all liked the same thing, the world would be very dull. I can only tell you what constitutes successful travel writing, or travel writing that I like (not always the same thing). Personally I like some humour, I like to be transported to a place so well that I want to go there, and I like some depth of observation and even a little wisdom or philosophy acquired along the way. I know I’ve said this a lot here but it’s the surprising, unpredictable, eye-opening stories and beautiful, honest writing that make travel writing special, too. I think as a writer you know when you’ve hit upon a great story or a great way of describing something. And life-changing moments: this is something that travel does well. It can be inspiring, and make you want to change your own life.
Is there a gender difference in the readership of travel literature, and do you target that with any of your publications?
Ha ha, very tricky! I don’t think so – I think we try to appeal to a general readership. Often books that you think would appeal to mostly women in fact appeal just as much to men. You have to make certain observations to avoid making the same mistakes again and again: for example, we have unfortunately found that books about women’s adventures in the Arctic and Antarctic don’t tend to have as big an audience as we’d like. When publishing a book about guys surviving in the jungle, we want to make sure it will appeal to a male audience, but we certainly wouldn’t want to put off women readers or buyers.
Last word from Jen by email
Thanks so much for the chance to do this. I love connecting with authors this way – although as soon as I hit ‘send’, I’ll wish I’d answered something a little differently… Anyway, hope some of this is useful. Jen