The insider tips authors secretly want their publishers to know
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
The author perspective
As part of my job, I work very closely with authors – briefing them, answering their queries and liaising with them throughout the publishing process. The publishing workflow can seem alien to those outside the industry, so I spend a lot of time thinking up ways to make the publishing process easier and more transparent for authors. I find explaining it well to authors at the outset makes for a much smoother project.
So for this post, I decided to speak to some of the best authors I have worked with and find out what they really thought of the publishing process. All them – John Bellwood, Sam Holyman and Rachel Yu – are experienced teachers with varying levels of experience of writing. I picked their brains about what worked well, what didn’t and how publishers could work better to meet their needs.
They gave me lots of golden insights into how I could improve my practice. Here I’m going to share them with you, so you can benefit from them too.
8. They want the content to be right for students just as much as you do
It can be easy to forget how much authors care about their work. I found it a useful reminder when all of the authors brought up how important it was to them to get the material right.
Each author had different aspects of the work that they really cared about.
Rachel, who learnt English as a second language (ESL) at school, likes to keep ESL students in mind when she is writing. She remembers how difficult it was to learn in another language, so she keeps her text as accessible as possible.
John, who has written an Accounting textbook, feels it is very important to make sure the answers are all correct. Whilst writing his book, he also thought carefully about which of several different methods he could use to explain learning points to students. He made sure he used a method that would be easy to understand for students of all ability levels.
For Sam, the accessibility of the text is paramount. She didn’t enjoy reading textbooks at university, which she found dense and dull. She makes sure to break up her text with headings and features, and loves it when the design is really colourful.
Hearing this made me realise that there are some points you don’t need to remind authors of. They will be thinking about them too.
7. It’s time to end the last-minute turnaround request
Unsurprisingly, two of the authors mentioned tight deadlines as a challenge they have been confronted with on their projects. Sam remembers a time she was given just 24 hours to answer queries; Rachel remembers being given just one weekend.
Authors find it especially frustrating to be given these tight deadlines if they have delivered all of their materials on time. Often these tight turnarounds happen late in the project, when there is a rush to hit the publication date. There is a danger of squeezing authors to make up for time lost at other stages.
These tight deadlines are both unfair on the author and unrealistic. Very few people do their best work under this type of time pressure.
In the future, I will be mindful of the need to reward authors for timely delivery by giving them ample time for checks at the later stages.
6. Be mindful of school holidays
One way of offsetting short schedules would be to line them up with school holidays, Rachel suggests. As a working teacher, she has much more time to work on her writing when she isn’t in school full time. Sam concurs and suggests that publishers try to keep the bulk of the work during holiday time rather than the start of term.
5. Keep a tight rein on amendments
Another challenge the authors highlighted is the issue of never-ending rounds of amendments. John once encountered a reviewer who attempted to rewrite whole sections of his book unnecessarily. Sam remembers a project in which every time an amendment was made and corrected, another would be found.
Sam suggests that in cases like this the publisher should step in. ‘They should say, “There’s nothing actually wrong with the materials – the Science is all correct – therefore we aren’t making any more changes,”’ she comments.
As an editor, I am very familiar with the drive for perfectionism that these amendments can trigger. If someone has suggested one last amendment, it’s tempting to think it costs nothing to quickly tidy it up. But sometimes we have to step back and realise how little difference it’s going to make. It can be better for the project in the long term to cut this process off than to keep tweaking, wasting time and money.
4. Bring back author meetings
In these virus-ridden times, the days of author meetings feel like they are lost in the mists of time. Two of the authors I spoke to would like to see them return.
Sam always finds author meetings useful because she thinks it’s a good opportunity for the team to share ideas, especially if there is more than one author on the project. She thinks this helps to get the content agreed on early on. This prevents authors suggesting ideas midway through that then get rolled out to other authors, who might have to go back over everything they have already written.
Rachel agrees that an author meeting is the best way to start off the project. She feels that once the team have met and feel they know one another, they are more able to be honest with one another. This can be really helpful if there is a problem on the project that needs to be solved.
Although we can’t currently meet in person, it’s still possible to do these meetings via video call. I’ve been doing them on a project I’m currently working on and find they are also a good way of cutting down on the back and forth of emails.
3. Write a comprehensive author brief…
All the authors identified the author brief as a key area in which publishers could support their authors.
‘Beware of using jargon in the brief,’ Rachel says. First-time authors won’t understand it and it can hinder their work. She suggests including a glossary of key publishing terms. I’m going to be adding one to my briefs from now on.
John thought the brief was the best part of the project we worked on together. He says a good brief makes the whole project easier. It helps the author to understand what is required of them and the process the manuscript is going to go through.
As someone who likes to drop into the brief throughout the writing process, Sam thinks it would be useful to include a clickable contents list at the start of the document. This would help her to find information on a particular feature or activity, while she is working on writing it. This is another feature I’m definitely going to add to my briefs.
2. …But keep it brief!
Oh yes! It turns out, even the best of authors can find the brief impenetrable. Sam likes receiving the author brief because it is a reminder that she really is an author. However, she has also received ones that feel like War and Peace. A brief that’s over 50 pages is intimidating and puts the author off reading it.
One way to tackle this problem would be to keep key content instructions in the main brief and move ancillary items – like information on artwork briefing – to appendices. Rachel also recommends including a submission checklist to remind authors what they need to do before their manuscript is complete. This could act as a prompt to read over sections of the brief that they might otherwise have missed.
1. They love what they do
Finally, all of the authors were keen to tell me how much they love writing and how it helps them in their teaching.
Writing classroom resources exactly how she wants them is a real joy for Sam. She has often created lessons around them immediately after writing them. Rachel also finds that writing enriches her teaching, because it gives her more ideas for the classroom. She finds working with other authors a great way to gather new ideas.
Rachel and John both like the differences between teaching and writing. Teaching is immediate and fast-paced, with the student right in front of you, asking questions. Rachel likes the fact that while writing she can slow down and really think about the ideas she is exploring.
All of the authors find writing a challenge; John says it ‘stretches his brain’. But they all relish that challenge. Sam has appreciated it even more during lockdown and described her writing work as a ‘beacon of light’ during times of difficulty.
I found this a really useful exercise. I’ve got several helpful tips on things I could do in the future – like tidying up my briefs, making sure there is enough time for author checks in the schedule and scheduling time for author meetings.
This has also reminded me of my role on the project. The commissioning editor should be the author’s ally. It’s my job to facilitate and empower them to do their job as best they can, by making sure they have all the time and information that they need.
Sometimes this might mean fighting their corner. Hearing about how important their work was to these authors gave me a renewed feeling that I have to back them up when they need it.
We all want the final book to be brilliant. The author has to work hard at that. But I also have to work hard to make sure nothing gets in their way.
With thanks to Rachel, Sam and John for speaking to me for this blog post.