The insider tips publishers secretly want their authors to know
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
Last year I wrote a post about what authors really thought about the publishing process. It seemed only right to give publishers the right of reply. So this month, I spoke to three publishers to get the lowdown on their work with authors.
James Benefield, Senior Publisher at Hodder Education; Harriet Brinton, Head of International Baccalaureate at Oxford University Press; and Ben Greshon, Senior Publisher at Pearson Education all had great insights into the author–publisher relationship. Here they share their tips on how to find work as an author, what publishers look for in an author and the potential opportunities available to authors in the future.
7. Passionate teachers make the best authors
The list of desirable qualities in an author was surprisingly similar between the three publishers I spoke to.
Both James and Harriet mentioned a passion and enthusiasm for their subject as one of the top qualities they look for in an author. Harriet likes to know that her authors ‘care about their students and making a positive impact on their lives’. Ben looks for authors who have ‘great teaching experience’, which informs their understanding of the market for their book.
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not essential to have excellent writing skills. Ben likes to see samples to check that potential authors can write well, but James and Harriet both said that writing problems could be fixed by editors later.
6. Publishers love collaborating with authors
Authors taking on writing work should be open to collaborating with their publishers. All of the publishers I spoke to said this was their favourite part of working with an author. They all appreciated an author who was prepared to answer queries about their manuscript, as well as to make amendments to it in response to feedback.
The manuscript development stage is Ben’s favourite part of the publishing process, because he enjoys meeting authors to talk through ideas. James also likes the early stages of the project. He likes to feel that he is helping to create something interesting, different and meaningful. A good working relationship with her authors is really important to Harriet. She wants to see ideas coming together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
5. Avoid overpromising and under-delivering
A common pitfall that authors fall into is that of making false promises. They might promise to get the manuscript in on Friday and then, by Monday, the publisher has still heard nothing.
Harriet mentioned that authors are often tempted to think that it’s better to only write to their publisher with good news. But she says this is actually counter-productive. It can even be professionally embarrassing for the publisher. The publisher is responsible for the schedule internally. They don’t want to have to explain to the team that they don’t know what’s happening because the author hasn’t been in contact.
Ben and James both agreed. Ben said the worst mistake authors make is not asking for help when they need it. He urged authors not to struggle in silence. Similarly, James said it’s a mistake not to tell your publisher in advance if you’re running behind schedule. Project plans can be changed if the publisher has enough advance notice and help will be offered to you.
4. Be prepared to hurry up…
The textbook market is very deadlines driven. Schools often have a particular book-buying season and usually want to have books on students’ desks by the start of the new school year. Publishers can’t afford to miss those selling windows.
Authors should be prepared to work to the tight deadlines this necessitates. James finds this one of the most challenging aspects of his role. He tries to facilitate authors’ writing and proof checking, but he appreciates an author who is self-motivated and doesn’t need to be prodded to complete work on time.
Harriet empathises with the challenging expectations authors face. She says, ‘Being an author doesn’t come with a job description!’ She tries to answer authors’ questions about how much work is involved and when, but admits publishers only have imperfect answers.
This is made more difficult when schedules slip. Even minor delays can have a serious knock-on effect on the rest of the schedule. The author might be asked to help save lost time in the schedule by completing their work in less time than anticipated.
3. …and wait
Textbook writing and production is a long game. Depending on the length and type of the book, the schedule can be between six and twelve months long. Authors need to be in the project for the long haul.
Ben tells his authors early on that the completed manuscript isn’t the end of their work – it’s really just the beginning. He informs them about the long schedule and demanding process they are embarking on.
There will be long periods when it might seem as though nothing is happening, perhaps because the book is out for typesetting. During those times it might feel like the author’s work is done. But once proofs are available, the publisher will need the author to check them and answer any proofreading queries in a tight timescale.
2. Say hello to publishers at events
If you want to find writing work with a publisher, but you’re not sure where to start, begin by being friendly. Ben has met several potential authors on school visits, at conferences and workshops. (Currently this is much harder than it once was. But it’s still worth checking out online events.)
James is constantly on the lookout for new talent and diverse voices. He’s teamed up with teaching organisations to increase his pool of authors, so sign up with those that are local to you or relevant to your area of teaching to make sure you don’t miss out on any opportunities.
Consider responding to publisher surveys. When Harriet needs authors or teacher reviewers this is often one of the first places she looks. She might start by offering someone work as a teacher reviewer. If she is impressed by the work carried out, this can lead on to authoring contracts.
1. Digital formats are the future
There are lots of opportunities for new authors in educational publishing. The biggest area of growth is in digital materials.
This might be digital courses, online schools or online lessons in bricks and mortar schools. Alternatively, it could be subscription products that need to be regularly updated, such as blogs. There is also more expectation on authors to engage directly with their audience at CPD events, through webinars or videos.
Finally, the industry needs new voices. James says that publishing has historically been very traditional. But due to socio-cultural change happening in the last five years, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is now changing. He is happy to be approached by teachers with great ideas for books. He wants to hear something new and fresh, and he is actively seeking new voices.
With thanks to Ben, Harriet and James for speaking to me for this blog post.