Francesca Main is Picador’s Publishing Director and one of the best-known literary editors, not least for her work on Jessie Burton’s bestselling The Miniaturist. Francesca was part of the judging team for The Fresher Prize 2017, the short story category of which I was delighted to win this year, and she was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her career and current role and the wider world of publishing. So today I am thrilled to be able to share her insight:
Francesca, thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions. Perhaps we could start with your current role. As Picador’s Publishing Director, can you talk a little about your day-to-day: for example, how much of your time is spent on commissioning new work, on editing, and on overseeing the publications of your authors? How many pitches are made to you each week, and how many new authors do you take on, for example, in a year?
My role is more or less evenly split between those three aspects – commissioning, editing and overseeing publication – but the day to day is extremely varied. As well as the various meetings and hundreds of emails that make up the week I might be meeting literary agents or scouts to discuss the books currently out on submission, pitching for a new author, taking a day at home to edit a manuscript or meeting up with an author to go over their latest draft, briefing jacket designs, turning down submissions (my least favourite part), writing copy . . . All that leaves next to no time for reading submissions, so this tends to get done on the bus or at home on evenings and weekends. I receive around 350 submissions a year – some days I might get one; others it might be five or six – and of those I take on maybe seven or eight new authors a year.
Are you able to say what you’re working on at the moment, from an editing perspective?
At the moment I’m editing several books for publication in 2018 – Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce, an irresistibly funny and moving debut about a young woman in 1940s London who dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent but finds herself acting as a typist for a formidable agony aunt named Henrietta Bird; The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse, a fantastically rich and imaginative novel about a lost and lonely young man who starts receiving memories that don’t belong to him; and Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott, which is about female friendship, ambition and obsession and is perhaps her most brilliant and terrifying psychological thriller yet.
I noticed on Pinterest your upcoming titles for this year and beyond, many already out in hardback – is there a launch you’re particularly looking forward to, and if so, why?
I’m looking forward to them all! But I’ll take a moment to recommend a book out in September: This Is Going To Hurt by comedian Adam Kay, a collection of the diaries he kept during his former life as a junior doctor. It’s a hilarious, horrifying and heartbreaking account of what it really means to work on the front line of the NHS and should be mandatory reading for everyone who uses it.
I’m sure it’s well known that you edited and published Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, one of the fastest selling debuts, and a title that contributed to you winning the British Book Awards’ Editor of the Year in 2015. I enjoyed Jessie’s blog about the editing process, working with you and two international editors. Jessie described the three of you as “astute, concise and revelatory”. Are these the qualities you yourself would most associate with a good editor?
It’s certainly a lovely compliment. I think the qualities I most associate with being a good editor – or at least those I most consciously strive towards – are honesty, sensitivity and humility. It’s important to be honest about what does and doesn’t work, but it’s also important to be sensitive in how you express this – and, even more importantly, sensitive to what the author was trying to achieve; for your job is to help the author make the book the best possible version of itself, not fit your own particular vision for it. And that’s why humility is important too – because, much though we like to think we are, the editor isn’t always right.
How can an author help you, as an editor? And how might they hinder you?
I think the biggest way an author can help an editor is to trust them. Trust in their editorial suggestions, trust in their vision for publishing the book and remember that you’re both on the same side. A lack of trust can be a real hindrance, and turn what should be a harmonious relationship into an adversarial one. That and mocking up a jacket design in Microsoft Paint. Please never do this.
*Secret Microsoft Paint files are deleted across the land* … Do you have particular agents that you look to for a reliable funnel of potential titles (no names required!)?
There are certain agents I particularly like, whose taste I share and with whom I have more authors in common than others. But I’m happy to hear from any!
Perhaps you’re also watching The Handmaid’s Tale (I was so traumatised by episode 3, I had to watch Love Island to recover!) – do you have in mind TV/Film adaptations when you first consider a book? I know The Miniaturist will shortly be coming to the BBC as a three-part drama, which is brilliant – was that something you could envisage for the book from the start?
I haven’t seen it yet! But am very much looking forward to it. TV or film adaptation is definitely something that comes to mind, particularly when a book is so visual you can picture it in cinematic detail, or when the characters are so distinctive you can’t help thinking what a gift they’d be for an actor to play. But it’s never something you can guarantee – it can take years for an adaptation to get made, and it depends on so many other factors. So you have to look upon it as a bonus. With The Miniaturist I always thought I’d love to see that sumptuous, intricate world on screen and even on a first reading had a very clear sense of how it would look. I can’t wait to see it on TV later this year but am still glad I got to imagine it for myself first.
I saw somewhere that your Desert Island Book would be Donna Tartt’s Secret History, which is my all time favourite novel. I saw it summarised on Twitter the other day as “A clique of posh wankers kill Boris Johnson. New Hampshire. Bacchanals. Ancient Greek.”, which made me laugh. What do you think it is about the book that has such enduring, hypnotic appeal?
Ha! That’s pretty spot-on. I think part of its appeal is that it’s so distinctive – its setting so precise, its characters so unique – and yet combines so many classic elements: it’s a campus novel, a coming-of-age novel, an inverted murder mystery and – something I find irresistible in fiction – the story of a lonely outsider drawn into a glamorous, seductive world that proves dangerous and corrupt. It’s also that rare and magical combination of a plot so thrilling you’re desperate to discover what will happen next and writing so luminous you want to savour every sentence.
I’m writing a love story about two artists, set over the months leading up to the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution. I’ve heard that with all the doom and gloom on the political landscape, there might be a growing appetite in publishing for literary romance – might that be right? What other themes/genres do you think might gain in popularity over the next year in publishing, and what do you have on your own wish list?
I hope so! There’s definitely a need for great love stories at the moment. I think the current political climate calls for novels that offer hope, comfort, humour and escapism, but I also think the rise in dystopian fiction will continue, as we try to exorcise our worst fears and come to terms with what the future might hold. Likewise, I think we’ll continue to see historical fiction with a contemporary resonance that allows us to transport ourselves to another place and time whilst seeing the parallels between the past and the present. As for my own wish list, I find it so hard to put into words because what I most want is to be surprised. I definitely want to diversify my list and publish books from a wider range of voices and experiences. And I definitely want to continue trying to find books that combine great writing with great storytelling. But one of the most exciting things about this job is, you never know what the next book to blow you away will be . . .
I’d like to thank Francesca for her thoughtful and fascinating answers. You can read more about Francesca and the Picador team on the Panmacmillan blog: here, follow her on Twitter here, and you can browse the imprint’s book list here.
The Fresher Prize is an annual prize for emerging writers, with categories for Creative Non-Fiction, Novel, Flash, Poetry and Short Story, of which I was the 2017 winner for the latter. Fresher is a young publishing venture, established at Bournemouth University. My story Hagstone will be included in the anthology – Fresher Writing Volume 3 – later this year, along with the other winning and shortlisted work. This year’s judging team included Francesca herself, literary agent Madeleine Milburn, author Jeremy Page and publishing consultant Ed Peppitt.
Thanks for reading. Till the next time,