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In Conversation With | Francesca Main

Jamie Guiney   Thu 01 Nov 2012   updated: Fri 06 May 2016

I’ve had tremendous feedback from my conversation with Lionel Shriver last month and am delighted to learn that others were as inspired by her words as I was. With this in mind, I felt it would be edifying to take my project into the wider aspects of writing to see what we can learn from the people that help put us into print.

So, for the second interview in the series, let me introduce an editor who champions literary fiction and whom I’ve also had the great privilege of working with:

In Conversation with | Editorial Director at Picador | Francesca Main

Francesca Main Biography

Francesca Main graduated from the University of Warwick in 2002 and began her publishing career with an internship at the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency before joining Penguin Books. At Penguin, she worked first in the rights department and then in the Hamish Hamilton editorial department. She became a commissioning editor for fiction at Simon & Schuster in 2007 and joined Picador as Editorial Director in 2011, on the eve of the imprint’s 40th anniversary. Francesca publishes literary fiction with a broad appeal, and is particularly focused on acquiring new writers for the Picador list. As a result, she is working with a number of debut novelists whose first books will hit the shelves in 2013. In February 2011, Francesca was selected by the British Council to participate in a UK editors’ tour of China, meeting writers, publishers and translators in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai. She has also been guest editor for the Geneva Writers’ Group, and a guest speaker for the Arvon Foundation and the Faber Academy.

Photograph Copyright Francesca Main 2012.

How did you first get into editing?

I started out in publishing in 2002 with an internship at the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency. I graduated that year, went back to my home town in Dorset to work in a bookshop and merrily started sending letters to every publisher and agent in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, asking for a job. To be honest I’m amazed that anyone replied, let alone offered anything - I knew so little about the industry it hadn’t even occurred to me to ask for work experience. If it hadn’t been for Carole Blake’s generosity and the way her agency take such good care of their interns I would have returned home after a fortnight. As it was, they let me stay until I found a publishing job, and nine interviews later (!), I did. I started out as a rights assistant at Penguin, and then landed my dream job as editorial assistant to Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton, who publishes a number of my favourite writers, including Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Ali Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer. So I was lucky enough to learn from the best, and those two years at Hamish Hamilton were an invaluable grounding in editorial work. They led to my first commissioning role at Simon & Schuster, where I worked for four years, and I joined Picador as editorial director last year.

What are the changes that have taken place in the publishing industry since you became an editor?

Publishing has changed an enormous amount since I started my first editorial job in 2005; and yet a number of things are exactly the same. The rise of digital publishing has probably had the biggest effect - it has shaken up our entire business model and challenged our whole way of working. The editor’s role has expanded even further as we strive to promote our authors in new media (I wrote about this recently in a blog post for FutureBook: Blog Link). Whatever editors may think of the host of e-reading devices now available in terms of the way books are bought and read, they have had an undeniably positive effect on the way we read submissions. I used to tote printed manuscripts between home and the office every day - usually the first 50 pages of several manuscripts, only to discover that I was desperate to read more of one of them and had little interest in the others. Now I can carry my entire submissions pile around on a Kindle, which has made a huge difference to my reading efficiency (not to mention my posture).

When considering work, do you always read the entire manuscript?

I wish I could say I did, but it’s just not possible - I receive between twenty and forty submissions each month, and almost all of my reading has to take place out of the office, in the evenings and at weekends. In the year since I joined Picador I’ve acquired six new authors (out of nearly 350 submissions). With all of them, that tingly feeling of anticipation, of knowing you’re in the hands of a truly gifted writer and not wanting to put the manuscript down, was there from the first chapter. I try to give each manuscript I receive a fair chance, but if I’m not captivated within 100 pages, I know we’re not the right fit for each other.

Talk me through your work process - for instance, how many times would you read a novel that you are editing, before it goes into print?

Stephen King says that a writer should complete their first draft with the study door shut and the second one with it open. I think it’s the same with editing - you need to read the novel first without a pen in hand, and the second time with one. An editor’s most important role is as a reader, so it’s important to experience the novel as a reader would before getting under the skin of a manuscript. As for how many times I read the novel and what happens next, it depends entirely on the writer and how they like to work - and how close to novel is to being the best possible version of itself. I’m a hands-on editor and I love to work with authors for as long as it takes, but I have an internal limit of about five reads - I think editors lose a degree of objectivity with each draft and after a certain point a fresh pair of eyes is needed.

Ultimately, who is right - writer or editor?

Oh, the writer. Always. It’s their book, their world, their ideas, not the editor’s. (Though this is not to say that editors shouldn’t be listened to...).

Legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, once said that "The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one". Do you agree and is it really fair that the author gets all the glory, when so much work also goes on behind the scenes?

I absolutely agree - the best editorial work is seamless and invisible, because the goal is to help the writer express their vision of the book, not to impose one’s own. And it is only fair and right that the author gets the glory, because it’s their hard work and talent and imagination that have made the book what it is - and that produced it in the first place. I’m with Gottlieb on this second point too - he says: ‘nobody should know what I told [the author]... It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place’.

What is the current consensus within the industry on publishing short stories and do you think the attitude towards this art form will change in the future?

Publishing short story collections is difficult in the UK, sadly. I wish this weren’t the case, but unlike the US, which has more of a national and cultural appreciation for the form, there just isn’t much of a market for short stories in the UK. This is despite a number of prizes and initiatives which promote and celebrate the short story, and despite the fact that some of the best short story writers of all time have come from these shores. New ventures in digital publishing are boosting the short story and creating opportunities for readers to purchase stories on an individual basis rather than as part of a collection. You’d think that our ever-decreasing attention spans would create more of a hunger for short stories - but then, it’s not fair to say that a short story demands less attention than a novel. In the case of the best ones, the opposite is true.

You have just returned from the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. Can you talk about why the fair is so important to industry professionals?

Book fairs are important for many reasons, and Frankfurt is one of the biggest international publishing exhibitions in the world, incorporating all rights and sales channels. Publishers go there to network, to exchange ideas, to acquire and sell rights, to hear more about new books and authors, to learn more about industry trends and issues abroad, to attend events, seminars, parties... For me, attending the fair was a wonderful opportunity to hear about exciting new books, meet editors and agents from around the world, see old friends, and champion both the authors I publish and the Picador list in general.

Did you make any deals this year?

The biggest books - at least, those in the English language - tend to be sold in the run-up to the fair; so in the case of books from the UK or US the fair is more important for announcing deals than striking them, and for building the buzz and generating subsequent deals in translation. I bought a wonderful novel called SHOTGUN LOVESONGS by a debut American writer, Nickolas Butler, a couple of weeks before heading to Frankfurt (See link here for details) and auctions for German and Dutch rights happened during the fair.

What books would you recommend to people aspiring to become writers?

I’d recommend that anyone aspiring to become a writer reads anything that they can get their hands on - you can learn more from a brilliant novel (or a really bad one) than from a great many writing manuals. But I’d also recommend On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott, The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. These books are all great on the craft, but also on what it means to be a writer on a personal and emotional level.

When reading for leisure, do you find it difficult to take off your editor’s hat?

I’d like to think that being an editor has taught me to be a more attentive reader, but that’s as far as it goes - I love to read more than ever and don’t find that the job interferes. Apart from not allowing enough time, that is. I do tend to give up on books I’m not enjoying pretty quickly.

Given the choice, what current writers would you like to work with?

There are a whole host of current writers whose work I love - Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, Marilynne Robinson and A M Homes to name just a few - but I’m happy just reading their novels and editing those I’m lucky enough to work with already. But I would say yes to Caitlin Moran and Barack Obama in a heartbeat - for the email correspondence and lunches alone.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming an editor?

Find a good mentor - ideally someone you can work for and learn from every day, but otherwise a kind editor or assistant editor. See if you can get work as a freelance reader or writing editorial reports for a manuscript assessment service - I learnt a huge amount from this. Get an e-reader for submissions and use the money you save on chiropractors to buy as many recently published books as you can from your local bookshop. Read widely. And trust your instincts, even after you turn down a novel that goes on to win a major prize.

Thanks so much to Francesca for doing this interview!

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