Monday, April 10, 2006

A Publisher's take on publishing - from an interview with Ben Ball

My own relationship with Ben Ball was brief. He bought my biography The Extreme Life of J.S.Haldane on proposal in the summer of 2005, for Simon & Schuster UK. A short while later, he was packing his bags for a return to his native Australia, to be become the publisher of Penguin there. (For want of a picture of Ben, I offer an Australian penguin.) I caught up with him in November 2005, while interviewing for a book I am co-authoring on mentoring. This discussion ranged a little wider than that brief. I’ve trimmed those aspects principally pertinent to mentoring. Here are some fragments of Ben’s take on the publishing scene, primarily related to his own speciality of literary fiction. Offered without my comment, though I'm happy to join in any debate on the 'comments' zone.


Publishers are trying to get more out of fewer resources. Editors don’t have as long to spend on books as in some recent golden age.

In contemporary publishing people have to make it big with their first book or not at all. This isn’t so much publishers’ doing as people’s. People are interested in new things, young things, rather than a body of work.

More and more people exist and want to write books. We should be publishing fewer books. The funnel gets narrower and everybody’s time is more tense. With literary fiction, you do have to hit the ground running.

With the likes of EOPS and Booktrack, it’s much more difficult to overcome a poor track record than no track record. It’s better to write a bad book and not publish it than publish it.

An MA in Creative Writing doesn’t matter to me either way. I don’t believe you can teach creative writing but you can give people time to learn. Time to write, focus to write, a forum to discuss. You can facilitate that group, make people comfortable, have insightful things to say. There is a danger that creative writing courses put out a product. In the 90s you could pick up an American manuscript and tell which writing course it came out of. The good ones don’t do that. If something comes from an agent I know and respect, that is more valuable to me than if it comes from a good writing programme.

When faced with a huge amount of stuff one’s focus is ‘If I can get rid of this it will be great’, so it’s something to guard against. The sheer weight of work can put you into that mental space, but not often.

If voices came out of communities that hadn’t formally expressed themselves and they were coherent, publishers would be over the moon. That’s exactly the sort of thing that publishers want – something new to publish. The sexiest thing in publishing is always a new voice from somewhere new. The misery memoir is an example of people telling stories that people didn’t really talk about. Now it’s a whole industry of its own.

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