Diary of a publisher: ‘A deeply intimate relationship’

Capital offences, questionable characters, misplaced possessives … the book editor hunts them all down. But there is also another much more emotional and high-stakes side to the job.

Oct 01, 2019, updated Oct 02, 2019
Not everything has an easy keyboard fix.

Not everything has an easy keyboard fix.

Channels in, channels out. That’s the purpose of a publishing house.

I’m thinking this as I watch our den mother, editor Julia Beaven, quietly at work on her invisible mending. There’s a new manuscript on her screen, as ever, and she’s taking in changes, readying it for our design and typesetting so we can start confidently pitching the forthcoming book out to media and markets.

Julia, serene before her screen, is sitting in for the book’s intended readers, helping the author get to them, and making sure those readers “get it”.

That capital letter should be lower case, Julia mutters. An easy keyboard fix. But what on earth does this sentence mean? Sticky note to author: “Please rewrite”. Now, can that date be correct? Let’s check. Wasn’t that miscreant already dead 40 pages ago? How’s he alive now? And for heaven’s sake, is the character’s name Jewell or Jewel? The online Macquarie is always open on Julia’s screen.

Serene, I said, but Julia can be feisty, too, even on days when the Crows haven’t lost. (She’s close-checking, dynamo back-pocket size, if back pockets still exist in football. She’d know.)

Her editor’s role involves advocacy. Often she needs to argue the author’s case to the publisher (about a cover design, marketing ideas, a books title, whatever). Just as often, she has to argue the publisher’s case back to the author. Always doing her best for the book, for the good of all. Not an easy dance. So much emotion involved.

“So how long have you been here, JB, two days a week?” I ask. Around 17 years, she guesses. Hmm. I always think everything happened just “a few years ago”. This means she’s been at three premises, all the time sitting across from our production manager Clinton Ellicott, who’s always good for a natter: his dogs, her daughters, politics, the correct use of the possessive, the history of ligatures and glyphs.

“And before then?” I ask, inquiring how her former job relates to her work as an editor at Wakefield Press. Precise Julia comes back with words that glow.

‘You can’t hurry a book’: Editor Julia Beaven at work on her ‘invisible mending’.

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“I worked 20 years as a paediatric speech pathologist in public health, 17 in publishing,” she explains.

“Similar skills are needed – establishing a healthy working relationship with the client (patient/patient’s family/author). This requires trust from the client as they hand their baby/manuscript to me. It is my job to make the baby/manuscript the best it can be, and I must work with the parents/author to achieve this.

“It becomes a deeply intimate relationship and the stakes are high. Telling an author we are not accepting their manuscript for publication requires similar skills and gentleness as telling parents their child has autism, or cerebral palsy. They experience a loss of hope, a loss of their dream.

“A lot of books are published but it requires a local publisher to tell the stories important to the wellbeing of the state. The telling and recording of stories is critical for the state’s sense of self and the individual’s sense of self, but the market is often small, and thus ditto the sales/profits/income.

“You can’t hurry a book. There is no compromise. Every word must be read and considered, every fact checked. This takes time, and money. Because it is unlikely that anyone would establish a similar publishing house in SA, it is critical that we preserve the infrastructure, skills, experience and passion we already have.”

Thanks, JB. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Julia Beaven, adored by her authors, is no great fan of speeches, especially if she is required to be the speaker. But I see she is on the card of the revitalised Writers SA – the former SA Writers’ Centre – as part of its fabulous spring program. There’s lots of goodies in there, so it’s well worth checking out.

Michael Bollen is director at Adelaide-based independent publishing house Wakefield Press.

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