Former publisher now turned literary agent, Tony Collins, has worked for Hodder & Stoughton, Kingsway, Monarch, Lion Hudson and SPCK( one of the oldest publishers established in the 17th century). Over the course of his career he has published at least 1,400 books, and owned three magazines. He is also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Christian Writers.
I asked Tony how he first got into publishing. He said: “I had no intention of being a publisher. An environmentalist since my teens, I originally secured a place to do an MA at Nottingham University in Town Planning.
About a third of the way through the course, however, I concluded I was not cut out for the amount of computing necessary. I was also the only arts graduate on the course, and really needed more economics than I could muster.
I needed a new option, and the warmer and more engaging world of books beckoned. Naively I wrote around to every major British publisher of Christian books, offering my services. Most didn’t reply – I had not appreciated that editors do not walk in off the street – but Edward England, director of religious publishing at Hodder & Stoughton, and at that point the leading publisher of Christian books in Britain, rang me one morning. His assistant had just resigned abruptly, and after an interview he gave me a job for six weeks, then six months, then a year, and finally offered me a contract.”
He went on to tell me, “That first week in the Hodder offices still stands out. I didn’t have a clue. I could not type, had no idea how a book came together and had never visited a printing company. The editor in a publishing company is a generalist, who needs to know not just how grammar works and how to write coherent English, but also requires a nodding acquaintance with the work of other departments: the finances of publishing; the essentials of publishing contracts; the basics of book and cover design; the processes of sales and distribution. Beyond that, they need to have a good idea of what makes a book take flight, and capture the imagination of readers.
The first and most urgent task was to learn to type, since Edward expected me to handle my share of the flood of letters which poured in every morning. Bravely, and cheekily, I asked the company to pay for me to attend a three-week evening course in touch typing. This proved one of the most useful skills I ever acquired.”
As the title of the book suggests, Tony made a few mistakes in his early days of publishing. I asked him to recount one of these to me.
He said: “One of my earliest big errors came from an excess of enthusiasm. Three weeks after I arrived at Hodders, Edward departed for a fortnight to visit publishers in the States. He left me in charge. ‘Dictate your letters to my secretary, Mrs Hunt,’ he instructed. ‘Turn everything down. I want to find a clear desk when I get back.’
Mrs Hunt – a formidable lady, with a wig that occasionally slipped sideways – thought less than nothing of this arrangement, and challenged every sentence and decision. Gradually we reached an accommodation.
All went well until the day a typescript arrived from Canada. I loved it. The author was positive, witty, erudite, imaginative. I showed it to Mrs Hunt, who agreed. I wrote eagerly back, explaining that I didn’t have the authority to accept the book, but the signs were promising.
On his return Edward scanned the carbon copies, and half an hour later appeared at my desk, my letter ripped from the stack and stapled to the typescript. ‘Not a chance,’ he informed me. ‘He’s not a Christian, in the sense our market will understand. Canada’s a tricky sales area. The quotations alone will cost a fortune. You did exactly what I told you not to do. Turn it down.’
Gulping and red-faced I set to work to write a further letter, explaining I had been mistaken.
A week after Edward’s return I got a call from reception. The Canadian author had been so pleased by my response that he had booked a flight from Toronto, and was now downstairs. My second letter hadn’t arrived in time.
Edward had no sympathy. ‘You’ll just have to go and tell him,’ he grinned, when I burst in panic through his door.
The elderly gentleman listed in dignified silence as I garbled an incoherent confession. He nodded, thanked me, put on his coat and hat, and left.”
As well as making a few mistakes, Tony has clearly had a lot of success as a publisher too regarding the large number of book he has published. I asked him what constituted a bestseller.
He said: “You can’t, of course, or publishers would be inordinately wealthy. You can hedge your bets by careful assessment and judicious questions: does this author have a platform? Do they know their stuff? Is the authorial voice engaging? Will they get behind it? What else is on the market? Does anyone care about the topic? Is the book too short, too long? Will it have a respectable shelf life, or is its appeal ephemeral? Are the title and subtitle likely to hang in the mind?
Beyond all these questions, there is gut instinct. Misplaced enthusiasm has ruined many a publisher, but sometimes the heart needs to be heard. There is a place in publishing for the rank outsider. For such a book to be published, some commissioning editor has put her or his career on the line.”
For more interesting and enlightening stories from the world of publishing, this book is well worth a read. ‘They’ll never read that’ follows Tony’s journey in publishing through the various different publishers and life choices he makes, some for personal reasons. Not only is the book an engaging read but it also a useful read for any budding author who wants to learn something about the world of publishing and just what a publisher is looking for.