31 July 2020
The thriller writer looks at what she's learned from her career in the publishing industry
Before I was a writer, I worked in publishing. I started out as an editorial assistant in a publishing house in New York before working at a literary agency in London, where I spent a decade as a translation rights agent. For five years, I both wrote and worked, squeezing in the writing on nights and weekends.
The transition from publishing to author – which isn’t all that uncommon – can sometimes feel like a dirty little secret. It can seem like cronyism, as if we’re all members of an elite clubhouse passing around favors to each other.
And in some ways, that rings true. My agent was a close friend long before I roped her into representing me. I’ve gone on business trips with the woman who sells my translation rights.
But making the transition can also be a poisoned chalice. There is – it turns out – such a thing as knowing too much. If you have experience working in the publishing industry, you know what to look for when a book is about to take off – and when it’s set up to fail. I’ve known from the moment a proof cover hit my inbox that a book of mine is doomed. It’s also harder for publishers to sugarcoat bad news. Yes, the supermarkets are stocking fewer titles, but I also know which ones they have taken up, which makes it a slightly more difficult pill to swallow when the answer is, ‘not yours.’
That said, there are advantages. Knowing how rare it is that a book goes nuclear means I’m more pragmatic when it comes to my own chances. Yes, it would be lovely to be a Number One International Bestseller, but the reality is that only happens to a handful of authors – and usually to the same ones over and over. Review coverage is shrinking, and the supermarkets really are taking fewer titles. The business of selling books has never been an easy one, and it’s getting harder every day.
Knowing this makes me grateful that a publisher has taken a chance on investing in my work.
And it is an investment! I’ve gained a greater appreciation for all the work that goes into bringing a book to market now that I’m on the other side of the fence. There are so many hands a book passes through on its way to publication, from editorial to publicity to marketing to art direction to copyediting to sales, and each person is integral to the process. It’s humbling to know that so many talented individuals have come together to bring your story out into the world.
Working in the industry has given me a deeper faith that publishers actually do know what they’re doing. I’m not saying I’ve never pushed back on a cover, or questioned a marketing strapline – I have. But I know that, by and large, the people who work in publishing are incredibly smart, passionate individuals who want my book to succeed just as much as I do. It’s important to trust them and lean on their instinct and experience.
A good example of this is the strapline for my new book, Don’t Turn Around. It’s a story about two women on a deserted stretch of highway who end up in the fight of their lives. We were in a meeting with my US publisher tossing around marketing ideas when the publicist suggested the line ‘It’s never been more dangerous to be a woman’. Just like that, all the themes of the book snapped into focus. I would never have come up with it myself, but it was perfect.
Ultimately, publishing is a business, but it’s so much more than that. If you work in books – whether you’re writing them or editing them or marketing them or selling them – you love books. We were all the kids reading books under the blankets by flashlight, and we all take too many books on vacation, and we all count bookstores are some of our favorite places. It’s as simple as that, really: regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on, it’s that love of books that drives us on.
Don’t Turn Around by Jessica Barry is published by Harvill Secker at £12.99
Interested in hearing how another industry insider made the transition to being an author? Read author Melanie Cantor's career-switch story!