Around two decades ago, book publishing entered a kind of eco-systemic metamorphosis. The traditional variables we had relied on to organise the way books were produced, read and sold all changed considerably. For the most part this meant a switch from typewriters to computers, paper edits to on-screen edits, print runs dominated by set price scales to more flexible print-on-demand capacities, and the production of e-books alongside paper books.
I began editing during this period of flux, and in most senses have been part of the New World – only once during my work have I had to communicate with an author via telephone by necessity (the author was in a remote location with a notoriously bad postal-delivery record) and, though I give authors the option, I can count on one had the times I have delivered an edit on paper.
Inevitably, with this sort of revolution of an industry, there has been both doomsday talk and a spirit of effervescence – at an editors’ retreat some years ago, many of my colleagues were dismayed by the limitations they felt on-screen editing delivered them, decrying the end of the art of the editor, while others were excited by the possibilities offered by software programs that could do some of the more menial work for them with one click.
I sit somewhere in between these positions. I suppose I am typical of my generation: thrilled by the capacities of the internet to instantly locate information, amused by cat memes, and with zero nostalgic attachment to the laborious task of weeding out a style misnomer by hand. I love the fact that the online space gives exciting new forums for work to be published and disseminated.
But these kinds of practical effects are in some sense superficial. The real, seismic change brought to the industry as a whole through these process-driven changes is cultural. And, while I’m hardly a papyrus-wielding relic, I regard this cultural shift with suspicion. One of the more insidious changes, I feel, is in the ways that these new technologies demand the instantaneous of us, as readers, editors and writers. When I worked as an editor in-house, I noticed that the editorial time allocated to a manuscript grew smaller and smaller and the publisher felt increasingly obligated to slip a book into a schedule in order to fit with external media events that happen with greater immediacy, overseas publicity that in previous times wouldn’t even reach our shores or impact our readers, and an expectation that, because email is instant and documents arrive in a click, time is but a ball and chain on the expedient delivery of a product. In short, I had less and less time to work on a manuscript, and manuscripts that might have become brilliant works were passed over because there was no time allocated to early developmental work.
In later years, as a freelancer, I have seen similar impacts on editorial processes, and also on the ways that I, as an editor, am able to relate to my author. E-contact is now the norm, and while I am steeped in the worlds of social media and email, I’m not always satisfied by this. Perhaps it’s because I am a writer too; I know what it feels like to have my work parsed over and questioned. I know how easy it is to read criticism or amusement or shock into the stark bold characters of a Times New Roman email with an accidentally omitted question mark.
Seizure, and its Viva la Novella project, attracted me because it seemed to fit with this space that I find myself in. David Henley and Alice Grundy have, literally, seized the moment in producing a publishing outlet that utilises all the strengths of new media: the speed of online publishing means it’s fresh and current, the voices it showcases varied and never stagnant; geographic constraints do not limit its editorial resources; it is not bound by traditional print production parameters, meaning works can be as long or short as they need to be; and it can take risks on genres and forms that were once hard to justify in relation to traditional print-production scales and price points.
At the same time, they believe in cultivating work that stands on its own merits rather than being bolstered by a good publicity hook; in giving time to the editorial process; and in harnessing a strong editor/author relationship. Human relations and the need for reflective, considered engagement with the writing are inherent to their approach. I felt this as soon as I began working with them. They gave us time, as editors, to seriously consider the works submitted; they engaged in careful and rigorous discussion with us around the works we were interested in; and they expected us to have contact with our authors beyond emails.
I already knew, when I selected Christy Collins’ The End of Seeing from among the many, many wonderful submissions, that this work offered me the opportunity to work with an author of great skill who could write fiction that was both lyrical and plot-driven, informed by the internal world of emotive experience and the external world of politics and geography. Her novella was in some senses vast – a narrative of global proportions and wide emotional and ethical range – and yet in form it was compact, and to me that combination embodied what I was after in the novella form.
To begin to know the author of the writing you are working on in person feels much more authentic to me. It helps to set the tone for your work together, to understand how to read the author’s voice and intention, and to gauge how they like to work. After my first conversation with Christy I knew that she was also an author of huge integrity – that she would take on board my comments and consider them deeply, but that she would be strongly attached to her intentions, both morally and creatively. Ours was, I felt, the kind of author/editor relationship that is most satisfying – an extended, unrushed conversation driven by our mutual desire to produce the best book possible.
The strands of story that time allowed us to snip away or tie up to shape this novella remain, I like to think, as living entities waiting to re-root themselves – I suspect we will see many new works grow from these.
In the meantime, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to read The End of Seeing, which, through the voice of Ana, manages to resonate with our most urgent moral humanitarian concerns and our most common experience of grief as she searches for her missing partner:
I follow your photographs northwards now, through Florence. I retrace your notebook references to galleries and your photographs of her streets. Your photos point out the Algerians leaning in doorways, or playing a listless game of soccer in the square. ‘No papers,’ you have noted, ‘no work.’
The tourists on the Ponte Vecchio empty out their wallets for plated silver and Coca-Cola and watch the watchmaker peer at an old fob watch through a magnifying glass strapped to his head. Lovers lock padlocks to the railings and toss away the key. From a languorous ramble around the Uffizi, I am, as is proper, reborn.
And I still can’t help writing you these postcards in my head.
Winner of the 2015 Viva La Novella Prize
‘Dazzling, intelligent and heart-rending. I have long been a fan of Collins, and this is why.’ – Toni Jordan