Editor Editorial: Interview with John Jarrold

Continuing with the ‘Editor Editorial’ mini-series, and following on the from the interview with Julie Crisp, I’ve invited the industry titan John Jarrold to talk about his experiences and insights as an editor.

Key to note here, John (like Julie) isn’t just an editor, he’s also an agent. I first came across John’s name as the publisher of David Gemmell, one of my author-idols, when he worked at Random House as an editor. John’s career spans 30 years in publishing (45 years working with books in all!), both on the inside and as an independent. He’s published some big, Big, BIG names, including: Robert Jordan, Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock, Guy Gavriel Kay, Maggie Furey, David Gemmell, Stan Nicholls, John Gwynne…I could go on, I really could!

It’s fair to say, that John has been there, seen that bought the t-shirt. Heck, he might have even published the slogan on it, too! So, without further ado, as there are no words that can match the man, I give you, John Jarrold!

Hi John, thanks for take time out of your very (very, very, very!) busy schedule to talk about the role of the ‘Editor’. First, before we begin – for those who haven’t heard of you (must be a really big, rock) in 50 words or less, who are you, what do you do, and something/special an interesting fact about you? Go!

JJ: Ex-publisher (ran Orbit and SFF imprints at Random House and Simon & Schuster) for 15 years. Literary agent specialising in SFF and Horror since 2004. I used to sing with a pub band.

If you had to summarise the role of the ‘Editor’ how would you do it?

JJ: As an editor one is the strategist, the cheerleader for the author, the person who has to pull together everything that’s happening with cover design, sales, marketing, publicity and so forth.  As well as actually editing the book and being the author and agent’s first port of call within the publishing company.

What made you want to become an Editor? And how did you become one?

JJ: I owe it all to Tolkien. I joined the Tolkien Society after reading LotR around 1971. Found out about the London SF Meeting, and from there about conventions. Attended my first over Easter weekend 1973 in Bristol (Samuel R Delany was the main guest). Had a wonderful time, spent the Sunday night drinking and talking with heroes like Brian Aldiss and James Blish, as a skinny 19 year old. Knew I’d come home. Got to know publishers, writers and agents, started writing book reports for both editors and agents.  That eventually led to me being offered a job at the end of 1987 – which turned out to be running Orbit!  An interesting learning curve for someone who had worked in public libraries for 15 years. But that means I’ve worked with books for 45 years.

To dispel some of the mystics surrounding the profession, as an Editor, what’s the one thing that people (authors or prospective authors in particular) don’t know about your job, but you’d like to provide an insight into?

JJ: One is called into far too many corporate meetings, when one would FAR rather be at the desk getting on with the job.

(Working in the corporate world myself, though a different industry, THIS, so much THIS!!!)

As an editor, what’s the most rewarding part of your job?

JJ: Great books and wonderful authors, seeing success.

And on the flipside, what’s the hardest part of your job?

JJ: Telling authors you can’t offer them a new deal because sales have not been strong enough.  It’s a sales-led business.

So, stepping away from the big questions – what’s a typical day in the office look like?

JJ: There is no typical day.

On the note of ‘typical’ let’s talk commissioning. What is it about a MS that makes it stand out to you?

JJ: Author’s voice.  I’ve known with almost every debut novel I’ve taken on from the first page.  It’s indefinable.  Then you have to make sure the author can maintain that throughout the book, of course.

Everyone loves a metric. How many MS’ would you say you rescue from the slush, but then how many actually ‘make it’?

JJ: As an editor I took on one unsolicited MS over 15 years. It worked commercially.

So, once you’ve picked an MS from the fold, what’s the typical treatment that it receives? In a recent mini interview series with several fantasy debut authors, it was really interesting to see the different experiences each MS went through in terms of editorial amendments, and how these impacted the lengths of a story, for example.

JJ: You edit each and every book as it requires.  Everyone wants to put parameters on ‘how it’s done’. There are none.

There are few absolutes in publishing.

With wordcount in mind, being one of the factors in making a story a book, what other factors make or contribute to a marketable product?

JJ:  If you don’t love the author’s voice, nothing else matters.  Of course you look at story, characters, setting, commerciality – but if you don’t LOVE the writing, personally and professionally, you say no.  On word count – over 90k, but I published and represent books of all lengths from there up to 250,000 words.  Epic fantasy, for instance, needs to be…epic.

 Within the fantasy space, is there anything in particular that you believe traditional publishers are looking for? More dragons, non-western settings, strong female leads, diverse casts, complex magic systems?

JJ: There is a classic answer: I’ll know it when I see it. As an agent I receive around 35 submissions a week.  I take on maybe three clients a year.

If you’re not saying WOW, you say no.

On that note, do you think there’s any area of the fantasy genre that’s on decline? And why do you think they’re declining?

JJ: Urban fantasy is not the power it was. Evolution.

 Now, to put you in the spotlight a little, which of all the books you’ve worked on is your favourite, and why?

JJ: It would be invidious to say, after 30 years in the publishing business.

 It’d be rude not to ask – but is there a book in you? I mean, we all have a story to tell, will you write one?

JJ: I was in a writers’ group with Robert Holdstock, Garry Kilworth, Michael Scott Rohan and others in the late 1970s. I wasn’t good enough.  But I’ve had my rejection slips, so I know how it feels!

 With writing in mind as we come to a close, and not to hijack a question that everyone asks…but I’m still going to, what advice would you give to a) would-be editors, and b) would-be authors?

JJ: I would not offer advice to new editors.  Writers: read read read. Write write write. And don’t let rejection put you off.  It took the wonderful Iain Banks over a decade of writing, submitting and rewriting six different novels before he clinched his first publishing deal. Why do you think it should be easier for you? It’s not about getting it fast. It’s about getting it right.

You can find out more about John and his services on his website. 

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