Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Phil Connor

What do editors want? We caught up with Unbound's Phil Connor to find out...

Robert Gottlieb, the editor behind famous literary titans like Joseph Heller, John Cheever, and Beloved Author Toni Morrison, once said that the task of editing books was ” simply the application of the common sense of any good reader.” In the same Paris Review interview, he added that “the editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one.”

For decades, many editors in the book industry have remained exactly this – invisible. And, though there have been notable exceptions, it is a role that seems frequently overlooked by authors and readers alike; even though a good editor can make a book a genuine masterpiece (think Gordon Lish and his influence on Carver’s seminal What We Talk About When We Talk About Love); and even though a bad editor (or absence of an editor) can leave a novel full of inconsistencies, formal and stylistic errors, and grammatical mistakes.

So it was a genuine pleasure to be able to begin shedding a light on this crucial literary role by catching up with Philip Connor, Editor at award-winning publishing company, Unbound, and host of new literary podcast, What Editors Want

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

CONNOR

My name is Philip Connor and I do various things in the book world. I’m a former bookseller and now work as an editor for the publisher Unbound. I also host What Editors Want, a weekly podcast where I interview different editors from leading publishers to find out what they look for in a proposal or manuscript. I occasionally review books and do some writing of my own too.

INTERVIEWER

Is literature your first love, or do you have another passion?

CONNOR

I suppose it was my first love you know (if that’s not too sad). I started to get really into books when I was 20 and moved to Australia. I had some family there but no friends at all (or phone or internet connection – at first) so I was in and out of the bookshop constantly. Eventually the manager offered me a job, which really set me on the road to where I am today. With the bookshop came friends and a social life in the form of my colleagues and Brisbane’s ‘book scene’. So for me books have always been not just a personal thing but important for the community around them too.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

CONNOR

People who inspire me basically fall into two categories: writers and mentors. The former are figures I know primarily through their work, authors like Woolf, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Baldwin, Banville, Sebald, and more contemporarily Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, Sally Rooney, Cynan Jones. These are people who inspire me because of what they’ve made.

The other people who inspire me are people who’ve had a big influence on my life. I’m thinking of Charlie Byrne and Vinny Browne, who ran the amazing bookshop I was lucky enough to work in, Hannah Griffiths, who I worked for at Faber & Faber, and my bosses here at Unbound, Mathew Clayton and John Mitchinson.

INTERVIEWER

Unbound have been making waves in the publishing industry for a little while now. What are the main advantages, do you think, of combining crowdfunding with traditional publishing?

CONNOR

Traditional publishing houses are fantastic: they provide essential services for both authors and readers. However, they often think quite conventionally. They are offered so many projects that the understandable tendency is to publish books that are similar to those that have been successful before – and that can mean books or authors that are unusual, not obviously commercial, a bit too ‘out there’, or genuinely new can get overlooked.

Crowdfunding is a fantastic option for projects like those. At Unbound we offer the reading public the chance to bring books into the world that otherwise would not exist – while simultaneously offering authors all the advantages of a traditional publisher (an editor, cover designer, publicist, sales team).

INTERVIEWER

What’s your main piece of advice for people thinking of using crowdfunding to help make their book a reality?

CONNOR

I wish I could say crowdfunding works for everything but unfortunately that’s not the case.

You need an existing crowd to provide the funding (see what I did there?) around either the author or the subject matter. Unbound is a great home for people who write and do something else: we publish a lot of podcasters, journalists, comedians, business speakers and illustrators, for instance, who’ve built up a fanbase that are likely to fund their book.

As for subject matter, there’s a reason they’re often called crowdfunding campaigns – books with an issue or cause at their heart really prosper too, as it feeds into that wonderful crowdfunding concept of coming together to make something that matters.

INTERVIEWER

There’s been a lot of discussion in the literary community about the way the ‘mainstream’ publishing houses seem increasingly risk averse – interested only in publishing copies of novels that are copies of previously successful novels; prequels, sequels, and (of course) celebrity memoirs. How can independent & alternative publishing houses like Unbound champion new authors and new writing, when the big players in the industry seem relatively disinterested in doing so?

CONNOR

In any creative industry the thing that breaks the mould rarely comes from the status quo, because the reason they are the status quo is that whatever they’re already doing is proving fabulously successful. Big publishers mostly publish books like those that have worked before because they still work, to a lesser or greater extent. They make money, which allows everyone to keep their job, the authors to keep writing books, and of course the many many readers to enjoy what they produce.

That leaves a lot of space for Independent or small presses to play a crucial role in the literary ecosystem, discovering and nurturing talent. Of course every publisher needs to sell books in order to stay alive, but the criteria can be less stringently commercially in a non-corporate environment. It’s also a fantastic option for many authors; independents can rarely match the deep pockets of the big houses, but they often more than make up for it with the care and attention they give their books, which can make all the difference.

INTERVIEWER

As a commissioning editor, what are the types of things you look out for when reading book pitches? What stories do you want to help tell and bring to life?

CONNOR

I’m always looking for stories that surprise me or a new take on something old. For instance I don’t think there’s much space in the market for another history of World War 2, but I would love ‘a history of World War 2 told through twelve trees’ – or something equally unusual.

I also like working on books that have a strong sense of purpose, and often find myself placing the books I work on into three categories:

  1. This story needs to be told
  2. I know that every swimmer/coffee enthusiast/design fanatic is going to want this
  3. It made me laugh

INTERVIEWER

What should aspiring writers keep in mind when submitting their manuscripts to Unbound and other publishing houses? 

CONNOR

As I mentioned above, Unbound is perfect for certain types of books and authors but not for everything. That’s true of every publishing house – they will have a bit of publishing that they excel at and are interested in doing more of. Authors should research agents and publishers at length to make sure they’re a good fit for what you’re trying to create before sending your book to them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a single pet-hate, as an editor, that you just can’t abide when reading manuscripts?

CONNOR

One of the best weapons at an author’s disposal when pitching their book is to compare it to other books in the market – for an editor who gets a lot of books across their desk it really helps me understand it at a glance.

A pet hate of mine and many other editors is when the comparison is something like ‘it’s Harry Potter meets Star Wars’, or on the opposite end of the spectrum ‘it’s like nothing else.’ Both of those approaches are meaningless and an indication that the author doesn’t have a clear vision of where their book sits in the market.

Authors shouldn’t be led by the market, but it’s massively helpful if they’re aware of it.

INTERVIEWER

In The Elements of Style, Strunk & White posit that “a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” How much of an editor’s job is cutting things that you don’t think quite work, and how much is about suggesting amendments or new additions?

CONNOR

It really is a case by case basis. Some books arrive fully formed, most require editing of one kind or another. While part of the job is getting out my red pen and ‘trimming the fat’, a lot more of it is some form of addition. That is especially the case here at Unbound since we’re often working with debut author or projects that are in their infancy. I spent a lot of my time meeting people to discuss their work in other fields and how it might turn into a book, and from there helping them develop their ideas into a manuscript.

INTERVIEWER

Are there ever any difficult conversations that must be had with authors who are particularly wedded to a sentence, a scene, or a character? And, if so, how do you approach these?

CONNOR

When I’m first meeting an author I’ll present to them my vision of how we’d publish the book e.g. what might be on the cover, what size it should be, what other books I think it’s similar to. Part of that discussion would include any significant edits. The goal of that meeting is to prove that the author and I share a vision for the book, which in essence means we are the right place to be publishing it. Alternatively, a perfectly valid outcome is that we realize we are trying to achieve different things and should probably go our separate ways. You’re not just looking for any publisher, but the right publisher.

After that, if there’s something I don’t like but an author is particularly attached to then it’s completely the author’s call. Editing at that level is only ever suggestion. At the end of the day, it’s their name on the cover.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently launched a new podcast series, What Editors Want. Could you tell us a little about the podcast, what can we expect to discover through listening to it?

CONNOR

I feel publishing is pretty bad at explaining itself – I don’t think the average reader has any idea what we do, and the fault for that is ours.

This becomes an issue in various ways, for instance why would a reader pay £20 for a book if they don’t know what that money is for? It also means we lose potential publishers of the future who aren’t even aware of publishing as an industry, or how to get into it.

What Editors Want: the new podcast from Unbound editor, Phil Connor

I realised that by working in publishing I have access to lots of editors who I admire and who have worked on some of the best books in the world – so I set out to interview them. I wanted to find out how they got into these privileged positions, and what they look for in a book. The idea was to give aspiring editors or writers an insight into how the industry works. My great hope is that by sharing the stories of how both publishers and books have ‘made it’ will help the book industry feel more approachable, transparent and accessible.

So the podcast is one interview each week with an industry-leading editor and is available in all the usual podcast places (iTunes, Spotify etc.) or here: https://shows.pippa.io/what-editors-want

INTERVIEWER

If you had to distil it to a single sentence, what exactly do editors want?

CONNOR

To facilitate authors’ greatness.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us about any exciting or fun books that are currently crowdfunding on Unbound that you think we should go out and support?

CONNOR

Oh definitely! If you head over to unbound.com you can find lots of authors pitching their books in the hopes of crowdfunding the cost of producing them. Lucy Leoneli’s FOMO has been making me laugh a lot – she spent a year with 26 different subcultures from battle re-enactors to nudists. Arran Lomas has just delivered the manuscript of Stick a Flag in it and it’s better than I ever dreamed. He’s absolutely smashed the crowdfunding but there’s still a chance for people to get their names in the back.

But the book that I’m hoping gets funded most is by Nothing In the Rulebook’s own Samuel Dodson. He’s teamed up with his brilliant sister Rosie to make Philosophers’ Dogs, a visual guide to getting dogs the credit they deserve for really being the ones to make all human’s most important philosophical discoveries.

St Bernard the Philosopher and Sun Shih-tzu; some of the dogs featured in Samuel Dodson’s and Rosie Benson’s Philosophers’ Dogs, currently crowdfunding on Unbound.

Quick-fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

CONNOR

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

INTERVIEWER

Can you name a book you love, and a book you hate?

CONNOR

I loved Fup, a modern fable about two men who adopt a precocious duck.

I hated A Little Life, which makes my next answer a surprise but anyway…

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

CONNOR

I trust critics and not cults, so will pick the former.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

CONNOR

I love love love the work of Alistair MacLeod. His deeply brilliant stories can be found in his book, Island. Please read them.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

CONNOR

I’ve never got on with Haruki Murakami.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

CONNOR

Alice Jolly.

INTERVIEWER

If books didn’t exist – what would you do?

CONNOR

Oh probably still be friendless and unemployed in Australia. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

CONNOR

I’m rather good at mental arithmetic – comes with working in a bookshop without a digital till.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

CONNOR

Secret.

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

CONNOR

Commissioning a book around Ireland’s movement to Repeal the 8th, edited by Una Mullally.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

CONNOR

No, I don’t think I could.

(is that 6?)

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for editors?

CONNOR

I’m afraid that needs a whole article to itself…so I’ll direct you to one. Here I am in BookMachine talking about exactly that: https://bookmachine.org/2019/08/12/what-editors-want-tips-from-the-experts-for-editorial-success/

  • Check out Connor’s What Editors Want podcast through all the usual podcast places (iTunes, Spotify etc.) or via this link.
  • Follow Connor on Twitter @philipconnor42 and @whateditorswant
  • Support Connor’s picks for projects currently crowdfunding through Unbound through the following links:
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