in which Ray describes the publication process, his ideas
on what makes a good book and the future of the Fremantle Arts Centre
A conversation between Ray Coffey and Phillip Winn, Fremantle, 12 November 1997
in which Ray describes the publication process, his ideas on what makes a good book and the future of the Fremantle Arts Centre Press...
|Ray Coffey has remained in his job as publisher with the Fremantle Arts Centre Press for over twenty years. He is quietly spoken and openly enthusiastic about the enjoyment his job affords him. He maintains that the strong sense of team spirit which prevails at FACP and a personal commitment to the hands-on experience of seeing books into print are the main reasons why he has not been seduced by the temptations of larger publishing houses.|
Over the years with FACP a lot of manuscripts must have passed across your desk, and some would have had more success in the market place than others. Given that experience, have you come to any conclusions as to what makes a good book?
Somebody once said a book is a machine for thinking, or something similar, and I agree with that. For me a good book is one which stimulates and engages me, one which pulls me up and makes me think about issues and think about what is going on. Some people say books and film can be purely entertainment; I can understand that, but for me that's not so. A book can be entertaining, but part of that entertainment is that it engages me on an intellectual, as well as an emotional level. We are an Arts and Literary publishing house, so there is an element of the need to engage the reader, intellectually and emotionally, but as far as the Press is concerned there are clearly other aspects involved. We have to keep an eye on the market and give thought to which books sell well and strike a balance between what is marketable and will subsidise other publications. We have an eye to the balance between genres and adequately covering all the areas of interest to us. To a publishing house it is a balancing act between commercial texts, which keep the organisation going, and the more stimulating and more intellectually important texts. For example there is a range of historical and cultural texts and even poetry that may only have an audience of 300, but in terms of what they are doing in exploring language and engaging with issues and ideas they are important texts. But unless we balance those with texts which will sell, five, six or ten thousand copies, we won't be here to do next year's poetry.
So how do you go about finding those good manuscripts?
The process of publication begins with the assessment of the manuscript. Clearly as a publisher, particularly after 21 years, you start to know who is doing what. So you can approach writers to show an interest in what they're actually working on - obviously writers who have previously published, or whose manuscripts we have previously seen. As part of the ongoing operation of the organisation, we continue to show interest in the work, development and ideas of writers we have previously published. So the publishing process begins with soliciting work from these people, and from anyone working in the fields we are interested in. We receive a lot of unsolicited manuscripts and part of the publication process is to assess those manuscripts from whatever source they come and that's an ongoing process. We have an assessment editor for both our children's list and our adult list who does the initial culling and assessing of all manuscripts in those particular areas. Anything that they feel doesn't fall into our categories of interest or specialisation, they will send straight back. Anything that in their judgement is poorly written or poorly researched, or covers ground that has been substantially covered previously by another writer, they will reject. Anything that has any possibilities they put to one side and themselves read more closely and, likely as not, pass among one another within the organisation, or outside. If it's a specialist manuscript in the area of history or cultural studies or whatever, we look for an independent report.
What happens to the manuscripts that pass the initial screening?
If it gets through that kind of process, then it's brought to my attention at that stage, if that hasn't already happened. As publisher I am ultimately responsible for the decisions with respect to accepting or rejecting manuscripts and determining which editorial and publishing approach might be taken with the manuscript. At the end of the day, the decision to publish or not is based upon a range of advice that I receive from what we call the editorial committee: and that includes the editorial staff, independent readers, my own assessment, and an assessment from the marketing/sales point of view. If the assessment from those sources is positive then I would normally act on that advice, if it's contrary I would normally act accordingly.
Let's say you do have a positive answer for an author...
If we do accept the manuscript then it is a matter of offering a contract to the author. What we normally do is send them a draft contract which basically is our standard. It may be slightly modified depending on the manuscript and the experience of the writer, or who they are. A writer who has published 5 or 6 previous books will get a slightly different offer than someone for whom it is their first book.
And of course the author accepts enthusiastically, so what happens next?
Once both parties - the publishing house and the author - are agreed on the terms of the contract, then that is finalised. Then consultation begins with the author and the editor appointed to work with the author, to prepare the manuscript for publication. Sometimes that requires a lot of work, sometimes very little. It varies. The editor might be somebody in-house, or somebody external to the organisation. Then we draw up a schedule in consultation with myself, the editor and author to determine a likely timetable for publication, also taking into account our other commitments with respect to other manuscripts.
Do you have a fixed timetable of deadlines at that early stage?
We try to determine exactly what deadline we are working towards with the aid of the publishing assistant, whose job specifically is to oversee the production process; the actual organising of schedules, of deadlines, print processes, typesetting, design and so forth.
Is there much discussion with the author about titles and cover designs?
At a particular point in the schedule we consult with the author about the design, covers, blurbs, and in many cases we have discussions about titles. So primarily the author, the editor for the book, and myself are involved in a consultative process. Clearly we draw on a range of expertise from within the organisation and sometimes outside. For example, the starting point for a cover design is often the author's own idea, the starting point with the blurb is the author's own idea - we don't necessarily accept them, but it is our starting point. Early on we have a "titles" meeting whereby all the parties are involved, particularly the marketing people, in which we discuss which readers we are addressing, the possible print-run and the recommended retail price.
Presumably you have a number of projects underway at the same time, all at different stages of production?
There is an enormous number of things on the go at all times and, at the same time, there is a juggling act going on with respect to schedules and monitoring individual manuscripts. Each year we publish about 35 titles and, at any one point, about half of those would be at one of the stages of proof reading (we usually proof-read two or three times) editing, sub-editing, or design. So about half are at some advanced stage of production, and the other half, perhaps more, are at some stage of editing; that is the author and editor are working together. Beyond that there might be up to ten manuscripts that are in the conceptual/discussion stages, or have had some feedback from the first manuscript, and are being re-drafted.
Obviously, given the successes FACP has had, the process you have developed works well, but do you foresee a change in operations?
I do think that in terms of technology there is a whole range of new areas that we have already started to explore. I think publishing will not disappear, but the form in which the published text may be presented is going to change - there's no question about that. I don't think books are going to disappear, but other kinds of books are already starting to appear - audio books - and there is continued potential in that area, but it's limited. Clearly with computer and multi-media technology there is an area in which we, as producers of text and edited material, can in fact produce those texts in areas that relate to the new technology. I believe that because of the costs involved, the kind of marketing, and other expertise, the way in which the traditional book publishers will work in those areas (and I think we have to, and we already are) is through strategic alliances with other technology-based organisations. So we are the information-based side of that kind of alliance and other organisations, other arms representing government or commercial organisations, bring the technological expertise to our organisation. And those are the kinds of things we are already doing and starting to explore. Who knows what the possibility is? But we need to stay with those kinds of possibilities.
What then do you see as being the challenge of the future for FACP?
If we are going to maintain publishing houses of this nature, there are problems we really do have to find solutions for because the economy of scale relating to publishing, the pressures from the multi-nationals in terms of sales are already, and increasingly, making it difficult for us to survive. I see us, in terms of traditional areas of Literature and the Arts, having to really work at our marketing and expanding audiences for those areas. Clearly technology is making some of those areas much cheaper to produce. So we need to look at producing more cheaply those small-run, limited audience, specialist kinds of texts. But at the same time pushing our audience and finding ways of expanding sales from 300 to 600, from 600 to 1000.