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Friday, 24 June 2011

The beginning...

Now, I have a confession: I got into publishing for rather clandestine purposes. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do two things – play rugby for Scotland and be a writer (followed very closely, during these formative years, by a desire to be a Jedi, a whip-wielding archaeologist-adventurer, and a hover-board owner). The first of these ambitions foundered on the rocks of my own inadequacies as a rugby player, and while the other dreams also faded... one endured.
In the summer of my first year at university (St Andrews, where I read English), I decided that I would write a children’s book for my little sister, who was around two at the time. I found a concept and a storyline that I rather liked and off I went. Summer ended, the book did not; the manuscript went into cold-storage for ten months and then came out again. This process repeated itself until graduation, by which time the story had morphed into a book for the 9-12 year old market, then teens, then... well nothing. It was a bit of a mess. The core idea was still a good one, but the execution was disappointing – mainly because I had failed to plan the structure from the off and had got lost along the way. But the book was just meant to be a little something for my sister, and after I worked on it a while longer I was eventually happy enough to present it to her. Pleased that it was complete, I took the rather bold step of, on a whim, sending it off to a couple of publishers to see if it might elicit any interest. At that stage, like many people, I had no idea how the whole submission thing really worked. Did the book have to be completely finished and polished as best I could make it, or would the germ of the idea at the heart of the book be enough for the editorial team to say, ‘Hey, this has something... let’s get it into editorial and thrash it and reshape it and make it great!’ The latter, as I am sure you can appreciate, did not occur.
Rule One when writing fiction: any first-time novelist should make sure their manuscript is in the very best possible shape that they can make it before it leaves their desk – agents and editors have neither the time nor the inclination to nurse first-time authors (particularly of fiction) through the writing process on the potential promise of an idea – especially if that idea is clearly not being realised in the way that it could or should be.
And so that first book of mine has gone away. Maybe one day it will rear its head again. But from that experience I learned that only when a manuscript has been honed and refined and absolutely finished should it see the light of day beyond a computer screen.
But the whole process of sending off that first manuscript got me thinking. How does one get published? What processes does a manuscript go through once it hits a publishing house? Writing had been an enjoyable diversion, but as I say, it hadn’t been planned particularly and I just let it flow. For some authors that works; for me, in this case, it didn’t. But it was a first stab and from it I learned an awful lot.
So there I was, fresh out of university and a little lost with what to do with my life. I had wanted to do something vaguely vocational with my degree – I thought about teaching English or going into journalism, but neither quite felt right. My wonderful girlfriend (who several years later became my wonderful wife), picked up on the interest spiked by my submission efforts and found a Masters course in publishing in Edinburgh. Publishing, despite never crossing my mind before, suddenly seemed like a perfect fit – and if I could learn how to one day get published myself, so much the better.
So I did the course... and I absolutely loved it (thank you, Annabelle!). A year later I graduated and I started hawking my wares around several Edinburgh publishing houses looking for work experience. I had stints at Barrington Stoke, Edinburgh University Press, The List magazine, Chambers and, eventually at Birlinn Ltd. Of all the places I worked, Birlinn was the one I enjoyed most, the one that felt the most vibrant (although there is no doubt that The List offices buzzed with a real energy and excitement, too). I was taken on for two days a week and six months later a position opened up in the production department (interestingly, that of an old class-mate from St Andrews who had been drawn south to the bright lights of London), and I landed a role as a production assistant.

In the years since then I have been able to take advantage of size and flexibility of a small independent publishing house – I have worked in production, editorial, sales and publicity and I now manage our digital programme, our export sales and our sports list.

In June 2011, I started my own company, Polaris Publishing, which is focused on developing book content into interactive apps for smartphones and tablet computers. More about this later. But I am also still at Birlinn and the future for both companies is bright and exciting.
Publishing is a job of stresses and strains, of long hours and poor pay... but I can’t think of a single day that I haven’t loved (pretty much) every minute. It is the most amazing career; I love books, I love the creativity that surrounds books and the processes that go into putting them together and getting them out into the market place – from first seeing or hearing a proposal or a rough idea, or plucking a manuscript out of the slush pile, through to contracting and discussing the direction that the book will go with the author (or authors), the lunches and the drinks, all the editorial stages, the picture research, the cover briefings and design sessions, the decisions on paper types, cover finishes, occasional little extras like printed end-papers, ribbon markers, head and tail bands... and then – the best moment of all – receiving the first advances from the printers. This is a terrifying moment of truth after months of work on the publisher's part – and years of work on the author's – but also an incredibly rewarding moment, for after all that time and effort we hold in our hands a tangible object that we can take home and put on our shelves and keep forever. And it is an object that will go onto the shelves and into the hearts of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of others. Each of the books we work on has the potential to become someone’s favourite; a treasured object that will stay with them forever. It is a romantic notion, of course, but it is no less genuine for that.
And after the book arrives, the publicity campaigns which have been ticking along in the build-up to receiving the advance copies really begin to swing into action. Then there are the launches and the events, the reviews appearing in papers and magazines and online, and we have the wonderful experience of witnessing the infectious excitement of the authors as they see the result of all their hard work finally get out there into the real world... after which we watch with bated-breath as the sales figures start to roll in... And beyond this we open our eyes to an even wider world with rights sales and distribution into foreign territories, eBooks and apps and dedicated websites, Facebook and Twitter campaigns, blogs, book festivals, signings, podcasts, interviews and so on and so on and so on... It is an amazing thing to be part of. And it all makes up for the stress, the deadlines, the margins, the pressures of expectation, the long hours...
So there we are. The first peek under the lid of publishing. I have learned so much in the years since I first stepped foot inside a publishing house – and from these many lessons I have, as I had once longed, become a published author. In November 2010, Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland by David Barnes and Peter Burns hit the shelves of bookstores around the country. Now, as you will have gathered, I did not fulfil my childhood dream of playing rugby for my country; but in co-authoring that book I fulfilled one childhood dream while simultaneously experiencing something of another – and I hugely enjoyed the privileged hours I spent with my heroes as I found out exactly what it was like, and is like, to pull on that famous blue jersey in the Test match environment. Not every childhood dream comes true; but that is not to say that some cannot be achieved - or experienced in one way or another.

Speak soon.

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