What editors look for in manuscripts

What Editors look for in manuscripts by Osarobu Emmanuel Igudia

“The book publisher, like other people in business has a kind of license from society to make money in the publication of books. Risk-taking is the fee paid to the society for the privilege (Legat, 1982:40).”

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Whereas authors in the one hand put blame on publishers for the dearth of literary text due to their constant rejection of authors’ manuscripts, publishers on the other hand put the blame on authors for their inability to create material that could attract the interest of readers. It is a known fact that the ultimate objective of a publisher like other entrepreneurs is to make profit. It would be out of place for a publisher to consider for publication in this wise, except it is contracted to such publisher at the expense of the author.

I was in the office one certain beautiful but tedious afternoon, when the postman handed over to me an enormous parcel. I scrutinized it with apprehension and uncertainly, being knowledgeable of human atrocities in recent time such as letter bomb and anthrax. But on a second thought, I opened the parcel. Alas! It was a manuscript on Igbo philosophy and world-view. My knowledge of a distant past experience of my company informed me of the great loss incurred by the organization as a result of the publication of a similar text in 1985, many years before I was employed. Copies of this text were still occupying space in our store till two years when it was decided by the management, that such book that had lost its relevance in the market should be given out as gifts to libraries and people who know the value, while the already decaying and worn-out copies were piled up to be destroyed. It was a sorry sight to see heaps of such books in flame.

Having this in mind, it could be a waste of effort and could also be considered as a bureaucratic injustice to file such a manuscript whose fate had been determined even at first sight, in the endless list of works awaiting the editor’s attention. Quickly and with regret, a reply was drafted, rejecting the young man’s manuscript, giving a condition that it would only be published at the expense of the author himself. It was decided that the manuscript should be returned to the author through the medium it was sent to us. To our greatest surprise, it would cost a fortune for it to get to the author. I could imagine what a sorrow our rejection of such work would cause the author, a manuscript which had taken over a year or two of intensive and rigorous research and huge financial commitment to produce, barely two weeks after it was sent to a publisher. Such budding author has no choice than to enlist our organization in his blacklist, more so, if such manuscript had been rejected by publishers in the eastern part of the country before finding its way to Lagos.

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The African publisher’s nightmare

This section will devote time to highlight some of the problems associated with publishing in Nigeria and indeed in Africa, so as to purify our authors’ psyche of all ill feelings against publishers when their manuscripts are rejected.

There is no doubt about the fact that publishing in Africa and particularly in Nigeria, where virtually every material needed for printing a book is imported, is highly capital intensive. Dekutsey, (1993:2), observes that “publishing especially in Africa is pretty insecure business and not a particularly healthy environment for cautious professionals. For one thing, it is highly market-driven as well as capital intensive.” Therefore publishers in such a risky and highly capital intensive environment wishing to survive with time have no choice than to be hyper-cautious in the selection of manuscripts whose market have been created already or manuscripts that have sales prospect.

In this development, it is evident that the African publisher wishing to survive in the business has no option than to have a thick skin, consequent upon the fact that poverty and lack of economic, social and political developments are the major factors militating against the growth of publishing in the entire African continent. This issue of poverty ravaging the entire Africa is the major preoccupation of most researchers who have ventured into identifying the problems of publishing in Africa. Chakawa (1996) recognizes the agony associated with publishing in Africa thus:

“African publishers have little money and operate on shoe-string budget. The number of bookshops, libraries, and other institutions where they may sell their books are small indeed, and most do not have any meaningful book budget. Transportation is slow, tedious, and expensive yet inefficient. Telephones hardly work, few firms have few machines, which, in any case, rely on a working telephone line, the postal services are slow, the roads impassable most of the year, and their promotion personnel, as is true in all other sector of the industry, are untrained and inadequately equipped for the job(p.117).”

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Chakwa (1996) further observes that although books are everywhere in Africa preference is being given to other day-to-day living needs such as food, health, housing, clothing and school fees (P.132). This in essence is due to the raving poverty prevalent in the entire African book market is very narrow. This, he traces to the fact that most books in Africa are published in English and French, which he regards as minority language due to the singular reason that Africa, according to him, has over 1,000 languages! More so, the overwhelming level of illiteracy in Africa is of much concern as a contributory factor that to the slim book market in Africa (P.133).

The nitty-gritty of the discourse so far is that the possibility of getting market for books is a major anxiety to the publisher and his editor before any manuscript is considered for publishing. To this end, Mantagnes (1998) writes:

“in general publishing for the retail market, each book is a gamble… in a country with few bookshops, the publisher of a book with general appeal is likely to have great difficulty in assessing the potential market and then in reaching it through the channels it does it (P.14).”

Montagnes (1998) further observes that no matter how experienced a publisher is, he is likely to encounter a lot of challenges. Most of these challenges may scare a young publisher away from business, even those aspiring to be publishers may be discouraged by such challenges (See P.19).

The editor and the selection of manuscript for publication

For the singular reason of lack of proper understanding on the part of the authors as regards the agonies of publishers in the business of publishing in Africa, there is bound to be strain in the relationship between authors and publishers. To this end, Smith (1990) observes that “the relationship between authors and publishers are often difficult, and been so over a long period of time (P.145).” It is his opinion that this age-long feud could be resolved despite all odds. He stresses that there is no reason for lack of friendship between authors and publishers, since they both work for a common purpose, as there is bound to be give and take on both sides, just as in most human relationships.

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To build this relationship, he advises publishers to win the confidence of their authors by making sure that authors are well informed about the progress of their books (Pp. 146-7). On the side of authors, Smith advises that authors should evaluate themselves and see if they are not the cause of such lack of friendship (pp. 148 – 51). This relationship could only be possible if the authors try as much as possible to get closer to the publisher’s editor. For this reason, Smith writes:

“A publisher’s editor… is in most cases truly an editor, in the sense that he becomes involved with the actual writing of the book, perhaps as a critic who asks the author to make changes, perhaps even altering the book himself. Not many authors manage to produce a perfect book, and a good partnership between author and editor will often result in a worthwhile improvement (p.193).”

He adds further that “a good editor is distant enough to see the book clearly and tell the author what, if anything, is wrong with it… (P.153)”. This assertion stems from the fact that the author ought to relate more closely with the publisher’s editor than anyone else in the process of producing a book. Smith (1990) contends that the author should not misinterpret the intention of the editor when he criticizes his work (the author’s), as such intentions are always to improve the book. This misinterpretation on the part of the authors has resulted in the rejection of many a good manuscript that would have been bestseller if the author had been patient enough to accept the criticisms of the editor as a way of strengthening his work. The editor, according to Smith, should, however, criticize on author’s work mildly and in a constructive manner. On concluding remark, Smith adds that “no sensible author believes that everyone is perfect – even himself (p.16.”

Claplain (I Miller (ed.), holds the view that a good editor must have the following qualities: good judgment, sensitivity and taste, empathy, persistence and commitment to a writer’s growth, etc (p.10). she reiterates that:

“Caring editors not only deal with the technicalities of publishing, but they act as sympathetic friends of writers. They encourage them tactically, helping them develop writing skills, and then encourage them in their personal lives. To do this, editors, among other qualities, must have a special blend of wisdom, awareness, courage and trust (p.10-40).”

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In her view, Follet (1988) believes that the editor is very important in the making of a good book, hence the author and the bookseller must recognize his importance in their relationship with the publisher. She believes that a good editor rather improves a book for the eventual reader to benefit more:

“Content editors mediate between authors and readers, representing the interest of both. They try to ensure that the author’s intentions are realized and that the reader will benefit from the book in the way intended by the author. Good content editor improves a book (p.10).”

The editor is an invaluable agent in the production of a successful book. In simple terms, the editor and his work of editing and book processing are the mainspring of publishing, in the sense that the process of publishing begins with the author’s manuscript until it transforms into a book. Hence the editor is regarded as a midwife to the book. After the author has done the creative work of writing the manuscript, practical assistance is granted by the editor in transforming the script into a good book. This assistance entails the following:

1 – Assessing the manuscript to realize its worthiness for publication. In this wise the editor assesses:
a. the level of difficulty or otherwise of the material for the intended audience,
b. coherence of ideas in the manuscript,
c. consistency in plot development,
d. relevance of themes,
e. topicality of plot and themes,
f. the level of artistic aesthetics in the work,
g. the level of “noise” or impurities in the entire work and
h. maturity in ideological sequencing.
If a manuscript is able to scale through this first hurdle, the possibility of such manuscript being published is strong.

2 – Advising the author on what to do to perfect the work and how to do it.

3 – Checking the language to ensure that the right words, expressions, ideas and details are explicitly used.

4 – Ensuring consistency in terms of style and presentation.

5 – Marking off styles for the typesetter to produce the proof.

6 – Determine the format, size and art-works that will go into the book.

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The above duties are the professional skill which the author lacks and therefore depends upon the editor in fine-tuning the manuscript into a good and standard book. The process of carrying out his duty, the editor may have the author re-draft some parts of the manuscript or even insert additional pages to certain part of the manuscript. The editor’s ability to identify audience for books and satisfy their need form part of the secret of a successful editor. Hence the editor is hyper-sensitive in approving manuscripts for publication.

Determining titles for publication

The process of determining titles for publication depends on the type of manuscript being sourced by the editor, which is consequent upon the philosophy and the interest of the company. In textbook publishing, the publisher himself or a very senior editorial staff such as a commissioning editor or the head of marketing and sales may have an idea, which he shares with the editorial unit of the company. After deliberation, a market survey is done by the commissioning editor to study the existing texts in the discipline where the company’s interest is, in order to realize the full extent of the vacuum which the proposed text would fill. After this has been done, the commissioning editor looks for an author or a team of authors, as the case may be, and he commissions the assignment to them. In doing this, of course, the editor takes a lot into consideration such as the worth of the author; the message needed to edge out other existing books in the market within the discipline; and the eventual readers for whom the text is proposed. This he briefs the author at the commencement of the writing project.

In fiction, the author, rather than the publishers, conceives the idea. The idea is then written down in form of manuscript and then he begins a search for a publisher. This is because, more often than not, fiction texts are not school syllabus based but rather, on the needs of the general reading public. The author ought to know from the foregoing and considering the fact that publishing a fiction text is a serious gamble by the publisher, that it takes more than just being literary minded to produce a storyline or develop a plot that could arrest the interest of a society where reading is poor. Some fiction texts are riddled with errors and truncated plots or immoral subject-matters, to the extent whereby the editor develops cold feet in recommending such manuscripts for publication. This is as a result of the fact that considering the enormity of the works on the editor’s desk, and the pressure to produce them, such manuscripts may not go far in the publishing house. This is why the editor requires some level of creativity in determining the fiction manuscripts to approve for publication. It is interesting to note the fact that everybody wants to be a writer and to every aspiring writer whatever manuscript he produces is good enough for publishing. Interestingly also, the age and educational background of the writer contribute immensely to the writer’s ability to produce an acceptable manuscript that would likely attract the interest of the editor. Hence maturity and education are the two important tool for a successful and published author. Therefore, in most cases, it is absurd to imagine a potential writer whose level of education is not beyond secondary school, to produce a manuscript meant for tertiary readers. That is often the case with the Nigerian writer.

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It is pertinent to remark that the nature of the society must also be taken into consideration by authors in selecting the areas to write on. In our society, where reading awareness is low, scholarly writings meant for tertiary or general audience can only thrive, when such works have been listed in the school syllabuses by the government or when the author of such book is an academic, in which case, his authority in the field could be used as a factor in convincing students and readers as regards the need to purchase such book. In another instance, the sale of such books is limited to some few thousands.

Finally, in determining manuscript for publication, the company’s philosophy is an important factor. For instance, a publishing company channeled towards the production of children books is likely to reject manuscripts meant for adult audience. In like manner, a publishing company committed to the production of literary and scientific publication is likely to reject a manuscript with religious undertone.

There is no doubt that there may have been some feud between the author and the publisher over the constant rejection of manuscript by the publisher. This feud is in fact, due to lack of adequate communication between the author and his publisher, as regards the nitty-gritty of book business, which we have attempted to present in this paper. It is hoped that as many authors and aspiring authors as could get the message in this paper in its full dimension, would be better informed and this will eventually lead to a better relationship between the author and the publisher and consequently the submission of higher quality manuscripts.

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This paper What Editors look for in Manuscripts was originally appeared in 2003 ANA REVIEW under the title. As at the time Igudia was Humanities Editor at Literamed Publications, Ikeja, Lagos. It is published here in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors.

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