I found my brilliant editor, Anna Barrett (née Hogarty), through Reedsy (think CheckaTrade or RatedPeople but for writers) where you can search for professional editorial support, read testamonials and match to your requirements.
Within her business, The Writers Space, Anna mentors writers and works editorially with storytellers from all over the world. She also edits on a freelance basis for the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, Reedsy, Jericho Writers, The Faber Academy and various publishers, and teaches yin yoga and yoga nidra on the side.
Anna, who has worked on a number of high profile bestselling debuts including The Doll Factory and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine kindly agreed to answer some questions on her life as an editor, our work on Pivotal and advice for debut authors. Grab a cuppa and settle in for a great discussion full of much wisdom and many insights!
You are a book editor, a writers’ mentor and former literary agent with the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, one of the most prestigious agencies in London. What made you decide to strike out on your own and set up your own business and how have you been adapting to the impact of the pandemic?
It was circumstance that made me strike out on my own – my (now) husband was living and working in Geneva, and as I had the more flexible job (I was already part-time at the agency), I was the more movable of the two of us! It’s not a decision I would have taken without a push – I loved working at the literary agency, and it was incredibly sad saying goodbye to those colleagues and clients. That said, the shift into working fully for myself has given me a great deal of freedom to hone what I am offering and work creatively and collaboratively with the authors who come to me.
The pandemic has come in waves for me: some good, some bad. Like a lot of people, I have benefited from more staying at home, simplifying life and having more time to cook healthily, be in nature, and so on. Business wise, a lot of writers have found time for new projects, so I have seen some really wonderful fresh work. But it has also been an unsettling time, a little harder to plan ahead with, so for me this is definitely a practice of mindful living: taking it day by day, project by project, and adapting ways of working as I go. One thing I have been doing more of is Zoom calls with clients, to chat ideas through face to face. With more working from home, more time has freed up for writers to be able to do this around family commitments and work.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What or who inspired your love of books?
I always loved reading – I’m not sure there was a beginning to it as such. I tend to read anything I can get my hands on, it’s been that way for as long as I can remember and of course, it continues today. My mum and dad are both big readers, and there were always books in the house – something I know makes me very lucky in the early-reading stakes. My aunt and uncle were also a children’s-book author/illustrator team, and I used to love seeing their books on display when we visited, and their stories in progress. I’ve always been fascinated by this.
Tell me a little about the path that led to you becoming an editor. What did you enjoy at school and are the two connected?
It wasn’t the most straightforward path, from school to professional life as an editor. At the end of school, and indeed university, I had no idea what I wanted to be – all I knew was that I wanted to be able to be creative in my work, to make a difference in some way, keep learning and stay inspired. Although books were always my biggest love, I didn’t know very much about publishing – and next-to-nothing about literary agenting – having graduated university and starting applying for jobs.
At school, I enjoyed anything that had a strong essay-writing component. My A-levels were in English, History, Philosophy & Ethics and Psychology. While English was a close-second favourite, I loved History the most and this is what I went on to study. I had many plans stemming out of this – to study it to MA level and further, work on history programmes or write historical fiction, but in the end I wasn’t quite passionate enough to take the subject down those more academic paths, and I ended up working on a graduate scheme in London in advertising.
I worked for three years in marketing/advertising before making the jump into publishing. I was twenty-five when I got my first editorial-assistant job. I had a bit of a climb to make, and the entry-salaries are notoriously difficult to live on – but this was the first time that the work I did truly made sense.
How do you decide which clients to work with/projects to work on?
I’ve worked as an editor for more than ten years now, and over that time my skills have been honed into two main areas: commercial fiction – thrillers, book-club reads, ‘up-lit’, crime and mystery – and inspirational non-fiction reads. Most of the projects I take on fall into one of these two camps, but I will work on anything that looks exciting to me, where I feel like my skillset can help.
On the side, I work (not so actively at the moment) as a yoga teacher, and I represented a few authors in this area when I was working as a literary agent. Projects in this space – books exploring meditation, eastern traditions, ways of looking at the world and ideas-for-living – feel very in line with my tastes, and a lot of the writers I am currently working with are bringing ideas to life in this world.
Without asking you to give away any secrets, I’d love to hear about some of your current projects.
On the fiction side, I’m working with a couple of great debut writers: one with an immortal protagonist, one with a quirky mother-and-son relationship at its heart, both being prepared ahead of agent submission. On the non-fiction side, I am working on a brilliant, essay-based book on the universal human quest for ownership and control; a spiritual guide on the practice of letting go from a lovely new writer; and the opening chapters of a memoir by a really great lifestyle-and-mindset coach for writers and creative professionals. I particularly love the breadth of projects I get to work on as an editor – I genuinely learn something new every day.
How different is freelance editing to working in-house for an agency or publisher?
While working on the books themselves, the role isn’t all that different – you’re reading a manuscript or working through the beginnings of an idea, assessing how far along it is towards being ‘ready’ for the stage it is working at, offering thoughts and ideas to help bring the project to life.
The main difference for me, as a freelancer, is what comes along with the editing process – as a literary agent or in-house editor, you are committed to editing on a continual basis until the book is ready to be submitted or published; as a freelancer, you often work on a more one-off basis. So the relationship can be shorter, and the involvement is not so back-and-forth. This is one reason why I decided to start offering mentoring options, over a course of four months – for writers this resonates with, who are often at the beginning stages of the daunting task of writing a novel, it’s an opportunity to have more of a collaborative, ongoing process and to help shape a project over a number of months.
For someone’s first book, at what point would you suggest working with an independent editor?
For traditional publishing, this is never a necessity. Literary agents are trained to spot talent, and they don’t need perfectly polished manuscripts to be able to do this. If you find the right literary agent, they will edit with you – often through many drafts – honing your proposal and helping to get the submission package for publishers just right. That said, they do receive a huge amount of submissions every week, so it can be worthwhile to work with an independent editor ahead of submitting (be it on the first three chapters/non-fiction proposal or the whole book) if you feel you need a pair of fresh eyes on it, or after a round of submitting if you’ve not been successful.
For writers who would like to self-publish, I’d say an independent editor is more of an obvious requirement – an extra pair of professional eyes before the book is published can work wonders, and is worth the investment. Crucial here is finding the right editor for the project – someone with the right expertise, who is enthusiastic about the project and who you feel can help bring it to life.
What are the different ways an author can find an editor for their work and what questions should they be asking to decide who might be the best fit?
A lot of people come to me through recommendation; I might have worked on the books of someone they know, worked on a project they admire, someone might have pointed them my way, and so on. That’s a great first step – to ask around for recommendations – though that does of course involve having other writer contacts and friends, which is by no means a given.
There are some great places out there where you can get one-off services, such as The Faber Academy and Jericho Writers. Reedsy. Twitter and blogs can be great starting places to find people with the same sort of experience as you – see what they recommend, and if a similar route might work in your case.
The main thing I would say you should be asking is: do they have a passion for books in my area, have they worked on similar books, do I trust that we’d work well together? If there are reviews available for editors, it’s great to see what other people have had to say. Do also make sure you are clear on the what the service is, and what you can expect in return. For example, what is the word count they will look at? Will the feedback be worked in via Tracked Changes, or given as a report? Can you ask follow-up questions? Can they additionally answer any questions you might have about next steps? Will the editing be technical, or will they be suggesting wider ideas? You might like to ask for a sample report, to get a feel for their editing style.
What other kinds of support would you recommend to writers looking to develop their craft/finish their first book?
Twitter is a great place to follow and become familiar with people in the publishing industry – I’d recommend writers follow literary agents and agencies they chime with, as you can find out a lot about who is looking for what on this platform. There are some great books out there: Writing a Novel by Richard Skinner and From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake are two I’d particularly recommend. Writing courses can be great, if this is affordable and you find something that speaks to you and your goals, though this is as much about finding a like-minded community and sharing your work as it is about learning to write, which is tricky to teach.
Find a writing group if you can, where you can start sharing pieces and talking to others who understand the process of writing a book. Be careful who you show early work with. People who don’t write don’t necessarily have a sense of the many, many stages a book goes through from early conception and development to finished project on the shelf, so it’s important to find people whose opinion you solidly trust.
We connected on Reedsy, a platform for writers to access services from publishing professionals. As a writer I found it excellent. How well does it work from the other side?
Reedsy is brilliant. Writers will come to you with a brief and as the editor, you attach an offer if you have availability, can meet the timings and like the look of the job. How things will work around timings, cost and type of service are made very clear on the platform, and you do have a personal relationship with the author throughout the time of the collaboration (editor and author are in touch with each other, rather than a report coming through in a more anonymous way). Another great thing about Reedsy is the community feel – you can read reviews for an editor and get a sense of the books they have worked on to see if they’d be the right fit for you.
What was your experience of working with me on Pivotal like? What attracted you to the project and which characters were your favourite and least favourite amongst the cast?
I loved working on Pivotal! The project was right in line with my tastes – a relationship mystery, the impact of the same life-changing dilemma on four seemingly unconnected women. I loved the strong commercial hook here, and I could see you were open to creative, editorial development that could strengthen a novel that was already bursting with promise. I especially loved the self-determination versus destiny debate, and how it is explored in this novel – how many doors open in lifetime, how lives spin on the tiniest events and decisions – this to me is endlessly fascinating ground. It drew me right in from the moment I looked at your brief.
In terms of characters, I liked all of them! Most importantly to me, they all felt human – so even if some of the women were less likeable at times, all of them were relatable and you ultimately grow as a reader with the women as you go. This is I am sure behind a lot of its success as a novel. The mystery between them is subtle, and yet it is kept up all the way through: what will each of the women decide, and how are they connected to one another in all of this? It’s really rich and compelling, human stuff.
And finally, what’s the one piece of editorial advice you’d give to all aspiring writers?
This will sound very simple, but: keep up the practice! A book is built word by word just like a marathon is run step by step. Things will always get in the way of your creative project. The best way to look at it is as a craft, or a muscle – writing is strengthened by literally doing it. The more you write the more authoritative and free your voice will become. So I would say most of all, to find that sense of determination and perseverance inside of you and commit to the practice.
Write a contract if you need to! I, [insert name] will see this project through to its completion. Set yourself a goal of a certain amount of words every day, week or month – it is surprising what you can achieve in just a few hours taken regularly, so don’t be scared to commit to lunch breaks, or an hour before or after work if time for writing is tricky to find. In my experience, what often makes a writer have ‘success’ with their work is the ability to keep showing up, to keep trying, take feedback and work with it and overall, commit to and believe in their work.
Next week, I will have news of a special giveaway competition with some great items for booklovers, just in time for Christmas. Keep an eye on your inbox or if you’ve not signed up for my newsletter yet you can do so here.
©Nikki Vallance 2020