Traditional Publishing Is Alive and Kicking Butt_an interview with Rebecca Gray

Traditional Publishing Is Alive and Kicking Butt 

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There’s been a strong movement amongst writers towards self-publishing. Technology has levelled the playing field and put physical (or digital) book creation into the hands of the authors. However, there’s much more to successfully publishing than just putting words onto paper. After all, we’ve had printers in our homes and offices for decades. There’s also marketing, networking, distributing, designing, publicizing—all skills that traditional publishers have honed for ages.

Rebecca Gray, an Editorial Director for Profile Books and Serpent’s Tail, talked with me about a day in her work life, the importance of agents and the valuable role that traditional publishers still play for many writers.


Miles Rausch: First of all, tell us a little about yourself, Profile Books and your role there.

Rebecca Gray: Profile Books was founded on April Fool’s Day in 1996 by Andrew Franklin and Stephen Brough to publish stimulating non-fiction in a wide range of fields, including history, economics, science and biography, with a sprinkling of humour. Bestsellers over the years have included Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and the New Scientist ‘Last Word’ series. Bestselling authors include Mary Beard, Alan Bennett and Atul Gawande.

I’ve been here for almost ten years, first as a publicist, and now as an Editorial Director for Profile Books and Serpent’s Tail, so I buy both fiction and non-fiction.

Miles: As an Editorial Director, what is your role in the company, and what is your day-to-day like?

Rebecca: My role is to acquire books for us to publish, and then shepherd them all the way through, from non-fiction proposals to first drafts of novels, through hardbacks or trade paperbacks to paperbacks and hopefully many reprints. So as well as the work on the text one would expect an editor to do, I’m also thinking all the time about how we’ll publish a book—what format, what time of year, how to talk about it; I write, and then often rewrite, the copy; and it’s important that I supply my colleagues with the information they need to sell rights, or publicize the book, or sell it into the shops. Most days include reading submissions from agents, perhaps speaking to an author about their latest chapters, writing a cover brief, discussing how to publish the paperback of a book we’ve already published in its first edition, and answering so, so many emails.

Miles: There are three other brands under Profile Books: Profile Business, Serpent’s Tail and Third Millennium Publishing. How do these different identities work alongside and with each other? Are they four separate publishers under one ledger or more of a happy family?

Rebecca: Each of our imprints do different things, but most of us work across the lists, which makes for a lovely, varied working life. So Profile is almost exclusively intelligent non-fiction for general readers; Serpent’s Tail publishes mostly fiction including literary fiction, crime, translations and a bit of non-fiction most often on politics or popular culture. Third Millennium produces highly illustrated histories of organisations, schools and colleges, while Profile Business publishes—as you might guess—business books. We also publish books in partnership with The Economist—the world’s most widely read current affairs magazine—and the Wellcome Collection, which is a fascinating place and the list has produced three Sunday Times bestsellers in just a year.

Miles: How many books does Profile publish a year? How many from new writers? How many submissions do you get a year?

Rebecca: Profile publishes around 80 new books a year, and Serpent’s Tail around 30. Both lists are committed to discovering new writers, so have a good showing of debuts every season. We don’t work to quotas; it’s really about finding books we love, so I can’t put a figure on it. In terms of submissions, it must easily be in the hundreds, if not thousands. And while we do accept unsolicited submissions (that don’t come to us via an agent), I can’t honestly remember the last book we bought that way—so we really encourage writers to look for an agent. It can take ages, and feel like an impossible feat, but it’s such a worthwhile learning experience. Betsy Lerner’s book (Forest for the Trees) about this is invaluable. And when you’ve got an agent, they’re your friend, ally and advisor throughout the publishing process.

Miles: Can you talk a little on why you recommend agents? Lots of places do, but aspiring authors don’t always understand why and might view the requirement as a potential barrier instead of an aid.

Rebecca: Again, it’s really to do with to what kind of author you want to be. If you’re a natural entrepreneur writing certain kinds of fiction, then perhaps you don’t need an agent or a publisher (although many self-published authors do have agents). But it’s worth reading Cory Doctorow’s pieces on self-publishing (starting here) and thinking about how you want to spend your time. I also think that for writers working on literary fiction, it often takes a decade to go from first beginnings to holding your book in your hands, and during that time you need a lot of fresh pairs of eyes, one of which should be your agent’s. You’ll probably redraft your book at least five times, and it’s rare that one person can help you through that many iterations. But, honestly, what experience or process doesn’t improve with having someone to advise you, to tell you honestly what they think, to be your sounding board, to illuminate the industry for you, to be your eyes on the inside, to chase up your money, to read your contracts, to be nice to you when you’re miserable or give you a kick when you need it, to be in constant touch with people relevant to your work and to know the latest trends/failures/successes? Also, as a publisher or an author, when there’s a tricky conversation in the offing, having an agent to consult is pretty invaluable. I’m sure an agent would give a better justification for their existence than I can, but I also think that if you can’t see the virtues without me enumerating them, then maybe you don’t need an agent.

Having an agent to consult is pretty invaluable. What experience or process doesn’t improve with having someone to advise you?

Miles: Mash Stories is a fiction contest while Profile Books is a non-fiction publisher. What should a writer keep in mind when submitting to non-fiction publishers? How does submitting non-fiction differ from fiction?

Rebecca: Well, we do publish fiction on Serpent’s Tail, but in terms of submitting non-fiction, you’re right—it’s a completely different process. Non-fiction is almost always bought on the basis of a proposal, while novels tend to be bought once they’ve been written. Memoir is the exception, because it’s generally, though not always, sold more like a novel.

Miles: Publishing has been under fire recently, and many writers see more value in self-publishing. What do you say to writers who feel like the age of traditional publishers is over?

Rebecca: It really depends on what you want to do. If you’re writing genre books, particularly some kinds of crime or romance, then maybe self-publishing is the right thing for you to do. And I think the kinds of people who don’t see the value of publishers would probably be happier self-publishing. I’m fine with that. But if you want a serious bunch of people to take your book out into the world, publish it with all their skill, experience and professionalism, enter it for prizes, use their hard-won networks to make it visible to the press and in the shops, fight for it, enthuse over it and do everything they can to let the world know about it, then we can talk. I’m going to get trolled now, aren’t I?

Miles: Hopefully not by our readers! You make a good point, though. The benefits of a traditional publisher get downplayed in the self-publishing argument. What advantages do you think a publisher like Profile Books brings to writers?

Rebecca: Exactly those that I spell out above—this is what we do, all day every day. It’s what we care about. We are editors, designers, marketers, publicists, accountants, salespeople, production managers, metadata suppliers, copywriters…all of which can be summed up by saying we’re publishers. We know the people who buy books for all the major retailers and the independents too. We know the literary editors and the people at BBC Radio 4. We know other writers, copy editors, the printers, designers, paper suppliers, indexers, picture researchers, other publishers, film and TV people, foreign publishers and agents. And hopefully we don’t need to, but we know the lawyers too. Publishing a book is a complicated process—more so for non-fiction, but fiction too—there are still things we do that are taken care of so slickly by us as a group I don’t even know they happen. The benefits of a traditional publisher are infinite, but best summed up by saying that we’re professionals. We take it seriously. We get off on doing it well. I hope our authors would agree. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for everyone and I wouldn’t dream of criticizing anyone who chose to go another route.

Miles: What do you read for fun? What author or authors are you excited about, both under Profile Books and out of it?

Rebecca: Well, that’s too huge a question. I read all sorts of things both for fun and for work. Recently, the contemporary fiction I’ve read includes Fates and Furies, Station Eleven, lots of new crime and well-worn Agatha Christies, and non-fiction like Ghettoside, Between the World and Me, Far From the Tree and The Uses of Literacy. Of our books, I’m always excited about Adrian McKinty, a brilliant crime writer whose audience grows with every book – he’ll be in the UK in April and we’re publishing the paperback of his latest, Rain Dogs. We’ve got what I think will be a big hit later this year with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. And I am sure our biggest book of the year will be the new volume of Alan Bennett’s diaries, coming in October.

Miles: If you had one piece of advice for the writers and readers of Mash Stories, what would it be?

Rebecca: Write because you want to, not because you think it’ll make you your fortune. And reading definitely won’t make your fortune, so do that for pleasure too.


Miles: To learn more visit Profile Books. From there you can also visit their other imprints: Profile Business, Third Millennium Publishing, and Serpent’s Tail. A special thank you goes to Rebecca Gray for taking the time to talk with us.

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Miles Rausch is a web developer from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he lives with his wife and two children. Miles is always writing something. He likes to unwind by playing with his kids, reading, and watching TV with his wife (but in a real serious, connoisseur kind of way). You can follow Miles on Twitter (@awayken) or his writing website,

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