Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interview with a real live commissioning editor bod!

Today I have a special treat for you. It's a new interview feature I like to call 'Interesting folk who work in Publishing'. Today's guest is the fabulous Non Pratt, Commissioning Editor at Catnip Publishing. In the interests of full disclosure, I should perhaps mention that Non happens to be my best mate. But that didn't stop me from asking the questions the people need to know!

                                              This is Non, posing with the Catnip logo.

Tell us what Catnip is all about then.

We’re an independent publishing house bringing out a wide range of children’s books from picture books to YA. We look for books that are out of print but really shouldn’t be, such as Berlie Doherty’s Granny was a Buffer Girl, which won the Carnegie, and we look for quality fiction from overseas – there are some brilliant Australian writers out there, Lili Wilkinson and Marianne Musgrove to name but two. This year we’ve really expanded our publication of original fiction from new authors like J.D. Irwin to established ones such as Joan Lingard and Lesley Howarth. I like to think you’d never guess our size from the quality and range of fiction we publish.

Which Catnip title would you suggest I read?

Paradise Barn by Victor Watson. Victor has a wonderful economy of style which breathes new life into an established genre. His book is about three children solving a mystery during the Second World War – the narrative is well-paced, but not breakneck and his approach to writing is considered and yet effortless, drawing you in and leading you on. It’s tidy and satisfying and there’s plenty in there to get you thinking about good, bad and that grey area in between. I’m not playing favourites, but I think it’s a good one for any writer to read.

Do you get bucketloads of unsolicited manuscripts?

I currently have a picnic hamper overflowing with submissions received since Christmas. So, not bucketloads so much as hamperfuls…
What’s the most common mistake in the unsolicited mss you read?
In the submissions the most common mistake is a poor covering letter – consider your submission the same way as you would a job application and keep it professional. Relevant
writing credentials do not include making up bedtime stories for your own children, working with children or just really wanting to be a writer. In the mss themselves the most common mistake is not re-reading your submission before you send it – I see a lot of patchy punctuation, bad spelling and grammar, and unusual layouts.

Is there any particular genre/type of manuscript you wish would land on your doorstep right now?

Horror. Creepy hold-your-breath, wipe-your-clammy-palms writing that you can barely bring yourself to read in the house at night. For teenagers, not seven-year-olds, obviously – I’m not sadistic. I’d like some humour for the younger audience. Although I’d consider anything with a great voice no matter what the genre or age range.

Glad to hear you're not a sadist. That is reassuring for all of us. 
What advice would you give to someone looking to get a book published?

Get resilient. Get an agent. In that order. Agented manuscripts get priority on my pile and a good agent will get you the best deal possible with the right publisher.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The Big Edit. I love thinking of ways to tighten up the weave of the story and seeing opportunities within a manuscript that the writer may have missed because they’re so close to it. I try to go through this with each author in person so they can see my own enthusiasm for the work instead of feeling relentlessly criticised – even the most constructive criticism can seem depressing if you’re left in a vacuum. My suggestions might not work as they are, but they’re designed to prompt the writer into questioning whether they could think of something better. All editors ever want is to enable a writer to produce the best book possible.

And least?

Saying no to anything (manuscripts, advertising space, a cover that won’t work, my cats when they asks for their dinner an hour too early). Although I’m pretty good at it – ask the Panda and Tiger, they never get dinner before 7pm.

I thought you said you weren't a sadist, eh? Not feeding your cats before 7pm is MEAN. 
What are your top three children’s books?

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness The Oaken Throne by Robin Jarvis The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
I like a book where I don’t feel safe.
I also like
Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Elrbruch, but I don’t want to sub out any of the others… can I just add this one anyway? Go on, Cat… (Oh, OK then... but only 'cos I'm feeling exceptionally generous today.)

Which book do you wish you’d published?

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness, published by Walker. There is nothing about this book that I don’t admire in every single way as an editor. The package is perfect and the attention to detail at every level is stunning, from the use of embossing, foiling and spot UV on the cover, the coloured ends, the choice of fonts in the narrative... I could go on. And I think the story is executed perfectly. I could go on about that too, but then I might give something away and I’d prefer everyone reading this to go out there and buy it (from an independent bookseller) and read it. After reading The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Finally, the most important question of all: chocolate or cheese?

Cheese (port salut, I love you). Although I do like dipping lumps of cheese in a chocolate fondue, so I guess that’s something I’d have to kiss goodbye.

Thank God you went for cheese, otherwise our friendship would be OVER. Thanks Non, for answering all my questions. 
Thanks for asking me to do an interview on your super-fab blog! I feel very honoured. Can't wait to see your book on the shelves in 2011...

If anyone would like to ask Non a question, she's kindly offered to answer them in the Comments section below. Ask her ANYTHING (within reason...).


  1. No questions - great interview! But am adding you to my blogroll right now.

  2. Hi Non,
    You take unsolicited manuscripts but how quickly into a manuscript can you tell if it's working or not working? Do you always read the three chapters regardless? Or do you stop reading quite quickly if it doesn't grab you immediately?
    Thank you. :-)

  3. Hey Lara,

    I try to read the three chapters regardless as a fairly common mistake for new authors is to start their novel too soon - sometimes they should have started right in the thick of the action in CH3. (Or even later, in some cases.)

    You can usually tell a good WRITER from the first page.

    I once heard someone say that they read a submission until they didn't feel like it any more, which also sounds wise!


  4. Thank you, Non, very wise words. One more question if I may (sorry it's actually one question, two parts). How many complete ms do you actually request in a year? And out of those how many go on to be published?
    I'll stop now - these are all my questions. :-)

  5. Erm... no one's going to like this answer.

    I've requested three full manuscripts from the unsolicited pile. One last year and two this year.

    None are in print. Yet.

    BUT don't get hung up on statistics like these. There are lots of writers out there who aren't serious and they're the ones who get passed over - great writing and good ideas will increase your chances of getting published in unmeasurable ways. Even by someone as picky as me!


  6. No, that answer is fine with me. I just like to have a rough idea and even with those statistics it wouldn't stop me trying. Thanks again for your answers.

  7. Port Salut? Are you some sort of cheese amateur?

  8. Hey Frodders,

    I have a weird loyalty to Port Salut. It's been my favourite cheese since I was five.

    I'm also a fan of mimolette reserve and smoked blue wensleydale but they're both pretty hard to get hold of... unlike the delightful rubbery white goodness of Port Salut.


  9. Port Salut is OK, but it's no camembert, is it?

  10. Eh? I suppose you did say we could ask anything with reason. I like Port Salut and stilton in moderation but...get this...I didn't eat my first piece of cheese until I was 22. (Actually, I've stopped asking you questions now and just got involved in cheese-talk).

  11. That's true, but then neither is any other cheese. And you asked me chocolate or cheese, not chocolate or camembert. (I fear the answer to such a question would splinter our friendship asunder, mind.)

  12. Sorry Lara, accidentally seemed like I was cheeking you on your cheese talk there. But 22??? How did even get to such an age without the help of cheese?

  13. Oh, I hope I still get to ask a question.
    Non, you say that people often quote innappropriate things as writing credentials. What can you quote as evidence of your skill if you haven't had a novel/ short story published before? Would you prefer that the letter just said "please find enclosed ..."?

    Now, regarding cheese. I am slightly disconcerted that there seems to be a cheese bias on your blog Cat!

  14. Hey Becky,

    If you've not had work published you might still have relevant writing interests - have you written any articles for student magazines; do you regularly review books of the age group you hope to write for; do you write a blog (include a link to it and I might check it out see how you write in the public domain).

    Or is your job indicative of an interest in publishing? Librarian/bookseller/employee at another publishing house...

    Instead you might have an experience in life that inspired the work eg you worked as an agony aunt and wanted to address the issues that pre-teens are preoccupied with in a funny and sympathetic way.

    If none of the above, then that's OK, just state what does need to said (title, target audience, word count) and let me read your work.


  15. My mother never ate cheese so it wasn't in the house. When I visited Switzerland I didn't have lots of money so cheese and bread it was. I've never looked back. (And I don't eat chocolate, if that counts). :-)

  16. I forgot to say: do mention if you've been on any writing courses such as those run by the Arvon Foundation or are a member of an organisation like the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

  17. Non, that's really helpful to know.
    Thank you very much.