Does Editing Have a Country?

In this installment of the GFP blog, we address the issue of editing in a global environment. Presenting five questions with Philippa Donovan, owner of Smart Quill Editorial. Based out of London, Los Angeles, and Sydney, Philippa works to connect authors with literary agents and film and TV producers across continents.  

You moved from London to Los Angeles last year. What is different in your approach to working with UK authors, editors, publishers, and readers vs. American clients (other than your spelling)?

Ultimately a good text is a good text, regardless of the location of the writer. And globalisation has helped in this regard. US agents are very happy to look at projects set in England, or Australia, or anywhere in fact. Diversity is a real buzzword in publishing at the moment, and the fact that I work with authors internationally is really working compatibly with that movement. I would say that my US clients prefer a much more direct approach; they don’t mind stark criticism and even require it to a certain extent. It feels like this signals robust engagement with their creativity and they appreciate it. In terms of output, it was always the case that US books flowed through to the UK, but it was very hard to get the conversation going in reverse. That seems to be changing with big-selling books like The Girl on the Train and Me Before You. Now it feels like both territories have as much to gain as the other in tracking literary trends.

What excites you most about today’s publishing landscape?

The startups. Niche publishers, hybrid bookstores/agents, short story platforms, poetry specialists, serialisation, Tinder for film/TV IP (swipe left! swipe right!), everything feels like it is back on the table. For many years the prevailing view was that certain forms did not sell. Now, digitally, there is nothing you can’t put in front of readers and let them make the decision as to what they want.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge for authors seeking publication today? What is the best way for them to overcome that?

How to approach an agent. The fact that almost every agent has different rules and regulations for submissions so you can no longer do multiple (identical) and therefore time-effective subs. It requires a lot more investment in collation and research. And tone is vitally important. Because of the sheer volume of emails they filter every day, getting an agent to engage with your work such that they request the complete manuscript is increasingly difficult. The Internet made it easier to find them, but harder to impress them.

Can you talk a bit about how you work at the intersection of publishing and film?

There is a vast amount of attention in Hollywood at the moment on “original source material”—i.e., the book or article that is the underlying basis for the story. Five out the eight nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars this year were film adaptations. So this means producers want to talk to authors directly, want to talk to those people who know and work with authors. I do a significant amount of development work with screenwriters in LA looking to try their hand at fiction/non-fiction, or sometimes those that want to reverse engineer a screenplay into underlying material. I also have an online book-to-film platform, where producers, directors, writers, and agents can browse new material available to option and/or represent.

What is the number one thing you recommend that authors do to improve their chances of securing representation? 

I would say this of course: invest in a professional editor. Or at least, get several people to read your work before you submit it. You get one shot to impress an agent; they very rarely reread or revisit if they have found a reason to turn down. Though you think your work is word perfect, and you have read it a million times, fresh eyes are absolutely essential. I have never done an edit where I have failed to find typos, grammatical errors, plot inconsistencies, and narrative glitches, no matter how accomplished the writer, how many times they have been published, or how much success they have garnered. The editor is your first reader, and therefore a key part of the revision process.

Philippa Donovan established Smart Quill in 2011. In 2014, she was named a Publishing Rising Star and is now the editorial consultant for the Authors’ Club at Soho House West Hollywood. Visit her at www.smartquilleditorial.com or www.youtube.com/user/SmartQuill.