Indie Fiction Subscription #5: Introducing Faber & Faber
… as if Faber need any introduction.
Founded in 1929, Faber have been making literary history by risking it all on new voices for nearly a century (check out the wonderful decade-by-decade timeline on their website). Most recently, they've introduced the world to Sally Rooney – and now Rebecca Watson, whose hugely anticipated (and worth all the wait) debut little scratch is our January Indie Fiction subscription title!
We have a fantastic exclusive interview with Rebecca for subscribers (sign up before Jan 20th to receive a signed copy and the interview), but for now, for everyone, we have this brilliant interview with Rebecca's editor Emmie Francis, who is also a contributing editor at The White Review.
Over to Emmie for editorial insight!
Debuts: why are they so crucial – for writers, and for readers? What’s an editor’s role in bringing a debut novel into its final form? And talk us through what happens (or what you hope happens) when a writer’s first novel meets the world?
I must admit, there’s always an aspect of fetish in how the publishing world understands and works with the idea of the ‘debut’ as a positioning and selling point. Debuts are, of course, those young women being paraded at debutante balls, or young, college-age basketball players exhibiting their athletic prowess for the NBA draft. However, the label is undeniably helpful, exciting and, of course, somewhat daunting.
Debuts are crucial for culture, and a large part of the joy of publishing them is the idea of seeing the future before it occurs. It’s the chance to read an author in the period before she and her work become legacy, or part of a larger body of work that remains literary history. I’m not being dramatic, I don’t think: there is a huge amount of creative energy that is located in witnessing the ascendance of a writing career when it’s just beginning (no matter what age the author is, by the way!).
I suppose the editor’s role in bringing a debut novel into its final form is essentially that of identifying its value, and being the first person to communicate that to your publishing colleagues and the outside world. That happens when you take a leap of faith. You don’t have a track record to work with, so you have to be a little crazy and you have to have conviction. And you have to have heard a new voice in the work, something that provides distinct craft while continuing what should be at the heart of every book you publish: good literature.
It’s worth belabouring the point that so many other people are involved in the process of getting a first book into its final form: the agent who kept their binoculars out for the author in the first place and entrusted the material to the editor they thought would respond most profoundly, the other editorial colleagues who share an editor’s enthusiasm and vision for a book, the sales colleagues who immediately look into their crystal ball for where and how the book can sell most effectively, the publicists who recognise where they can pitch the author and how fun that would be, the marketing colleagues who know just which audience to tap, the cover designers and production colleagues who take so much care to make sure the book is beautiful – inside and out.
Finally, I hope that when a debut meets the world, it is appraised fairly, honestly and with humility. I also hope that it gives readers and booksellers hope for the future. And I hope that it completely bypasses that ‘one-shot’ hype. And I hope it pays its creator a living wage.
Part of your role is supporting writers working through this last year: what advice have you been giving them? And how are you managing the new world of work? Any tips for dealing with procrastination, distraction and despair?
It’s been unprecedented. In a matter of weeks, the high street was rendered only viable if it was offering an ‘essential’ service. Bookstores have had a hell of a time, and yet shown such resilience – whether by offering biked deliveries, or ‘click and collect’, or rapidly redirecting all sales channels to an online portal (all the while, maintaining incredibly admirable spirits).
When it was crucial that we move the original publication dates of books that were meant to come out in the spring/summer, I was amazed at how understanding our authors were. The decisions were obviously in the books’ and their interests, but the hardy capability that everyone showed was astonishing. My advice has been to look at the enduring flexibility that the industry can offer. There’s been an increase in easily downloadable formats such as audiobooks and ebooks, and everyone’s online presence has stepped up a notch, with virtual launches and so on. In times of crisis, books are, indeed, a solace – at least. And an essential service.
(I cannot responsibly lend any tips for procrastination, distraction or despair. I would recommend the view at the top of the western side of Nunhead Cemetery, though.)
As an indie bookstore we’re often particularly excited to work with indie publishers (we miss events so much). What’s important for you about those collaborations? When and how do they work best? And how do we work together to keep independent publishing going?
We have to keep talking! That’s what it takes, I think. It’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job to hear a bookseller tell me that they want to hear more about a book or author. All publishers are effectively competing for their attention, so I think the loyal link between independent publishers and indie booksellers is particularly compelling.
Obviously Faber have kind of a history… In particular, I’m thinking about the history of Modernism and its ongoing effects. It feels like there’s a lot of reflection right now on the formal challenges that took place a century ago and whose effects are still being felt (thinking of Francesca Wade’s work for example) and also a new “wave” of writers who are responding to Modernism’s new forms, like Rebecca Watson. Can you talk a bit about how you see that legacy, in relation to your interests and your list?
I’ve always been interested in Modernism, but I think what interests me more about Faber’s history is the firm’s tendency to take risks. Before modernist techniques were being flexed, the best publishers were reacting to reinvention of the form, I think.
To quote the great Roberto Calasso, whose book The Art of Publishing is something of a dog-eared tome for me:
I wouldn’t wish to give the impression that publishing today, in the sense I have attempted to describe – namely publishing where the publisher is happy only if he succeeds in publishing good books – is a lost cause. It is, instead, simply a very tough cause. But no tougher than it was in 1499 when Aldus Manutius of Venice published a novel by an unknown author, written in a composite language consisting of Italian, Latin, and Greek. Its format was also unusual, as were the many woodcuts that studded the text. And yet it is the most beautiful book printed up to now: the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Someone could still attempt sometime to equal it.
Part of that Faber legacy could be described also as innovation: for example, and also how editors, writers and publicists use socials to engage with readers and build community. How have you seen online engagement working, especially during the pandemic – both in your work as an editor, and for the publisher, and the book industry as a whole?
Life and literary community has moved online in a way, because we can’t live it in bookstores and pubs and editorial meeting rooms. I engage with online literary discourse, I hope, with the knowledge that a) Twitter is awful in so many ways and b) it cannot replicate reading from the page, and then talking to someone in person about it, or writing about it. That said, Faber has the curious quality of being both legacy-proud and nimble in embracing new forms of literary engagement, whether that’s the Faber Members scheme, the creative writing Academy initiatives or interdisciplinary Social events. That outreach and widening of what it means to publish a book will be evermore essential as the industry retroactively engages with audiences who have historically not had access to literature or representation through it.
This seems like a crucial ambition… tell us more:
Oh, dear! I won’t say much more that is specific to that anecdote, only that it is but a sliver of strategy from the brilliant Alexa von Hirschberg, an editorial colleague. Through the ages, Faber has published books by some pretty high-profile people, and books about high-profile people. But this is more about the standards that we aspire to reach. It sounds sentimental, but a huge part of my job is about making people happy. Our authors deserve this; after all their contribution, to be deeply satisfied with the representation of their work in the critical arena and in the retail market-place. And – while looks aren’t everything – design is something we at Faber are very passionate about. Our covers are works of art, and I think that’s something Marianne Faithfull was interested in…
What can and do books mean for people (including but not limited to legendary rock stars) right now? And how is little scratch particularly making those connections?
We are all, writers and readers alike, intellectually and artistically enriched by a marketplace full of all different sorts of books, written by writers at various stages of their careers and abilities. In a world where our sensations and impressions are, perhaps, flattened by a pandemic and its ensuing societal restrictions, books are – in a sense – quite life-giving. Without wanting to enter maudlin territory, they can remind us of what we had and what we will continue to have after this: exchange of ideas, sensual stimulation, conceptual confrontations and imaginative travel.