Off The Page

From office slave to editor

In the second part of a monthly series on the books industry, the group editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury talks about always being on call for her writers

Writers may try various gimmicks to get noticed, but editors are impressed only by a good story, says Ms Alexandra Pringle, group editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury.

On the telephone from her office in London, she recalls an aspiring author who mailed herself and her manuscript to the veteran editor in a big cardboard box.

When Ms Pringle came down to sign for the delivery, the author jumped out holding the manuscript.

"I'm afraid that's about as desperate as it gets," she says with a laugh.

No, she did not take on the author. The manuscript was not to her liking and, as she says, an editor's main tool is her individual sense of taste.

  • What makes a good editor?

    Ms Alexandra Pringle, group editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, says: "You need to have a good sense of text. You need to have developed your own taste. You need to have good communication skills."

    Editors need to be able to multi-task since they often work on multiple books, all at different stages of publication.

    A good way to learn is on the job, as she did, by joining a publishing company and listening, watching and doing lots of reading.

    "To become an editor takes a long time. You need patience. You need to be a tortoise, rather than a hare," she says.

Writers would go to great lengths to be taken on by Ms Pringle, who is mentioned gratefully in the acknowledgements of novelists from Margaret Atwood to Elizabeth Gilbert.

The veteran editor championed Gilbert's travelogue Eat, Pray, Love long before anyone in Britain was interested in the book.

She has taken critically acclaimed novelist Esther Freud from her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Hideous Kinky, in 1999 to last year's homage to architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh's career, Mr Mac And Me.

In the early part of her career, she edited the Virago Modern Classics series, a ground-breaking collection of books promoting women writers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Writers featured in the modern classics ranged from African- American poet Maya Angelou to British novelist Pat Barker, who would later win the Booker Prize in 1995.

Ms Pringle's eye for talent also extends to the wider industry: her first assistant at Bloomsbury,

Ms Chiki Sarkar, later founded Penguin Random House India and launched a major publishing concern in New Delhi, Juggernaut, this year.

"I didn't even let her read manuscripts," Ms Pringle, who climbed the publishing ladder in the same way, says with a laugh.

Her four-decade-long career began with being an editorial assistant on the art magazine Art Monthly. In 1978, she joined Virago Press.

At first, she was the "office slave". She made tea, did photocopying and posted parcels of books.

"I did whatever I was told. You learn by listening, watching and reading," she says. "To become an editor takes a long time. You need patience. You need to be a tortoise rather than a hare."

She worked her way up to editorial director and part-owner of the imprint and moved to Hamish Hamilton as editorial director in 1990. She left after four years to become a literary agent and, in 1999, joined Bloomsbury.

As current group editor-in-chief, she runs the publishing department, working with Bloomsbury's offices in New York and New Delhi on their global publishing programme.

Hers is the eye that chooses new manuscripts and helps writers make them better before publication. This can range from thinking about the themes of the story to excising or adding entire chapters.

"It's the job of the editor to help the author achieve the greatest potential of the book," she says.

The process of structural editing can take up to a year and is followed by consultations on cover design, marketing and other matters.

"I always think of the editor as the engine that drives the book. You never really sign off," she says. "You're the champion of the book."

Successes this year include Gilbert's new non-fiction work about being creative, Big Magic, and William Boyd's critically acclaimed novel about a female photographer, Sweet Caress.

Next year's list includes acclaimed children's author Meg Rosoff's first novel for adults, Jonathan Unleashed, due in February, as well as Not Quite Nice, the debut novel from actress Celia Imrie, who played a retiree in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) and its sequel released this year, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

While many are gloomy about falling readership around the world, Ms Pringle is upbeat about the publishing industry.

"Everyone says we need to cut our list. We've been saying that for the last 20 years," she says.

She finds hope in the rise of independent bookstores in the United States - even Amazon.com started a physical bookstore in Seattle - and notes that there are bigger bestsellers than ever.

Blockbusters such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games sell in the millions, especially when there is a film adaptation of the work.

The corollary is that smaller titles are selling fewer copies, which for her means such books simply "need more careful editing than before".

While some writers can be precious about their work, Ms Pringle finds on the whole that authors welcome a discussion about their manuscript and things that might need to be changed.

"It's a conversation between the editor and the author. It's as if you climb into the world of the book together and make it better," she says. "Every author wants his book to be as good as it can possibly be."

Taking on a book also means taking on a writer. She receives and replies to e-mail messages at odd hours about text and narrative, and is also on call for emotional support when a writer goes through a bad patch in his or her life.

"You have to be available. You're the person who talks to them about their book and even about their life. You have to be many different things, sometimes verging on being a psychiatrist as well as an adviser," she says.

It goes both ways. Her friendship with novelist Freud sees the two travelling together to literary festivals around the world and their sons played together as children.

"When you take on a book, you're taking on a writer and, if you love a book, you love a writer. It's incredibly enriching," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'From office slave to editor '. Print Edition | Subscribe