This Stuff Just Got Real!

In which The Author receives two parcels in two days

On Thursday morning, just after Ken Bruce’s ‘Popmaster’ quiz on Radio 2, the postman knocked my door. He was holding two grey plastic mailers, with London postmarks, containing a number of roughly cylindrical objects.
‘What on earth are these?’ he asked.
‘Charity collection boxes,’ I replied, and he laughed.
‘I thought maybe you were building a bomb.’
The Anthony Nolan Trust have recently rebranded their collection boxes. The new ones will be on display in Aberdare (and neighbouring towns) soon. The one in the Glosters is already in place, after I swapped them over yesterday. I decided to pay in the latest total while I was there; we’ve raised a very creditable £28.00 since June. That’s not bad going for a locals’ pub in the side streets of Aberdare, is it?
I put the odd shrapnel back in, rather than pay in a strange amount, as I’ve always been convinced people are more likely to drop change in if there’s already some money in the box. There was also a French 1 Franc piece, which I’ve added to my collection of foreign coins. There was a gang of French boys in the pub to watch the rugby on Thursday night. (These two events may or not be related.)
Yesterday morning, I’d only just got out of the bath when the postman knocked again. I ran downstairs in time to catch him, and he handed me a very heavy cardboard box bearing an Orion Books label. While I was signing for it, he asked me what it was.
‘Believe it or not, it’s a book.’
‘Hell of a heavy book!’
‘It’s not actually finished yet,’ I told him. ‘And it’s still “need to know” at this stage.’
This second delivery was the final link in a chain of events which started early in August. As I told you in ‘What I Did On My Holiday‘, I’d been in London, where I’d made a point of visiting Waterstones in Putney. The latest Gollancz newsletter had popped into my inbox a couple of days before. I was pleased to find that Ben Aaronovitch’s latest Peter Grant novel Foxglove Summer would be on the shelves when I got to London. (I know I’ve plugged these books several times already, but if you enjoy offbeat science fiction with a contemporary real-world setting, I can recommend them without hesitation.) It was perfect timing – I’d be able to finish one book on the way there, and have something new to read on the way home.
I actually started reading it in the waiting room of Charing Cross Hospital, because I had plenty of time before my appointment. To my surprise, I noticed a number of production errors while I was reading. It reminded me of the ‘uncorrected bound proofs’ which were an occasional perk of the book trade.
Every so often, the reps would give us a batch of bound proofs in advance of publication. They serve the same purpose in the publishing world as ‘white labels’ did in the music industry – giving insiders a sneak preview of forthcoming products before they hit the shops. When some of the reps found out I was interested in proofreading, I used to get regular parcels of books ahead of time. I used them as practice pieces, to keep my skills honed while I was biding my time to break loose from bookselling and conquer the freelance world. (I’ve still got quite a number of them at home, as they’re specifically marked NOT FOR RESALE.)
Anyway, I was very surprised to find a finished book – and a paperback, at that – looking like an uncorrected proof. It had already been through at least one print run as a hardback, so any mistakes should have been ironed out then. There was even a glaring howler in the blurb on the back cover, for Goddess’ sake!
When I got online the following day, I revisited the Gollancz website to see if I could get some contact details for them. The links led me to the Orion website (Gollancz’s parent company), and one of the first things I found on the ‘Contact us’ page was this:
Freelance proofreader enquiries:
Please note that we no longer accept unrequested freelance proofreader applications as we have established a considerable list of freelance help.
Well, that seemed like the end of the road. But I didn’t spend twenty years in the book world without learning a trick or two. I already followed Ben Aaronovitch on Twitter, so I decided to bite the bullet and send him a direct message.
Thoroughly enjoying Foxglove Summer – but Orion really haven’t got all the proofreading help they need.
I added a winking emoji and hashtagged Gollancz before sending it. Cheeky, I know, but it paid off.
Within five minutes or so I had a reply. It came not from Mr Aaronovitch himself, but from someone named Gillian Redfearn. A quick look on the Orion website told me that she was the deputy publishing director responsible for the Gollancz imprint. Ms Redfearn asked me if I was reading the hardback, and said they’d had it redone since then ‘for obvious reasons.’
I replied, no, it was a brand-new paperback.
A few minutes went by before I got a reply. To my amazement, Ms Redfearn invited me to send them anything I found.
The game, Watson, was afoot!
After I’d finished the book for pleasure, I went back to the very beginning and re-read it in forensic detail. I didn’t want to mark up my own copy, of course. Instead, I decided to simply jot down everything that caught my eye and type my notes up later.
It was a sunny afternoon, so I decided to ‘work from home’ (as Ken Bruce sarcastically puts it). I found myself a comfy bench near the lake in Aberdare Park and settled down with Foxglove Summer, a notebook, a pen, and the Chambers Dictionary. I did the first half on the Saturday, until it started to cool down; on the Sunday I went back into the park and sat in the sun until I’d finished my notes.
I was able to sort out most of the queries using my indispensable Reference Library – a couple of dictionaries, some books on Celtic mythology. a biographical encyclopedia, a few style guides, and the Ordnance Survey Gazetteer of Great Britain. I bought that last book in Aberdare Library’s Not Closing Down Sale ages ago, for a mere quid, and stuck it on the shelves at home, thinking it would probably come in handy one day. Little did I know then that I’d be verifying the names of villages in northern Herefordshire at some point.
A few of my points had to wait until I was online, so I didn’t finish my checklist until the Monday. Then I typed out my comments, clarifications, notes and queries in a light-hearted style and printed them all out, praying that I had enough ink to stretch to seven pages.
I wrote a nice covering letter, giving some information about my time in the book trade, my two stints at university, my involvement with quizzes and competitions, my proofreading experience to date, and various other aspects of my life which I thought would be useful. I said that I’d be grateful for the opportunity to undertake Orion’s official proofreading test if they thought I’d make a suitable candidate to join their ‘pool’ of freelancers. I put everything in an envelope and just about managed to catch the last post. It was worth the price of stamp, even if nothing came of it. I’ve gambled on far worse prospects in my time.
I didn’t hear anything straight away, but that didn’t surprise me. It was early August, when lots of people are on holiday. I also knew that the Gollancz offices would be in the midst of launching Sir Terry Pratchett’s last novel, and everyone would be involved with events throughout the country.
Nearly three weeks passed before I had an email from a chap named Craig, an editorial assistant at Gollancz. He said they’d been impressed with my close reading of Foxglove Summer, and that I’d picked up a number of errors which they’d be correcting in future printings. He added that Orion were prepared to consider my feedback as a test piece, and they were willing to offer me a place in their pool. We just needed to tie up some loose ends, and everything would fall into place.
I honestly couldn’t believe my luck! I read the email a dozen times before replying, to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted it – but no, they were willing to send me a contract. Suddenly my dream of working with a proper publisher (no disrespect to the Cynon Valley History Society) had come to fruition.
I actually signed the contract over a fortnight ago, but my first piece of work didn’t arrive until yesterday. I cleared my desk and laid it all out yesterday. There’s a huge bundle of page proofs, a marked-up typescript for comparison, a style sheet, and the all-important House Style Guide. I didn’t start on it last night, but when I woke up this morning everything was still where I’d left it. It wasn’t a codeine-fuelled dream after all – this shit just got real, as they say in the movies.
I really didn’t imagine that I’d land a place with one of the Big Five publishing houses this early in the game. I was prepared to noodle about with small presses for the first couple of years, building a reputation and getting my name ‘out there’, before I decided to try for the big league. Instead, I’ve managed to get straight in with one of the biggest groups. I still can’t quite believe it.
When I say ‘groups’, Gollancz is just one imprint of Orion Books. Orion, in turn, is part of the Hachette UK group, which also includes Hodder & Stoughton, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown. And whereas the retail book trade has regular peaks and troughs (like this week’s ‘Super Thursday), the publishing conveyor belt never stops moving. In theory, I could finish one project and start another one within days.
And, in theory, there’s no reason why I’ll have to confine myself to the Orion Group. If (say) Little, Brown’s Orbit imprint is looking for someone to handle a new SF book, my name might get mentioned in the right office or around the right watercooler.
Once I’ve established a name, there’s no reason why I can’t broaden my horizons even further. If I can prove my worth with Orion, I can start approaching some of the other publishers whose output fits with my interests and knowledge. The gang in work used to tease me whenever I read Publishing News in the staffroom – that weekly digest of distribution changes and industry gossip didn’t appeal to ‘proper’ booksellers, after all. Little did they know that I was drawing up a shortlist of publishers to approach when I finally took the plunge into the freelance world. Over the years I learned one important fact from my background reading: everyone in London publishing seems to know everyone else, so the networking potential is enormous.
That simple message on Twitter opened a door of new opportunities for me, and I still haven’t quite taken it all in. Who knows where this latest development could take me?
I think it would be a good time for me to thank Mr Aaronovitch, whose book gave me the confidence to tackle one of the big publishers. We’ve never met, but if we ever do I’ll be only to pleased to shake his hand and – possibly – stand him a beer to show my appreciation. As one former bookseller to another, I think it’s the least I can do.
Onwards and upwards!

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