In the next of our Who’s Who in Irish publishing, Bernice Barrington speaks with Editorial Director of Penguin Ireland, Patricia Deevy
There’s a Marian Keyes novel set in the publishing world called The Other Side of the Story. And somehow I am reminded of it when I step into the offices of Penguin Ireland on St Stephen’s Green, and begin talking to commissioning editor Patricia Deevy.
“Just deciding what to publish, that’s kind of frightening if you’ve never done it before,” she explains, as we talk about her early days in Penguin’s Irish wing – nearly ten years ago now.
“The weight you feel on your shoulders, committing a company’s resources to publishing a book that may or may not work out. That’s scary when you do it initially.”
It’s funny, but as an aspiring writer one tends not to think much about how the editor is feeling – they have all the power, surely they must feel great? – but it is interesting to hear about life from the other side of the desk.
“The thing is that publishing is a business,” she explains. “For instance, I’d have a soft spot for things that are quite quirky, and I have taken on a few quirky projects over the years. But there’s a risk there – particularly in a market as small as Ireland – and I’ve learned the hard way that it’s wiser to stay a little more mainstream if you actually want the books to sell.”
On that note, I ask her who in the Penguin stable is currently riding high in the charts.
“Well, Ross O’Carroll–Kelly [aka Paul Howard] is definitely something of a phenomenon,” Deevy explains. “What’s amazing about Paul is how he’s surfed the zeitgeist. He took a character who was all about privilege and entitlement and then, when the recession hit, managed to make him even more relevant.”
She also cites Sinéad Moriarty, one of her earliest acquisitions, as very popular with readers. “Sinéad was the first commercial fiction writer I published,” she explains. “And I was so lucky with her. She’s a real example of someone who realised as she went on that you can’t sit still as a writer, or mine your own life interminably; you have to constantly move forward and challenge yourself and develop.”
Deevy feels she was “lucky” with early acquisitions like Sinéad and Andrew Madden. He was the man who blew the whistle on clerical sexual abuse in the Dublin diocese, and his autobiography Altar Boy was her very first acquisition
“Andrew and Sinéad were incredibly solid people personally and the way their books turned out gave me confidence early on in my new role. And then, like any job, you get into it. You make mistakes. You learn.
Interestingly, it wasn’t Deevy’s childhood ambition to have such a high-powered job.
“As a child growing up in Co Laois, I was quite solitary, I read a lot – everything from Shirley Conran to John McGahern to Maeve Binchy to Jane Austen. When I went to Trinity [to study what is now known as BESS] I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. It was full of business students, but I majored in sociology.”
Deevy’s interest in human behaviour became more specific after she completed a post-grad in journalism in DCU – she was in the same class as Matt Cooper, now one of her authors – followed by stints in the Farmers’ Journal, the Dublin Tribune, the Sunday Tribune and then the Sunday Independent.
It was at the latter that Deevy made her name as a features journalist, ‘specialising’, one might say, in authors.
After ten years she got a call from Michael McLoughlin, a book publicist who she had known for years, and someone she was “in tune with” professionally.
“He phoned me one day and said he wanted to meet me for coffee. I assumed it was about some amazing author coming to town and would I interview them. Actually, it was about Penguin coming to town and would I be interested in coming in as commissioning editor.”
For Deevy it was the right time. “I was walking away from journalism but I was in my mid-thirties and I was ready for a change. It felt right.”
That’s not to say it wasn’t completely daunting also, Deevy acknowledges.
“I now look back mortified at the immensity of what I didn’t know and the kinds of things I was asking Penguin people in London who I’m sure were thinking ‘What on earth are they doing over there in Dublin?’. But that’s the only way you can do anything: go in at the deep end.”
BOOKS AND THE RECESSION
What about books now? What about the recession? Will any budding Irish writer ever get published again? The market just seems so tough.
Deevy nods. “It is. Currently books sales are down nearly ten per cent, so getting a deal is a real struggle for authors. [Deevy says she signed one new novelist last year.] You’re talking more than €3.5m worth of business gone out of the adult fiction market, with women’s fiction particularly affected.”
Deevy says women sacrifice themselves. “In the Celtic Tiger days you wouldn’t mind throwing a €5.99 paperback into your trolley in the supermarket. Now, that could be the price of a chicken for the family dinner – these are the types of decisions people are making.”
It’s also bad news if you’re writing what Deevy describes as “generic” commercial women’s fiction.
“If you’re writing generic women’s fiction, it’s going to be harder to get published now. I think people have become slightly more ambitious in their reading. One of the effects of promotions like the Richard and Judy Book Club is that books previously regarded as literary are now seen as perfectly accessible and people have developed a taste for them. What used to be seen as middle to high-brow is now seen as ‘well within my brow’.”
So something like Bridget Jones struggling with her diet is not going to cut it anymore?
“That’s not a struggle that is quite as resonant anymore,” she says, and then, perhaps spotting my crestfallen face (I adore the Joneser) , adds: “Obviously if an amazing voice comes out of somewhere that’s very original, I’ll be excited. I never say never about anything. All I’m saying is anyone who is trying to do an imitation of Helen Fielding or Marian Keyes (who is published by our colleagues in London), or our own Niamh Greene [ofSecret Diary of a Demented Housewife fame] is wasting their time. Those people are established. They will continue to publish, and move with the times, albeit within their own voice and groove, but if you’re trying to break in …”
Deevy lets the implication hang there.
She feels people want “meaty books” now.
“Again, referring to the Richard and Judy Book Club, the books they select always have an amazing concept at their centre. I think that’s what people want now: extremely strong, well-written original stories. That of course, is not to say that the cycle won’t come around again to another generic form that proves hugely appealing to readers, just as bonkbusters did in the 80s and so-called chick lit has for the last 15 years or so. Things go in and out of fashion.”
It’s impossible to mention original and well-written without referencing the smash hit of 2009/2010, One Day, which ushered in a gold rush for ‘high concept’ fiction.
“What people tend to forget about David Nicholls is that he had already written the TV series Cold Feet and a few really good novels, such as Starter for Ten, before One Day. He had an amazing track record in that very clever, intelligent middle ground he writes about so brilliantly.”
Deevy doesn’t go along with the notion that he was just doing the same thing lots of women writers were doing, but was taken more seriously because he was a man.
“I’m not so sure. I think he did do something original with that book. On face of it, One Day was just a love story. But the idea of returning to the same day each year was brilliant. Plus, he had a way of detailing things that you don’t always see in commercial fiction – he picked up on all those ‘tells’ that skewer people’s aspirations and pretensions so accurately, and he did it both subtly and mercilessly but still with an underlying warmth.
“I am exactly the age of his characters, so all that stuff about the anti-apartheid posters on the bedroom wall with Nina Simone playing in the background really resonates with me. These are subtle things and they seem simple and obvious, but it takes a particular kind of eye to pick up on them. And the absolutely key thing is that he made it look effortless. Making something look effortless is actually really hard.”
That, surely, is something to which every writer, published or not, can attest, and it brings us neatly onto a slightly more depressing topic: rejection. When, as a writer, do you hang up your boots? When should you take courage? Is it just pot luck? Do editors and publishers actually know what they’re doing?
“Not always, no. For example, The Help was rejected loads of times in America. Some publishers just didn’t see the appeal. That’s the thing with publishing. Sometimes you get it right. And sometimes you just don’t. But having said that, publishers don’t just throw money at a writer for no reason – the talent has to be there.”
Fair enough. But what delineates uniqueness? Or more importantly what doesn’t?
“It can be hard to articulate. A manuscript may be very solid, very well written, but it may not stand out for the right reasons …”
I suspect I’m wrinkling my forehead. It just sounds so vague.
“I know that can be difficult to understand. You might be thinking, ‘My book is as good as so-and-so’s who got published’. And you might be right. But theirs was written five years ago. In comparison, yours doesn’t feel fresh.”
Deevy urges people to seek feedback.
“Join a book club or go to your local library for details of who’s writing in your area. Sinéad Moriarty has often spoken about joining a writers’ group in London and how it was a turning point for her. If you’re getting rejected and feeling really bad, take courage and see if you can get a bit of feedback from somebody because that’s probably what you need. Unfortunately, publishers just aren’t in a position to give you that feedback.”
Ultimately though, she believes that writing a book – whether it’s published, unpublished, or even unpublishable – is a huge achievement. “To actually have that level of concentration and commitment and to go and do it – I just think it’s amazing.”
However, she says she has no literary aspirations herself.
“You have to have that gift, that imagination, and I don’t think I have that. I’m good at taking other people’s work and coming up with ideas in terms of what they could do to improve it. But for me to write a novel, to create an entire world and a convincing set of characters – I don’t think I’m capable of it. So anyone who wants to say to me, ‘You’re only an editor because you can’t write’, yes, that’s true. Absolutely true.”
Like I said, it’s the other side of the story.
Penguin Ireland accepts unsolicited manuscripts. Here commissioning editor Patricia Deevy offers some tips on how to go about submitting your manuscript:
- Follow the guidelines set out on our website. Everything you need to know is there (www.penguin.ie).
- Send in chapters from the beginning of the book and in sequence. Don’t just send in your ‘best chapters’. That won’t make any sense to me.
- Keep your synopsis short (ten pages are going to freak me out!). One to two pages is ideal.
- Keep your cover letter simple. Remember, it doesn’t have to be an application to be my new best friend or chapter and verse on your Leaving Cert. All you need to do is state who you are, then a paragraph describing the book and finally a few lines about yourself. Mention noteworthy aspects of your life, but ones that are relevant: the main point here is whatever might help to get attention for the book if we take it on.
- When it comes to presentation, there is no need for fancy folders or special binding or ribbons. Again, simplicity is key.
- Bear in mind that the person at the other end is very busy and could also be a little OCD about things, so keep your submission straightforward. That way you have less chance of irritating them.
- Be patient. (And this is where I have to apologise.) Ideally your waiting time should be about two-three months, but sometimes it can be longer, as I do all the reading myself. But I will get back to you eventually. Promise.