With the 400th Very Short Introduction on the topic of ‘Knowledge’ publishing this month, I’ve been thinking about how long this series has been around, and how long I have been a commissioning editor for the series, from before the 200th VSI published (number 163 – Human Rights in fact), through number 300 and 400, and how undoubtedly I’ll still be here for the 500th VSI!
Having previously been an editor for law, tax, and accountancy lists, and latterly the OUP Police list, the opportunity to be the VSI editor was one that I simply could not pass up. I already owned, and had read, several VSIs, so I understood broadly what the series was trying to do and who the series was aimed at. I liked the idea of working across a wide range of topics (except science – these VSIs are commissioned by my esteemed colleague Latha Menon) and with a vast array of different authors. I also liked the idea that I would learn lots of new things and be a pub quiz team whizz. Unfortunately in order to be good at pub quizzes you have to be able to retain and recall information and details quickly. I like to think that if someone was able to explore deep inside my brain they would find hundreds of fascinating facts about hundreds of topics that are buried in there somewhere. (What has been exciting is to have on occasion been able to answer a University Challenge question, causing much excitement).
I naively thought that authors would be able to write 35,000 (or so) words easily and quickly, and therefore that they would deliver perfect manuscripts on time which would be easy to edit and a pleasure to read. For the most part I think this is true, but in my seven years as editor, I think I’ve seen and heard it all. ‘The dog ate my homework’ excuses, authors taking eight or nine years to deliver their manuscripts, and one author delivering a 70,000 word manuscript thinking that we could just ‘cut it a little’. There’s never a dull moment. I’ve seen ebooks come into fruition, an online service being launched, and new editions of old and popular VSIs come into being. Marketing has changed too, from the traditional brochure and bookshop displays, to YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and blog posts.
I often get asked what I do all day. The myth is that I do a lot of wining and dining, drinking coffee, putting my feet up on the desk reading manuscripts, and jetting to conferences. The reality is that I do a bit of everything and it doesn’t involve enough wining and dining – the tax authors ten years ago were far worse for this! I decide (with input from sales, marketing, the US VSI editor, and the science VSI editor) what topics to commission, I seek out the best authors I possibly can, I negotiate contracts, I talk to agents, I read manuscripts, I look at cover blurbs, and I panic about the size of my overflowing inbox.
People also ask me what my favourite VSI is, which is a very difficult question to answer. The first VSI I ever read was Mary Beard and John Henderson’s Classics (number 1 in the series) and I still think it’s a wonderful book. Of those I’ve commissioned, I love Angels and English Literature. And who is my favourite author? Now that would be telling, but I have passed countless happy hours with many of my authors. And that’s the best thing about being the VSI editor. I get to meet so many different authors and help them turn their vast amount of knowledge (and sometimes their lifetime’s work) into a short book that they can be proud of. My favourite quote from an author is, ‘now my children, grandchildren and friends might finally understand what I do’!