A recipe for ready reads

Volume 34, Number 3, September 2023

I now know the recipe, as I get ready for my 55th book in just over a decade. Reporting Royalty: Analysing the Media and the Monarchy was published within three weeks of King Charles III’s coronation in May 2023. Boris Johnson: Media Creation Media Clown Media Casualty five weeks after Johnson’s forced resignation and before he was prised out of 10 Downing Street, Reporting the War in Ukraine just four months after the Russian invasion. It is not the science of good organisation. Look on it like preparing a gourmet soup.

Cooking instructions

First, you need good stock. A great idea helps. Poor ones will crack under the pace. Think of something the target market of undergraduate journos and the chattering classes would want to read. A simple title ab initio helps to bind it all together and to concentrate minds. Avoid long ones; leave them to the academic journals. Brief the cover designer early. If they have the talent of Dean Stockton, they will assemble thoughts and come up with a stunning piece of work, like the Boris Johnson one.

Look in the store cupboard

See what you have in the larder already. After 50-plus books, I now have a database of up to 1,000 potential authors, some good, some bad, and some just plain illiterate. Filter them down to those with an interest in the subject plus those who will deliver good copy on time. There is a mental blacklist of non-deliverers. Short, sharp invitation letters, not the mini-essays of so many academic “call for papers” documents get short, sharp responses. Ask for a sample par or standfirst. Up to half of those approached will turn you down.

Style guides are important, nay essential. Putative contributors should know about the lack of fee (very rarely a sticking point), deadlines, wordage (1,500 strictly), and expected style from the get-go (not a phrase we encourage). They cannot later claim ignorance if they avoid the style guide. Calumnies are always correctable in subbing.

Authors and motives

Why do the authors do it? Ego helps. It’s always good to see your name on a contents page. Getting a platform for your views is important. Speed and impact are also important. Academic publishing moves at a glacial pace. Written today, published next year if you’re lucky. Too often, it misses the moment. Some in the academy are still contemplating the effect of the Leveson phone- hacking inquiry 11 years ago. I published three books about it, one halfway through his hearings. The good lord himself read it.

Rather than gobbing off in the senior common room or pub, why not do it on paper? These books are hackademic, mixing hacks and academics. The journos almost all deliver good copy on time. Commissioned academics do but not without squealing and excuses. Dogs do not eat computers!

Persuading the profs to profess

Getting academics into the soup is not as hard as it sounds. You will know some of them and some of their work if it has made it to the public sphere. Advertising always works. Try the professional sites, such as MeCCSA (the association that represents all who teach or research in higher education in media, communications and cultural studies) or the Association for Journalism Education (AJE). They deliver some surprises: a Loughborough psephologist who was a secret Inspector Morse fan, for example. The one-par sampler sorts out the writing wheat from the jargonistic chaff. After a decade, it is encouraging how many academics enjoy writing clear English for a change. Pearls come out of the university oysters.

Thickening the soup

Like all good soups, this one needs tasty dumplings. Put simply, big names sell books, whether we like it or not. Back to that contacts list and find the stars. The Reporting Royalty book has three knights a-writing: Anthony Seldon, John Curtice, and Trevor Phillips. It pays to have their personal emails and the art of persuasion. But even they are flatterable, however busy they say they are. The “names” rarely disappoint and look great on the front cover.

Getting the soup to the boil

Once you have a cast (25 authors is the optimum number for a bite-sized book), then it is a question of bringing them to the boil and delivery. Boiling down is crucial to texture. Regular chivvying is boring but works. So do early fake deadlines. Only one or two contributors have missed a “final deadline”. If that involves late-night or early-morning writing, then so be it. But remember “respect the talent”. It is their work and their words. Without them, you have blank pages. Some will need mollycoddling; most will be self-starting.

The soup

As an editor, or soup-maker, you have to work the ingredients from the beginning. See what lands in your inbox, work out a structure, and put the book into some logical narrative that even the thickest undergrad can follow. Remember that these soups are potpourri, not literal or lateral works. People can dip in and out of contributions that interest them.

Copy will always require tender loving care. Have it subbed once for sense and supersubbed for English, grammar and facts. Some surprising mistakes are made by big names. My two supersubs are Richard Keeble and Andrew Beck. Both are swift, both are pedants. They can transform a sow’s ear into something else while resisting the temptation to rewrite it. “Respect the talent” once again. One or two pieces might not make it if they are substandard. Telling the author that truth is never easy.

Corrections and clarifications

Authors get one big bite of the cherry on the subbed version of their piece. A bit of argy-bargy with the subs and an approved version emerges. Resist author attempts to change words or even whole sections right up to publication date. Academics, especially, are perpetual fiddlers. Discourage that strongly.

Spicing up the soup

The soup is nearly ready to serve. All it needs is some spicing up with signposting. Create section introductions, teaser quotes, and some contextualisation to ease the readers into it. I am no fan of indexes in short books. Nor long lists of references on pieces. Three in one sentence indicates to me some insecurity in the writer. Likewise, notes on the contributor at the end that turn into “This is your (intellectual) life”. Five lines are plenty.

Serving the soup

Once you have clean copy and proofs, publication is easy these days. Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and small publishing houses such as Bite- Sized Books see to that. Get an informed guide to self-publishing, like my friend Roger Packer, to help you. Packaging is all-important: attractive and informative front and back covers; clear contents pages; give authors honorifics if they have them. Respect the talent. Again.

Getting the soup to market

Never forget: whatever the production cost of a Hollywood film, a further 50 per cent goes on marketing. Too many publishers, editors and authors ignore this. Have a launch event, even a virtual one. It will be picked up if on YouTube on catch-up. Don’t pay for advertising but use your contacts. Reporting Royalty featured in the i, the Sun books page, the British Journalism Review, InPublishing (online and hard copy), Byline Times, The Media Leader, East Anglian Daily Times, TalkTV, GB News, BBC London, BBC Three Counties Radio, and plenty more. It gives authors another platform and the sniff of a fee. You cannot bang the drum hard enough. Impact is all. It might reflect in sales.

Lessons from the soup-maker
  • Be bold, be prescient, and set a publication date at the start
  • Be organised, or team up with somebody who is
  • Use your contacts to the full: aim for the stars
  • Respect the talent but do push them to deliver
  • Do not be afraid to edit. You name is on the cover
  • Bang the drum, sell the book. Brilliant books need readers.

Finally, as you ask, have I made a fortune from my half century of books? Sadly not. The only one that pays some of the bills is a guide to Inspector Morse’s Oxford. The others cost me money.

John Mair


John Mair is now editing (with John Ryley and Andrew Beck) Reporting Climate Change; Crisis? What Crisis? to be published this November

From the same issue


The British Journalism Review lost three of its greatest friends in the last quarter: Don Berry, a former member of the BJR editorial board and master of newspaper production at The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard; Michael Leapman, also a member of the editorial board, correspondent and diarist for The Times and prolific author; and Ann Leslie, BJR book reviewer and star feature writer. We celebrate them and the journalistic era in which they played leading roles.

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