An interview with Helena Caldon

[intro]Helena Caldon became a freelancer in 2004 after ten years working as an in-house project editor for Random House and BBC Books. Since then she has worked with authors including Alan Titchmarsh, Gordon Ramsay and Professor Brian Cox.[/intro]
What is the best thing about being a freelancer?

Without a doubt it is technically being able to choose the books you want to work on. I say technically because sadly it doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes the timings of projects and my own workload won’t allow me to take on a job that just sounds fantastic, which is always a shame. But since going freelance nine years ago I have found this way of working empowering and liberating. I decided that publishing was the career for me while still at university studying English; I spent Wednesday afternoons and the odd evening working at Hodder and Stoughton, being paid in experience, free books and launch-party leftovers (mostly bottles of booze of some sort!). I found a world of books that was more exciting than the stuffy study of Old English and pretentious poetry analysis I was being subjected to at seminars and lectures, and I was hooked. Ten years in-house followed, which was an incredibly exciting, informative time, but as I moved through the ranks I sometimes found myself moving further away from what I came into publishing to do – to work on books. Freelance allows me to be an editor; to work with books, to craft them, to work with an author and a designer and stick purely to the creative side without getting involved in the corporate politics. That’s what I think I’m best at, and certainly what I love most about my job.

What is the worst?

While working in house deadlines and workloads always felt challenging, but when you are freelance they can become almost completely unrealistic. I’ve worked on fast-track titles throughout my in-house career, starting with programme scripts to be published alongside opening nights of new plays while at Methuen Drama, to books to tie-in with transmissions at the BBC. These short, sharp schedules are even more prevalent in publishing now, and even non tie-in books are being produced in equally crazy and demanding timescales, which means that every project feels like a rush job. As a freelancer it is rare to have the luxury of being able to work on one book at a time, and so when schedules for several books start to bottleneck, due to inevitable delays from somewhere in the chain, the stress of meeting every deadline becomes coupled with the fear of perhaps this time I may not make it and I may have to let down a client. (Fortunately, thus far – touch wood – this hasn’t happened yet!) It would, of course, be wonderful to have more time on occasions to really perfect a project. (Publishers, are you listening?!!)

What qualities do you need to be a trusted project editor?

All the editors I have worked with and  admired over the years have been fair, calm and consistent in their approach to the books they are working on. There is nothing worse than working with someone who doesn’t have a feel for a project and changes the direction of a title as the stages progress, or even at the final stage. Getting on with the team is vital; the designer, publisher, production controller and, of course, the author. My first boss was inspirational in how to build strong working relationships; Geoffrey Strachan managed to achieve respect and love from all he worked with but at the same time still cleverly managed to always produce the book that HE wanted without offending the writer or anyone on the creative team. It was magical to watch.

Share some advice you were given when you set out as an editor

Ask the question, but be prepared to compromise. Editing is not, and should not be, a dictatorial craft, it is a collaboration to create something special, that everyone can be proud of and that will also sell well! As I’ve moved into illustrated books over the years the team element has become an important part of editing. Illustrated books more than any others require a fair and frank exchange of ideas between editors and designers, and the ability to compromise and to consider the other team member as deadlines begin to pinch and tempers begin to fray under the pressure!

How do you juggle the pressures of creating complex illustrated books for publishers, all of whom are looking at similar autumn publication dates?

Tea, chocolate and a forgiving family!  The summer months are always stressful, and every year I promise I’m going to handle it differently, but so far I haven’t found the perfect solution! Mostly, I just take a deep breath, write a lot of to-do lists, tell my friends I’ll see them in a month or two and crack on.  It may mean weeks of early starts and late nights, but come September the pressure will always ease a little and the mountain of paperwork that has been threatening to topple over onto my already covered desk will finally get a look in. Having said that, over the past five years or so I’ve noticed that this frenzy of last-minute publishing is not only confined to summer but seems to be infiltrating other months of the year. The spring book list seems to be as important as the autumn one; I am now finding I get calls and emails in the autumn as publishers take stock once the Christmas books are snugly bound and decide to sneak something else into spring…

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