Guest Post: Ask the Alien Onions

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s guest bloggers are two Allen & Unwin editors. Allen & Unwin publish me in my home country1 and I think they are absolutely wonderful. One of the two editors might even be my editor there. They are based in Melbourne2 and have generously said that they’re happy to take questions. You could ask them what a design brief is for instance. For contrast I recommend you also read USian editor, Alvina Ling’s post and the comments, to get a sense of the different approaches to editing childrens & YA books in the two countries. Keep in mind that Alvina works for a very big US publisher, Little, Brown. Allen & Unwin is a much smaller operation.3

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The Alien Onions say:

Every day is different at the House of Onion. Different, yet the same. Every day is all about the business of editing, publishing and championing fabulous books for children and teenagers. Books we are very proud to publish. Including the extremely funny How to Ditch Your Fairy and the incredibly brilliant Liar.
The process of taking a book from manuscript to wonderful shiny new book on the shelf has many stages. In order to demystify this process somewhat, we have been posting an occasional series on our blog Alien Onion entitled What do Editors Do All Day. We have tried to accommodate those who thrive on visual learning as well as those who have a preference for text-based information acquisition.

So far our series has covered copy-editing and structural editing. Stay tuned for future entries on design briefing, blurb writing, correction checking and cake eating.
Today for our guest post on Justine’s blog we are providing a different kind of insight into life at the House of Onion. A sneak peek into the days of two of the Alien Onions whose roles in the House are different, yet the same.
7.45: Leave house, walk to tramstop reading excellent MS4 on iPhone.
7.47: Narrowly avoid lamppost.
7.50-8.00: Wait for tram. Spy on reading material of stylish lady waiting nearby. Spy on shoes of stylish lady waiting nearby.
8.01: Hop on tram, find seat (miracle!), continue reading MS.
8.20: Arrive at work. Discover work keys not in bag. Chastise self.
8.21-8.55: Sit on front step and read excellent MS on iPhone until colleague arrives with keys. Praise iPhone and colleague. Praise MS to colleague.
8.56-9.09: Read excellent MS on iPhone while waiting for computer to boot up.
9.10:  Receive coffee delivery from tall designer. Praise tall designer.
9.11-11.00: Copyedit, Copyedit, copyedit.5
11.03: Congratulate self on being excellent and efficient copyeditor.
11.05: Ask for opinion from colleagues on recalcitrant sentence.
11.10: Copyedit.6
11.15: Scramble to find the per-unit cost of a recently reprinted book so the Rights Department know if they can make a special overseas sale.
11.20: Copyedit.
11.25: Give opinion (solicited) to colleagues about matt lamination versus gloss and how it will effect the colour of already dark artwork.
11.35: Copyedit.
11.37: Give opinion (unsolicited) to colleague on e-book revolution. Ask opinion from colleague on same.
11.40: Copyedit.
11.45: Stare out window. (Where I can just catch a glimpse of the light towers of the MCG. That’s the Melbourne Cricket Ground for you USians. Where they play the cricket, you understand.) Chastise self.
11.47-12.30: Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit.
12.31-12.50: Eat lunch. Noodle around on favourite kid lit blogs (also Cakewrecks). Formulate an idea for Alien Onion post.
12.56: Advances of picture book arrive in reception. Squeal. Gallop downstairs.
12.57-1.20: Rip through 17 layers of packaging to reveal advances. Squeal. Admire. Congratulate self. Gallop upstairs to show publisher. Squeal, admire, congratulate selves. Ring author. Squeal down phone. Congratulate author.
1.21: Return to desk. Too het up for copyediting.
1.22-2.00: Write design brief for YA cover.
2.20-4.00: Update publicity/advertising/marketing copy for three books.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Sigh with relief that no books have to be sent to the printer today.
4.03: Panic that three books have to be sent to the printer next Friday.
4.04: Keep panicking.
4.05: Argue with tall designer over the relative merits of hyphenating a word at the end of a line of text and thus making it difficult to read, versus keeping word whole and having too much white space in the line.
4.10: Reach compromise with tall designer.
4.11: Read email reminding everyone that 4.15 on Friday afternoon is a good time to archive some of that paperwork from now-published books.
4.12: Look at towering piles of paperwork.
4.13: Place head on desk.
4.15-5.10: Resign self to Fridayafternoonitis and resume reading excellent manuscript. Do internal happy dance.
5.11: Confer with colleagues about readiness to downtools and have a small glass of wine.
5.11 & 30 seconds: Retrieve wine and glasses while colleague emails office.
5.15-? : Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
Eventually head to tram stop, hop on tram and read excellent MS all the way home.

7.45: Look up from laptop rested on knees to discover it is well-past time to stop checking emails and GET OUT OF BED. Chastise self. Continue with email management.
8.01: Narrowly avoid tripping over pile of unread ms beside bed.
8.41: Arrive at station. Discover train not due for ten minutes. Procure caffeination from conveniently located coffee emporium.
8.52: Lean against train doors, juggling coffee and e-book reading device (which is MUCH easier to juggle than coffee and unwieldy ms—praise Mothership for facilitating test-drive of e-book reading device).
9.12: Walk through Fitzroy Gardens enjoying lovely morning while making mental to-do list.
9.22: Arrive at office. Transcribe list of to-do items into notebook while computer boots up.
9.27: Consider list. Hyperventilate. Highlight in orange items that truly need to be completed today. Hyperventilate.
9.30: Refine blurb for graphic novel design brief. Compose email to designer explaining both design brief and why so many elements of design brief are still to-be-confirmed.
9.45: Save design brief email as draft in hope that to-be-confirmed items are confirmed by afternoon.
9.46: Consider next item on list. Hyperventilate. Compose replies to backlog of emailed author enquiries instead. Save replies as drafts to allow thinking time.
11.20: Respond to Rights colleague about request from Korean magazine for editorial article to accompany Korean publication of book.
11.25: Solicit opinions about the matt lamination. Ruminate on responses.
11.30: Check over contract to ensure all details of accepted offer are correct before sending to agent.
11.37: Engage with colleague, who has taken up residence in comfortable chair in office, about imminent e-book revolution.
11.40: Return to contract checking.
11.46: Catch sight of to-be-read ms pile. Try to keep guilt at bay.
11.47: Consider second coffee. Will tall designer to have second-coffee craving too.
11.49: Send draft-agreement email to agent.
11.50-12.48: Open New Book Notes template to complete so assistant can enter details of three new books into production database. Become distracted by recollection of MS number one. Email author to gush about brilliant, heart-wrenching ms. Save New Book Notes as draft.
12.49: Email colleague to say she is genius and should upload clever, funny Alien Onion post immediately.
12.50-12.55: Check next item on list. Hyperventilate. Open Publishing Proposal template and compose pitch for fabulous picture book ms to be presented to publishing acquisitions team. Save as draft.
12.56 : Hear squeal from colleague’s office. See colleague gallop downstairs. Hope colleague doesn’t trip.
12.57: Catch sight of ms to-be-rejected pile. Fail to keep guilt at bay.
12.59-1.03: Admire colleague’s GORGEOUS brand new advance copy of picture book. Squeal over endpapers.
1.03-2.00: Return to desk. Consider pros and cons of publishing fabulous picture book proposal while eating lunch. Do costing for fabulous new picture book proposal. Hyperventilate. Open PDF to reacquaint self with fabulousness of picture book proposal. Do happy dance. Complete Publishing Proposal and send to publisher colleague for comment before distribution to wider team.
2.20-4.00: Check over long-lead information for October 2010 books. Meet with editor to hand over ms for February 2011. Relay editorial discussion with author so far, enthuse about vision for book, confirm specifications and suggest cover ideas. Confer with colleague about titles to be pitched at Bologna Book Fair.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Check in with editor about progress of three books scheduled to go to the printer next Friday.
4.03: Confirm specifications for exciting new box set project.
4.05: Send replies to authors after adding ideas that have percolated over day.
4.15: Ignore email reminder about archiving.
4.15-5.10: Open New Book Notes template with aim of completing notes for second and third new book projects before overwhelming Fridayafternoonitis sets in. While writing pitch for new teen fiction, get distracted by recollection of how good ms is. Do happy dance. Save New Book Notes as draft. Congratulate tall designer on short-listings in Book Design Awards (Link is pdf).
5.11: Confer with colleague about readiness to downtools and have small glass of wine.
5.11: Email office to inform all that it’s time to celebrate successes (or drown sorrows) by gathering in reception with conveniently chilled wine.
5.15-6.30: Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
6.30: What happens after 6.30 on a Friday stays after 6.30 on a Friday . . .

  1. Which is why they say lovely things about my books. []
  2. You can tell from the frequent mention of trams. Sydney is tram-less alas. Also the mention of the MCG. Here in Sydney we have the SCG. Both are most excellently wonderful places. If I had a view of the SCG from my office I would get no work done. I have a view of the lights of the SCG from our deck and that’s bad enough. []
  3. Just reading the two posts you’ll notice terminology differences such as in Australia a “blurb” is what they call “cover copy” in the US. In the US a “blurb” is a quote recommending the book from a reviewer or author that appears on the book jacket. []
  4. Manuscript. []
  5. *GASP* ON SCREEN? Yes on screen. Always on screen. On screen is my friend. *Drowns out cries of, ‘The horror the horror’ with the efficient clacking of the keyboard.* []
  6. Clearly, this is a copyediting day. Anytime the word ‘copyedit’ appears in this timetable, it could be replaced on any given day by: structural edit, structural edit, structural edit, or check corrections, check corrections, check corrections, or meetings, meetings, meetings, or photo research, or blurb writing, or permissions chasing, or proof checking, or manuscript reading, or author/illustrator phoning/emailing. You get the idea. []


  1. Beth on #

    Wow, sounds like an amazing job.

    I actually haven’t heard much about editing/publishing as a career path. What are the job prospects like in Australia? And how does one generally enter the industry – are there any particular qualifications you need?

  2. The Alien Onions on #

    It is an amazing job, Beth. It is! We feel very fortunate to have landed here – and to be able to work with brilliant creators and inspiring colleagues. That said, publishing is notoriously tricky to find a way into. There are a good number of very fine publishing houses in Australia – however there are a much greater number of people with tremendous passions for books than there are places in these publishing houses.

    As it happens, both of us completed Arts degrees before finding our way here. There are also some very good tertiary courses including Professional Writing & Editing TAFE courses and Creative Writing or Editing & Publishing university courses that have internship or practical placement elements to them which can be a good way of getting experience at a publishing house.

    Many staff members in the House of Onion have completed one of those courses, but the main thing we all have in common is that we have always had a huge and enduring LOVE of books and writing, of reading books, discussing books, critiquing books, enthusing about books, losing ourselves in the wonderful world of books.

  3. Cc on #

    Urgh, so jealous of your jobs I may actually physically turn green.

  4. Carla Lee on #

    This is one of my favorite guest posts so far. Informative and hilarious and absolutely brilliant! Thank you, Alien Onions! Thank you, Justine!

  5. mb on #

    I love that the common element here is cake.

  6. Rachel on #

    Do you earn a good living? Do you have to take work home with you or do you just work at your office? Do you get long holidays?

    What’s your favourite thing about being an editor?

    What’s your favourite book that you ever edited?

    Did you alwayas want to be an editor?

  7. Hayley @ Pan Macmillan Australia on #

    Loving these guest posts – and Onions, this was awesome! Your blog is very entertaining too (although I think we need to talk about the amount of cake being eaten!!).

  8. random on #

    what if you want to be an editor but you don’t like cake? 🙁

    seriously, can you be an editor and a writer at the same tiem?!! I want to write but everyone says you can’t make money that way. being a n editor soudns like fun!!!

  9. The Alien Onions on #

    Ooo some interesting and tricky questions. Eeexcellent.


    Q: Do you earn a good living?
    A: What in the world can that be out my window? That really looks as though it needs investigating. *editor heads off in a distracted, question-avoidy kind of fashion*
    (Ok really? The short answer is no, the pay is bad [industry wide]. The long answer is… longer, and has to do with job satisfaction and the genuine love of what we do.)

    Q: Do you have to take work home with you or do you just work at your office?
    A: There is so much reading that goes along with being an editor, including the reading of many many manuscripts that never go on to be published, that you basically have to take work home. But most of the work that editors at A&U do in their own time is just that – reading – not copy-editing, or proofreading, or, proof-checking. Somehow that makes a difference.

    We also work at home (during business hours) when we need to get stuck into a copy-edit and need quiet uninterrupted time with a ms. Sometimes these business hours tend to start very early and finish rather late in the evenings.

    And we also realise that working really long hours and taking a lot of work home is not a good habit to get into. It’s not sustainable in the long term. No matter what job you do, or how much you love it, working too much is a recipe for burning out, and we want to be doing this for a long time – so we try to keep in mind that a healthy work/life balance is important.

    Do you get long holidays?
    A: We get standard holidays. All Australians are entitled to four weeks leave every year. Plus public holidays such as Easter, Christmas and (get this USians) the Queen’s Birthday, that add up to 11 more days on top of the four weeks. (Teachers, of course, get longer. And so they should.)

    Q: What’s your favourite thing about being an editor?
    A: Oooooo. Ummmm… Reading terrific books (obvs), building relationships with authors and illustrators we admire, the wide and wonderful kid lit community, whispering quietly in awe of the genius of finished artwork, opening packages of advance copies of new books with hands atremble and breath aheld, working with clever, book-obsessed colleagues, seeing books we have worked on in the wild (in a stranger’s hands on the tram) – oh so many favourite things…

    Q: What’s your favourite book that you ever edited?
    A: No fair! That’s like asking a parent to choose between their children! (If they have one, they’ll never tell.)

    Q: Did you always want to be an editor?
    A: (Susannah) Nope. I didn’t really know it was something you COULD do. It was, for instance, never mentioned by my careers councillor at school. (‘Do maths and science, Susannah. It’ll really keep your options open.’ HA!) I did know I loved books, book people and writing. So when a friend told me about a job as a receptionist at a publishing house, I applied post-haste. And the rest, as they say, is history.
    A: (Jodie) I wanted to be a farmer’s wife, then I wanted to be a witch, then I wanted to change the world, then I wanted to be an accountant (and began a commerce degree???), then I ran far, far away and remembered that what I loved most in the world was books. It took me a few more years (and an Arts degree) to find my way into publishing (via a Professional Writing and Editing practical placement).


    Q: What if you want to be an editor but you don’t like cake?
    A: (Susannah) I’m sorry, that’s a deal-breaker. You won’t be admitted to the Editors Guild. There’s no future for you in editing if you don’t like cake.
    A: (Jodie) Shh. Don’t tell anyone (especially not the Editor’s Guild), but I’m actually not very enamoured of cake. I would much prefer thinly sliced lightly salted plain potato chips. Or a good cheese. But I like participating in cake-gatherings – I like the vibe of the thing.

    Q: Seriously, can you be an editor and a writer at the same time?!! I want to write but everyone says you can’t make money that way. Being an editor sounds like fun!!!
    A: David Levithan and Penni Russon are two examples of terrific writers who are also great editors. It can be done! Having said that, some people find it impossible to find headspace for their own writing when their minds are full of other peoples words. I guess you have to try, and see which category you fall into. Freelance editing – where you can choose what type of jobs you do, and when you take them on can be a good income supplement. For instance, if you’re writing an epic fantasy trilogy for teens, you might find you don’t want to come within 10 feet of another fantasy novel, but are happy to work on realist junior fiction. Or whatever.
    Also, cultivating good editing skills, even if you never actually work as an editor, will help you with your own writing.

    Thanks, guys. That got us thinking!
    — J & S

  10. Rachel on #

    Thanks you! So useful! You two are the best!

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