We are delighted to welcome Karen Byrom to the RNA Blog’s monthly series where we speak to book bloggers and reviewers and get an insight into their world. This month we take a small detour to speak to a fiction editor who commissions short stories and is well know to the RNA. Thank you to Ellie Holmes for this most interesting interview.
Welcome Karen, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work at My Weekly
Hello, my name’s Karen Byrom and I am the commissioning fiction editor at My Weekly. I’ve
How long have you been at My Weekly?
I started my journalistic career at D C Thomson back in 1982, on the fiction desk of My Weekly. The fiction editor at the time was Liz Smith, and I remember thinking, “I want her job.” I had to wait 32 years! After eight years on My Weekly, I moved around the different magazines, working on features and fiction on Annabel and People’s Friend before returning to My Weekly for good in 2010, where my main responsibility was the health pages. When Liz announced her retirement in 2015, I seized my chance!
Tell us a little bit about a day in the life of a Commissioning Fiction Editor
As each day is so varied, it’s probably easier to describe my week. I check emails for submissions coming in and news about new books. I read and choose stories for up-coming issues – we don’t hold stock any more, so every story I buy must have an issue date. I send back stories that aren’t right for us, with feedback. I aim to have a six-week turnaround, but that doesn’t always work out, sadly.
I go to work on the bought stories, finding or commissioning artwork – I work closely with the designers on this, and often send artwork out to be enhanced so that it matches the story. Then I sub them lightly before sending them off to our production team. I don’t see them again until the page stage, when I give them a final check over.
Every week I choose archived stories for the website, and publish them myself – that’s quite a lot of work. I do the same for book reviews, author Q&As and giveaways. Then the tweeting begins – I think it’s a great way to build up relationships with writers and publishers and get My Weekly’s name out there.
Every four weeks, we have book reviews in the magazine so I’m constantly skimming books to decide what our readers will enjoy. I try to get to London three or four times a year to meet authors and publishers, and this year I’m off to Devon to take part in a literary festival, which is exciting.
I attend lots of meetings, contributing content ideas for the magazine as a whole, and I write occasional features, particularly travel and royal features. I also attend brainstorming meetings for new publications. At D C Thomson, we really are one big team.
I write fiction, too, for the Specials and The Annual, but tend to do that in my own time.
You must be inundated with books and stories, how do you choose which books and stories to read?
I receive and read around 90 submissions a month. It would be more, but I have a rule that you must have been published before in My Weekly before I’ll consider your story. It seems harsh – and I wish it could be different - but it’s the only way I can cope with the workflow, as I am the fiction desk! I’m constantly streamlining, though, and hope that someday I’ll be able to welcome submissions from everyone.
I wish I could read every book that comes in but I get around six a day! I skim them, then choose the ones I think will interest readers – a mix of romance, historical and detective thrillers. Even then I can’t read them all, but fortunately lots of my colleagues are voracious readers, too, and willing to give me reviews.
Do you have a submission policy for authors to follow?
I do. Short story and serial writers must have been published by My Weekly before, and I have a pool of around 100 such writers. I send out guidelines to them every two months, explaining the length and type of stories I need for upcoming issues.
I also consider approaches from publishers whose authors are keen to write a story for My Weekly. I’ve got some top names that way – Veronica Henry, Victoria Fox, and C.L. Taylor, to name just a few. Liz already had Milly Johnson and Sue Moorcroft on board - they continue to contribute charming stories and serials.
My Weekly is known for its lovely short stories and serials and its specials packed with lots more stories – your wonderfully titled Sunshine Celebration Special is on sale now – how far ahead do you plan what will feature in each edition?
Thank you for the lovely compliment. For the weekly, I have an eight week rolling programme, choosing stories to fill issues up to eight weeks’ ahead. That’s flexible of course – a story may come in that I just have to have, or a publisher may approach me with a fantastic story from a big name author. Or I’ll suddenly realise two stories in the same issue have the same theme! So it can be a juggling act. But once a story is bought, it will be used, even if I have to move it to a 2018 issue…
Specials’ stories are chosen around eight weeks in advance. I choose them to reflect the theme of the Special, and work closely with Specials’ editor Maggie Swinburne to ensure they complement content. She sees to the artwork for these, thank goodness.
If you could give one piece of advice to authors what would it be?
Read, read, read the magazine. In the last 10 years, My Weekly has evolved considerably, to reflect modern trends and attitudes and that’s reflected in the fiction content. While there’s always a place for what we Scots call “couthy” stories, involving old aunts, country cottages and cats, our readers also demand up-to-date stories with empathetic characters and convincing plots.
What are your interests away from work? Do you ever read just to relax?
I love to read – on a Sunday afternoon you’ll find me lying back in the conservatory reading a book
I have always particularly enjoyed literary and historical fiction, but being fiction editor has forced me to expand my taste, and I find I really enjoy a well-written romance or detective story.
Hilary Mantel, R J Ellory, Neil Gaiman, Anna McPartlin and Joanna Courtney are all high on my list of favourite writers.
Other than that I love yoga and attend three to four classes a week. I also play tennis.
Family is important, too. I spend time with my elderly father – Mum died just 18 months ago – and love to go to yoga classes and shopping with my daughter, or walking with my husband.
We often ask agents and publishers what they consider to be the next 'big thing' - what do you hope to see next?
I hope to be surprised! I’m not too keen on the next “big thing” – too often it leads to a raft of copycat themes, never quite as good as the original. The “unreliable narrator” is a case in point. When it’s done well it works – I’m thinking about Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife – but it is now in danger of becoming a cliché.
I don’t like to invest a lot of emotional energy into a character, only to find she’s been lying to me, if only by omission. Never mind the plot, for me, characters are what make a good book – and, of course, a good short story.
Thank you Karen for such a wonderful insight into your world and a fascinating behind the scenes peak at My Weekly.
Ellie Holmes writes commercial women’s fiction with her heart in the town and her soul in the country. Ellie’s debut release was The Flower Seller. A member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Alliance of Independent Authors, Ellie’s latest book, White Lies is out now.