Catherine Milne on trusting yourself as a publisher

This is a story about confidence.

While I love my job as a publisher (literally, I pinch myself in disbelief and delight every time I walk through these doors at HarperCollins), it is a job that tests your confidence to the limit. Every day, I doubt myself – and that’s because, with every manuscript I read, I’m putting my own personal taste on the line. With each manuscript you’re asking: Do I love this book? Is there a readership for it? Is it good enough to publish? But it’s not always immediately clear if what you’re reading is amazing, or if it’s just – meh, okay. ‘Is it just me?’ is a question I often ask myself. Is my taste going to chime with all those other readers out there? Is this manuscript really fantastic, or am I completely out of whack and kidding myself? When I go into a bookshop, though, I relax. There, someone else has made all those decisions. I reach for a book, seduced by the title, the cover, the blurb, the endorsements. They all send signals that someone else has judged this book to be good, to be worthy. But when you’re the one tasked making that all-important decision, you’re seized by doubts. At least, I am.

So, let me tell you a story about a novel called (appropriately enough) Storyland. This came to me as a manuscript in 2014, via an agent. I immediately loved the title (it’s a novel that tells the story of Australia through the interwoven stories of five very different people from different times in Australian history, but with threads of connection between them all), and was intrigued by the ambition and boldness of the concept. It was pitched to me as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas meets The Secret River, as an ambitious, thrilling story of Australia.

And I liked it, but I just wasn’t sure. I gave the author some feedback but felt it just wasn’t quite there yet. It could be amazing, I thought, but I somehow don’t quite think it is yet. But I couldn’t quite get the story out of my mind. I kept thinking about the novel, the characters, the overall vision of the book. It was 2016 when the novel came back to me, and this time, it was better. Reading it again, I felt again that original tremor of excitement. Yes, I think it’s amazing, I thought to myself. But there’s always that cold thread of self-doubt. What if it’s just me? What if I’m wrong? But then, after the revisions and the editing, the in-house readers started filtering back their comments to me. And finally, I could relax …

‘I’m going out on a limb and saying this is the best local fiction book I’ve read in years.’

‘Storyland was an absolute delight – my greatest literary treat in ages.’

‘This is simply one of the best stories about Australia I have ever read.’

‘It’s unlike any other book I’ve read – a dazzling, boundary-pushing, elevated yet beautifully approachable work of art.’

‘It’s like the author is pulling me through time, and then back again. Brilliant stuff.’

So in the end, maybe this is a story less about confidence, than about trusting yourself. Trusting that initial instinct, that little tremor of delight. This holds true whether you’re reading a manuscript, or writing one. Find that tremor of delight, and trust it.


Storyland will be available in April 2017

Posted on March 28, 2017 by

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"Catherine Milne on trusting yourself as a publisher"3 thoughts on
  • Katrina Hemingway says:

    Fantastic article. Perhaps we have similar taste in books but I’d say you have done a terrific job bringing Catherine McKinnon’s epic “Storyland” to every book lover this April. Can’t wait to hear and read their reactions. It’s unique, compelling, and will be remembered for quite some time.

  • Pia says:

    Loved this article Catherine! Can’t wait to read Storyland.

  • Nathan Tombs says:

    I enjoyed reading this, as i am on the cusp of finding someone to publish my work. Let alone look at it. So it was interesting to read a publishers perspective.
    You truly have to love what you do, to do something amazing and it took myself a time to realise that within.
    As common, i have had much self doubt as a writer, having only properly learned to write in the last few years of my life, so know well, that power; confidence can push you forward or be at your detriment, depending on attitude.

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