The Insider: Maria Rejt
Mslexia: Summer 2008
If you want Maria Rejt, Macmillan and Picador publishing director and one of the most respected editors in London, to notice your manuscript it is simple: create a unique outsider’s voice and characters that move her. Not as easy as it sounds, but that formula is what makes a script shine out like a ‘little golden nugget in the Yukon River’ from the mountain of scripts that clutter up her impossibly untidy office near King’s Cross.
‘I am always asked what am I look for, and there are obvious answers like: what is selling at the moment,’ she explains, name-checking some star performers – C J Sansom, Kate Moreton, Sue Grafton. But most important is a unique voice that instantly engages.
In a world where publishers seem to slavishly follow the market, aspiring authors often feel confused by repeated demands for a ‘unique voices.’ Rejt attempts to illuminate: ‘What moved me about Kate’s first book was the awesome respect she showed old people. I thought, “Why is it that I am so moved?” And I realised it is because it doesn’t happen that often. That respect and love for her older characters spoke to me. That is the voice.’
Subject matters too: ‘It is also what the voice is speaking to you about.’ Sansom’s debut, Dissolution, made an impact because it was ‘this most amazingly constructed and written moral crime novel.’ His Tudor ‘tec stories may sound like Brother Cadfael in ruffs, but, Rejt explains, hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake is unique. He engages and develops, not only within each book, but across the series.
Shardlake, like Colin Dexter’s Morse, had something else that made Rejt respond. ‘If I try and analyse what makes me make the decision to go with an author, there is one common thread: whether it is a literary book or a commercial book, it’s always about an outsider.’ So what’s the attraction? ‘I think the best criticism comes from that perspective. It is very lonely and isolated place to be but it is one that we have to respect.’
It is a perspective that suits Rejt. Her wry observations about everything from the state of feminism to misery memoirs are refreshing in an industry dominated by suits unwilling or unable to voice an opinion. It is easy to see why her authors, who also include Minette Walters and Charlotte Mendelson, are fiercely loyal. ‘She is a fantastic editor,’ enthuses Walters. ‘You want to give her your best as a writer.’
The commitment is mutual. Rejt is not interested in pouncing on the fresh meat of ‘stunning debuts’ in the way her rivals do, like wolves going one fresh kill to another. She is wary of over-priced first novels, regarding them as a short-term career move that reflect the neophile culture of the wider media rather than the quality of the books being marketed
‘If your ambitions as a new author are to make a big splash with your first book and then not be too bothered about your career as a writer, then obviously go for the money,’ she warns. ‘But if you feel that you want to grow as a writer and learn and mature and be in it for the long game, then you go for less money but a longer commitment – a multiple book deal.’
She winces when I mention the rapidity with which some authors are dropped after they fail to live up to their advances: ‘I prefer to publish an author over their entire career.’ This ambition explains her glee at her publisher role at Macmillan. While passionate about shaping an author’s work for publication, she also relishes strategic planning, whether it’s deciding when to publish or which book to back as their breakthrough to the A-List. ‘It’s like doing a Rubik’s Cube,’ she says of the challenge.
Her nose for the market is legendary. She famously launched Kathy Reichs in January, at a time when it was regarded as a deadzone. Rejt realised the crime author would have the market to herself. Her rivals watched in awe as the book sailed up the charts – and promptly followed her lead.
Given her ability to read the market, what is she tipping as the Next Big Thing? ‘I know some people are saying the Western is coming back and that the horror novel is about to be big, but I would like to make a personal pitch for the ghost story.’ She cites her friend Kate Mosse’s success with Sepulchre – ‘one of the best set piece openings I have read. It’s just brilliant.’
What she will not publish are the gorefests of writers like Karin Slaughter and Mo Hayder, or the grinding anguish of misery memoirists. ‘If [violence and sexual abuse] is used as a tool for entertainment, I have problems with that, I really do,’ she says of the increasingly explicit abuse that features in some books. ‘The longer you are on this planet, the more misery you have seen the less you want to exploit it.’ As long as Rejt’s instincts for finding nuggets in the Yukon last, it is unlikely she will have to be forced to compromise.