The Old Diocesan Issue5 Mar2020 - Page 65



BOOKS
THE BOOKSHELF
We asked Robert Plummer, veteran managing
editor at Penguin Random House in Cape
Town, to share some publishing insights
How has publishing – and your
job description – changed since
you started at Penguin?
I’m a managing editor, which
involves overseeing the process of
turning manuscripts into published
books. I’ve been doing the same
job for nearly 20 years, working
for the same people, but the
company keeps changing its
name. I began at a black-andwhite imprint of Struik Publishers
called Zebra Press; then Struik
Publishers merged with Random
House South Africa to become
Random House Struik; and then in
2013 Random House and Penguin
Books merged globally to become
Penguin Random House. I’ve gone
from working for a local company
to a global one without needing to
scrub up for a job interview!
In most ways, the job has
remained the same. I’m responsible
for everything that happens from
the time we receive a manuscript
until it goes to the printer. I oversee
the work of editors, typesetters,
proofreaders and indexers;
I commission designers to
create the covers; and often
I work with lawyers who check
our books for defamation and
other legal issues. Throughout
all this, I work with the authors,
making sure they’re happy, sorting
out disagreements, and helping
them to make their book the best
it can possibly be, even when they
don’t see things the same way.
To succeed in editorial work you
need a good grasp of language
and narrative – but you also
need to be a diplomat.
Things have also changed quite
a bit. When I started, we would edit
printed pages in red ink and courier
them to the authors; now we work
with Track Changes in Word and
email them. Technology has made
the whole process simpler and
more streamlined, and we release
our books as ebooks now, which
didn’t exist back then. But deep
down the process is the same:
you do what you can to make the
text correct, appropriate to the
market and as good as it can be.
Could you name some of
the books you’ve enjoyed
working on, or that stand out?
It was a huge honour to work on
Ahmed Kathrada’s Memoirs. He
was such an important figure in
South Africa’s history; a deeply
humble and decent man – and
his book reflected that. We also
published Reflections In Prison,
a manuscript that Mac Maharaj
smuggled out of Robben Island
when he was released in the 1970s.
It was a collection of essays on the
state of the country written by his
fellow prisoners just before the
Soweto uprising: Nelson Mandela,
Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and
several others. Desmond Tutu
wrote the foreword. I have a copy
signed by all of them – definitely
my most valuable book.
Obviously big commercial
blockbusters are rewarding. In
2006, we signed up Jake White
and his ghostwriter Craig Ray
for a book about Jake’s time as
Springbok coach. By October 2007,
South Africa had won the Rugby
World Cup… and Craig was still
writing the last 25,000 words. We
took 10 days to edit, legal-check,
typeset, proofread and index those
chapters, the printers printed the
book almost as quickly, and we
Visit www.odunion.com
for the extended version of
this interview with Robert.
Robert Plummer (1986G):
editor, diplomat, therapist.
THE OLD DIOCESAN | 63





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