Ask A Publisher - Q&A with Sara O'Connor, Editorial Director at Hot Key Books

Welcome to our regular Ask A Publisher feature, hosted by Sara O'Connor, Editorial Director, Print and Digital at Hot Key Books.

This week Sara answers your questions about sales and marketing for debut authors. She'll be answering your other questions (about graphic novels, her editing process and second books) next month.

How many books does a debut author usually have to sell for their contract to be renewed? How many sales make a bestseller? Is it different for different genres? eg Would a 'literary' book need fewer sales to qualify?

Great question! There is no “have to”, because there are so many reasons why publishers acquire books. After chatting with my (very clever and awesome) colleague, Sarah Benton, Head of Marketing, we think the best way to answer this is to say that it’s all about expectation.

Great Expectations
Something pitched at acquisition or at bookstores as the next commercial blockbuster will be expected to sell a lot more than a quiet literary debut, yes. But a literary debut bought at auction will have high volume expectations that if not met can sour the relationship on all sides. Often, an editor or publisher will believe in the author to keep publishing – who knows when that expected magic will hit? Yet, other times, publishers will worry that retailers won’t support a debut that didn’t live up to its hype. And still more possibilities are that if the author feels expectations have not been met, that can very quickly affect the tone of communications between the parties, which will affect the future relationship. I also think great success can affect future book deals.

Something pitched at acquisition or at bookstores as the next commercial blockbuster will be expected to sell a lot more than a quiet literary debut.

The Numbers
How many sales make a bestseller is a variable feast. In print, to be at number 1, you probably want to sell 3000 copies in a week. To be at number 10, maybe 2000. In digital, it’s down to daily sales, and you should be aiming for 1000 in a day on a single platform. That is a lot to ask of a debut. I wanted to provide some concrete numbers, rather than the usual brushing aside questions like this. Looking at the all debut Branford Boase short list as an anonymised sample:

First Six Months Sales
  • The average monthly hardback sales: 96 per month
  • Top seller monthly average: 218 per month
  • Bottom seller monthly average: 29 per month

  • The average paperback sales: 144 per month
  • Top seller monthly average: 572 per month
  • Bottom seller monthly average: 22 per month

So, it’s quite a range, none of which is anywhere near “bestseller” but I expect all will get future book deals. Perhaps I will say it in every blog post: you write brilliant books, and the rest will take care of itself.

How do you market your debut authors? Is it true that a debut has virtually none (if any) marketing budget until they have proven themselves with good sales? And following on from this - what can an author do to market themselves?

This ties in neatly with the first question. How can publishers and authors effect the sales of debuts? Again, I turned to Sarah Benton, guru of marketing for answers.

First off, it is a fallacy that debut authors don’t get marketing attention. In fact, often debuts get a lot more marketing simply because they are debut. Something new can command a lot of attention.

First off, it is a fallacy that debut authors don’t get marketing attention.

For us, word of mouth recommendation is key: online and in store.

Across the industry, a central part of a push for debuts is to “proof” the book, which means we print an advanced copy, often before the final proofread, and send it out to bookshop and reviewers. The best way to sell a book is to get people to ACTUALLY READ IT! At Hot Key, we tend to get a little carried away with our prooves™. We send out things like bath plugs or edible images of meat, to make our book mailings memorable. (Bookshops get HUNDREDS of proofs.) Our prooves are also numbered, to encourage the obsessive in everyone to want the whole set.

We’re also keen to get in with the librarians. We go to conferences, get involved in reading groups and make personal connections as often as we can, because librarians are just as powerful at spreading the buzz as booksellers.

The key, for us, is conversation. If no one is talking about our books… it’s quite likely that no one is buying them.

If no one is talking about our books… it’s quite likely that no one is buying them.

What do we think authors can do? Starting from the same basic principle of “getting people talking”, we want our authors to do whatever they feel comfortable doing.

There is no one size fits all. Twitter, blogging, vlogging, Facebook, school visits, writing workshops… everything is an opportunity to reach an audience, but only if you are enjoying it.

Everything is an opportunity to reach an audience, but only if you are enjoying it.

Your “social media” presence will get you nowhere if you aren’t comfortable and consistent with it. Go slowly – pick one platform and see how you get on with it. See if you can strike up conversations with readers, other writers, anyone! You don’t want to talk AT people, always going on about them buying your book. It’s got to be an interesting conversation that people want to continue to listen to and participate in. Unfollowing is just one click away.

One of our debut authors, Lydia Syson, is a great example. She wrote an epic political romance set in the Spanish Civil War called A World Between Us – and is totally passionate about the era. She has steadily blogged about newsworthy events that relate to her interests and knowledge, and is establishing herself as an authoritative voice on the subject.

Another piece of advice is to associate with other authors in your genre. Groups like The Edge and the Scattered Authors Society all get together to spread the audience potential and the workload in starting conversations both on and offline. In a group like this, you can share knowledge with other authors.

Any more experienced authors you might happen to strike up a conversation with, try asking them out for coffee.

Are you still accepting unsolicited manuscripts, and are there any particular genres/types of story that you would love to come across on the slushpile?

Yes, we are still accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I’ve answered the other part of the question here on the fabulous Notes from the Slushpile blog. I still haven’t found it!

Sara is happy to answer all questions - no holds barred - so please keep sending them in. You can either submit them in the comments section below (anonymously if you prefer) or you can email them to  Sara will return with all the answers on the 17th June.

Sara O'Connor is the editorial director, print and digital at Hot Key Books, acquiring books like The Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week Shrunk! by Fleur Hitchcock, Tribute by Ellen Renner, Boonie by Richard Masson and Clockwise to Titan by Elon Dann. She looks for books that are brilliantly written, that stand out and that have lovely authors behind them, with a slight preference towards the 9-12 age category.

She's also in charge of the digital strategy for Hot Key, working with a brilliant digital team to produce projects like the interactive iBook of Costa-award-winning Maggot Moon.


  1. Really informative post, thanks Sara and all.

  2. Thanks Sara, you're really demystifying publishing :-)

  3. THis is a great post - it's so rare to glimpse the barebones of the business, thank you!

  4. A great post. Thanks, Sara and W&P.

  5. Lesley, Kathryn and Jane - you are most welcome.
    Nick - that's my job.

  6. So informative, the statistics especially, thank you!

  7. Thanks for your detailed replies Sara - some very helpful background.
    Accepting as you say we need to write the best, most briliantist book we possibly can - would having a story linked to an organisation, ie a place of many potential readers, be useful?

  8. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to write, illustrate and really push a book and then be so succesful as to sell 2 000 copies in 2 months only to then find that it is taking 3 months to get the book reprinted......... Having worked in publishing for 30 years I really really still don't understand it.

  9. Thanks Sarah - great answers!
    Very interesting about expectation and how it ties in with pitching. A great pitch, I suppose, will raise expectations, maybe the the question is not what makes a great pitch but what makes a reliable pitch? Perhaps those two the same?

  10. Thanks Sarah for giving us your time to provide more great insight into the industry. We really appreciate it!

  11. David - yes, that can be helpful. Having an audience or an organisation to help shout about your book is always good. But a linked story can sometimes restrict the writing, too. It's probably depends on the manner of the link I'd suggest it's a good thing to mention in your cover letter.

    Jackie - that sounds very unusual to me. A fiction book can be reprinted within days. Colour does take longer, but three months seems extreme. If it's a really complicated book with cut outs, etc, it might take that long, but a publisher would likely be keeping an eye on stock levels, so would know how to time a reprint based on sales frequency. (We do this every week!) I can imagine that situation would be frustrating! Especially as it is in the publisher's interest to get a successful back in stock as well.

    Jan - tricky! You want to pitch your book as hard as you can, as well as you can. And you want your publisher to do the same. Holding back on the enthusiasm will most definitely not be a benefit. But I think be cautious throughout the process - nothing is guaranteed: be it a contract or a bestseller.

    1. I suppose I was thinking of the 'buy my book' sort of pitches - 'it's brilliant, you won't want to put it down' sort of thing, which can lead to disappointment because they tell you nothing about the book apart from someone said they liked it. As opposed to the pitches that show you something about the book eg Eoin Colfer's 'Die Hard with fairies'.
      I'm terribly hard to convince!

    2. Thanks Sara. The one I have in mind is an integral part of my story. I have also been in contact with them and they have been very supportive in my research. But I can understand what you mean by the manner of the link. Many thanks again.

  12. Interesting- thanks Sara!
    I for one can spread talk of Lydia Syson's A World Between Us as I'm really enjoying it - not just because my mother and her family were Spanish Civil War refugees!
    Talking of associations, I discovered her book thanks to a SCBWI member, and Lydia and I are part of - the Children's Writers and Illustrators of South London. We help get each others books into the hands of kids, teachers, librarians and parents with group book events like the Shoutsouth festival - hoping it helps overall sales too!

  13. Librarians truly can make the difference ... I do wish more authors and publishers support library survival campaigns and campaigns for statutory school libraries.

    1. And I pressed publish before saying thank you for such a thorough post .. with figures and facts!

  14. Thanks from me too, Sara. You are really helping to clarify the publishing process, the ups and the downs. And thanks for the Notes from the Slushpile link.

  15. Your key-book is very fine and his question solvation method i easily understand thanks for share it check spelling online .


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