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

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

This month there's a bumper crop because Sara's just received the next list of questions and she's dying to answer them! You'll have to wait til next month to get answers to questions like: what are your options when you are offered a book deal?

With humour a frequent criticism is that there’s no story. Do you do humour at expense of plot or just humour? And what about cross genre - e.g. Ghost story meets humour - where does that go on the shelves?

I don’t hear that frequently. Humour is just another type of voice and a great story has to have both plot and voice. And don’t get caught up in where it sits. That's what your publisher is for! In most bookstores, kids' books are arranged by age, not genre. My familiar refrain: just write something awesome, and readers will find you.

Humour is just another type of voice and a great story has to have both plot and voice. 

Gender: are MG boys and girls reading everything? Is there still a split ie a blue boys shelf and a girls pink shelf?

I think there is a split that publishers market to, yes. There are girl-targeted and boy-targeted books at middle grade. But I think it’s much less than at the 5-8 age range, where it is literally pink and blue.

But a book can’t be pigeonholed, really. Boys love RAINBOW MAGIC and girls love BEAST QUEST. In the YA sphere, Maureen Johnson started a great conversation about “cover flips”. What would it look like if GAME OF THRONES was written by Georgette Martin?

Is there any scope for an author putting together a concept for a packaged series as opposed to a book packager doing that? So that single author would entirely write their own series.

By "packaged" do you just mean series - or do you mean one person plots and the other(s) write for a share or a flat fee? Of course, anyone can set up as a "packager" like Working Partners or Hot House and see if they can recruit writing partners.

If you mean, can one person get a publishing deal for young series fiction on their own? Well, we only have to look to the talented SCBWI-er Paula Harrison who has done just that with her RESCUE PRINCESSES series with Nosy Crow.

One of the big plus points of a single author young reader series is the kids are able to have a conversation with the actual author. Things like school visits can happen and the can be an actual author photo! The disadvantage can be speed – many creators mean lots of books at once.

If you've got a great pitch and great writing, publishers won't care who is putting it together. Maybe Paula will tell us how she did it?

If you've got a great pitch and great writing, publishers won't care who is putting it together.

When everyone’s looking for voice and high level writing, how can I sell my ideas at what you might call a lower literary, formulaic, ‘b’ list, level?

Don't worry about what people might be or say they are looking for. Pitch your idea as it is - you can't make it what it isn't. Even not-so-literary fiction has to stand out; highlight those unique points and, if it's good enough, it should get noticed. (P.S. Don’t call it formulaic!)

Are you illustrating more books now for 10 + age group? What criteria would you use to select which 10+ books to illustrate? Eg status of author, the story, literary level of text …

This is a tricky one - it's mostly a gut instinct at Hot Key. The extremely talented Julian Crouch illustrated MAGGOT MOON and the forthcoming HEAP HOUSE is illustrated by the author. And, from other publishers, there is A MONSTER CALLS that won both the Carnegie and the Greenaway last year - and fully illustrated books like HUGO CABRET... A book like MINA by David Almond is almost illustrated with all the fonts used. I do think they are on the up, and rightly so.

I wish we could illustrate more, but it is expensive. When you look at an individual book's profit and loss statement, there are lots of flat fee costs associated with creating the book (cover art, typesetting, paper, binding, etc) and it's a job for a typical book to become profitable without adding additional costs on top of that. The cost is probably one reason that it tends to be bigger name authors.

I wish we could illustrate more, but it is expensive.

How long does the acquisitions process take?

 This varies hugely from publisher to publisher - and sometimes from book to book. Our standard process is: read a submission. If I like it, we talk about it at an editorial meeting (week 1), then the editorial team will read it and we'll talk about it at the next meeting (week 2). Our publishing meeting is on the next day, so if the editorial team are in agreement, we'll present it to the rest of the team the next day (still week 2).

They will read it over the next week and we'll come together in week 3 to agree to take it on and then move to financials. The numbers should be signed off within the next week. So, a book that is not in a rush will take a month. A book that is in a rush (an auction or a pre-empt) can take a day, if it needs to!

Strategically, it's much better for me as the editor to be able to follow the usual procedure, prime everyone about the book, drop little hints along the way and give everyone the time and space to enjoy it.

Does the ‘something for kids’ pitch still work for you? Does the thing you’re comparing your work to, have to be current? Does the ‘Die Hard meets Rainbow Magic for YA’ sort of pitch still work for you?

Sure! I bought CLOCKWISE TO TITAN by Elon Dann which is billed as The Shawshank Redemption (not current) for kids. The pitch is just to whet the appetite. The book, of course, should stand on its own. I wouldn't advise going for the latest top seller, though. TWILIGHT meets THE HUNGER GAMES will just make me roll my eyes.

And... wow... I'd love to see what Die Hard meets Rainbow Magic looks like. Being quite familiar with both franchises, all sorts of scenes are springing to mind (mini goblins take over a hot air balloon and threaten to crash it into a country house?)

How much input does an author have in the cover design?

That depends on your publisher. With us, quite a fair amount. We show concepts, roughs and finished work to the author. We’ve even completely scrapped a finished cover and started over because the author asked us to. (Though it wasn’t commissioned art we gave up, just the design – it’s harder to scrap entirely when we’ve paid a big art fee.) Other companies, you’ll get practically none. You’ll be sent your cover as final art with the editor desperately hoping you’ll simply say that you love it.

If you don’t love it, my advice would be to proceed with caution and pick your battles. If you are presented with a finished product, know that the jacket has likely been poured over by all the heads of departments and the MD. And know that everyone involved is really committed to finding just the right thing for the market. Don’t throw your toys out of the pram unless you don’t want to sign future deals. Point out calmly what you can’t live with and be as reasonable and unemotional as you can. If you have an agent, let them do the talking!

This is a long one, so if you’ve slogged all the way to the end, let me know which was your favourite question/answer.

If you have any questions for Sara, you can either submit them in the comments section below or you can email them to  Sara will return with her answers on the 12th August.

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. Thanks Sara. Covers are such an emotive issue for authors and I wondered if any big-hitters ever demand cover approval in their contract?

  2. Bumper summer special read! Thank you, Sara
    Answers - all great but favourite = mini goblins taking over a hot air balloon threatening to crash into country house, obviously.

    1. You're slowly talking yourself into writing that book, Jan.

    2. I could run with that....

  3. Really interesting again, especially the acquisitions timetable and the illustration discussion. I've always liked the black and white illustrations of some middle grade novels. Thanks, Sara!


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