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.

Sara can't keep up with all your great questions, but please keep sending them in! This week it's about how long the publishing process is right down to some contract nitty gritty. Next month, Sara's got a backlog to catch up on, tackling questions like what authors should look for in a publisher.

With more and more stories about successful self-published authors being taken on by traditional publishers, and the publishing industry rapidly evolving, is Hot Key looking at self-published books that do well?

We aren't trawling the self-published best-seller lists ourselves but we are acquiring agented self-published books like our #1 bestseller THE VINCENT BOYS by Abbi Glines. We've also considered self-published work sent to us directly.

The publication process is very very long! How do you work with an author during the interim stages from book being acquired to publication, if at all? Does the author solely work on revisions, marketing etc for upcoming book, or are they left alone to work on something new?

It is long! I liked it during our first year when we published books in mere months. But retailers carefully schedule their purchases and promotions, so we almost always have to have at least nine month lead times.

If editing isn't happening between acquisition and publication, then yes, the author will likely be writing a new book. But there are lots of stages that the author needs to be involved in: covers, cover copy, web description copy, biography... Plus marketing discussions will happen about three months pre-pub, so there are things to keep the author busy besides more writing.

Are publishers still looking for books with trilogy/series potential, or are they veering more towards stand alone books now?

Publishers are looking for amazing books and talented authors. Write one or be one and you'll get published. Ignore trends. Write what you write.

Ignore trends. Write what you write.

How do you think the Penguin Random merger will affect the publishing industry?

I think it is a huge opportunity for smaller publishers to offer a more intimate and experimental style of publishing. And it is an opportunity for some ballsy negotiation with other behemoth companies. Here's an article that may interest you.

Most of us first time authors don't feel like we have any choice really when presented with a book deal. DO we have a choice? What reasonable questions can we ask that won't offend our prospective publisher?

Your publisher shouldn't be offended. Of course, they have the right to say no, just as you have the right to ask. And you always have a choice - it's your work! Moreso than ever you can choose not to agree to the terms, walk away and do it your own way. But if you want those people as partners in your publication journey, you have to come to an agreement.

Everything is negotiable, but you should figure out what really matters to you. No one wants to go back and forth for ages, so pick your battles.

Things most often negotiated in my experience beyond the advance and royalties are: - rights splits: what percentage goes to the author
  • rights granted: for example, is film/TV included 
  • ebook royalties: a very hot topic 
  • high discount clauses: if the book is sold at a high discount, there can be a different royalty rate 
  • out of print sales thresholds: you don't want a publisher sitting on the rights to your story and not selling any books, the out of print clause should protect you against that 
  • cover consultation: you can try to ask for this to be in the contract 
  • marketing commitments: the contract is unlikely to have specifics but you can try for some wording 
  • option clauses: as in what happens with submissions of your next book 
  • payment splits/scheduling: payments will be set out against various stages and in varying percentages of the agreed advance 
Don't ask for everything to change and be prepared for give and take. A great resource is the Society of Authors, who will look over any contract for you, before you sign, even if you aren't already a member.

Do any of you published SCBWIers have contract tips?

Finally, Nick asked in my last blog about whether big-hitters demand cover approval. They do, yes, but. Think they have to be very very big hitters to get it. More people can get cover consultation which means the publisher has a contractual obligation to show the author the cover for feedback, but the publisher isn't obligated to do what the author wants.  

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 9th September.

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 for answering my question from last time - I should have known you hadn't missed it! It sounds like Hot Key have a really open and collaborative attitude to cover design, which is great to know.

  2. Great to get such specific, up-to-date advice. Thanks very much.

  3. It would be a good idea, especially for anyone on the verge of a deal, to check back on all of your, posts Sara - so generous of you and Hot Key to share this invaluable information.


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