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

Are you an aspiring writer wanting to increase your chances of publication? Or a published author who wants to maximise their marketing strategy?

In this monthly column, Sara O'Connor, Editorial Director, Print and Digital at Hot Key Books answers your burning publishing questions.

Given Sally Gardner's success and dyslexia awareness and acceptance being so much greater, are publishers doing to anything to enable dyslexic readers?

I can’t speak for other publishers, but it is most definitely something that is in our minds much more than it was before. But I think we could definitely do more. I would love to hear your suggestions! Feel free to post in the comments below.

Do publishers look less favourably on manuscripts that the author submits directly (i.e. without an agent)? Have you ever taken anyone on via this submission method?

Most publishers don’t accept unagented submissions. Those that do are deliberately looking to give unagented writers a chance. So, I would say that publishers that will accept unagented would look just as favourably on unagented. Hot Key does accept unagented manuscripts and have acquired books directly from authors, but not quite from the “slushpile”. Usually we find our unagented authors through competitions (like Undiscovered Voices which just launched!).

If a publisher rejects your manuscript but says nice things about it, is it okay to resubmit after a rewrite?

I expect this isn’t what you want to hear, but I would strongly advise against it. The best way to take advantage of that positive feedback to is send something new, and even MORE fantastic. I know that for me, if I wanted that book with improvements, I would have asked to work with you on it. I really recommend that you DON’T revise something that is out or has been out on submission, but instead write something new. That way you have DOUBLED your chances of getting a deal – you’ll have two books to send around instead of just one (as long as the second book is NOT a sequel to the first). And if each time you send something out on submission you start something new, your chances of finding the right thing at the right time with the right person will exponentially increase.

"I really recommend that you DON’T revise something that is out or has been out on submission, but instead write something new."

What have been the biggest turn-offs for you in a submission?

My biggest turn-off is too much world building and back story in the opening chapter(s). I want to be in the present of the story (not present tense, just in the action of the story) from the outset, with the details of where I am and where the characters have come from built into that forward-moving action. Smaller turn offs: characters having an argument in order to get out lots of information or characters that are “bored” and so stumble into adventure.

What's your take on swearing in YA? How far can you go in the name of realism?

Publishers and editors will have different feelings about this, and it does depend on the book. I would say that the best swearing is the kind you don’t notice. If the situation calls for swearing and it doesn’t stand out or feel gratuitous, then swear. But know that it will have an effect on certain sales, especially in the education sector. There are a few instances of the f word in Maggot Moon, and we did think about it – but they are used sparingly and in situations when it makes sense. They have integrity, and that’s how I would recommend you do it.

"My biggest turn-off is too much world building and back story in the opening chapter(s)."

Do publishers have favourite agents? When you're shopping for an agent, should you be looking at which publishers seem to favour which agents?

Yes – editors do have favourite agents. Just like it is a personal connection to your book, there are personal relationships between editors and agents that get on well or have similar tastes. But you may have a hard time figuring out which editors favour which agents. Editors wouldn’t want to upset anyone, so wouldn’t shout about who their favourites are. It’s not something to worry about too much though, as long as you are talking about reputable agents (see for more on reputable…). It’s an agent’s job to know which editors are going to respond well to your book, whether or not there is any special favoured relationship – and even if they aren’t a favourite of one particular editor, they will be of another. And, yes, there are agents that I would classify as “least favourite” and would rather not buy a book from (no, I will NEVER say who!). It could be just a personality thing, or it could be the style of negotiating or submitting. But other editors would feel the complete opposite. There is enough diversity out there so that everyone is covered – or the agent wouldn’t last long! You just write a brilliant book, and the rest will take care of itself.

"Just like it is a personal connection to your book, there are personal relationships between editors and agents that get on well or have similar tastes."

We can't wait to have more of your questions next month! Sara would be happy to put questions to the marketing and sales team at Hot Key Books so would love to hear from published authors too. You can either submit your questions in the comments section below (anonymously if you prefer!) or you can email them to  Sara will return with all the answers on the 20th May.

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. Sage words from Sara as always. I think that's great advice to 'write another book if yours is rejected'. But it is very hard to follow. I think it underlines the importance of getting feedback from trusted crit buddies before submitting. We should all ask our buddies 'Am I ready to submit?' before sending it out to professionals. Note to self to ask that question next time.

    1. Yes, write another book if yours is rejected, but write another book BEFORE it's rejected. As soon as you send it out (as you say, when it's ready) start writing something fresh. You'll have a bit of hope driving you on, because when that agent or publisher comes back excited, you want to be able to say, "And I've got half of a new book that you are going to love, too." Right?

  2. Thanks for some illuminating answers, Sara.

    Re dyslexia awareness, I was wondering if publishers could use a much creamier coloured paper or maybe the pastel shade most dyslexics find helpful. This, together with adjusting the print size would be easy to do in an ebook - readers could select the best page colour for them but i guess expensive to do for a print book. What would have helped my kids is to be able to click on a word they couldn't decode and have it read to them. So not the same as a talking book, the children are still reading, as opposed to listening to the story, but not having to keep asking for words which is discouraging.

    1. Ooh, interesting point about a single word being read to them. You can get the word defined on most ereading platforms, but not read aloud. That would be a great thing to put to the device makers.

    2. Interestingly, Sara, yesterday a couple of web scientists working on hypertext narratives told me that the technology for click on a word and have it read is there and relatively simple to do.

  3. This is such a great post, so much to comment on! I have a 12 year old son who has issues with reading - he can read but he thinks he can't. Books with a lot of text frighten him but equally, graphic novels like Wimpy Kid, are confusing to him. Large print, wider spaced is a lot less off putting but even so, I'm not sure I'll ever get him to voluntarily pick up a fiction book...I read to him every night to try and instill that joy of story but I do wonder if I'm not just giving him an easy option...
    Very interesting to hear your take on agent/editor relationships too. Bythe way - I can't wait to see Ellen Renner's Tribute in print!

    1. Have you tried Mr Gum? I'd be curious about how he reacted to that format. I've also heard about not breaking sentences over a page. What do you think of that?

  4. "You just write a brilliant book, and the rest will take care of itself." Thank you, Sara. As someone just finding their feet with regard to the many and varied intricacies of getting published, I find this most encouraging.

    1. Yes, yes, yes - that is the most important point. Writers can get bogged down in all the what ifs, but before anything else matters, it's all about the book.

      Good luck! And, when you're ready, I hope you'll submit to hot Key.

  5. Hi Sara thank you for your insights! I am a new author/illustrator preparing to approach publishers with a fully complete picture book 'al la Gruffalo' for want of a better description!
    It will be a 20 page pdf and only take a few minutes for anyone to glance through....
    My question is should I attach it with my email to say hi or do publishers still prefer to have a 'preparation' email asking if it is ok to send something along - in which case are those emails read in your experience?!
    I just want the first few pages seen and it should sell itself, its just getting that pdf on someones screen!
    Thank you in advance and apologies for my naivety!

  6. Gill Hutchison3 May 2013 at 13:48

    Wow! I just love it when people who know what they're talking about, tell it "like it is" with no flannel. As an older writer, unpublished in the Children's sector, I feel the need to keep moving forward and this has been such a help. Thank you, Sara.


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