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

Sara O'Connor, Editorial Director, Print and Digital at Hot Key Books, answers yet more of your publishing questions. This month she offers advice on how to choose a publisher, what to include in an author website and whether you need a platform before getting published.

But first, a message from Sara - 'I can’t believe that the summer is almost over! After six months of maternity leave, I’m back to work in two weeks. Your questions have reminded me how much I love my company and what I do, so thank you!'

What should a prospective author look for in a traditional publisher? In an independent publisher?

Great question! But I don't think an author should look for different things depending on whether the publisher is independent or traditional or a bit of both.

- You want an acquiring editor who is utterly passionate about you and your work. It's a long process and you want someone who will be promoting you internally and keeping people excited throughout.
- You want to understand the level of publicity and marketing attention you are going to get, so that expectations are met. The answer may be none, so you'll want to be prepared for that. At a smaller house, it is unlikely that the answer will be none because the list will be smaller and so more manageable for the marketing team, but you still want to know what to expect.
- Look at the front list. Do you want to be in the company of those books? How are those books doing? Check out some of those authors social media and get a sense of how and if their publisher is interacting with them and if the authors are happy.
- Check out the publisher's social media. Do you like how they do it?

It's hard to imagine it but I do think it's better to turn down a deal and remain unpublished if you don't get that great vibe from the people you're talking to. You will be signing over the rights to your work for many years. Make sure you want to do it!

You want an acquiring editor who is utterly passionate about you and your work

Do you help to set up school visits, festival appearances etc. for authors or do they organise these themselves?

Festival appearances are very competitive, so we definitely pitch like crazy for appearances, in competition with all the other publishers. I think it would be quite tricky for an author to pitch themselves to the big festivals. School visits are done by both us and the authors themselves. We'll support any visit by organising books for sale or providing materials. We also pitch for newspaper, TV and radio coverage for our authors.

Do you brainstorm ideas for new titles with existing authors?

Yes! If the author wants to.

Do you look at whether a potential author has a platform or not - twitter, FB, blog, website etc, and does that ever influence whether or not you'd take an author on. Does it matter if a potential author has absolutely no online presence at all? Would you advise an unpublished author to set up a website or is it better to wait until they have a deal? What should they include in the design?

A "platform" can be a bonus, but it isn't necessary. We are happy to get people started if they want, or to plug them into our networks if they are already started. We'd never not acquire a book we love because there is no social media.

I can say, though, that there IS a potential downside. I do Google potential authors and if he or she shows that they might not be a nice person to work with, I would not acquire them.

My advice for setting up a website is to know why you are setting it up/who you are setting it up for. Is it to get published? Then post content with that aim, for publishers to find. To attract your audience? Then it's age-appropriate content you need. Is it to bond with other writers? Then focus on that.

Show your personality, what makes you, you? Whatever you put up, keep it maintained. Don't have a news section if you're not going to update it for six months. I'd recommend a mailing list set up - something free like MailChimp - to capture interested people as they find you, even if you aren't published yet.

A "platform" can be a bonus, but it isn't necessary. 

How would you describe a typical Hot Key author? Are there characteristics that are common to most of your authors? Would you actively seek authors from ethnic minorities or older or younger authors for instance, or is it all about the story or the writing?

It is all about the writing, yes. We do actively seek younger writers with our Young Writers Prize  for 18- to 25-year-olds – but it is most certainly about the books. I think Hot Key authors tend to be lovely people. Just have a look at them on Twitter.Committed, passionate, clever, with something unique to say.

So, my question to you flips the first question around. What do you look for in a publisher?
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 7th October.

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. I know I've said before how useful and helpful these Q&A's are - but they really are! Thanks again, Sara, and those who formulated the questions.

    1. Huge apologies for not replying at the beginning of the week. I'm back from maternity leave next week and this week has been the most manic of my life. Getting elder son to school for his first full week, getting baby ready for nanny/nursery - getting myself geared up for the real world and launching a new venture with three friends.

      So, after that long-winded explanation, I say, thank you! It's so good to know it's useful.

  2. Thanks so much, Sara, especially the advice about online platforms. I just wish I could think of something passionate, committed and clever to say on a grey Monday morning.

  3. Thanks, Sara. Let me have a go at your closing question:

    There are so many things I look for in a publisher, but I think the key thing is a sense that everyone is pulling in the same direction - that from editorial through senior management, marketing and sales everyone is passionate about their list and how to promote it. Internal politics is the great enemy of the creative project and something that the author (and often the editor) has no control over. I think this is where a visit to a publisher can be so instructive, because you can sense the atmosphere and see the dynamics at work. Talking to other authors on the list is really helpful too.

    1. I completely agree with your last point, Nick. Talking to other authors is very useful if you've got a degree of trust so they can be honest without worrying their comments will get back to HQ. In terms of what I hope to find in a publisher, shared values is high on the list, plus a long-term outlook. Being dropped after book one on the basis of six months sales figures would be a real nightmare.

    2. (See above for my delay apology.) Yes, Nick! That's the essence of it, really. Everyone on the same page, as it were.

      And Rowena, I shudder at the thought.

  4. Thanks Sara - I really enjoyed reading this so the other side of the coin eh?

    My ideal publisher would:
    1. Love my work but see its faults and convey them without demoralising.
    2. Offer editorial excellence.
    3. Be approachable and open but always proffessional - actually this column is an excellent example of Hot Key beign exactly that.
    4. Have an innovative and fresh approach to publishing and marketing but a solid track record of success.
    5.Have efficient admin - I know, that's so boring, but it really does help if you want to get books to places on time!

    1. They'd also correct my typos and slap my wrist for being so slapdash....

    2. I totally agree about the admin. We've got to get the basics right before we can do anything fancy.

      And thank you for your kind words. We have deliberately set out to be open but professional - and I think it's our second biggest strength, behind our amazing authors.

  5. This has got to be the best Ask a Publisher yet - thanks, Sara!

  6. Again great answers, Sara, thank you.

    What would I look for in a publisher? Without this column, to a large extent that would be one of those questions I'd have no idea how to answer because I don't know what I don't know. Perhaps the shallow person in me looks at the other books on a publishers list - how would I feel in that company? Are there books I love? Would we be kindred spirits?
    Also what Kathy said about an innovative and fresh approach - I'd look for a publisher that was creative, brave and excited by new ideas - the good ones.

  7. Great answers, Sara - I hadn't thought about setting up a mailing list (I'd forgotten about MailChimp) and thanks for taking time out from the last two weeks of your maternity leave.

  8. Thanks for the great advice as ever Sara :-)
    Can you tell me if Hot Key Books has any plans for publishing picture books in the future? Thanks :-)

    1. Dennis, I'm afraid not at the moment. I think all the editors have a soft spot for picture books and would love to dabble - but we're working on establishing our 9+ authors and audience solidly, before we can let our minds wander to picture books.

    2. Dennis & Sara,
      I have asked the same question - can't wait for the day when they do :)

  9. What would I want in a publisher? Really hard to answer until you've been round the mill for a while. Here's a stab, but it's a fantasy list at present.
    - I'd like to be included me in the loop on anything the publishers are doing on my behalf. -- I think it would be good to have stability in the team.
    - I'd want editors to deliver their edits on time - because I do and I have to plan my year ahead just like everyone else.

    1. All good points, Jo. The first and the third are something that I really work hard to do - but am never as good at as I want to be.

  10. This is a fantastic slot and great Q&A. I also found the author responses hugely helpful because as an unpublished writer I wouldn't have a clue what to look for in a publisher. Maybe the danger would be such elation at the prospect of a publisher I might not look further and be pragmatic. Should the time come - I am better informed. Thanks for this post, 'tis aces ;)


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.