On Friday May 29, I ventured Inside the Publishing House – or, at least, inside the Wheeler Centre – for a day of panel sessions with some of the team from Sydney-based publisher, Hachette. The event was designed to give writers a peek into the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a book, from manuscript to marketing and everything in between.
And yes, they let me back out. In fact, publishing houses aren’t as scary as you might think.
The day was divided into four hour-long discussions, each expertly hosted by Kill Your Darlings’ Bridgid Mullane. So this doesn’t turn into an essay, I’ve condensed some key observations and quotations down to twenty points…
Session 1 – Manuscripts and Circumnavigating the Slush Pile
With Rebecca Saunders, commercial fiction publisher and Suzanne O’Sullivan, publisher of children’s books
1 It’s best to avoid the slush pile if you can. Hachette partner with the Queensland Writers’ Centre, as well as several regional writers’ centres to help find new writers and hone their manuscripts before they’re submitted. Suzanne O’Sullivan says of Hachette’s affiliation with writers’ centres…
Things do get found in the slush pile, but it is much rarer. (…) [Manuscripts] that come through the writers’ centre are often more curated, because the people at the writers’ centre in some of these programs will take an additional look at things, or there’s that level of commitment in that you’re a member of the writers’ centre and have presumably honed the work a bit more…
(For more tips on helping your manuscript stand out from the crowd, see my wrap-up of The Pitch. Coincidentally, the Queensland Writers’ Centre/Hachette Manuscript Development Program is open right now, and writers from all over Australia can enter. Here’s some more information.)
2 Think ahead. All most emerging writers want is to have their book, the one they’re working on right now, published. However, Hachette see things differently. They’re interested in writers who aren’t just thinking about the book they’re writing at the moment – they’re after writers looking to establish a career. Again, from Suzanne O’Sullivan:
That’s always the ideal – when I sign someone up for a book, I want to think that it’s not just going to be this one book, that they’re someone we can help build their career over a few books
3 Rebecca is looking to commission books to fill gaps in the Australian market; an approach that’s worked really well in England, in her previous role at Little, Brown. When commissioning works, Hachette will approach a writer with a basic plot and concept and work with them to create a book. Case in point? Vanessa Greene’s The Vintage Teacup Club, the plot of which “came from a brainstorm in the pub, actually”.
4 How to stand out from the slush pile? “A good, punchy title helps,” says Rebecca. Astoundingly, around 90% of titles are changed at some point of the publishing process. Also, to help give your prospective publisher an idea of where your work stands, compare it to another book. But be smart in your comparison: “Don’t say it’s the next Harry Potter or the next Gone Girl” warns Suzanne. (And definitely not “Harry Potter meets Gone Girl” Bridgid points out.)
5 At Hachette, the decision to publish a particular book is always a group decision. From editing to marketing – the whole team needs to be behind you.
Session Two – Publishing Now
With Robert Watkins, publisher of literary fiction and non-fiction and Rebecca Saunders
6 Robert Watkins on his typical working day: “I always start the day tying my bowtie…” (For the record, today’s bowtie was orange.)
7 Predicting trends in the publishing industry is next to impossible. Rebecca and Robert spoke of the cyclical nature of publishing. Fifty Shades of Grey provided a long-overdue shake-up to the industry and we’re overdue for the Next Big Thing. “Definitely something new is about to happen,” says Rebecca, “I just wish I knew what it was”.
8 Talking of Fifty Shades, publishers now keep an eye on the self-publishing scene, including Amazon and Smashwords. According to Rebecca, publishers are no longer “snobby” about self-publishing.
9 Protip: don’t design your own cover when you submit your manuscript. As Robert Watkins says:
The only thing I do find mildly off-putting is when someone has already designed the cover of their book. I find that a bit crazy
10 The qualities of a good author? Robert and Rebecca like authors who are business-minded and social media savvy, with a firm, grounded knowledge of where their book fits into the publishing scene and what kind of reader they’re looking for. Public speaking skills are also a bonus. But most of all, they’re looking for authors who are just good people:
If you are going to be the kind of person who is really good to work with, it’s more likely your book will be successful, because people will grow to love you
– Robert Watkins
Part III – The Writer/Publisher Relationship
With Suzanne O’Sullivan and Robert Watkins
11 Hachette Australia’s motto is ‘Passion Shared’. ‘Passion’ is a word that keeps coming up again and again throughout the day. You can tell everyone at Hachette loves their job…
12 If you want to publish a book, you need to be prepared to take criticism. It’s criticism that helps make a book the best it can be. “Editing isn’t about taking something away from your book”, says Robert Watkins, “it’s about making it better”. Also…
Constructive criticism should not come from your mum
– Robert Watkins
If you’re worried about having your work edited, there’s no need to panic. Every change that’s made to your manuscript is run past you first. Your ideas about your book, whether it’s marketing or cover design, are just as important as those of Team Hachette.
13 Ever wondered how cookbooks are fact checked? At Hachette, they test the recipes in cookbooks by actually making them when the images for the cookbook are being shot. I wonder what happens to all the food…? (I think I’ve just found my dream job…)
14 Establishing good publisher/author relations in one word? Easy –
– Suzanne O’Sullivan
Part 4 – Hooking Up with Readers
With Robert Watkins, Louise McClean, marketing executive and Anna Egelstaff, head of publicity
15 What’s the difference between marketing and publicity, anyway? According to Anna, marketing is the kind of thing that can be paid for, like a poster or an ad on the back of a bus, while publicity is unpaid – an interview or a positive review.
16 Even before you’ve finished writing your book, the crew from Hachette is already hard at work figuring out how to get it into the hands of as many readers as possible. Each Australian book they publish has its own bespoke campaign, based on the author’s strengths, the book’s genre and what’s happening in the publishing scene at the time.
17 Magic happens. It’s impossible to tell which books will become phenomenal hits. Even the success of something like Brooke Davis’ Lost and Found (published by Hachette and arguably 2014’s runaway success story) wasn’t something Hachette could have predicted. “Sometimes, the magic comes together and the book turns into something even bigger than we could have imagined” says Robert Watkins.
18 A question from the audience – “What do you do when a book doesn’t reach its sales target?”
“Cry” says Robert Watkins.
But really, if your book’s not doing as well as it could, the Hachette team will give it a bit of a publicity boost in any way they can to try and get the word out there.
19 When your book comes out, usually you can expect around a month of intense marketing and publicity activity. But Team Hachette never really give up on a book. They’ll always keep an eye out on ways to bring your book back into the spotlight:
A book campaign is never really put to bed because it might be that something crops up in the media next week that relates to a book we published nine months ago
– Anna Egelstaff
20 Because I can’t help myself, when question time rolled around, I grabbed the microphone to ask the panel the final question of the day – what are you reading?
Anna has a rule of reading two work books, then one for pleasure. She’s reading Michael Robotham’s new book, which is due for release in August or September.
Louise reads Hachette and non-Hachette books. “My problem right not is having enough time to finish books,” she says. Right now, she’s reading Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us, about the Norway massacre.
Robert told me that Hachette’s staff meetings always end with a debrief on what everyone’s reading. “I think it’s really sad when people say they don’t read for pleasure any more, because when we talk about our passion for books and sharing that passion, it extends beyond what we publish at Hachette, and I don’t think I’d want to do this anymore if I had lost interest in reading in general”. He’s reading H is for Hawk, and has Andy Weir’s The Martian waiting on his bedside table.
The final words of advice for the day went to Robert Watkins – “If you want to be a writer or work in publishing, you should be reading as broadly as you possibly can, but also making sure you enjoy what you’re reading”.
The Emerging Writers’ Festival might be over (sob!) but I’m still working on a bunch of recap posts. Still to come – thoughts on the National Writers’ Conference, my list of EWF crushes, #writingwhilefemale and more.
Finally, thanks to everyone from Hachette for being so informative and lovely!