Last Friday, I attended the New South Wales Writers Centre (NSWWC) Open House with Penguin Random House Australia (PRH). I thought I’d share some of the key points I gleaned from this day, as I know there were some who, unfortunately, were unable to attend due to the limited number of seats on offer.
After the introduction of representatives from the departments of publishing, editorial, sales, marketing and publicity – including an overview of their respective roles – the group launched into a mock acquisition meeting. Those stating their case on why a book should, or should not, be given the green light included (from left to right in the pic below):
- Catherine Hill, Deputy Managing Editor, Random House Books
- Belinda Connors, Key Account Manager, Penguin Random House
- Karen Reid, Publicity Director, Penguin Random House
- Sarah Hayes, Editorial Assistant, Random House Books
- Lex Hirst, Commissioning Editor, Random House Books
- Tom Langshaw, Editor, Random House Books, and
- Meredith Curnow, Knopf Vintage Publisher, Random House Books
This session was very insightful – and entertaining! Key points included:
- When a manuscript reaches the acquisition stage, a lot of work has already been done to get it to the level required to offer (of course, this doesn’t mean the author will accept any offer made, and a project can still be shelved by PRH for a multitude of other reasons. So while a lot of work has been done, there are no guarantees, my friends!)
- An author’s ability to adapt is a definite plus when determining whether to acquire his or her work. Have they demonstrated this adaptability already?
- An editor may be passionate about a book, but if the sales or publicity team don’t share that enthusiasm, things can get interesting.
But saying this, acquisition meetings don’t usually end up in a war of words or a brawl on the carpet. Participants are really quite friendly to each other 🙂
The next session discussed children’s publishing with Laura Harris, Publishing Director with Penguin Random House Young Readers. I could have listened to Laura speak for hours, she was that enthusiastic about kids’ books. I was also interested to hear that Laura has worked with Mem Fox, Melina Marchetta and Morris Gleitzman, three of my favourite Australian authors.
Key points Laura made:
- PRH receives about 3,000 children’s submissions per year in Australia, and publish about 100 (to be honest, the latter figure is higher than I thought it would be but I assume it includes agented submissions – I didn’t think to ask for clarification, sorry).
- The top four books for 2016 were all children’s books. And all for middle readers.
- Four times as many middle reader books were sold last year in Australia compared to YA (yet YA gets the lion’s share of attention in the children’s book sector).
Then it was on to discussing the editorial process, with Catherine Hill, Tom Langshaw and Lex Hirst returning to the stage to discuss books they have worked on. Key points included:
- A “really, really good book” can still require pages and pages (15 was mentioned in the example) of initial editing notes.
- Cover design should never be underestimated – it should communicate in a glance what the book is about.
- Editors love spreadsheets and graphs. Or so it appeared 🙂
Next was the art of promotion, with Karen Reid back in the chair. The key message for me from this was “SUB PLUS THREE”. What does this mean, I hear you ask? It means that the most effective time to promote your book is from submission until three months after publication. It’s much harder to achieve good results after this time. Something to do with modern society’s short-term memory problem, perhaps?
Now, where was I? Oh, that’s right. Karen’s other key points were:
- Authors must be able to speak in front of an audience, and must be able to describe their book succinctly. They should also have a professional photo taken for inclusion in promotional packs, review pieces, etc.
- Sale projection numbers influence the extent and breadth of any book tour to be undertaken.
- Never underestimate the influence of SEO (search engine optimisation)/SEM (search engine marketing) and Google ads.
- Write other pieces to place in newspapers and magazines – remember what was said about adaptability above? Include your blurb at the end with your online contact details. It’s another way people can learn more about you and your work.
The last session before lunch covered rights and distribution with Nerrilee Weir, Senior Rights Manager for PRH.
Nerrilee had a key message of her own: that your narrative must resonate with readers world-wide. You must “find the universal” in your work, so that it is able to travel. Other points I took away from her talk included:
- Selling rights to international publishers is all about pitching. This involves a lot of rejections which read similar to the ones you or I may receive as authors such as, “We didn’t fall in love with the voice” or, “We didn’t feel passionate enough about it”. Sound familiar?
- Audio is everywhere now and the Australian film industry is on the rise, providing other avenues for income.
- There are clauses in contracts to ensure that “lost in translation” issues do not arise when rights are sold to non-English language markets.
After lunch, I sat in a YA break-out group with four other YA writers, where we had an informal 30-minute chat with Zoe Walton, YA and children’s publisher with PRH. Zoe would have to be one of the nicest publishers I’ve met – and I’m not just saying that because she had good things to say about my writing in our individual session (see below). Anyway, in the group chat we discussed:
Offers – her recent YA offers are split 50/50 between agented and non-agented submissions, and most are contemporary by nature. Fantasy offers are scarce.
Synopses – she recognises how difficult synopses can be to write, and dislikes the style of All Caps when introducing a character’s name for the first time.
Trends – doesn’t see any dominant trend at present.
Individual fifteen-minute sessions followed the break-out group chat. One month previous, I had been asked to submit the first twenty pages of my YA manuscript, along with an author bio and synopsis, to Zoe. Although my manuscript is geared toward the US market, I was keen to hear Zoe’s thoughts on its merits.
I was extremely pleased that Zoe took the time to prepare assessment notes, which she discussed with me during our session and gave to me at the conclusion (thank you again, Zoe!) Her wonderful feedback was fairly consistent with that from US agents, who had received partial or full requests of my manuscript following my pitch to them last August. For those who don’t remember, it was at the Writers Digest Conference in New York City. Read more about it here:
So, where to now?
Zoe’s comments spur me to continue riding this roller-coaster life of writing. Although I’m still to hear back from three of the agents in NYC who requested partials/fulls of the same YA manuscript, I’ll continue to refine this piece and query elsewhere in the US market.
I’ll also complete my current WIP, a middle grade novel with a very unreliable narrator, to say the least. As Zoe seemed to like my writing style, I might even submit this project to her in due course 🙂
For now, and until next time,