Friday 15 February 2013

Webinar: "Our list is 100% spontaneous!" Sara O'Connor of Hot Key Books

by Emma Greenwood
Guest Blogger

Emma Greenwood is the Green Columnist for Liberti magazine and author of work-in-progress, Seagull Eyes, a contemporary teen novel that was long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012. Emma also writes teen-voice short stories and has been published by Mslexia and Cinnamon Press. She writes every day at the kitchen table but can type 55 wpm under the bedclothes on her iPhone because the muse invariably visits in the early hours when everyone else is asleep.

Its 8pm and I'm setting up my laptop ready for the SCBWI Central West webinar with Sara O Connor from Hot Key Books

Sara is now editorial director of Hot Key Books but we like to remember her as the original slicing and dicing editor: Sara 'Slasher' O'Connor of her famous Fantasy Masterclass in 2009 when she advised us to be tough on ourselves and kill our darlings.

I’m trying to get my head into work mode but my seven year old is stalking me and insisting on another chapter of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

By 8:15 I’ve just about begged and blackmailed DD1 into bed and I’m back at the laptop. I breath in deeply and try to channel ‘professional me’. If I’m honest, I’m feeling a tad nervous. Tonight I’m interacting with a real live editor (!) and I feel like I’ll need to be asking dazzlingly intelligent questions or else look like a total dunce. Just thinking about how to achieve that professional yet friendly chatty networky thing sends me into cold sweats. 

I needn’t have worried. SCBWIs are a friendly bunch. Soon I’m chatting in the side bar and the webinar itself is relaxed, friendly and informative. My nerves disappear within a few minutes. What comes over most is Sara’s passion for working with authors and what an exciting new venture Hot Key is. If you want to watch the full webinar it’s available at

1. How do you plan the Hot Key list?

It’s almost 100% spontaneous: who we know, what we hear about and just jumping on opportunities as they present themselves. We take a book for what it is and what it’s trying to be. Smaller publishing houses like Hot Key can have more flexible lists. We’re not having to worry about categories or age groups so much. We’re publishing bespoke projects every time, trying to find books that nobody has in any category. 
We’re looking for things that are different and unusual. We have to have books that stand out, that people want to talk about. 

2. Lots of editors and agents (including yourself) said they wanted a middle grade mystery in their stocking (Notes From the Slushpile Twelve Days of Christmas). Should authors drop their current project and start writing one? 

We don’t have any mystery series on our list so a middle grade or young YA mystery would be excellent. There are quite a few coming out in America but I haven’t seen so many in the UK. If you happen to be writing a mystery for young readers you’re probably hooked on to the right genre but whatever you do don’t stop what you’re writing to go and write a mystery series. 
Write what you want to write and eventually it will fit into a trend and if it’s fantastic it will sell anyway. 

3. What else are you looking for at the moment? 
I'm looking for AWESOME stories.
Things that are really brilliantly done. A little bit different. Something that people will talk about. Unusual. We want great voice, great plot, great concepts. It really does just have to be awesome. We don’t have any particular categories in mind. We just want brilliant books that will be exciting to work on. 

4. Do you specifically look for books that will have transmedia applications? 

No. I don’t. I specifically look for books that make great books! We want to find brilliant brilliant books written by brilliant brilliant authors. We can use digital mediums to enhance the story or plot but it’s not a specific mission to do digital. 
It’s words we deal in. Words are our expertise. What we can do on top of that is to look for opportunities. 
(as with the e-book version of Maggot Moon). So again I say: write a brilliant story

5. What are the major things that put you off in a manuscript? 

I would say the most important thing is: why should I care about these people? I want to know the answer to that question really quickly. I want to know why these characters are worth four or five hours of my time. So books that start slow or books that are all about what’s gone on before or books that don’t start with the characters that are important put me off. 
And the other thing that puts me off people (laughs). You can quite often tell in people’s emails the way that they’re going to approach a relationship. Relationships are a huge part of this business. When I take on an author I want to it be for many many years and for many many books so I want them to be people who are nice to work with and who respect my opinion as well as their own position. Writing a book is a very personal thing. Obviously editors understand that it’s difficult when they’re asking for changes, when they ask you to re-face this manuscript that you thought was done. But what puts me off is when you can see in cover letters and interactions you have with people that they’re going to be unwilling to compromise, that they’re not positive people, not willing to experiment. 
So, in summary:
I want to know the personality of the character I’m reading about and why I should care and also the personality of the author that I’m working with and whether we’ll get along, whether it’ll be fun to work together, whether we’ll do some cool stuff and sell lots of books! 

6. How important is the synopsis when you’re considering a submission? 

Not very. I sometimes just open the first page of a manuscript and read because so much of the acquisition depends on the writing. 
The pitch line in the cover letter is way more important than the synopsis. 
The pitch line is the first step to get me interested. Then I go to the voice; my journey’s straight into the book. I think for the majority of editors that’s also true, but always check their on-line submission policies. I’ll read the cover letter because I want to know the concept and I want to know a little bit about the author. 
If you are going to include a synopsis then make it good. Use it to draw the reader into the story then leave them wanting more. Focus on the opening and the hooks. The first third of the synopsis should be all about the first three chapters. 

7. And lastly, what middle grade books have you read recently that you loved and why?

Holes Louis Sachar (So well woven) 
The Graveyard Book Neil Gaiman (Best intro ever) 
The Wind Singer William Nicholson (You get a sense of where you are – this fantasy world – just from the context. There’s never any paragraphs of explanation) 
Chaos Walking novels Patrick Ness (I’m beating the same drum as lots of people there though) 
The Midnight Zoo Sonya Hartnett (Haunting, magical without being pretentious, took me by surprise) 

There’s a shed load more of invaluable advice from Sara on the actual webinar including a presentation about Hot Key Books. So if you have an hour or so to spare I’d thoroughly recommend clicking through and watching. (note: the webinar starts 20 mins in).


  1. What a great interview Emma and Sara, thank you. I think it's very important for us writers to remember that the editor/writer partnership is crucial to making your book the best it can be - this is what we strive for isn't it? It's why my dream is to be shortlisted for the Branford Boase. One day. Maybe.

    Most of my favourite SCBWI writers treasure their editors and rightly so.

    1. Yes indeed, Kathryn! Listening to Sara talk about making AWESOME books got me so fired up!. I'm attending the Golden Egg Academy at the end of March and I feel so excited (and privileged) to be getting two whole days of input from Imogen Cooper of Chicken House. So many hours (years!) of the writing process is a lonely walk so it's such a privilege when others (whether a critique group or an editor) take the time to read and input on your work.

  2. I should just name check the other attendees at the webinar. It wasn't just me 'interviewing' Sara and devising 'dazzling' questions ;0). Thanks need to go to Clare Juliet Bell, Julienne Durber, Donna Vann, Mary Hopper, Michaela, Dennis and Mandeep and the others (sorry if I've not listed you, I didn't note down all the attendees' names - oops!)

  3. Lovely interview -- and I'm sure I'm not the only one breathing a giant flop-over-backwards-in-your-chair-and-go-limp sigh of relief to hear the synopsis isn't a major factor. It doesn't matter how long I agonize over them, or how much practice I've gotten at writing them, I always hate the end result. :P

    1. I still think writing synopses is one of the hardest things, ever!

    2. I get serious synopsis angst.

  4. "Do you specifically look for books that will have transmedia applications?" "No. I don’t. I specifically look for books that make great books!"

    Loved this! Thanks for sharing it with us Emma ... i wasn't even aware there was a webinar!

    1. er.... I don't even know what a transmedia application is.

    2. It was a SCBWI Central West exclusive arranged by our amazing coordinators Clare Juliet Bell and Donna Vann.

    3. Teri: hee hee! Oh the words that are bandied around. Transmedia tends to refer to story-telling in multiple formats - like Michael Grant's BZRK, etc... I took that question as asking whether I am looking for a project that I can do cool digital stuff with in preference to a book that is just a really good book...

    4. And, Candy, once again thank you for the Chainsaw Massacre pic. I do love it... I marvel at how cheerful I can look weilding a chain saw!

    5. It really is a pleasure to trot that picture out once in a while. It's such a contrast to the sweet, butter doesn't melt in her mouth photo of you.

  5. All respect to Sara - she's a great editor and very generous with her time. And so good at the technical stuff too - the iBook of Maggot Moon is wonderful and I like the fact that Hot Key haven't just chucked out an enhanced digital version of every book, but concentrated on the titles that most benefit from the format.

    This is the URL for the multi-touch iBook version by the way (you linked to the Kindle version which I believe is just a plain text e-book):


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