Monthly Archives: August 2012

Getting “scarry-eyed” over complex characters

Rosie Crouch is a BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing student at the University of Nottingham. She finds herself writing mostly short stories, with a focus on the relationships between characters. She is also currently setting up a food blog. When she graduates in 2013, she hopes to begin a career in publishing.

Cats with thumbs – the cutest anomaly we’ve ever seen

I was two years old when I got the scar next to my right eye. One minute I was jumping on the top bunk of mine and my sister’s bed, the next, I was falling full-speed into the backrest of a wooden chair. At the hospital, my mum had to sit on my legs in order to keep me still for long enough for the doctor to treat the gaping hole in the side of my face. I have no memory of any of it, maybe because it was so traumatic that I’ve repressed it. Or maybe because… well, I was only two.

Either way, the story of its arrival is one I’ve told countless times, as though I remember it like yesterday. People sometimes seem embarrassed that they’ve asked, like they think I’ll be offended that they’ve noticed I have something that sets me apart from others. No way. I love my scar. Firstly, it proves I was a fearless two-year-old, and secondly, it looks like a crescent moon. Harry Potter, eat your heart out.

As Amy wrote earlier this week, our differences make us more interesting. In the same way, our interests, the things we love/hate/care about, are what make us fully rounded human beings. In the first year of my Creative and Professional Writing degree, one of the first things we were taught was to give each of our characters an anomaly – something about them that you would never expect in a million years. This is what plucks them up off the flat page and gives them life. It’s what makes them a pleasure to read. You might not want to read about just a normal eleven-year-old girl. But an eleven-year-old girl who can see into the future? Now that’s something else!

During my time here at Hot Key Books, I’ve done a lot of reading. It’s been heaven. Let me tell you, readers, there are plenty of delicious literary treats coming your way. Every story I’ve read here is jam-packed full of exciting plots, gripping conflicts and wonderfully intriguing characters. There truly is something for everybody, whatever your anomaly might be.

What do you think makes a story great? Are you a complex character lover, or do you prefer it when the plot does the talking? We want to hear what you think.


One size doesn’t fit all

Cheesy enforced photo.

Don’t you find it annoying when you see a dress you love in a shop, pick it up and see, with horror, the size ‘One Size fits all’ label? I’ve never understood this. People are completely different shapes and sizes – how does someone go about making clothes for all, AND, most importantly WHY would you want to?

It got me thinking about my job, and books, and publishing. Sometimes, very occasionally you get those books that EVERYONE reads. Those ‘one size fits all’ books. They are the books that publishers dream of (and in many cases, books that explode the book buying market and create mutual reading experiences). Everyone has had that experience of sitting on a train looking around and seeing at least five other people in their carriage reading (*delete as applicable) HARRY POTTER / DAN BROWN / TWILIGHT / HUNGER GAMES / FIFTY SHADES OF GREY at some point in their life.

But, most of the time, with most of those books, they wouldn’t have started their life as ‘one size fits all’ books, I can assure you.

From a sales and marketing point of view when we’re thinking about how we should reach as many people as possible, we have to think of the most likely reader of whatever book we are trying to sell and start there. As much as we’d like to write the word EVERYONE for every book we publish, the reason we don’t is that every book resonates with a particular audience to begin with, and then the hope is those people get obsessed, and start telling all their friends and family and everyone they know that they HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. You hope to start with small niches, and grow to bigger ones. You must remember the famous stat that the first print run of Harry Potter in HB was only 500 copies? That book is often referred to as a ‘playground success’ book (ha, and what a success…)

So from our point of view, and working in children’s/young adult publishing means we have to think about our readers at all times. And some are very different from each other, and like totally different bands, and TV shows, and magazines than their friend down the road. And different from us in this office too. It might be that in some publishers you happen to sit alongside the perfect reader for a military history novel set in the First World War, and are able to quiz them about what would make them buy it. But for us, it’s mostly unlikely that any of us sit next to a 13 year old who likes computer games (to quiz them about INSIGNIA), or a 10 year old who’d like to shrink things (yes, that’s right SHRUNK).

So we have to think differently about what reaching our readers. We have to get out there and talk to them as much as possible, in real life and online (starting with places like this). We also have to occasionally immerse ourselves in things they might like, and take a trip to a newsagents and buy lots of copies of sparkly pink magazines, or magazines with gunge on the front. Even if you’re not someone who likes gunge, or sparkly pink things, you have to try to remove yourself from the thought process and think, but perhaps reader of said magazine/website/comic WILL like this book.

[AN ASIDE: okay, so you’re imagining strange days where grown adults all sit around watching cartoons, reading comics and making things aren’t you? Hmm…maybe that should be a regular Friday in the office?]

But anyway, what I’m saying is we all like different books. Just like we are different shapes and sizes. Sometimes, there are those books that do transcend everyone’s likes and dislikes and become books that everyone reads (like that one lucky moment when that dress…fits!), but a lot of the time we need to think of the best way to get to the best people for the best books.

This month we have the launch of two WONDERFUL but extremely DIFFERENT books on our list:

…about tiny sheep, and tiny squirrels and angry tiny bullies…AND…

…about a boy, who is different, trying to battle against an oppressive regime and his fight for survival…

We’re definitely not expecting the same readers to pick up these books – just like on our website book sorters they are opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of content. But what we often think and say about our list is there is something for EVERYONE on it, because everyone likes different things, right?

Sarah B

Holding Out for a Hero

Last night I went and saw Batman. Except I thought they were calling him ‘the Bad-Man’ the whole way through. Confusing. He was a great hero though, bat-cape, bat-belt, bat-cave. He had all the accessories and the determined stare to boot. But secretly, I actually preferred the super-suave cop Blake, played by the lovely Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Less flashy and a really sensible haircut. You see, I’ve never been very good with heroes. Spiderman was okay (a bit sticky), my housemate lived for three years as a Thunderbird, and Cat Woman is impressively flexible (but doesn’t that PVC get hot!?). Still I’ve been waiting a good few years for a real, heart racing, jaw dropping, bonafide hero to walk my way. I don’t think fancying the metaphorical pants off Shane from Westlife (age 16) really counts, and meeting ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Bonetti (aka. The Cat) was pretty cool. So I’d given up years ago- I thought I wasn’t cut out for hero worship. I was wrong.

With the Paralympics just around the corner we at Hot Key Books have been thinking about what makes a good hero. Over the past few weeks we have been treated to a veritable cornucopia of potential hero material. Jessica Ennis who can jump, throw, run, and hurdle better than anyone else on the planet, or the inspiring GB hockey captain Kate Walsh who continued to play throughout the tournament after having her surgery on a broken jaw caused by a wayward hockey stick. And of course the list goes on, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins, Tom Daley or Usain Bolt. From around the globe we have had our pick of heroes. But as the Paralympics start the world will get a second chance, to find a hero that is not only an international champion in their chosen sport, but has overcome incredible odds to get there. I was given the chance to see Oscar Pistorius run in the 400 metre relay finals, but in the end I was so caught up with GB Jack Green’s heroic 4th place finish that I barely noticed Pistorius as he stormed round the track to claim a season’s best for South Africa. Cyclist Joanna Roswell has proved that having a condition like Alopecia shouldn’t hold you back –an inspiration to kids the world over. Whether we admire our heroes because they are the best in their field, or whether it’s because they’ve come from somewhere amazing, it’s great to see that the world is being offered a huge range of superstars to choose from.

So back to my personal super-hero story. Last year I visited The Illustration Cupboard to meet Shaun Tan, my favourite author and illustrator by several thousand light-years. I cycled across town, arrived in a sweat about three hours early, browsed, queued, bought a book that I didn’t have. So far, so good. Then it was my turn to meet the man himself. Tongue-tied doesn’t even cover it. ‘SPEAK’ my brain told my mouth. “I… think…I…. well…I just… LOVE YOU” my mouth told Shaun Tan. And that was it. Real time hero worship- and it was totally and utterly mortifying. I think I stuttered and stammered in front of him for a few more minutes before going to die quietly in a corner.


Our very own spontaneous wombat.

Jump to Friday evening, Shaun Tan is in conversation with Nicolette Jones at the British Library. Home from Home.  I’ve spent a year in publishing, I’ve hobnobbed with the best,rubbed shoulders with the elite, hey, I’ve been to film premiers and have so moved on – this time I will be totally cool. How wrong I was. Shaun was amazing. He spoke with an awe-inspiring eloquence and intelligence. Discussing depression, hope, waiting and creativity the hour and a half discussion flew by. We even got a spur of the moment wombat to take home! And once again I queued up, and once again I was a gibbering mess. But that’s the thing with heroes – if you were able to form sentences in their near proximity you’ve probably outgrown them! All these years I expected my hero to take the form of an athlete, a film star or politician. Sure, there are a lot of people I admire, that I think are doing incredible work and that I would like to emulate. But it turns out that, as Bonnie Tyler put it, I was ‘holding out for a hero’ and then he came along!  A man who articulates better what is happening inside my head than I can.  Heroes are great things, and it’s wonderful that we are getting a chance to find someone who may not be able to save Gotham, or spew spidey webs from his wrists, but can change someone’s world anyhow. Are you holding out for your hero? Or have you found a superman with a quirk? Let us know – maybe we can form a super-league?


The Perfect Book for You

Recently, when Sarah B and I went to Nottingham for our Publisher for a Day kick off, there were tons of lovely enthusiastic readers. But there were also quite a few people who, upon hearing, “Free books!” called back, “I don’t read.”

Once I had stopped weeping, I realised that what they meant, for the most part, is, “I don’t read books.” But that is simply and only because they haven’t found the perfect book for them.

With over 150,000 books published in 2010 (according to the Publishers Association PDF), there is undoubtedly a book for everyone.

Any good children’s bookseller would be able to help you find yours, but it is unlikely that a reluctant or a flat-out-refusing reader would venture into a bookshop. It is also not the case, sadly, that everyone has access to a good children’s bookseller.

When we were thinking about our new list and how people were going to choose the best book for them, we thought about jackets, and titles, and descriptions and our ingredients… But what if all that still isn’t enough?

Since we are not yet at the stage where we have a live person for you to ask any time of day or night (but feel free to ask us in Twitter, a near-enough equivalent) we’ve come up with our book sorting feature.

The concept started out as sliders but we ended up with impossible arguments about whether a book like Constable & Toop was a little bit funny or a little bit sad, because we couldn’t have both.

After much agonising trying to squeeze the content of our first 17 books into a numerical designation in an Excel spreadsheet, we realised that it would be much easier to rank things in relation to each other.

You can click on whatever genre interests you and sort our books form most to least. So, clicking on “humorous” will get you our funniest books in the top left and our least funny in the bottom right. (You can scroll pages too.)

It still generates debate (and if you’ve ready lots of our books and want to weigh in on our scaling, please do!) but we love this little tool. What do you think? Has it helped you find one of our books that you didn’t know about?

It would be insane to try to do this with every book ever published, but we are planning to build this in for all our books from the beginning. If you are looking for a way to discover new books beyond our list, you might check out small demons. It links books together by places, objects, music references, sports teams, “books mentioned in other books”, etc. Very clickable, but sadly not focused enough on the young adult world.

Our differences make us (and our stories) more interesting

Think of your favourite fictional character. Got one? Good. What is it about them that grabs you? Chances are, you love that character because they are heroic, or eccentric, or tragically flawed. We are rarely interested in characters who have nothing going on, with no discernible personality or potential for change to speak of. Can you imagine if Jane Eyre never spoke her mind, or if Harry Potter was completely devoid of courage? Those stories would be so boring!

Even oranges have differences!

So this week, we are devoting our blog space to celebrating all the differences that make us interesting. If you think about it, the literary space is the perfect venue for this party. There are literally millions of books out there, each with different sets of characters, each with their own personalities, each a reflection of someone’s unique ideas. It’s amazing! Books are chronicles of our collective appreciation of how different human beings can be.

To kick it off, tweet, or post a comment here or on Facebook about your favourite fictional character and the things that make him, her or it different from all other characters.

Some Friday tips

Not for ‘To do’ lists

As we’ve established over a series of posts this week, it can be hard to let yourself have time to be creative. There are too many other interruptions, too many people to see and too many other ‘to dos’ to sometimes let it take priority…

Our intern Antonia has come up with some great ways to build a little bit of creativity into your everyday life. We love these and hope you will too!

  • Combine socialising with creativity. Many museums and galleries have regular late nights with tours and classes (and a well-stocked bar). It’s an ideal place to get creative with a little gossip on the side.
  • Pick a long term project so you won’t rush to get everything done in an hour. It’s encouraging to see something develop, and you’ll find that you make the most of odd moments to add to it.
  • Take the occasional photo of things in your surroundings as you go through the day. It will make you slow down and look at them properly, rather than rushing past.
  • Start a creative commute. Read books you disagree with and listen to music that you normally wouldn’t for a dose of thought provocation on the tube.
  • Keep a notebook with you so you can jot down ideas of what you want to write or draw, exhibitions to visit and books to read. It’s easy to make mental notes of things we see, but we’re quick to forget them too.

Thanks Antonia! I love the one about reading books you wouldn’t normally read to make you think on your commute…

Have, great, creative, bank holidays everyone.

Creating books creatively (and beyond).

You probably already know that publishing is a pretty creative industry. From Editorial, Design and Production to us over in Sales & Marketing, we spend our days working toward bringing the most exciting stories to life in the most innovative ways we can think of – be that digitally, physically, by doing some crazy dancing or even enlisting the help of tiny hedgehogs!


So when Becca asked us what our creative hobbies were outside of work, it was pretty natural that we all immediately thought BOOKS! We eat, sleep and breathe books, and the bits in-between we fill with family, friends, art, theatre, exercise, music, drawing… and of course reality tv and crisps at some point, too.


But it’s the creativity that makes our jobs so exciting, and there is nothing better than creating lovely things around our books and sharing them with the world beyond our Clerkenwell offices. We first read Sally Gardner’s MAGGOT MOON over Christmas last year, and now finally we are nearing publication day – it’s unreal to think that what started as an email attachment so long ago has evolved, and sparked so much creative work between author and publisher. Sally’s wonderful words inspired the amazingly gruesome illustrations from Julian Crouch that now pepper the pages, and began our journey toward bringing Standish from our imaginations to your bookshelves. It’s been a fantastic project to work on, and now not only do we have an amazing hardback book, but also a soon-to-launch Multi-touch iBook, a digital audio book, an eBook, a soon-to-come website and some seriously cool propaganda themed POS ready to show everyone (you especially, people who love books).


Here are some MAGGOT MOON-y type things to look out for in your local bookshop…(or, if you are a bookshop, or library, or school for that matter, email us on and we’ll pop a selection in the post for you)


And let’s be honest – being this creative at work is a pretty good excuse for watching the Xfactor.