Monthly Archives: February 2013

Telling Stories…About Stories

Amy Orringer blogs about attending The Story Conference, a day-long conference all about telling stories. Here’s a quote from their website, “The Story is not about theories of stories, or making money from stories, but about the sheer visceral pleasure of telling a story.”

I think I heard somewhere that your brain really likes being surprised. Not scared-suprised, but delighted-surprised (it must’ve been RadioLab, as that’s where all my knowledge of neuroscience comes from). And when your brain gets all delighted-surprised, it absorbs more, enjoys more, and ultimately leaves you with that warm fuzzy feeling.

So even though my day started off quite badly last Friday (see boot zipper malfunction below, that was on the bus, with no emergency shoes in sight), I definitely drifted away from The Story 2013 on a pink fluffy cloud of happiness.


Full disclosure — I had no idea what I was walking into. I did check the web site for details after I purchased my ticket, but at that time, there wasn’t an agenda posted. Even if there was, I’m not entirely sure it would have prepared me for the day. The agenda we did receive as we walked in was printed on the opposite side of a bag of high-quality Witches Brew, a special blend of tea specifically commissioned by The Story from the Hoxton Street Monster Supply Store. Proceeds from the day went to benefit the Ministry of Stories, the secret organization behind the Monster Supply Store, so it was fitting that we’d be greeted by their products.

TheStory2013front TheStory2013back

It’s hard to talk chronologically about the day, because it wasn’t really organized in any linear fashion (that I could discern anyway). It was just a bunch of really talented, interesting people telling stories about how they tell stories. So to make sense out of my jumble of notes and taking a cue from this brilliant blog, I’m just going to give you my top five moments of the day:

1. Laura Dockrill – So this woman walks up on stage, with her crazy colourful hammer pants, and her black tied-up collared shirt, and shiny stars stuck on her face, and her hair doing something which can only be described as messy-chic. She has a book in her hand, and I think, yay! A reading! She gives us the speil to bring us up to speed on the plot, throws the book down, and starts “reading.” Only she’s not reading her book, she’s acting it out, with all the requisite voices! She gave a great interview afterwards as well. She said that the reason she approaches her readings with so much, let’s say, “energy,” is that she wants to show kids that they can be writers too! Writers don’t have to be old and wear glasses. She also said it was important for kids writers to make kids feel like they are important and listened to (we all fully agree with that one here at HKB).

2. Alecky Blyth — There’s really no good way to describe the kind of thing that Alecky has created. It’s basically a new way of putting on a play, one where the actors are basically fed their lines via earphones — but they’re not regular lines in a script — they are recordings of actual people, responding to a police incident in their neighborhood. Here’s a little taste:

I am so glad this production is doing another limited run at The National Theatre. This is obviously something best seen live!

3. Ben Boucquelet — One of the things that always annoys me about listening to artists speak is that it always feels like they just woke up one day and produced something brilliant. Ben however, did not downplay the blood, sweat and tears which went into making his ridiculously funny cartoon show The Amazing World of Gumball. He made it clear that Gumball was, and continues to be a labour of love. He showed us different phases of the process, even side-by-side with the final product at some points. He encouraged us to embark on our own absurdly difficult creative endeavors, just as long as we really, really love what we’re working on.

4. Michael Please — I might be a bit biased towards anything to do with stop-motion video, but I think even the average visual arts appreciator was awestruck by Michael’s work. Michael is a brilliant stop-motion animator who made a film about the relative value of time. Take a look:

5. Fiona Romeo — Before last Friday, if you’d asked me about the top 10 museums to visit in London, the National Maritime Museum wouldn’t have made the list. But after listening to Fiona Romeo, the director of the museum, explain how she approaches the exhibits, I’m putting in the top 3. She talked about how museums are inherently about telling people stories, and exhibits should be designed accordingly. OK this is not a shock, but what was fascinating is the way Fiona described designing exhibits so that people could experience the narrative the the way they felt most comfortable. Whether you want to take a deep dive or just dip your toe into the information, you could still walk away with a story.

If you can believe it, this is only a teeny tiny taste of the amazingness of the day. I walked away feeling excited about the stories we could tell at Hot Key Books. Not just the ones that our authors write, but the stories behind, beyond, and beside those stories. What I realised is that even though we (as in, humanity) are incredibly practiced at storytelling, there are always new ways to do it, just as long as we are willing to put on our crazy pants, stick earphones in our ears, play with clay, animate the inanimate, and redesign the regular.

(And here’s another blog about The Story conference, comparing it to attending the Brit awards… verrry interesting.)

Why are you reading that?

McDowell, NigelToday’s blog was written by Nigel McDowell, the author of TALL TALES FROM PITCH END, which will be published in June 2013. With this month marking the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR, Nigel got to thinking about his experience with the book and the issue of “gendered” books.

Blue for a boy and pink for a girl.  (Books for boys and books for girls).  When I was sixteen I bought a book with a purple cover and a portrait of a young woman with yellow hair and pearls, the author’s name in a red handwritten font, like lipstick scrawled on mirror.  At the counter I suffered a look from the bookseller that stays in my memory – his eyes skywards, and a small smirk.  ‘Enjoy that,‘ he said.  I wish I’d said back, ‘Oh I will.  I really will.’  The book was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

Now, I doubt I was the ‘target audience’; I doubt I knew what ‘target audience’ even meant.  In my English class I was asked: ‘Why are you reading that?  It looks like a girl’s book!’  A friend, well-read, said to me, ‘She’s okay, but Salinger is better – that’s just Catcher in the Rye for girls.’

Fifty years since publication – and since Sylvia Plath took her own life – there’s been much talk about the influence of The Bell Jar on girls.  There’s been some fuss too about the jacket of the reissued 50th Anniversary edition of The Bell Jar – too feminine, too commercial, too gaudy.


But Plath described her novel as a ‘pot-boiler’, saw it as something commercial, seductive, funny.  I think she may have quite liked the new cover.  The Bell Jar resists classification; can’t be crammed into any genre nor nailed to the ground.  Where I found it, at sixteen, was in the Classics section.  It would fit just as well into Teenage Fiction, Romance, Literary Fiction, Memoir, even Poetry.  As a novel it’s a slippery creature, a cunning changeling – satire, social comedy, slice of stale Americana, swan-song.  Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) is possessed of a voice that is witty, profound, scathing, grim, beautiful…Like all great stories it is for everyone, always.  I grew up in rural Ireland: a boy who’d never been to New York, I’d never suffered from depression, I didn’t know what a ‘pocketbook’ was, but somehow I knew what Esther meant when she said: ‘The silence depressed me.  It wasn’t the silence of silence.  It was my own silence.’  The Bell Jar awoke the writer in me, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.  Great fiction is a startling mirror, its reflections uncompromising but essential: this was a book for adolescent girls, I was told, but in it I saw my own teenage self.

I’m wondering if things are different now for young readers?  I imagine a sixteen year-old boy taking that new Anniversary edition to school, showing friends…I hope this happens.  I hope that boys pick up a Jacqueline Wilson and see themselves in the complex worlds of angst and humour she creates, and not think, ‘This is good, but it’s just for girls’.  Or that girls decide on an Anthony Horowitz or an Artemis Fowl as readily as a Meg Cabot.

I am glad that at sixteen I didn’t know about things like ‘target audiences’ or ‘demographics’ (or that I did and ignored them through stubborn pig-headedness).  I hope today’s children and teens are just as pig-headed about what literature they enjoy.  Let them read just what they want, and be changed by it.  Let a boy of sixteen carry a bubblegum-pink book if he wishes; or a girl a cover of scarlet and silver, flame and frost.  Let someone say to them with that same look, that same small smirk: ‘Enjoy that.’  And let them reply, I hope, with a smile of their own, words: ‘Oh I will.  I really will.’

Want to Work in Children’s Book Publishing?

Cow Notebook Cover Last week, we did A Day in the Life… video series featuring all our fantastic assistants and what they do. We’ve had an amazing response – mostly people wanting to know how they can break into the industry. If you missed it, see yesterday’s round up check it out here (or below).

I’ve already blogged about my top tips in this post.

Eight years ago, I was hunting for a job in children’s publishing, after a couple of years in New York. This is what I did:

First, I bought a notebook with a cow on it, as you do. Then, I stuck in a calendar.

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 14.39.45Then, I harassed as many people whose names in children’s publishing I could for “informational interviews” to fill up slots in that calendar.

For any number of reasons, internships aren’t always possible, but a carefully-worded, well-researched letter/email asking for half an hour of their time was generally positively received. (And if you do get a meeting, MAKE SURE you stick with just half an hour!)

At each meeting, I had a set of questions that I asked, and I was always listening out for other names and companies mentioned.

Sara O'Connor's list of questions to ask on children's publishing informational interview.

Sara O’Connor’s list of questions to ask on children’s publishing informational interview.

At two of my meetings, I heard about the fantastic editorial team at Working Partners, and so chased that lead up. I ended up with a two week internship there, and at the end of that… a job!

So my big tip for this blog is to look at non-traditional ways in. Find the smaller, more flexible companies: book packagers like Working Partners or HotHouse, new independant houses, think about interning with agencies (I know Eve White runs a scheme) or with literary scouts. You’ll get an excellent overview of the market.

Also consider digital start ups – having digital experience will be so valuable in the very near future.

Send an impassioned letter to people/companies of your choice, volunteering your time in exchange for experience.

But most of all, don’t give up! Keep trying…

We’d love to hear any other success stories… how did you get your job in publishing?

(In all my rush to post the blog (yes, yes, I know, I was late posting!) I forgot to add in my favourite thing from those weeks back in 2004… I’ve got all the notes from those meetings, including the notes from when Emma Matthewson – the newset Hot Key-er – agreed to talk to me. Click on the link below for the PDF. The frowny face is because I was naughty and talked to her for an hour, instead of half an hour. But that was because she was just SO NICE and lovely and helpful. )


These are the days of our lives…

We had such a great response to our Day in the Life series last week, we wanted to collect all our video posts and a sampling of the questions we got in a single post. We’re giving you another opportunity to ask our lovely assistants questions about their work. But we also want to hear from you — who should be next in front of the video camera? Is there someone on staff you’d like us to follow around for a day? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading!


Naomi Colthurst, Editorial Assistant

QUESTION: When you’re writing those blurbs for the books, do you ever just use the blurb that comes from the author or agent when the manuscript comes in? If not, does that mean you actually read every book?

Naomi’s Response: Blurbs are really tricky – we almost always write our own, because usually when an agent provides a blurb (often included in their original email to you, which will pitch the book) it will be quite long and more like a synopsis, which isn’t what back cover copy should be. Back cover copy should be really short and punchy – giving you a good hint of the book (and a bit of the set up) without giving away any of the plot – so it’s no surprise it usually takes me several attempts! AI (Advanced Information sheet) copy can be a little bit easier to do as it’s allowed to be longer and more descriptive. I am always inclined to ‘over-explain’ in my copy, so it’s something I’m working on!

If an author specifically wants to write their own blurb, then obviously we take what they write into serious consideration – but it can take an author a few attempts too, as it really is a very tricky thing to get right! Lots of the big publishing houses have separate departments dedicated just to writing back cover copy, so that should give you an idea of how important it is AND how difficult it is!

But the main thing is, yes, I read every book I am responsible for. I think it’s really important to know what you’re working with, and luckily for me we have a manageable list which means I can read everything and really get to know it. I try to read as much as possible outside my specific list too, just for the same reasons.

Becca Langton, Editorial Assistant

QUESTION: If you could choose any famous author, living or dead, to do the next story adventure, who would you choose?

Becca’s Response: What a good question!! And one that is totally impossible to answer…the first name that springs to mind is Lemony Snickett because I think he would have a brilliant time incorporating all the different ideas and making something really individual. But actually I think my answer would be Roald Dahl because he obviously took such joy in how weird and original kids are and I think a collaborative effort would be insane. In many ways you can see hints of Dahl’s books coming through with this project, especially with the weird pets and crazy confectionery! What about you? I feel like there are so many potential candidates it’s impossible to choose!

Mariana Podmore, Sales Assistant

QUESTION: How do you retain the tone or author’s voice between languages? Is that something you deal with, or is that up to the person who translates it?

Mariana’s Response: Yes, that is an interesting issue. To be honest, it does fall to the translator and the foreign publisher and you have to trust that they love the book as much as you do, and want it to be just as great in their language as it is in yours! I think that is the great challenge for translators – going beyond just having the rights words on the page.

Livs Mead, Sales, PR and Marketing Assistant

QUESTION: I was wondering, though, from a sales and marketing perspective, how much you rely on authors? Writing can be such a solitary profession, and often appeals to the more introverted crowd. I was just wondering how that played into it. Do you rely on them a lot, or do you allow them to return to the caves to do more writing?

Livs’ Response: As for working with authors it completely depends on what the author is comfortable doing. Whatever that is, be it a bit of social media or doing events or going back to writing we’re here to support them – I don’t really think its relying on them as such. All of us at Hot Key and the author want to do the best by the book because we care about it – the way we do that is relative to the author.

Jan Bielecki, Design Assistant

QUESTION: I have always wondered, though, how much influence an author gets on a cover design. None? Do they get to see some sketches of options? Do you ask what covers they’ve seen that they liked that might work for their books? Or do you just tell the author to get out of your kitchen and go back to writing books?

Jan’s Response: Lovely question! I’m sure it differs. Over here, the book has been read so many times, by so many, that we have quite a good feel of what would be a good cover for it. Maybe sometimes more so than the author, who has been so imersed in this world they have created. I also think by knowing the creative process very well, authors understand our creative process too, and know we will do our best to do their works justice. But of course we always want our authors to be happy so they usually have a sneak peak or two through out the process.

A Day in the Life of a Design Assistant

Today we bring our Day in the Life series to a close with a video from our design department. Our two creative geniuses Jet and Jan work endlessly to deliver cover designs that prompt massive amounts of ooh-ing and ahh-ing in our publishing meetings. So today, Jan is going to bring you along as he completes some of his daily design tasks which ultimately lead to very beautiful books!

Jan BieleckiHi, I’m Jan Bielecki and the Design Assistant here. This video will show you exactly what that means. Now you will know, and I hope you use this information for good, not bad. With great knowledge comes great responsibilities. Over to me:

And as usual if you have any questions for Jan – ask them below!

A Day in the Life of a Sales, PR and Marketing Assistant

There is a special team of people here at Hot Key Books — they call themselves the SPAM team — who are responsible for all the Sales, PR, and Marketing activity around our books. These five ladies are the brains behind every ad, every event, every Twitter hashtag and Facebook contest we have here at Hot Key Books. As you can imagine, it’s always buzzing in the SPAM area. Today, our blog comes from SPAM’s assistant, Olivia Mead.

Livs Mead

Hi, I’m Livs the Sales, PR and Marketing Assistant here. Today I’m talking about what I’ve been doing recently – from party planning to the more day-to-day and less glamorous aspects of the job, like mass mail outs and spread sheets. It’s all got something to do with brilliant books though so I’m happy.

If you’ve got any questions about what a SPAM assistant does, just leave a comment in the box below!

A Day in the Life of a Sales Assistant

Today’s “Day in the Life” post focuses on how a book transforms from its UK edition form into its brand-new form as a foreign language edition. Every day in the Red Lemon Press office, a talented team of individuals sell books all over the world. In the video below, Sales Assistant Mariana Podmore takes us through the sales process from start to finish.

MarianaHiya, I’m Mariana, Foreign Rights and Sales Assistant to brand new Red Lemon Press, Weldon Owen and also Piccolia (another Bonnier company), as well as helping out with Hot Key when I have a spare minute! Today I’ll take you through the most exciting bit of working in foreign rights: actually selling a right, and getting to see your book published in a different language!

If you have any questions for Mariana, feel free to post them below and she’ll respond.