Author Archives: hotkeyintern

A journey into the VORTEX

Today’s blog is from fifteen-year old Agnes, who has been doing work experience with us this week. She’s a massive reader (honestly it’s like she eats books), loves music, art, history and bookshops. Plus she’s been wowing us all week with her awesome outfits – we’re in love with her shoes! A big fan of INSIGNIA, here she discusses whether its sequel VORTEX has been worth the wait…

On reading Insignia; as soon as Tom stepped into the Spire and hooked in his neural processor for the first time, I was hooked right along with him…


The year is 2015, and the world is divided and fighting a war in space with robots to avoid loss of human lives. Teenagers are being selected and provided with supercomputer implants in their brains, then trained to control the ships and eventually win the fight. Massive corporate companies control everything, and Tom and his friends are stuck in the middle of it. With a fantastically futuristic, yet realistic world, incredible technology and immediately loveable characters (even the bad guys), Insignia definitely became a new favourite. And Vortex didn’t let it down.


In Vortex, Tom has returned to the Spire for his second year, as a Middle. He has access to new rooms, new skills and new weapons, and an opportunity to win over the Coalition companies and become a Combatant.

The year starts with aspects of both light and dark. Wyatt and Vik are still at (well-intentioned) war, constantly thinking up new programmes to use against each other; and life at the next rung of the food chain looks to be action-packed, exciting and hilarious. But, after Tom publicly uses his special gift — being able to interface with any machine –  Medusa is already on his case. Tom must try and succeed at the Spire whilst also keeping his talent under the radar, keeping it a secret from men like Vengerov lest he find out not only about Tom, but Medusa too, and try to fashion them into weapons.

The plot is bursting with mystery, action, and excitement with more twists and turns than the magnetised vactrains in the interstice. The Spire faces difficulties; someone is hacking the sims and Blackburn is becoming more and more angry and distrustful, continuing his vendetta against Vengerov. Tom is having difficulty working out whether Blackburn is an evil maniac, or someone who he can trust to protect his secret. Things are changing in the Spire’s social hierarchy: Elliot Ramirez is starting to doubt his place in the Spire and looking for a way out, whilst the gorgeous but untrustworthy Heather will do anything she can to get to the top, no matter how ruthless her methods or who she betrays. Tom encounters problems of all kind: struggling friendships, career failures, blackmail, personal loss, severe mental and physical traumas, and doubts of Yuri’s loyalty; whilst also developing his relationship with Medusa. Tom has to balance his association with the enemy, and his desire to get to the top of the Spire, without ruining both.

With more machines, technology and action, Vortex is fast-paced and exciting from start to finish. Incredibly witty and very well written, narrated with a wonderful, mischievous voice, it is a story of friendship, politics and war, and creates a world buzzing with life and technology, corruption and power (as well as proposing a logical war strategy, that, if it ever came to it, the world should definitely consider in the future!). A book that anyone can, and will, enjoy.


DO judge a book by its cover…you may be pleasantly surprised!

LauraLaura (@lauracholawka) is a Philosophy and Theology graduate who originally trained as an Early Years Professional. She has recently made the move to London from Manchester to pursue a career in publishing. She also writes a blog about her adventures in publishing and reading, which you can check out by clicking here.

A little background first, if I may.

I’m Laura, I’m 24 (and as such a little older than your average intern, I fear) and as a result of a whirlwind series of circumstances that make my life sound more like a romantic comedy than I’m entirely happy with, I decided to haul myself half way across the country to begin a new career.

I used to work with children, mostly the under-two’s, which was fantastic, albeit a bit sticky. I’m a self-confessed book nerd, and various other types of nerd as well, and publishing has always been the little dream career that was in the back of my head, pushed aside in the name of practicality.

But about six months ago, I decided that the time had come to find out whether or not I could do it. It has taken lots of research, a ton of hard work and just a little bit of bravery to even get where I am now, but I have found that my week here at Hot Key Books has proved two things:

  1. I have reasonably good instincts; a career in publishing is DEFINITELY right up my street.
  2. No matter what your working environment, everyone loves cake.

I don’t want to bore you by descending into giddy overstatement, but I have LOVED working here. My confidence in my own abilities has risen immeasurably thanks to everybody’s support. Let’s face it, I’ve never studied or trained for this kind of job until the last few months, it is just something I thought I would be good at, and was sure I would enjoy. So far, so good. (Unless, of course I’ve had everyone tearing their hair out and they’re all just too lovely to say anything.)

In preparation for my week here, I obviously had a good nosy around the titles Hot Key have coming out, and one in particular caught my eye. Not the kind of book I normally would have picked up, Paper Aeroplanes’ beautiful cover art drew me in, and Dawn O’Porter’s familiar name piqued my interest.

Paper Aeroplanes

It has been a bit of a resolution of mine to read more outside of my usual fantasy/adventure comfort zone, and Paper Aeroplanes has helped to prove why that is such a good idea. Set on the island of Guernsey in the 1990’s, the book follows two fifteen year old schoolgirls, Renee and Flo, as they forge a friendship of the kind you can only have in your teens. The girls help each other through family dysfunction, broken relationships and the cringe-inducing ravages of puberty, revealing a story that is poignant, insightful and so shockingly true to life that I kind of hope my mum never reads it.

Paper Aeroplanes is a shining example of the power of this variety of YA fiction which allows us, as adults, to look back on a time when we were so convinced that our problems couldn’t get any bigger, and a tampon was the most embarrassing object anyone had ever encountered. The book dragged me straight back to that brick wall in Greater Manchester against which I had my first kiss (no gory details-sorry) and brought forth a comforting wave of nostalgia which will stay with me for a long while.

So, what does the future look like for Laura Cholawka, publisher extraordinaire? Well, first, I need to find a place to live, and then I need to find a job. You’d be forgiven for thinking I should be panicking, but I’m taking it one step at a time. The skills and experience I’ve gained this week, not to mention the fun I’ve had, mean that I am itching to get my CV out there applying for lots of exciting positions, and I’m sure I can find at least one vacant room in London…wish me luck!

Philosophy made simple

Today’s blog is from Peter Clapp, who interned for us a few weeks ago. Peter studied Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University and then spent a few years acting, mainly in the back rooms of pubs but occasionally in exciting places like New York. Having realised the life of an actor probably wasn’t quite for him, he’s now hoping to pursue a career in another of his passions, children’s publishing. A career move his one year old brother is particularly excited about.

When people think of philosophy, they tend to think of dry, dense tomes that are full of more semicolons than sense. The sorts of books that are no doubt very important, that influenced society in some indefinably crucial way, but, y’know, you wouldn’t actually want to read them. And in many ways those people are right.

Philosophy can be dense. It can be pretentious, and reading it can often feel like unpicking a knot with the lights turned off. But at its heart philosophy is none of those things. It’s not about overly complex language; it’s about incredibly powerful ideas that make you see the world in a completely different way. The trouble is, though the ideas may actually be quite simple, they’re really very hard to express.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m waffling on about philosophy on Hot Key’s blog. Well it’s because I think YA and children’s fiction can be a brilliant way of exploring these big, philosophical ideas.

Take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – an obvious example I know, but also a good one – over the course of the trilogy Pullman precisely questions the role and influence of religion. Now, a lot of people might say that’s all well and good, but you could explore those ideas much better by reading Paradise Lost and Richard Dawkins. But I’d argue they don’t offer an inherently better way, just a different one. All too often I think we’re guilty of thinking that ideas can only be weighty if they’re also heavy. Whereas in reality a fast-paced, gripping narrative can be just as good at exploring big ideas as something that’s considered more high brow.

Anyone who isn’t convinced should read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s a brilliant dystopian thriller set in a society where everyone has chosen to repress their memories and limit their experiences in order to live a life free from pain. Unfortunately, it also means they’re pretty incapable of dealing with threats so they elect one person to receive the memories and experiences they lack and act as a leader.

The novel follows 12 year old Jonas as takes on this role and in the process finds his coddled life blown apart. But what’s really fascinating is that Jonas doesn’t just get more knowledgeable, rather his fundamental experience of life begins to change. In one particularly powerful section he starts to see colours he’s never experienced before. Lowry seems to be suggesting that our minds aren’t just blank slates that the world imprints on; instead they’re more like filters that influence our experiences. More than this, if you change that filter in some way – by providing new fundamental knowledge – then your basic experience of the world can change too. And, as Kant will happily tell you, that’s a deeply philosophical idea.

Now, if that last paragraph has left you scratching your head, then in a funny kind of way I think I’ve sort of proven my point. Expressing these ideas in an article or blog is hard and sometimes it’s far more effective to express them in a story. In my opinion YA and children’s literature does that brilliantly. It can take these big, bold ideas and create a story that is illuminating, unpretentious, gripping and fun. It proves the point that big ideas aren’t just for dusty old men in ivory towers – they’re for everyone.

Can you think of other examples of this in YA books published today? Or do you remember having any philosophical epiphanies after reading a particular title when you were growing up?

Don’t be afraid of the dark

Last week, our intern Emily (@notoed) was inspired to write a blog about adult themes in children’s literature after reviewing notes from our Parent Parlour. Emily studies Fine Art at Loughborough University and is hoping to pursue a career in publishing after her graduation this summer.

Adult themes in children’s literature are nothing new. From allegorical tales such as those of Dr. Seuss, to historical novels such as GOODNIGHT MR.TOM by Michelle Magorian and WITCH CHILD by Ceila Rees (both of which I read and loved as a child) children’s stories that explore issues of war, politics, poverty, even genocide have always found their way on to bookstore shelves. But is this difficult genre beginning to over-saturate the children’s market, and how dark is too dark?


During my week interning with Hot Key Books, one of the tasks I undertook was typing up notes from a parents conference held by Hot Key. The message from the parents was unanimous; they were concerned about appropriateness of the reading material that was readily available to their children. These concerns have even bred the term ‘sick lit’, attributed to books whose portrayal of harrowing themes such as torture and emotional abuse might be considered explicit or gratuitous.

For myself personally, as someone whose favourite books as a young teen were about apartheid (the wonderful NOUGHTS AND CROSSES series by Malorie Blackman), and who as a late teen cut their hipster lit teeth on Chuck Palahniuk (seriously NOT suitable for kids!), I feel that relaying social commentary in children’s lit is both appropriate and effective –if- and it’s a big if – those themes are delicately handled.

A young narrator can often allow an author to approach difficult topics with innocence and a lack of bias that only exists in the young and un-jaded. Maybe there’s a sense of idealism there; if we thought like children, wouldn’t the solutions to our worldly problems seem so much simpler?

Books with adult themes have a huge cross-over audience; Hot Key’s own Maggot Moon by Sally Gardener has both children and adult editions, and I vividly recall my Grandma lending me her copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon when I was 11 years old. I think that the ability to share the joy of books between families and across generations is something really quite special.


What I love most about children’s books that touch on adult themes is that they treat children like the intelligent and curious people that they are. Some of my favourite films are children’s movies that have the same kind of respect for their young audience; one being the beautiful adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze. In fact, I even gave a presentation on this film as part of my degree in Fine Art earlier this year.

In my experience working with kids in the past, I’ve often found that they have a huge capacity to cope with and understand difficult subjects, though of course, as with all things, there needs to be a line. There’s a big difference between tackling a difficult topic in an age-appropriate manner, and writing horror into children’s novels in an attempt to push the envelope.

What do you think about adult themes in kid’s books? Do you have any favourites from when you were younger, or any which you’ve read recently? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Publishing: Theory vs. Practice

Picture for blogA few weeks ago, our intern Jaclyn Swope wrote a bit of a reflection on the difference between what she is learning in the classroom, and what she has seen in practice at Hot Key. Jaclyn (@jaxswo) is currently pursuing her MA in Publishing at Kingston University and trying not to spend all of her tuition money on books. She reads nearly as much young adult fiction now as she did as a teenager and is looking for any opportunities to gain additional experience in children’s publishing.

On my publishing course, we spend a lot of time talking about the future of publishing, and at the core of our studies, the functions of different roles within the industry. Interning at Hot Key was my chance to see this in action at a REAL LIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY, and it definitely changed my perspectve. I came into it with knowledge afforded me by my tutors and from our lectures and projects, but as with anything, there is major difference between doing something theoretical and actually applying it, especially when there is more to think about than just my grade.

A few of my textbooks...

A few of my textbooks…

Last term, in our Product Development module, we had to come up with our own product, physical or digital, and pitch it as if we were working in a publishing company: we had to have the numbers to support it, the how’s, the why’s, the who’s, etc. I learned terms like P&L and TCM and how to use Nielsen Book Scan in my sleep, and then I had to stand in front of my class and present my idea before handing in a formal, written proposal.

It was quite daunting.

There was so much to think about, not least of which was whether my idea was completely terrible or not. It was like how I am with my own writing: I can’t edit myself, but I can edit others. I can’t recognize the validity of my own ideas, but I was sure that when the time came, I’d be able to recognize the potential, or lack thereof, behind a manuscript written by someone else.

Hot Key gave me the opportunity to test my previously theoretical manuscript-reading abilities and to see what happens when an editor proposes publishing a new book. From my first day here, I was reading manuscripts that were being circulated around the office or that had been emailed to the company. Rather than judging my own ideas, I was presented with other people’s, allowing me to test my instincts and my ability to see future greatness in a submitted book. I didn’t have to be the creator—I had to be a reader, which is really my natural state, bookworm that I am. When I liked the manuscripts that were being pushed forward, I got a little thrill from knowing that I would have made the same decision. I’m also good at saying no when I don’t like something – it’s good to know I won’t be inclined to buy everything that comes my way.

I was struck by how collaborative the consideration process was—every department received certain manuscripts, rather than the decision relying on a convincing document filled with facts and figures. The numbers are always important and the business side needs to be considered, but things progressed more like a conversation instead of a presentation. Developing and presenting my own product in class was a useful exercise, but I enjoyed experiencing another side to pitching, with less reliance on formality and more room for enthusiasm.

Having the opportunity to sit in on Hot Key’s publishing meetings really highlighted to me the difference between studying publishing and actually working at a publishing company. In class, we discuss sales, social media, contracts, production, but these meetings really showed me how everything comes together across departments. My lecturers always stress that, even though most of us on the course are English lit graduates and resistant to maths, we need to be aware of how much numbers play a part in publishing—not just the numbers themselves, but how they fluctuate and compare. Interpreting sales, royalties, blog stats and plenty of other figures can define success, and numbers cropped up plenty in the meetings. The discussions were a merger of the creative and the quantitative, with thoughts on cover designs being shortly followed by e-book download numbers, and I am growing more and more used to seeing everything in publishing that way.

My MA course has taught me so much about the publishing industry, and now my experience at Hot Key has given me an up-close look at a publishing company, allowing me to see how general responsibilities and information covered in class can morph and adapt depending on the company, or even on the book. My enthusiasm for books and everything that goes into them continues to increase with everything I learn, so I think I’m definitely in the right business. Now if only I could get over the terror I feel when I think about my looming dissertation…

Big or small, we’re all fangirls/fanboys at heart

NicoleHeadShotOur brilliant borrowed intern Nicole is leaving us today (sniffle), so we asked her to write one more blog about her experience with Hot Key and London.

My month in London is almost over and for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing my hardest not to look like a tourist anymore. I refuse to look at my tube map in public. Instead of waiting for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green (because I still have no idea from which side I will be crushed if I cross on a red light), now, like a lemming, I follow the hordes when they storm the streets as soon as they deem it safe and hope there are enough people to the left and right of me that they get hit first if they overlooked a vehicle.


I’ve even been brave enough to say “Yes, I do!” when asked if I would like some tea even though nobody ever specifies what kind of tea they’re actually going to get (I might have strategically placed some fruity infusion stuff at the office that probably doesn’t even count as real tea around these parts though before I said “yes” the first time).  And whenever I have no idea what people are actually saying to me…okay admittedly, I still stall and stare weirdly until my brain has caught up, which I’m pretty sure is neither very polite, nor does it make me look less like a tourist, but let’s move on.

Still, it took some time adjusting to the way things are, because a lot of things are just a little bit different here in England than they are in Germany. Not only do people drive on the wrong side of the street, even the little green guy in the pedestrian traffic lights is walking in the other direction. Rush hour is a whole different ballgame (I haven’t been this close to accidentally fondling someone on the train since I lived in New York, where…admittedly, that might not always have been as accidental as I said it was…) and I still don’t get why on earth one would have two separate faucets for hot and cold water (what if you want lukewarm??).


But don’t get me wrong, when it comes to Hot Key, “different” is a good thing! For one, the probability of getting lost at the office here: preeeeeetty slim. At Carlsen, it’s a common sight to see new employees roaming the halls trying to look confident while actually having no idea how to get from A to B (Especially since we really enjoy switching offices in regular intervals. And because our stairwells are evil and never lead where you expect them to lead.).


A few of the books I worked on projects for…

The phones ring a lot less here. Why? Because everybody’s so close by that you can actually go and talk to each other when you have a question. Having over 130 employees (and the aforementioned evil stairwells) at Carlsen, it’s often simply simpler to make a quick call than to venture to the other end of the building to realize the person you wanted to talk to isn’t even there (…or has moved to a different office).

When a manuscript comes in, everybody can read it and join the discussion about whether it fits the Hot Key lineup, no matter which department they’re from or what their position is. At Carlsen, we get several hundred unsolicited manuscripts a month, plus the ones our editors are actively pursuing. If everybody read everything AND had a say…let’s just say we’d probably never actually publish a book because we’d be too busy discussing them to ever get any actual work done.


Hard at work, researching Victorian policing for THE QUIETNESS iBook.

Moreover, where everyone working at Carlsen has often more than a dozen regular meetings on their calendar each month, here at Hot Key there is one big production meeting once a week, where everybody sits together and discusses everything from new cover ideas to sales figures for every current and upcoming title. Which, admittedly, is a lot easier with 20 titles than it is with 5,000, though (not to mention the fact that we’d probably have a hard time fitting 130 people around a table).

And that’s basically the crux of it all: With 130 employees working on 700 new titles a year (plus a backlist of several thousand in-stock titles), you have to work a lot differently than you do with 20 people working on 50 titles, whether you want to or not.


One last cup of tea and tiny cakes with the Hot Key Books and Red Lemon Press staff…

However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything in common! The printer NEVER works. There are the same emails about dirty dishes in the kitchen. When our server or our internet fails, we’re all just running around like chickens with our heads cut off. And there’s a seemingly endless supplies of snacks in the kitchen. But much more importantly, we all come to the office every day because we’re enthusiastic about writing and because we want to publish the best stories and the best authors out there. We want to inspire, excite and entertain the little and the not so little ones. Basically, we are all a bunch of geeky fangirls and fanboys ourselves, championing the tales we love and getting them out there for others to enjoy. And ultimately, that is the only thing that really matters.

An Adventure at Hot Key Books

Tara Loder (@Tara_in_London) has supported her reading and traveling habits for a number of years by working as a researcher/writer/editor, and in 2011-12 took the MA in Publishing Studies at City University as the first step in pursuing her dream of working in children’s publishing. She’s now supporting her publishing dream by tutoring kids in the evenings and counts Hot Key Books as the fourth top publishing house she’s interned with.

Shortly after walking into Hot Key Books and armed with a cup of tea, I sat down to work on a manuscript that was partway through the editorial process. Pages and pages of words; the story itself and the story of the author and editor’s journey together written in the side notes, rewrites and edits. I was gripped by both.

The novel itself had me scarfing down my salmon and cream cheese bagel at lightning speed, just so I could get back to work, reading two copies of the same text side by side, marking up changes and checking for continuity. I couldn’t get enough of this subversive tale of pain, romance, defiance and revenge.

The second tale contained in the manuscript was no less riveting for me. In reading the notes, I had a ring-side seat to the delicate dance between author and editor as they work together to trim back verbose passages, plug plot holes, smooth the reading experience with correct punctuation and so much more. For me this dance is one of the most exciting and difficult aspects of being an editor, and I am very excited to have played a very, teeny-tiny role in this process.

The editing process from long ago…still looks very similar today!

By Day Two I was deeply entrenched in the manuscript when I was taken aside and asked what I would be most interested in working on during the week. I had an answer ready and raring to go: ‘I’d like to get involved in the digital side.’

And just like that, Sara O’Connor was telling me all about The Quietness. Now I had another new book and by that afternoon was tasked with some gruesome research into surgery in nineteenth-century London. The Trephine is enough to make me shudder.


The Quietness also led me into an interesting discussion about age-appropriate literature and where the young adult market meets the adult market. It was a recurring theme during the week, as new submissions were discussed.

On Day Three, I was finishing with the manuscript and research, and getting ready to move on to data entry in Biblio. Not all aspects of working in publishing are deathly exciting, but by the end of Day Four, I could happily add using Biblio to my CV. Plus, I’d also spent the day reading the names of industry leaders and getting an idea of the regions that Hot Key Books has been sold into. For me there is something thrilling about seeing the reach a novel can have.

I know it seems odd to get excited about the reach of a novel while entering data, but bear with me for a moment. Picture a girl on a barren shore of an island with an area of 111,390 sq km, which is part of a province that is one-and-three-quarters times the size of Great Britain, yet has a population of 514,536 people. Or to put it into a picture, here is the entire town of Too Good Arm (my childhood home is the double A-frame in the upper-left of the picture).

This little girl has two TV channels, limited internet access and knows how to carry a cod fish as big as she is; the trick is – and only read this if you’re not squeamish – to insert your fingers into the eyes of the fish which retract when pushed. Very little from the world makes it into the rugged beauty of her isolated hometown, but there is a library full of books that are gateways to other towns, to cities, to imaginary worlds… Those books turn life into a chose your own adventure, as each book reveals further options of what to do, where to go, something to aspire to and more. And this is why I’m interning with Hot Key Books and determined to work in publishing. I want to be part of feeding the imagination of little girls and boys, teenagers and adults. Age-appropriate material may differ widely, but a good story can inspire people of all ages.

Day Five rolled around quickly and promised a day of blogging, submission reading and a touch of Biblio. The fruits of my blogging labour are clear to see, and Biblio held no surprises, but submission reading had a real gem waiting for me. With just a few short lines I was intrigued, a couple of pages had me eagerly whizzing through the outline, and altogether the submission made my parting words: ‘I’d buy it.’