Category Archives: Publishing

We don’t need no…age restrictions

GabbyToday’s blog is by Gabby Smith, an incredible fifteen year-old who has blogged for us before, and spent a week with us as an intern. While Gabby was interning, the discussion came up about age-banding and age-appropriateness of books. Below is Gabby’s opinion about the effect of placing age restrictions on books.

One of the most pointless things someone can ever do is tell you not to do something. This is, quite simply, because less than a second later, you’ve already decided to do just what they told you not to. The temptation is nearly always far too sweet to be ignored. So, when someone puts an age restriction on anything like a movie, some music or a book, you immediately want to watch it, listen to it and read it. It’s human nature. We cannot help it, just like a moth being drawn to a flame.

But temptation is only half of it. At the end of the day you will do what you want, when you want to do it, and nobody can stop you if you have the right amount of motivation. It is terribly annoying to spend time dodging rules to get what we want, but in the end, we get it. And at least half the time, the actual content isn’t even particularly harmful. But people nowadays always seem to have a ‘cover your back’ reflex. It’s a reflex which can often ruin my day.


Instead of age-banding, Hot Key put key rings on the back to indicate what’s inside.

As an avid reader all my life, age restrictions have somewhat been the bane of my existence in the literary world. Booksellers were constantly telling me that I couldn’t read ‘x’ paranormal book because it was ‘scary’ and it had 16+ plastered all over it. Instead they sold me, a nine year old at the time, ‘Class A’ by Robert Muchamore, a book full of sex, drugs and gritty action. I mean, seriously? I couldn’t read a fantasy book about faeries with crossbows even though it was all blatantly made up, but I could read a shockingly realistic book that changed how I saw the world forever (it was good, by the way)? Surely a book that represents some of the issues that are actually happening in the world today is more ‘scary’ than a book that that has elves fighting dragons on great mountainside battlefields (not that I don’t love that kind of stuff, for I am essentially a fantasy/paranormal girl at heart). This is every young reader’s really, really, annoying problem.

Books are mislabelled all the time, and it seriously impacts young peoples’ reading skills and awareness. Parents won’t buy books for their children which are labelled above their age, which just makes the children resort to secretly getting the books they want behind their parents’ backs (ever wondered where that massive Kindle bill came from? Yeah, sorry about that).

This is why Hot Key Books are so refreshing for a sixteen year old reader like me. No age restrictions means it is far more likely that I will pick up the book, which means far more readers for them. It’s as simple as that. I can read a book far younger/older than I should be and not have to worry about people telling me that I shouldn’t be reading it because no one can tell the difference.

It’s frustrating because buying books above/below your age really just shouldn’t even be a problem to begin with. It’s even been scientifically proven that everyone has their own mental reading age that has nothing to do with your actual age. Anybody remember that game Brain Train on the Nintendo? My reading age was at least twice my age whereas my Grandmothers was half of hers. Anybody remember Matilda? I’m pretty sure she read a whole library before she was even ten years old, and who knows what those books contained? People should have the freedom to read what they want and educate themselves. If kids they read something they find disturbing in a historically accurate book, so what? They’ve learnt something about a country’s past and how bad things really happen to good people. Even if it were a fantasy book, almost any situation can be stripped down to events that happen in real life. It can even potentially save your life, as you’re far more aware of your surroundings.

So parents, you may want to think twice before you restrict the books your children can read. You’re definitely not stopping them from reading them, as we are far more resourceful than you may think. Instead of deterring us from reading books you don’t think are “appropriate,” you are most definitely stoking the fires of our rebellious streaks. And at the end of the day, I’m sure you don’t want to deal with the consequences. Just think, when your kids sneak out late at night, because that’s what ‘x’ did in that book all about parents who age restricted books, you’ll be the one who has to go and pick them up.

What do YOU think about age restrictions on books? Leave your comments below or tweet us your opinions (@hotkeybooks).


The facts behind the fiction: our new iBook!

For a fiction publisher, we’re pretty obsessed with non-fiction. Especially when it comes to our historical fiction books. We could just let them stand on their own, as they are brilliant stories in their own right. You don’t need to know everything about the Spanish Civil War to enjoy A WORLD BETWEEN US, just like you don’t need to know anything about baby farming to fall in love with THE QUIETNESS. Our authors enable you to time travel without ever getting in the Tardis.


But we feel that part of our job as a publisher is to bring you great stories that don’t end with the last page. Once you start to pull back the layers of history which inspired these great stories, it’s hard to stop. Over the past few months, we’ve told you a bit about all the places we visited to gather information for our non-fiction companion to THE QUIETNESS. We felt compelled to create something special for this book, because the history is so fascinating, so local, and so recent. THE QUIETNESS is set at the end of the Victorian period, only 140 years ago. Now, sure, 140 years isn’t exactly yesterday, but it’s really a mere blip in the timeline of British history.

Throughout our research, we were constantly amazed at how people lived in London during this period. Alison says one of the reasons she is so drawn to write about this period is because of the extreme darkness that lies beneath the polished veneer of Victorian life. It was supposed to be a time of beauty and chastity and propriety, but in fact, it was overrun by ugliness, poverty, and oppression. And who wouldn’t want to learn more about that?

So we’re opening the door for you just a little further. After you’ve enjoyed THE QUIETNESS, you can continue your journey through Victorian London through maps, photos, and original police reports. We’ve collected video interviews from experts at The Foundling Museum and The Old Operating Theatre, and there are even excerpts from Martina Cole’s LADYKILLERS program about the notorious Amelia Dyer. It’s all yours to explore, on your iPad, for only £0.99.

If you’re already familiar with our iBook editions (yay you!) you might notice that this one is a bit different. Instead of sitting the content next to the text of the book, we’ve condensed it all into a 40-page iBook. You can think about it like the bonus disc in a special edition DVD. Here’s a little preview of what you’ll see:

To celebrate the release of this book, we’re offering the ebook on Amazon and Apple and the paperback from our web site for 1/2 price! Plus, if you email us ( your receipt, we’ll enter you into our drawing to win one of 10 free copies of THE HISTORY BEHIND THE QUIETNESS!

It’s only for the iPad right now, but one day we hope to make our enhanced content available on many more devices. If you do download it, please let us know what you think!

Advice from YOU: Character Names

Monday on Twitter, Movellas tweeted a fascinating question: how do you come up with names for your characters? We retweeted, and got a load of interesting responses. So in case you missed it (or you want to just file these away to have while you’re writing), here’s a run-down of the suggestions:

Maria Louise J (@MLJDK):Sometimes I look through pages with babynames. It’s a good thing, if your character is spanish for example. 😉

Sophiesimplson (@screamsSkl): I think of names I really like and how they fit their characters. e.g: a bad boy- bad boy Darren/zak. good boy-antony

Matt Hutchinson (@matthwrites): I use English place names as surnames if I get stuck. Obscure ones though – I haven’t called anyone Jeff Wigan (yet)

Lou Morgan (@LouMorgan): I hung onto the baby names book I bought when I was pregnant!

Jesselle Villegas (@Villegas): I browse school yearbooks for names. 🙂

Judith Heneghan (@JudithHeneghan): I borrow them from librarians – they always have interesting names and they wear handy name badges…

Kim Curran (@KimeCurran): I steal them off gravestones and dedications on park benches.

Non Pratt (@catnipbooks): check top names lists for the year my character was born relative to the one I imagine I’ll finish writing the book.

Mark Thornton (@mostlybooksmark): Think of first names and last names from your favourite books, then mash up first names and surnames…

 Cethan Leahy (@CethanLeahy): I usually steal the first name from books and films I like.

James Dawson (@_jamesdawson): Best tip I heard was names of British monarchs or their spouses – they never date.

Laure Eve (@LaureEve): Tend to use something that shouldn’t be a name as a name, i.e. objects, colours, feelings, places. Or I homage.

John Fulton (@johnkfulton): If you use Scrivener, it has a built-in character name generator.

Any other tips we should add to the list? Write them below in the comments!

Of wrestling trolls and faces of the moon…

Last year, our first Bologna, we had five books to sell on the international rights front – not bad for a launch list of nine. It was exhilarating, scary, sobering, surprising – and enormous fun.  And now here we were again, one year on, with our shelves stacked with real finished books and with a few prizes and rights sales too.

What happened in the interim?  Let’s take MAGGOT MOON.  We reckoned we had a bit of a winner there, but markets can be fickle (and the mood was pretty cautious) so you can never be quite sure.  That’s one of the thrills of the business – no two books work in the same way.  It’s a statement of the obvious, I know, but it makes life challenging and just a little bit dangerous.  The fair just reminds you of the amazing diversity of tastes (sometimes surprising, sometimes downright confounding), of ways of publishing, of national and cultural conventions.

MAGGOT MOON went down brilliantly at that first fair and has now sold in seventeen countries (it’s only the beginning) and has been published in three so far.  So, in seventeen places, the book has been similarly appreciated, loved and bought but just take a look at the jackets and differences immediately emerge.

Our edition

Our edition

The American edition

The American edition

American booksellers are colour-prejudiced – they abhor white jackets – so for the US edition our image has been cast on a cool shade of midnight blue.  In both the Italian and Spanish editions the title has changed (it is a bit of a difficult one) so it becomes THE THREE FACES OF THE MOON and STANDISH’S PLANET.  Take a look at the treatment – graphic and photographic – reflecting what the publisher feels will make it work in the local market.  Of course if you were to give the book to a handful of UK publishers you would get as many and various jackets but with translation you have the originating publisher’s vision first and foremost – to reject, accept or adapt.  I can’t wait to see the Chinese, Japanese and Thai versions…

The Italian edition

The Italian edition

The Spanish edition

The Spanish edition

Interestingly the book has sold in southern European countries, the far east too, but NOT in Scandinavia.  It’s just a matter of time but it’s still curious – is it because of the subject, the politics, the genre, the state of the market, the fact that there are more books being published by local authors at the moment?  Hmmmmm.  I’ll let you know.

When we’re offering for a book, we consider what we think we can sell in translation, and it’s tricky.  Say we have a book on wrestling trolls, for instance.  Trolls are from Scandinavia so that should be fertile territory, although one Norwegian editor told me that her publisher absolutely hated trolls.


And what about wrestling? It’s hugely popular in Japan, Korea, the USA and of course Turkey where oil wrestling (when the participants are covered in olive oil…) is a national sport, but in Japan they are not so fond of huge hairy trolls (Moomintrolls are quite another matter).  There again the combination of the two is perhaps more than the sum of its parts. Basically, there is no science in this, no easy formula that can be worked out with a bit of research on google.  All I can say is that the mood of the fair was definitely receptive to the idea of wrestling trolls.  Hooray!  It’s all about the magic of the writing and the spell it casts over the reader.  And that’s the thrill of a book fair.  There’s nothing quite like seeing that glimmer in an editor’s eye – the excitement of a new idea, a challenging concept… a wrestling troll.

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!

The End is Nigh (HURRAY!)

If you’ve been keeping an eye on our blog recently, you might have seen Naomi talking about her preparations for the Bologna Book Fair on her ‘Day in the Life’ vlog. Well, Bologna is upon us, and today Naomi will walk you through her not-so-mixed emotions about saying farewell to all that preparation…

Bologna Schedules!

Bologna Schedules!

Last night, for the first time in about five weeks, I left the office at a normal time (6pm) LIKE A NORMAL PERSON. I didn’t arrive home with my mind still whirring about emails I had/hadn’t sent, invites I had/hadn’t RSVP’d to, hotel rooms I knew were definitely booked because I had checked them three billion times but was still convinced something would go wrong about. No, I arrived home at midnight, slightly wobbly on rose wine, because BOLOGNA PREP IS DONE. IT IS DONE.

Well, it is done for this year. And London is just around the corner. And then it will be Frankfurt before you know it. BUT FOR NOW – no more book fair schedules!

This year was a bumper edition – we had a record number of people going, so this meant organising from scratch three people’s schedules, plus coordinating and remotely organising two other people’s.  On top of that, things were complicated further this year as the Bonnier International Sales Conference is this week, meaning I had to get everything ready two days earlier than normal. But whatever.

Flights and hotels were sorted in October, but not everyone is arriving at the same time, so this meant making sure the various different dates were booked for the right people, and me and the travel agent getting ourselves thoroughly muddled on more than one occasion. FYI people – it doesn’t help when your professional name differs from the one on your passport…

Then came the appointments. A few very organised people were emailing in December with requests, but January is when it kicks off in earnest. Over the past two and a half months I have sent emails to hundreds of people requesting appointments, almost none of which were met with ‘Sure! Sounds good.’ responses – so then you enter the negotiation phase, where you try to find something that will work. I find you quickly get to know and empathise with a person when there is a mutual burden of organising book fair schedules connecting you – I had to ring someone else’s assistant this year to try to rearrange something and she greeted me (somewhat wearily) like an old friend.

If you’ve started emailing people, this means (hopefully) that you’ve got your blank template ready. For those that don’t know, book fairs are intense – REALLY intense – so although it is tough for me to organise them, I get that it will be horrendous for someone going if their schedule isn’t 100% correct – hence why I put the kind of effort into organising them that I do. Everyone’s days are divided into half an hour slots (starting at 9, finishing at 6) and then that day will be filled to the brim with these half hour appointments. They don’t get a break for lunch, and although the appointments stop at 6,  they will then usually be attending at least one drinks reception (usually two) before heading off to a dinner somewhere. SO, if something is wrong (time/location of the appointment usually) it throws a massive spanner in the works.

This means you need a very, VERY organised system of keeping track of what times you’ve offered to what people, where you’ve said the meeting will take place, and then whether the person has confirmed that meeting (ALWAYS repeat back what you’ve arranged in your final email – then if something goes wrong you know you were right!). I personally like to use Excel, as it means I can colour-code the hell out of it. Italics means appointment has been suggested but not confirmed, red means it is confirmed, orange means the person whose schedule you are organising has requested you keep the time free for something, yellow means ‘extra-curricular’ (drinks, dinners, etc.) and green means ‘travel/free time’. Everyone I do the schedules for knows my system now, and although they find the Excel spread sheet useful to look at as an overview, they also prefer to have a more traditional day-by-day breakdown on a Word document. This means re-typing out everything, but actually this is a good time to double-check all the appointments against your original emails – meaning really nothing should be getting through the net.

However, for all my complaining about them, there is a kind of manic pleasure to be taken in watching a book fair schedule grow from an empty Excel spread sheet into the packs I was distributing yesterday: brightly coloured manila folders with taxi details, flight details, hotel details, further taxi details, book fair passes (x2; one for the weekend and one for the week) the full Word breakdown of the schedule plus the overview and day-by-day Excel one, THEN maps for each of their personal evening schedules, with invitations attached. Plus these things organised into daily mini-folders, with copies of everything too, natch. Let’s just say this kind of thing really brings out the Monica in me.

So, it is with not much regret that I say – God’s speed, mighty Bologna schedules. Have a great fair and see lots of interesting books.

Please don’t be wrong.

Love reading? Then love comics!

TomFicklingheadshot.jpgToday’s guest blogger Tom Fickling, writes screenplays (unsuccessfully) and also the comic strip SIMON SWIFT for The Phoenix comic (moderately successfully) while also serving as its Commercial Director (success to be decided).

Everyone knows how important it is to instill a love of reading in children. Apparently the key is always to keep the experience an enjoyable one. Easy to say, especially when enjoyable means different things to different people.

For me it meant comics. When I was about ten years old, my dad tried to interest me in Richard Adams’ Watership Down. But I didn’t want to read about rabbits in Watership Down. I wanted to read The Trigan Empire, an amazing comic about the rise and fall of a fictional race of eight-foot-tall humanoids from another planet. It was a detailed, Roman-inspired history from another world. With the rise and fall of dynasties, inter family feuds, treachery, jealously, love and everything in between. It was epic! But that wasn’t all it had going for it.


You see, while Watership Down had a few thinly scattered black and white drawings, The Trigan Empire was packed with incredibly detailed and colourful artwork that transported me from my boring room straight into outer space. In short, I loved reading it…and re-reading it, over and over again.

To my father’s credit, he never stopped me reading The Trigan Empire, in fact, he encouraged it, and left plenty of other visually-rich comics lying around for me to devour. He didn’t nag me about Watership Down – (though he did about Lord of The Rings, thanks Dad), as I think he was just happy I was reading.

By the time I did read Watership Down, I was more or less grown-up and of course I loved it. And I’m sure that my ten-year-old self would have loved it too. But when I finally read it, I came to it freely – because by that time I LOVED reading and wanted to read as much as I could.

I was lucky. I’d been allowed to find reading myself and in my own way (via a damn good comic of course). And in fact the rise and fall of the Trigan’s probably also sparked my love of history, which is what I ended up studying at university. Take that Watership Down!

I don’t think my experience was unusual. In fact, many acclaimed authors of children’s literature today cite the debt they owe to comics in fostering their imagination and love of reading. All forms of story telling have the capacity to evoke wonder and delight and stories told in comic form are no different. Sometimes they can be even more powerful.

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And that’s what we’re trying to champion with The Phoenix. Because we strongly believe that children need as wide a reading choice as possible. Books, newspapers, digital text, comics…the richer the mix the better.  We want to add to it. After all, research shows time and again that the more children read, the more children read!


The Phoenix is an awesome weekly story comic. You can subscribe to The Phoenix at Find it most branches of Waitrose or get it on the ipad here