Publishing Science Fiction & Fantasy: Ask an Award-Winning Editor

15:00 EST - Mar 31, 2021

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Jonathan Oliver

Jonathan Oliver is an award-winning editor with a vast wealth of industry experience, having established Abaddon Books and been the lead commissioning editor for Solaris. He is currently a freelance editor specializing in genre fiction and is also the author of the collection The Language of Beasts (Black Shuck Books).

To work with Jon on your next book, head to his Reedsy profile and send him a request. His story collection, The Language of Beasts, is available from Black Shuck.

A bit about Jon

Yeah, so I've been in publishing now 20 something years, which is a bit alarming. I started in academic publishing, way back in 2001, for a small academic publisher called Gordon & Breach, who were then bought by a big academic publisher called Taylor & Francis, which is where I also met my wife. After five years of publishing exciting economic journals, I decided I really wanted to move on, and I've always been a science fiction reader, always been a fan, I write my own stuff as well. And I was perusing the Guardian job section when I saw an advert for a new editor wanted for a new line of high action/adventure science fiction books, and I applied for a company in Oxfordshire, which is Rebellion. And together with Rebellion, I established their first fiction imprint, Abaddon Books.

Rebellion are also the publisher of 2000 AD, home of Judge Dredd, amongst many other characters, so I was also a graphic novels editor for a while. But I was with Rebellion for 13 years, and there we established Abaddon books, which was a line of shared-world science fiction, fantasy, and horror adventure novels. It was a work-for-hire model, so it was quite unusual, but then in 2009 we bought Solaris from Games Workshop, which was a more traditional publishing body in that it was all author-owned, and we inherited such great authors as James Lovegrove, Gail Z. Martin, and so I was in charge of doing those two lists, overseeing those two lists, which it was a small team, so we had to employ more people.

So I was commissioning books for Abaddon and Solaris for about 13 years. Extensive experience in every element of the editing process. As we're a small team, we were doing it all ourselves, bar writing the books, obviously, and drawing the covers. But we were pretty involved.

Traditional Publishing

So in terms of traditional publishing, in terms of, if you're looking to get your foot in the door of a publisher of hard copy books, of paperbacks and hardbacks, and you'd like to go that route, your best first bet is to get an agent. Most fiction publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, by which I mean you can't just submit to them. They have a process. So solicited manuscripts are those that come through an agent.

Getting an agent

Now, finding an agent can be tricky, and it's important to find one that works for you. It's important to remember when you're finding an agent that you employ them, and it's got to be a good relationship. So if something's not working for you when you find an agent, you should feel empowered to suggest changes or change your agent.

There are various genre agents out there, you can Google them and you'll see lists up there. [including Reedsy’s own directory — ed.] 

Agents, like publishers, have huge piles of reading to do, so it can take a time to get a good agent. But one good way of going about it would be to identify a writer you admire, whose work you think is a good fit with yours? Find out who their agent is, then see if that agent is accepting submissions now. The best way to do that is to go to their website where they'll have details about how to submit to an agent.

It's important when you submit to an agent to follow their submission process, because they will reject your manuscript, most likely, if it doesn't come up to the standard they are expecting it to arrive in. The same with publishers. 

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Open door submissions

There are some publishers that do open-door submissions, and we're lucky in genre that there are several who do that. They tend to be medium-sized indie publishers, so Angry Robot has an open door submission period sometimes. The last time I checked, it was about once every one or two years. 

Rebellion, who I used to work for, occasionally have calls for open submission, so it's worth checking out the publishers' websites for the publishers you admire or where you think your book will be a good fit.

If you've got a book and you want to find a home for it, have a think about where your sort of book fits — where books that you admire of the same kind of type fit in. 

Look at the publishers' websites, do some digging into what their submissions policy is. Look at genre agents online, see if you can find a good one who's open to submissions, and that would be the way to get it into the traditional path of publishing.

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Do publishers tend to specialize in particular subgenres?

Well, genre publishers tend to be fairly wide in what they publish, and there are some who will be specifically looking for a specific thing, and Abaddon books would be a good example of that when I was working there, so we had a zombie series, we had a steampunk series, we had a post-apocalypse series, so it was quite clear what we were looking for.

Now, with Solaris, it's much broader. I was looking for good genre fiction, and as a commissioning editor it's like, "Well, what works for you?" The quick answer is, "I'll know it when I see it." 

Obviously, I've got my personal tastes, and I have a commercial sensibility about when I think a book may succeed in the market, but often editors are looking to be surprised and delighted by fiction. 

When you find a good book, a manuscript you really like, it should be a sense of, within a few pages you're like, "All right, this author knows exactly what they're doing," and you can just relax and read it like you would a book for enjoyment, which is what the reader is going to do at the other end. So that's one way to look at it.


You tend not to get the specific category on the back of a book. I've got some science fiction novels here. Here's one, it's by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time — Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning book. It's fabulous. And on the back of it, it doesn't even say science fiction, it says fiction. Which is interesting, but has space on the front cover, so you can tell it's science fiction. 

So when we put a category on the back of a book in Solaris, we tended not to break it down. We don't want to make it too prescriptive. You want people to come to the book as wide as possible. So something like Europe at Dawn, one of our books from Solaris days, by the excellent Dave Hutchinson, that had the symbol on it, science fiction on the back.

In bookstores, there aren't niche categories that are such good sellers that they become sections in their own right. So for example, there was a period where steampunk was doing really well, but we didn't really see in the bookshops that there was a specific steampunk section.

But as a reader, you know what sort of stuff you like, and if you like a certain type of thing, it's generally true that some publishers will do it more than others. So Baen Books, for example, are known as a publisher of sort of high-action military SF, military fantasy, they've got a certain look and a feel. So you'll find instinctively as a writer where your sort of tribe is, and who seems to be publishing your sort of thing.

How much marketing help would a publisher give?

It very much varies. Now, a lot of publishers, and most publishers, probably, will expect you to be engaged. And that's not to say they're going to make sure you're ready to be on TV or ready to go on an international tour, mostly because that's not going to happen, because most authors don't get that. 

In terms of marketing, it can be difficult, because the publishers have already spent their money, so they've paid your advance, which they need to earn back for that book to make them money, so they have to get over that hurdle. So they could spend tens of thousands at the front end of a book, but if they don't get that back, if that book doesn't earn back the money, that author is possibly not going to be with that publisher for a great deal, many books.

Established authors can be very visible, so like George R.R. Martin, you'll see posters of his new book on the Underground. How many new fantasy authors do you see posters of for books on the Underground or the Metro, wherever? Not many is the answer. 

For publishers, the best sort of marketing publishers like is cheap or free, is the quick answer to that. The thing is with marketing, and I speak from experiences, you can spend thousands on marketing, and sometimes it doesn't work. And if that's the case, that's not good news for anybody.

But, if you're savvy with marketing, you don't need to spend money. A good publisher will let you know what to expect and what sort of thing they expect. Publishers often, when they sign you up, send a kind of detail pack about the sort of things they expect from the author, and the sort of things the author can do. 

Publishers will certainly know which market they're trying to reach, and they will know the reviewers and bloggers and people they're trying to reach. They will certainly be interested in hearing from you about if you know any book reviewers, bloggers, et cetera, that you want to target. So it should be a symbiotic relationship between publisher and author.

Naturally, we'd all like to think that if we write a stunning book, a big publisher like Hachette will buy it, and put you on TV. There'll be newspaper reviews everywhere. But that simply doesn't work. I published a book that, we had the author on ABC in America, the author was doing bookshop tours — then when we got the final figures, and they just weren't great. And we did everything right.

Publisher sales meetings

So the bit you don't see as a reader, and a big that you probably don't see as a writer is the part that when we sell books into the market. We go to these well exciting things called sales meetings, they're super exciting. [The sarcasm is lost in the transcript — ed.]

They are usually at the distributors of said publisher's books, and they gather together the book buyers for every single region and they hand out a one-sheet on the book that tells them what the book is, a bit of why they should be excited about it, sort of book it's like, the sort of markets it will appeal to. The publisher will basically pitch them your book.

But bear in mind, those booksellers have spent all day in meetings with all the other publishers in the country, doing exactly the same thing. They're going through hundreds of books in that one day to figure out how they can sell them out to the market. So that can be an eye-opening process to be in. 

I remember selling in a book which I absolutely adore, still one of the favorite books I've published, and we did, I said to our team, "This is a quirky, weird book set in a haunted hotel that's sort of about growing up, and it's sort of about families, and it is scary and creepy, but it's so heartwarming and gorgeous, we need something quirky for this cover. 

So, because I worked for a comic publisher, I chose a comic artist for the cover, and I thought, "This is one of the best covers we have ever seen." 

And then we sat in the sales meeting and one of the first things the book rep said was, "What's this?" 

"This is weird, yes, that's it, it's weird and different." 

"No, don't like that." Sometimes you can misjudge a situation.

So a publisher will have a sales rep and, sometimes, the bigger ones will have a marketing department. Good publishers will talk to you about all this once they've accepted your manuscript.


Self-publishing is becoming more and more a phenomenon. Back when I started in publishing, back in the olden days, print on demand and self-publishing wasn't quite what it is now. Print on demand books, you could tell they were print on demand. They generally had the same harsh white paper stock, they felt like books that were print on demand, if that makes sense.

Now, with facilities like Lightning Source and Milton Keynes, and also Lightning Source have global facilities, you can produce a good-looking book yourself if you know what you're doing, and you have good design sensibilities and the sensibilities of how to put a book together. You can make it yourself, you have to sell it yourself, obviously, but the possibilities for self-publishing are so much bigger now. 

And obviously, with Amazon, there's been a huge boom in self-publishing, and some people have done very successfully out of it. Bear in mind, there are a lot of self-published authors out there, so you really have to, like you said, you have to dig down into more who you're aiming for and perhaps where your niche is, and really market to that readership. You have to be very savvy as a self-publisher because you are having to do everything yourself.

[Editor’s note: at this point, we started fielding questions from viewers]

Are word counts important to agents and commissioning editors?

They are and they aren't, so that's a really good answer.

No, listen, let's take fantasy as an example. Now, we know that fantasy, they tend to be bigger books. You can see on the shelves that fantasy books tend to be quite large, so the king of large fantasy books, apart from George R.R. Martin, obviously, is Steve Erikson, who I'm a big fan of, they're fairly thick tomes. I think they average about 1000 pages each, yeah. 

So fantasy, because of its often-epic nature, has scope for telling big, long stories. So you tend to find publishers publishing quite big fantasy novels. That's not to say you don't get shorter fantasy books, for example, the excellent R.J. Barker's Assassins series. I think they're probably around 95,000 words or so, whereas someone like Steven Erikson, would have about 250,000 words.

I work on fantasy manuscripts regularly, the word counts I'm seeing are between, I'd say, about 130,000 up to 250,000

In terms of science fiction, you can get away with shorter, or you can have quite big science fiction books, like Adrian's Children of Time. You have slightly slimmer tomes, like Lavie Tidhar's Unholy Land. I'd say, on average, a science fiction novel when I was working at Solaris would be between 80,000 and maybe 120,000 words.

Horror can be quite short. You tend to see quite short, punchy horror novels. If you think of a novel, Andrew Michael Hurley's novels, like The Loney, and Starve Acre, which I think must only be about 60,000 words. That's a new horror novel that's come out in the last year or so. 

So it does vary. Look at publishers and what they publish. I think if you are sending out a really big manuscript, it's absolutely essential you get it formatted correctly and as finished and polished as you possibly can. If a commissioning editor has a huge, 250,000 word manuscript on their desk, they're going to hope that they're gripped within the first 20 pages. If not, it's likely going to be passed up.

What are your pet peeves when reading new manuscripts? 

I suppose one of the things is if it's formatted badly. If everything, say, runs on as a big block of text, and the author hasn't thought, "Oh, I should indent new paragraphs." 

I mean, just look inside a book. You're all readers — look how books are made, and look at how language is used, you can usually tell. Solaris's house style, so to speak, would be the first paragraph of a new section would be left-aligned, subsequent paragraphs would be indented.

So it's good when a manuscript is formatted well. I mean, I say pet peeve, I mean, my job is I work with new authors quite a lot, so I don't mind saying to new authors, "This is how you should do it, for future reference," and help them out. But yeah, make sure it looks the part before you send it off.

Any advice on how to start a book (to get your attention as an editor)?

I don't mind. I mean, there are people who say, "Oh, you should never use a prologue." I don't think there are hard and fast rules of writing. I mean, people say all sorts of things, like you should avoid dreams, and all sorts of strange things. I'll be put off, I guess, sometimes, by cliché and stereotypes, but then again you can have novels that are quite traditional and quite old school stories that are jolly good fun. So it depends on how well they're written.

When I start reading any book for pleasure, I want to be surprised and engaged. So I suppose stuff that puts me off is maybe stuff I've seen like 100 times before. I'm 43 now, so I've read quite a lot of books, and I've read science fiction professionally for almost half my life, so I think I've seen quite a lot. So yeah, avoiding cliché and things like that can be important, but as I say, write with passion, write well, and engage me in your story.

You need to engage with the characters, even if those characters are horrible, and the way you're engaging with those characters, like, "These people are awful, I hate them." That's not necessarily a bad thing. 


Look at Game of Thrones: there are virtually no sympathetic characters in that. In fact, they had to make Tyrion slightly more sympathetic in the series compared to the books, because he does some pretty awful things.


But make your characters engaging, make them real people. If characters just walk around spouting cliches, it can get a bit tired. Because you've seen that sort of stuff before. Make them believable, well-rounded people.


Querying: Comp titles

So a comparable title. So that's exactly what's going to be on those one-sheets in front of a book buyer at a sales meeting. It's, "we think this book will work because it's a bit like these other books." 

Now, many times during meetings where we'd be pitching fantasy books, or I'd see other publishers doing, "This is the next Game of Thrones." I mean, it might be, it might not be. But Game of Thrones is a shorthand for, "we're aiming high in terms of sales and profile. We think this guy could be the next person." 

Comp titles are used to try and see how a book fits into the current market. So when I send out book reports, when I do development edits or manuscript assessments, I include comparable titles to give the author an idea of where their book stands at the moment.

I also try to use older comparable titles and more recent ones. So if your book strikes me a bit like Ursula Le Guin, I might say, "It's a bit like the Wizard of Earthsea, and here are some books being published now that it could also be a bit like." So you get a sense of the breadth of where it fits.

Trends and predictions in genre fiction

I don't know whether it's a trend, as such, but it's good that science fiction is opening up to a wider audience, looking at more diverse voices, and writers of different nationalities, it's becoming a more diverse field, which is great. We're seeing that definitely at Solaris, and it was something I looked for. 

In terms of trends, it's difficult to predict a trend. I mean, you'll notice that when a solid trend does get going, publishers tend to jump on it quite quickly. So, for example, when Twilight came out, there were a lot of Twilight-esque YA books out there. The problem with trends is you can play them but you can't predict when they're going to finish. Most publishers are commissioning books one to two years in advance, so they're taking a punt on what will be desirable in the future.

In science fiction, I’d say that ‘space’ tends to be quite big still, which is good. The reinvigorated interest in Mars — with travel within our solar system seems more and more possible every year — means you see authors like Kim Stanley Robinson with Red Moon and Red Mars, looking at Mars colonization and the politics of that. So Hard SF within our solar system seems to still be a thing, and it's an interesting area.

Space opera is pretty solid in science fiction. It has been forever, really. 

Fantasy deals with tropes and stereotypes and traditions, so it'll be quite hard to see where fantasy would go beyond a medieval setting. 

There's been a big discussion about cultural appropriation in genre fiction — so it’s good in fantasy that we're seeing authors who are of different cultures bringing those elements into a fantastical setting. Zen Cho, for example, is a good writer to follow. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia writes great horror novels and fantasy about Mexico. 

However, it’s a fool’s game, trying to predict a trend — and you could put a lot of money into trying to do that and lose it really quickly.

Question: I keep hearing that the YA fantasy market is glutted. Is it likely we can break in?

From experience, it's a difficult market to break into. We at Solaris, we started to do Young Adult. We heard this buzz around book fairs saying, "YA's the next big thing! YA's the next big thing!"

And whenever anybody says, "This thing is the next big thing," my sense — as a commercial publisher — was to approach it cautiously, rather than buying in and publishing 24 books and spend tens of thousands of pounds setting up a YA list. Which some people did, and it turned out not to be the next big thing. It's just hard to get into from the outside.

But I am seeing a lot of good fantasy YA recently, stuff that deals with folklore and interesting things like that. I've seen a couple of novels that are set in our world, but then a fantasy world starts to bleed in which leaves you with a mix of real folklore and fantastical folklore — which I'm quite a sucker for: well-explored folklore in a fantasy setting.

It is tricky. You know as a writer what you're passionate about, and if you feel passionate about it, don't let the market put you off. Because if you love your book and you want your book to succeed, why not have a go?

Question: I’m writing a series. Should I query the first book or the whole thing?

I would make sure that at least one exists already before you start querying, so I'd get one of them finished — preferably the first one — and get it up to the best standard you can. 

Yes, there are a lot of genre books around in a series. The thing is that two-to-three book deals are expensive for all but the biggest publisher. So if they’re going to spend a lot of money and immediately buy three books, they want to know they're going to make their money back. 

Some publishers are like, "I like the idea of this series, but let's publish the first one, option the next two," which means they may do it, they'll give you some money for it, and they'll say, "We want to do it. If the winds of fate flow our way, we will do these next two books." But depending on the sales of the first book ...

In my experience, at Solaris, we started with a science fiction series called the Fractured Europe series, by Dave Hutchinson, which is set in a near-future Europe that has fractured into lots of micro-states. Imagine that! And it also involved a parallel world. We got the first novel, and it's brilliant, because Dave Hutchinson's a brilliant writer, and then Brexit started becoming a thing, and it's like, "Wow, this book is actually really relevant and it's actually selling quite a lot! 

Then Dave said, "Oh, we've got an idea for another one." 

"Yes, good, let's do another one!" That ended up as four books, just a fantastically brilliant series. We didn't plan for that to immediately be four books, we played the game well as it was happening. 

Something like Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire series, I got super excited the first time I read it, because I was like, "This is just space opera, and it's space opera with a love of hard maths," but I'm dense when it comes to maths, but I could understand it, and it was gorgeous, and it has genderfluid characters, and it's got huge space battles, and it's good fun. And I said to Yoon's agent, "This is great, we'd really like to have this please." Yoon's agent said, "Oh, it's planned as a trilogy, and Yoon's written book two, so," I said, "Yes, send me book two, I'll have a look at book two." Read it. Brilliant, obviously. So I said to the boss, "We need to buy these three books, we need to commit to these because they're so good we want them first, trust me."

And as a commissioning editor, you have to convince the powers that be that it's worth doing. They saw my enthusiasm for the book, they trusted me, and they said, "Yes, let's buy all three." And it went really well. We did three books, Machineries of Empire, plus a book of Hexarchate stories. And I believe Yoon's new series came out fairly recently, I've proofed it, and it's brilliant again, because it's Yoon. So those are two examples of how it works.

You do occasionally hear of multiple book series being signed up. It's rare for new writers, for new names. Alastair Reynolds got a big, million pound, multi-book deal about, I want to say 15 years ago, I might be wrong about that. That's rare.

Obviously, there are a lot of series in genre fiction — a lot of people who write complex worlds and really fall in love with their worlds want to keep telling those stories. So it's worth telling an agent when you're pitching a book, "Here are my ideas," without going into too much depth. Because the agent wants to read the first book and really love it, they don't necessarily want to read the next hundred years of history of the series. Give them some idea of what they can expect, to see if it does have legs and if the first book sells really well, what they can play with.

[There’s a chance that you’ll never get to publish the other books if the first one doesn’t do well?]

I have published a fantasy series I really, really believed in. I still believe in it, they’re fantastic books. And it just did middling sales from the beginning, and we had to wrap it up by, I think, book three. But both I and the author were like, "If there's anything that has seven book potential, this is it. But I'm not going to pay you for seven books right now, because we don't have the money.”

But I did say to the author, after he delivered the first one, "I want something epic, I want something enduring," like Malazan, like the Erikson novels.

The reason that the Erikson and Esslemont series work so well is they've got such consistency of vision, and they're so in control of their world. It doesn't feel like you get to book four and you think, "Ah, they don't know what they're doing." You think they know at least the next 15 books by that point.

Self-publishing a series

[I think that's where self-publishing sometimes comes into its own. Reedsy sees a lot of genre authors, and the ones who thrive and actually can make a living are the ones who write a series and can do it in fairly quick succession.]

I just edited a fantasy trilogy series recently, they were all quite short, they're about 80,000 words. I loved it, it was so much fun. And he was a self-published author, I'm like, "This is perfect for that." If you know what you're doing as a self-published author, if you're putting out regular books in a series that are consistently good, it can really work.

When I was working at Rebellion, there was one self-published author duo we approached, because our boss really liked the zombie novels they were producing. W took a look at them and thought, "Yeah, these are good, they’ve got legs," and we said to them, "Come join us, we'll give you money and we'll publish them traditionally," and they said, "Actually, we can make this money ourselves and still own everything, so we'll do that." 

We're like, "Oh, fair enough."

Question: What do you think of ebooks versus hard copy? 

You do, now, get more e-first publishers, and some of the bigger publishers are starting e-first imprints, which I think is a good thing. It allows for more flexibility, it allows for more risk-taking with the sort of stories you're publishing. 

I do occasional freelance for an e-first publisher. They do paperbacks on demand, and that can be a really good route for small publishers because some people want the book. For example, some people buy an ebook and say, "Oh, that was so good I now want a hard copy for my shelf." There are those customers out there.

I, personally, for pleasure, read the paper books, because I love physical copies. I buy books all the time, which is a ridiculous habit because we've got finite space here. But my wife has an e-reader, I've got many friends who have e-readers, and electronic books, they're a significant part of the market.

I understand that some authors, when they're getting their book out, will want to see a hard copy. Obviously, it's nice to see that book on the shelf. But e-first is a potential route, a potentially good route, and it can lead to a really wide audience. 

If an e-first publisher knows their audience and knows and has that good marketing dialogue with you as an author and seems to know what they're doing, and you trust them, there's no reason not to go that route.

I speak from experience that warehousing can be cripplingly expensive, cripplingly expensive. We didn't do ebooks at first, because I started before they were a significant thing. 

When the e-revolution started, the music industry put its fingers in its ears and pretended it wasn't going to happen, and people lost a lot of money very quickly. So when ebooks came along, publishers were like, "Maybe this is a thing we should keep an eye on and take seriously and see how it goes."

Question: Can an American writer submit a manuscript to a UK publisher? 

Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Solaris continue, I think, to publish both American and UK authors, and we were publishing on both sides of the pond. We had a distributor in America and a distributor in the UK, and most, I think ... I mean, it depends. With Solaris, we were doing it on both sides of the pond ourselves. You will get bigger, like Hachette, big publishers here in the UK who will buy an edition for the UK market, and another publisher will buy an edition for the US market.

But yes, there's no reason that a US writer can't submit to a UK market, and I'd often get submissions from American agents. In fact, I think most of my submissions at Solaris were from US agents.

Question: Should an author be thinking about merchandising, movie, and TV rights?

When you sell a book, it's definitely worth thinking about those sorts of things. 

However, it's not worth saying to an agent: "Here's Space Novel. I'm thinking five years' time, we’ll have Space Novel: The Movie, Space Novel: The Theme Park, Space Novel novelty pants, etc." 

Of course, an agent will be very interested in controlling your rights for you or helping you control your rights. And the more rights you can sell, the more money you could make.

Now, the big UK publishers will be interested in buying the publishing rights — because they're a publisher — and they might want to buy your movie rights, too. Most agents are going to say you want to keep all the subsidiary rights yourself, and that's pretty good advice, on the whole. Because if a company then comes and says, "We loved Space Novel, we want to make Space Novel: The movie," they can come to your agent and your agent can negotiate for you, and you can get a bigger bite of the pie [than you would if you sold it to the publisher].

If you've sold the rights to a publisher, you'll likely have sold them for a percentage, that's fairly standard for them, so you will only get that standard percentage of returns on the movie.

This is so long as it's not a work-for-hire model, where you may be hired to write a piece, and that piece will be sold entirely to the publisher. They'll buy the copyright on the piece — not only the physical book but the whole manuscript and they can do what they like with it. They can make it into video games and tee shirts and what have you. There aren’t a lot of work-for-hire publishers in the UK, currently. 

But yeah, secondary rights are well worth considering when you get to that stage. But I wouldn't start out thinking, "This is going to be a great movie and I'm going to tell the agent and publisher exactly why it's going to be a great movie." Have it in the back of your mind for sure, and if it comes up, then you've got something to go with. But the agent's going to be interested in the novel, first and foremost.

Question: What are the chances of an already self-published series being picked up by a traditional publisher?

It happens. I was thinking of this just 10 minutes before we came on air, actually. So Hugh Howey, who wrote Wool. It was self-published originally — indie published — and it was picked up by a trad publisher and became a very big thing. E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey was self-published Twilight fanfiction originally. So it can happen.

If you're going to go the self-publishing route, make sure you present your book well. If you put it out in the nicest and most professional-looking way you can, market it well yourself: all those things are more likely to make you be picked up by a traditional publisher.

Question: Can an author still be relevant if they're not present on social media?

Absolutely. Again, yeah, I've seen this discussion on Twitter this very day. Yes. When I was commissioning books, I commissioned them because I was excited in the story and I believed in the story and the writing first and foremost. Then we figured out how to make the marketing happen. 

Some authors are really good on social media, some authors are not so good on social media, and that's fine. It shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. And absolutely, I've worked with authors who do not touch the socials — and that's fine.

Question: How do you know when your book is done or over-edited?

How do you know when your book is done? I mean, it's that thing about pieces of art, you don't finish them, you just walk away from them, don't you?

 It's hard, and yeah, definitely, and I understand that as a writer. I've sent stuff out and then thought, "Oh, God, I should've tweaked that just before." And you could keep doing that — you could keep going that as a writer. 

When is a book over-edited? That's an interesting question, and that's one you have to bring up with your editor. When I send out edits, they are all tracked — so they are suggestions. I mean, they're very informed and professional suggestions (and they're probably right) but they are suggestions.

At the end of the day, as long as you've both got something you can agree on, that's fine. It's not my name on the front cover of the book.

Question: Is there a minimum age for authors that publishers are willing to accept?

I don't think so, really. From my Solaris days, some of our writers were in their 20s. Probably not the majority. If you've got a good book and you've done something well, age should be a boundary. 

I mean, there are obviously legal issues, whether you are under the guardianship of your parents and you're sending things to publishers because there'll be documents to sign and things like that. But honestly, it's not the first thing I think of when I'm looking at a manuscript.

Question: How has the growth of audiobooks changed the market?

Hugely. It's been very significant. It took a while but now that it’s become a significant chunk of the market, most publishers will now be looking at acquiring audio rights. 

I know when I left Solaris that was a pretty standard thing to pick up the audio rights. There are various audio publishers. It isn't just Audible, believe it or not. But Audible is the biggest game in town so often, it's the path of least resistance for publishers. It's not the most lucrative path for publishers, I must say. 

But yeah, audiobooks are huge, and they're a big market. They make books more accessible, which is fantastic, and I've got friends and family who listen to books rather than read them. I don't, because I'm old and I read paper.

Question: I never judge a book by its cover, but how much does a cover help sales?

A good cover is pretty much essential, and this especially pertains to self-published authors. I would encourage you to either spend money on the book cover and get a professional designer — or really think about the design of the book. 

We've all seen those websites where it's like, "Here are the top 20 worst fantasy covers." You often see the odd self-published thing in there. But I'm working with self-published and indie authors all the time who are really thinking about design — and there are some just beautiful covers out there. Malcolm [the question-asker] chose our old head of design at Rebellion to do his cover, and it's fantastic, and he did really well there. So yeah. 

You say you don't judge a book by its cover, you bloody do!

Question: How much input do authors have in the publishing process? 

I like to think that they had a lot of input when I was at Solaris, and I'm sure they probably still do. Publishers will usually keep in contact with the author at every stage, and let them know what's going on. 

In terms of cover design, I always got input from the author first and foremost. There were occasions where my instinct about the cover had to be... not imposed, that sounds terrible — but I had to explain the way we were going, based on what I felt was commercial and from what our distributors said. This wasn’t often. Most of the time authors were very happy with their covers, and we had, and they still do have a fantastic design team at Solaris, so that really helps. 

But yeah, you should find that your journey is well communicated and that if you are not certain about anything, you should certainly not be afraid to ask questions.

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