Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Researching art at the Royal Academy of Arts

By Sandra Danby

Researching and writing Connectedness, my second novel, gave me the excuse to indulge in art. I am a self-taught art lover. I am a ‘friend’ and frequent visitor of museums and galleries in London and Málaga, I always buy the shiny exhibition book and often visit the same show multiple times on my own and with a variety of friends. So it seemed natural to me to choose the Royal Academy of Arts on London’s Piccadilly as one of my settings for Connectedness.

The RA’s initial presence in the book was purely as a location. It is a beautiful building, located since its inception 250 years ago in Burlington House and recently renovated. At the beginning of the book, my lead character artist Justine Tree, receives a nomination to become an Academician.

With founding members in 1768 including Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, I wanted to convey the institution’s weight of history and the honour of this offer. Then as my plotting became more intricate the nomination took one another role, I needed to introduce a ‘risk’ for Justine; something she values but may lose through her actions.

She receives her nomination at a time of great professional success, when her newest series is a sell out but her personal life is in turmoil. Her mother has just died, her best friend is ill. Not the best time, perhaps, to decide to search for the lost daughter she gave up for adoption when she was an art student.

The RA’s invitation to become an Academician is dependent on the voting of members, receiving the letter is not a certainty of acceptance. And so as Justine fears the shame of her ‘abandoned baby’ story being unveiled in the press, she risks losing her nomination and being exposed as an artist who lied – all her career she has presented herself as true to her emotions, an artist who revels in her childless state and who wears her heart on her sleeve. Effectively she has lied to everyone in every piece of art she has created.

To make this ‘risk’ work fully, I read up on the history of the RA, visited the beautiful private Academician’s Room and bombarded the patient Press Office with questions such as ‘what does an artist’s medal look like?’ and ‘how does the voting work?’

I am also indebted to the writings of Tracey Emin who became an RA in 2007. She referred to it famously as joining ‘the RA-RA club’. Emin’s openness in her memoirs and newspaper columns gave me fertile material with which to create Justine Tree’s career. Also useful were the quarterly issues of the RA Magazine which published interviews with artists and photographs of their studios.

So, back to the ‘risk’ element which was so essential to maintaining tension and keeping the reader reading. I wanted to keep the viewpoints simple, concentrating on Justine as an art student and today, and with my identity detective Rose Haldane who Justine hires to find her child. But in order for the ‘risk’ strategy to work, I realized I must add a new viewpoint to show what was going on behind closed doors.

Enter fellow artist and new RA, James Watercliff. Through his eyes we see a gossipy lunch meeting at the RA where it is shown Justine’s nomination is not a sure thing.

The RA is not the only museum shown in Connectedness – scenes also take place at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert Museum – but the RA is central to the plot. So when Justine’s friend Darya disappears, she is last seen heading in the direction of the RA to see Jeff Koons’s living flower ‘Puppy’ on display in the courtyard.

About Connectedness


Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face.

Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?

This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.

A family mystery for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Lucinda Riley, Tracy Rees and Rachel Hore

About the Identity Detective series

Rose Haldane reunites the people lost through adoption. The stories you don’t see on television shows. The difficult cases. The people who cannot be found, who are thought lost forever. Each book in the Identity Detective series considers the viewpoint of one person trapped in this horrible dilemma. In the first book of the series, Ignoring Gravity, it is Rose’s experience we follow as an adult discovering she was adopted as a baby. Connectedness is the story of a birth mother and her longing to see her baby again. Sweet Joy, the third novel, will tell the story of a baby abandoned during The Blitz.

An extract from Connectedness


London, September 2009

The retired headmistress knew before she opened the front door that a posy of carnations would be lying on the doorstep beside the morning’s milk bottle. It happened on this day, every year. September 12. And every year she did the same thing: she untied the narrow ribbon, eased the stems loose and arranged the frilled red flowers in her unglazed biscuit-ware jug. Then she placed the jug on the front windowsill where they would be visible from the street. Her bones ached more now as she bent to pick them up off the step than the first year the flowers arrived. She had an idea why the carnations appeared and now regretted never asking about them. Next year, someone else would find the flowers on the doorstep. In a week’s time she would be living in a one-bedroom annexe at her son’s house in a Hampshire village. She walked slowly back to her armchair beside the electric fire intending to tackle The Times crossword but hesitated, wondering if the person who sent the flowers would ever be at peace.


Yorkshire, May 2010

The clouds hurried from left to right, moved by a distant wind that did not touch her cheek. It felt unusually still for May. As if the weather was waiting for the day to begin, just as she was. She had given up trying to sleep at three o’clock, pulled on some clothes and let herself out of the front door. Despite the dark, she knew exactly the location of the footpath, the edge of the cliffs; could walk it with her eyes closed. Justine lay on the ground and looked up, feeling like a piece of grit in the immensity of the world. Time seemed both still and marching on. The dark grey of night was fading as the damp began to seep through her jeans to her skin. A pale line of light appeared on the eastern horizon, across the flat of the sea. She shivered and sat up. It was time to go. She felt close to both her parents here, but today belonged to her mother.

Three hours later, she stood at the graveside and watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark damp hole. Her parents together again in the plot they had bought. It was a big plot, there was space remaining.

Will I be buried here?

It was a reassuring thought, child reunited with parents.

The vicar’s voice intoned in the background, his words whipped away by the wind. True to form, May was proving changeable. It was now a day requiring clothing intended for mid-winter, when windows were closed tight and the central heating turned on again. Or was it that funerals simply made you feel cold?


She repeated the vicar’s word, a whisper borne out of many childhood Sunday School classes squeezed into narrow hard pews. She was not paying attention to the service but, drawn by the deep baritone of the vicar who was now reciting the Lord’s Prayer, was remembering her first day at art college. The first class. Another baritone. Her tutor, speaking words she had never forgotten. Great art was always true, he warned, and lies would always be found out.

In her handbag was a letter, collected from the hall table ten days ago as she left the house for Heathrow and Tokyo. She had expected to return home to London but, answering the call from her mother’s doctor, had come straight to Yorkshire in the hope of seeing her mother one last time. The envelope, which was heavy vellum, and bore smidgens of gold and scarlet and the Royal Academy of Arts’ crest, was still sealed. She knew what the letter said, having been forewarned in a telephone call from the artist who nominated her. It was the official invitation. If she accepted, she was to be Justine Tree, RA.


Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.

‘Connectedness’ at Amazon:
‘Ignoring Gravity’ at Amazon

Author website:
Twitter: @SandraDanby



Photos: © Sandra Danby

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Who Needs an Editor?

Patricia Jones, author, and Mary Rensten, editor, talk candidly about their Author/Editor relationship.

* * * * *

PATRICIA: When the email arrived there was already champagne in the crystal flutes as a family celebration was in full flow. My glass was refilled and an extra toast proposed: to the success of Threads of Life, my debut novel, which had just been accepted by SCRIPTORA – the publishing branch of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists.

MARY: Yes, definitely time for celebration!

It was three years since Patricia had sent me the original manuscript and a quick look through the 360+pages and the list of 47 characters had told me straight away, that if this novel - about the creation of a small town's Heritage Tapestry and the interwoven stories of the families whose women stitched it - was any good, then Patricia and I could be in for a long haul ... something she did not appreciate at the time.

PATRICIA: Although I had read, re-read, edited and re-edited Threads in the weeks before submitting it to SCRIPTORA in 2015 there followed months of emails and conversations with Mary, followed by critiques – mostly constructive - from Professional Readers, then re-writes and more phone calls and emails resulting in further re-writes.

MARY: And some of it was tedious, even stressful, both for author and editor! (Do have a look on Google at Writing Tips from Stephen King, Helen Dunmore, Zadie Smith and others: they all stress the necessity and importance of re-writing.)

PATRICIA: At times, as the writer who has laboured and sweated, and even had the odd sleepless night, shaping the plot, creating and developing the characters and the novel’s setting until they have become as real as the local high street, the suggestions for alterations to the manuscript can seem rather harsh.

MARY: Of course they can, and I fully understand, but if the writer wants the book to be published, these things have to be done!

PATRICIA: I had devised a kind of who’s-who for the various families as an aide memoire for the prospective readers. Mary wasn’t happy with this, and advised me, in the nicest possible way, to scrap it. This disappointed me; readers within my local writers’ group had appreciated it as it helped them to get to know the characters and their relationships with each other. However, when Mary mentioned the who’s-who to some of her writing friends they approved; it was back in at the start of Threads!

MARY: Yes, I was wrong there. A novel with numerous characters in family groupings does need a cast list. In the end Patricia and I settled for a shorter list, which excluded most of her minor characters.

PATRICIA: Your characters become real friends - even the more dubious or dodgy ones - and you understand and feel for them and go along with their foibles, and having to part with them can be extremely harrying ... and at times maddening and upsetting.

An editor is there to advise and guide the writer, especially with a debut novel, but it was with a feeling of great sadness and a real sense of loss when I was asked to 'lose' a whole family including a newborn baby. And then there was Sheila, a character who was both forthright and practical, but also had to go. The problem was that I needed a down-to-earth character to sort out problems with the stitching and rein in Madam Chairwoman when her ego and her grandiose ideas for fundraising for the Heritage Tapestry were way beyond the committee’s budget. Who was going to fill this function now Sheila had been scrapped? Luckily a rather prissy, headmistressy character stepped forward and to my surprise she turned out to deal with her new role rather well.

MARY: I know that hurt, as did losing several church organists, and your very detailed committee meetings! Also, at the beginning, there was a bit too much history of Wainbridge, your fictional town; it was holding up the telling of the increasingly interesting story.

PATRICIA: Nick Gott, an artist friend, created the cover and it was a useful learning curve as he liaised with Mary and Chris the printer. I had shown the proposed back cover design, which included a heron and a sharp needle, to a friend and, luckily, she spotted something that none of us, including Mary, had noticed. Let us say, that without her comment the heron on the back of Threads would have had a painful and surprised expression on its face!

MARY: It's always good to have another pair of eyes looking at a work in progress.

PATRICIA: One thing that did help me was having the first chapter of Threads read aloud by a professional actor at one of the SWWJ’s drama workshops. I got a real feel of the book's opening and the relationship between the different characters. The response to the chapter from the other writers and actors was reassuring and increased my confidence and pleasure in the novel.

MARY: Oh yes, always try to have your dialogue read aloud, even if it's only you doing it into a recording machine! It helps you to get the speech rhythms right.

PATRICIA: Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, the hold-ups and the hitches, the proofreading and re-writing, then more proofreading and more re-writes ...

MARY: I know it was a pain ... but they were all needed, even those pernickety punctuation corrections! (The novel would never have reached that stage if I hadn't had faith in it, and seen from my first reading that this was a manuscript well worth developing.)

PATRICIA: Threads of Life was published on 29th March 2018 and so far the comments and reviews have been extremely favourable. As an absolute novice, knowing nothing about the procedure of turning a manuscript into a fully-fledged book, I am more than grateful for all the work and dedication Mary put into Threads, as without her it would be just another document on my computer, rather than, as it is now, both an eBook and a paperback for others to enjoy.

MARY: I am delighted by the five star reviews Patricia's first novel is receiving. She is planning a sequel - her well-drawn characters warrant it - which I look forward to reading.

* * * * *

Want to read more about this author and editor?

Go to and follow the links to SCRIPTORA and Members.

Follow Patricia on @Patricia Jones_1 and Mary on @MaryRensten

To read Threads of Life go to

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Long Road to Publication - Part 5

In our regular series The Long Road to Publication, winner of our First Page Competition Andy Smith describes the stages of his journey, the highs, lows and bits where nothing happens. This week, he's taken the brave step of sharing his synopsis.The Triskele Books team went through it in detail and below, we offer some suggestions for improvement. 

Triskele Books

Breaking the Lore synopsis                                                  Andrew Smith
Name: Andrew Smith
Title: Breaking the Lore
Word Length: 90,000
Genre: Crime/Fantasy
Triskele: First things first, add the vital detail in the top right hand corner. Also use Times New Roman and 12pt font. Ideally the synopsis should fit on one page.


A crucified body is discovered. It is fifteen centimetres tall and has wings.
Triskele: This opening is less powerful than the opening of the book. We suggest using your first two lines instead.

Discovering fairies at the bottom of the garden is supposed to be good luck. Except when the fairy’s been crucified.

Inspector Nick Paris INSPECTOR NICK PARIS doesn’t believe in magicfairies. He solves crimes using logic plus management-sponsored drinking. The bizarre This tiny corpse opens up a new world of elves, dwarves and a talking, cigarette-smoking crow. Triskele: These two lines give us all we need to know about cross-genre nature and dry tone. Excellent! They tell him he has indeed found They assure him it is a fairy, killed by demons called The Vanethria THE VANETHRIA. Paris and his hapless deputy BONETTI set out to uncover why, helped and sometimes hindered by with these implausible assistants strange beings helping his investigation – or sometimes hindering it.

The detective’s rational mind struggles to cope with this such an irrational situation. Triskele: That is a great line! When another victim is found – a centaur Triskele: How did it die? A beheaded centaur? A centaur shot through the heart? – he seeks expert advice. Cassandra du Mort CASSANDRA DU MORT is a witch, a free spirit who the stuffy Inspector finds hard to handle. She views the bizarre proceedings as an big Triskele: Pick a word she herself might use enormous/enchanting adventure, to his chagrin.

Faced with conflicting evidence and more weird events, Triskele: Weak filler. Give a couple of examples of weird events? Paris tries to find answers without losing his marbles. until he Finally he pieces everything together. Demons from the mystic realm are planning to invade. want to invade ours.

Triskele: Now we need to up the tension. At the same time he comes to appreciate, and rely upon,  If he is going to repel the demonic invasion, he needs the help of his fantastical friends. the magical creatures he is working with. He is also taking a shine to  Triskele: This is telling. Show us with a hint. Cassandra, even though he still thinks she is bonkers, has quite a nice smile/lovely green eyes. The novel’s underlying theme is how people different from yourself are not always a threat and can actually make a valuable contribution. Paris’ journey takes him to this realisation. And he thought he was simply solving a case. Triskele: This is not the right place or tone for this.*

Demonic activity increases until they launch their main assault. Paris discerns their weakness, allowing the British army to drive them back. As they retreat, they take a hostage Triskele: Who? Why do we care?: his best friend and right-hand man, Bonetti (We added Bonetti in paragraph one so this kidnap makes us care). Accompanied by a motley collection of magical beings, Paris ventures into the mystic world to on a rescue mission him. Cut loose from all he knows, Paris realises people different from himself yourself are not always a threat and can actually make a valuable contribution.. And he thought he was simply solving a case.

Their mission is successful, but the group are betrayed. Captured, they have to face the fearsome demon king, who reveals his . A new plan to conquer mankind is revealed. Paris has to stop it. Triskele: Need something stronger here. The only thing stopping him is Inspector Nick Paris. Realising logic will not help, he opts for the illogical. He challenges : challenging the king to combat. A drinking contest. Paris wins. Humanity is saved by the power of whisky. Triskele: Terrific ending and totally tied to character.

The Vanethria disperse. Liberated magical races celebrate as Paris and Cassandra’s relationship blossoms. A whole new journey awaits. Triskele: Perfect end lines to lead us to the sequel.

In tightening the synopsis, we focused on these things:

  • Hit those dynamic nouns and verbs, cut all the fluff. 
  • End each line on a punchy word.
  • Capitalise names when introducing characters.
  • Try to make sentences active rather than passive. Eg: 'he reveals his plan' not 'his plan is revealed'
  • Avoid repetition, eg: the word ‘bizarre’ twice in two paragraphs.
  • Keep the tone of the novel.
  • Add intriguing details/examples.
  • Vary sentence length and patterns.
  • Stay in the story and don’t be tempted to explain as author.*
  • Ensure the synopsis follows the tension of the novel – set the scene, complicate and all the drama of the final act.

Authors, don't forget! You can win a year's mentoring from the Triskele Books team by entering our Big Five Competition. Deadline is 7th July.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Cabinet Maker

A Short Story from David N Martin, winner of the Words with JAM Short Story Competition 2017

She walked and rode, and walked and rode again, and in three days, the bruise on her cheek yellowed at the edges. But soon her donkey could not bear her weight. It sagged in the heat, smelling of mange and rendered bones. She could not ride, but neither could she leave it to die.

The old women of Jamina’s village described her destination as ‘the valley of grass.’ They had told her whom she must find. Three times they had told her. Twice she ignored them.

“The third time,” the eldest said, “either you go, or live like this forever.”

Walking, her boots split their seams. Walking, her blood stained the leather. Walking, she considered the woman’s advice. She had never learned to count very far. Just far enough and no more.

Now she is here. Stopped on the count of three. Before her lies a flat green valley cut between the arms of towering rock that stretch into a sea: a mile and more across, reaching several miles to the coast. She feels herself breathe.

The only approach is the narrow gorge through which she has come. She listens as water cackles onto rock, some higher world leaking into this one through flaws in its steep sides. Waterfalls form streams. Streams form a river, feeding groves of trees and bushes. Tended crops of banana and aubergine line the wayside. And grass. Knee-high grass, just as they’d said.

The donkey drinks where the river bank is lowest, and she drinks after. Then she moves on downstream, leading the failing beast on its frayed piggin string. Around a bend, she spots a cluster of adobe houses. A handful. She does not bother to count. Her eyes stray to three women washing clothes at the water’s edge. Each is bent to the task in hand, a smooth stone her toolset, a wicker basket at her side. Naked skin-and-bones children run in and out of the river, splashing and playing. As thin as she is hungry. She wishes she had stolen a banana.

She slows as she nears them. If she stops, she has neither courage nor strength to go forward again, but she needs to prepare what she will say.

The first to notice her is the widest of the three women. They all wear billowing cotton tops and skirts to calf length, but this one opens like a bellows around her thighs. She pushes the matted hair off her face and squints with one eye.

“What do you want?” she says. Her companions follow her gaze.

This with no hello or welcome, so Jamina gives none back. “They told me come to the valley of grass.”

“Who told you?”

“Other women. They told me look for the cabinet maker,” she says, careful not to name the tellers.

The woman’s eyeline has dropped and, when Jamina follows it down, she finds she is twisting the wedding ring on her finger. She jerks her hands to her sides.

“The cabinet maker?” she says again.

“He comes here, drinks here sometimes. Takes some food. Takes what he needs. Once a month maybe.”

“And the rest of the time?”

“Rest of the time, he doesn’t bother us.”

“I need to see him.”

The woman nods. “Better you don’t never have that kind of need. We all know that, but it can’t always be.” She extends an arm, pointing her finger. “Up that track a way. His place is under the mountain.”

The second woman says, “You ought to water that donkey. It’s fixing to drop.”

Jamina thanks her and tells her the donkey has already drunk its fill.

The woman smiles with crooked teeth. “Not going much further then,” she says. She has skin like a brown-cap mushroom, one eyebrow divided by a scar. The children are swimming. They all look the same. They all look happy.

Jamina heads for the track. No one says good-bye. No doubt they once came here for the same reason.

She follows a grey furrow through trees and bushes, skirting giant rocks as it heads towards the vertical cliff face that bounds the valley. It takes half an hour. The donkey stumbles behind.

The house she comes to is part adobe, part wood, its back swallowed into the rock as if someone has forgotten the difference between a home and a cave. A brush-roofed barn sits in the dirt yard among piles of rough-cut woods. Three axes, arranged by size, are embedded in the pile nearest the door. Chickens roam free. Two horses and several goats graze in a corral.

She does not want to be caught for a trespasser so she shouts. An echo comes and goes. She waits for silence. In it, she hears the muffled rasp of a hand saw. She lets loose the donkey’s string, goes to the barn’s open door and peers inside.

He is not as she imagined. His biceps bulge, but he is smaller than he should be. Older too. Sawdust clings in his hair and beard. He wears a shirt with no sleeves, wet stains extending like brackets under his arms. Around him lie the fruits of his labour: a handsome wardrobe, a half-finished sideboard, three coffins.

He stops when he sees her. He puts down his saw. She feels herself constrict as if all her body is pulling itself smaller. If she did not have bones, maybe she could disappear.

No one can disappear.

“You make cabinets,” she says.

He licks the dryness from his lips. His nod counts off the finished works arranged around the barn as if she might need help to find them. He wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

“I’m a customer,” she says. “I want to be.”

“What do you need?”

“A coffin. They told me ask for a coffin.”

Atop of an upturned barrel sits a clay water jug and a pewter tankard.

“I’ll get another cup,” he says.

He goes to the back of the barn and searches among scattered crates. He returns with a rough wooden cup to add to the tankard and pours water into each. He offers her the tankard. He reaches into his pocket and puts a peach onto the barrel.

“For you,” he says.

“Thank you.”

Her hand shakes. She is unused to kindness. She takes the water, then the peach. The peach tastes like a bursting sun.

He leans his elbows on the barrel and watches her. He has noticed her bruise. He will not let it go.

“A coffin, you say?”


“Where are you from?”

She names her village.

“I know it,” he says. “Must be two days from here.”

“Three,” she says.

“But you come to me?”

“They said you would help me.”

“Who said?”

“The women.”

“Ah, yes, it is always the women.” He sips at his water. “Who is it that died?”

“No one,” she says.

He does not seem surprised. “You have sizes? For this coffin?

“Yes, I have measured.”

“And you can pay?”

She grips her ring with the thumb and two fingers from her opposing hand. She pulls it off, almost drops it, then places it on the barrel before him. She straightens her back and takes the deepest breath of her life.

“And he is not dead?”


He stares at the ring. “Gold?”

“It was my grandmother’s,” she says. “They sent me to you, the women.”

He picks it up, weighs it in his palm. Puts it down and shakes his head.

“Coffins are expensive… for the living.”

The ground seems to crumble beneath her. She looks at the ring. It seems that he’s right. It is so very small to pay for such a large thing.

The donkey has been wandering outside. He can see it through the open door. He takes a moment to think. She knows what he’s thinking.

“A few pots of glue, no more,” he says.

“But that is everything… the ring, my donkey.”

“Sometimes it takes everything and all that is left after as well.”

She stares at the floor. Where shame must look, she knows. Those who sent her have warned her of this.

“What is worse? Ask yourself that,” the eldest women had said. “You submit to a brute again and again, or you submit once to a killer?”

She thinks of the naked children in the river. How they smiled.

Yes, she tells herself. She had decided this was what she could live with. Anything not to count past three.

“Then prepare yourself,” they said. “He’s taken that bargain with others.”

She finds the strength in her backbone. Her knees tremble, but she stiffens herself and reaches for the string at the neck of her dress. Her fingers fumble and fumble. Then she falls out of her clothes, standing naked bar her bloodied boots in a pool of cotton.

He examines her from a distance. At first she thinks he is considering her value against the contract, but soon she realises he is lingering on her damage.

It is not just the cheek. It is the scar over her breasts, the burn on her hip. Her right arm does not hang quite straight. All her beauties stolen.

She catches him as he rubs his finger under one eye, but she is not quick enough to see the reason.

“Put your clothes on,” he says.

It seems she has failed the test. But he shakes his head and looks over at the coffins. “Pick one,” he says.


David N Martin started life as a scientist, having studied Physics at Jesus College, Oxford. He took up creative writing as a hobby in the Nineties while still in his mid-thirties, indulging his passion for Sci-Fi. Several short stories won local competitions and he placed in both the international Fish Prize and the HE Bates Centenary Memorial Competition. Gollancz published two of his novels (The Chessmen and Fatal Climate ) under the pen-name David Hood, scientific thrillers that showed off his technological background and had vaguely Science-Fiction themes as their back drop. ‘The Chessmen’ – described by The Daily Telegraph as a ‘contender for the best first crime novel of the year’, even though it wasn’t a crime novel – went on to be translated into German, Polish and Greek.

A long hiatus of almost twenty years followed as he concentrated on earning money and raising a family, though he has kept up his membership of Leicester Writers Club and been the frequent leader of Creative Writing workshops. He never published novels again. His recent win in the ‘Words With Jam’ Short Story Competition represented a return to serious writing.

David lives in rural Northamptonshire with his wife and two university-bound children. His website can be found at

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Bookouture - The Inside Story

JJ Marsh talks to Peta Nightingale, Head of Talent at Bookouture.

Bookouture, as the name suggests, is a bespoke publishing service. Can you elaborate on what that means in practice?

We are proud to put a lot of effort into the relationship with our authors, and work closely with them every step of the way. More than half our authors are un-agented and we feel it's important to offer the support that an agent would, as well as providing a first class publishing model. We see our authors as a family and they are very supportive of each other. We offer a step-by-step journey through the whole publishing process, treating every single title as a potential bestseller.

What are the advantages to the Bookouture route?
Why is it a better choice than a) going with the Big 5 or b) a small press or c) self-publishing?

a) We acquire world all language rights, and publish globally, attracting submissions from authors all over the world. We welcome direct submissions - as well as those from agents.

b) We have a short product cycle, publishing two to three books a year from each author - all with the same quality of editing, packaging and marketing as any traditional publisher.

c) We use dynamic low pricing to maximise a book's ranking and visibility, tracking daily sales data to ensure that we also optimise revenue.

d) We are obsessed with detail and able to make changes throughout a title's life - including to title and packaging - in order to optimise a book's performance. We use iterative data collection to measure performance and make changes to maximise performance and revenue.

e) We treat every title the same, whether from a debut writer or an author who has sold 2 million copies. Every book starts with the same marketing spend, and there are no tiers or 'lead' titles.

f) We pay a high digital royalty rate of 45% of net receipts, and pay royalties quarterly.

g) We publish direct to readers so there are no sales and marketing teams or retailers to convince. We publish across all digital platforms.

Digital publishing is more than ebooks. You offer Print-on-Demand services for those authors who want paperbacks?

We produce a print-on-demand paperback of every title we publish, as well as an audio edition wherever possible.

It seems you began by publishing commercial women's fiction, romance and chicklit, but have now expanded into crime and psychological thrillers. Why is that?
Do you plan to add new genres in the future?

We publish the genres that our readers want to read. Our current ratio of crime and women's fiction is representative of the bestseller lists at the moment, but we are constantly watching the trends and the shifts in reader preference. Our editors are experienced at publishing a number of different genres and we're always on the look-out for great writing, great characters and great stories - whatever the genre. We will be publishing some fantasy romance this year, as well as some up-lit fiction and some more YA.

How do you know if a book/author is a good fit for Bookouture?

Great writing and a willingness and ability to write fast make an author a good fit for Bookouture.

Do they need an established platform?

It is always an advantage if an author has an established, successful platform. But some authors are less comfortable than others at using social media, and we feel that an author's time is best spent writing great books, than struggling with posts and spending too much time on social media. Our two publicity managers, Kim Nash and Noelle Holten, work tirelessly with and for our authors and offer wonderful support to those who have less experience but would still like to have a social media presence.
Is being successfully self-published a red flag or a good sign?

An author who has written and published a bestseller is always a good thing! Successful self-published authors generally understand the way we work as we also use the KDP publishing platform and online marketing. The key to success here is in successfully gathering the available sales and marketing data and using that to drive publishing decisions and promotional tools.

Where do you find your authors?

We have an online submissions platform on which anybody can submit their full-length work of commercial fiction to us. We also have relationships with all the major London agents as well as many others across the world. I and our editorial team also follow the success of self-published authors and approach them directly. We use any means we can to find and attract the best writers out there!

Is Bookouture able to respond quickly to trends in book market?

Our publishing model - speed to market, publishing direct to readers - allows us to be as nimble and flexible as possible. Because we are always looking at and for new trends, we can respond very quickly - including in developing our own IP projects.

For example, the apparent move away from psychological thrillers and towards 'up-lit'?

Indeed, we are publishing some up-lit this year.

What are the rising trends and themes we'll all be reading next year?

Contrary to what many commentators are saying, the appetite for psychological suspense and thrillers seems undimmed with readers. Perhaps it is the traditional publishers who feel a certain ennui?! That's not to say that there isn't also an appetite for fiction that touches the reader in other ways. For us it is always about quality, so provided there are great characters with a tremendous hook, then we'll want to publish it. And of course we are looking at new themes and trends all the time.

Since Bookouture was acquired by Hachette UK, what's changed?

Nothing has changed in terms of our business model. But through print partnership agreements negotiated with Little, Brown Book Group's Sphere imprint in the UK and Grand Central Publishing in the US, we now have the potential to publish a conventional paperback. We have a continuous dialogue with our UK and US colleagues over which titles might go forward into these programmes, but success in ebook (there is no threshold as such) is the first indicator. The Little, Brown rights department now also sell our translation rights, which previously were handled by the Lorella Belli literary agency. We have also recently appointed The Artists Partnership to represent our authors' film, TV and stage rights. We only acquire rights from authors that we can successfully utilise, and we're really pleased to be able to offer this comprehensive package under the Bookouture umbrella.

What's your personal book of the moment?

We are always on the look-out for the sort of emotional storytelling that really tugs at the heartstrings. I recently read Rhiannon Navin's Only Child and can't believe it's a debut novel. Set in the US in the aftermath of a school shooting, it could have been a political and difficult topic. But her telling of the story in the voice of six-year-old Zach whose ten-year-old brother has been killed, together with her handling of his parents' inability to accommodate their own huge emotions with his, has made for an utterly beautiful and hugely accomplished book.

With grateful thanks to Peta and the Bookouture Team