Why we ask readers to choose the novels we publish

Yvonne Barlow

Yvonne Barlow is the publisher of Hookline Books, they take submissions only from students and graduates of MA writing courses and put the work before book groups and keen readers. Yvonne also founded Bookline & Thinker, a publisher of non-fiction.

There’s a question many industries ask their interns: “Who’s the most important person in the office?” Many utter what sounds obvious, “The president.” Only to be met with a head shake. “The CEO!” Wrong again. They finally blurt out, “You!” But the questioner often gives a prim all-knowing smile before announcing, “The most important person is the patient/the client/the stakeholder.”

In publishing, the correct answer would be “the reader.”

However readers are usually at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to the book industry – they take what publishers decide to feed them. While in reality, readers are our kings and queens – without them, we could not function, our books would go unsold and our stories unread.

So why do readers barely feature when it comes to discussion within the industry? Surely they deserve a bigger place at the publishing table?

We think so. When I first started Hookline Books the idea was to give MA creative writing graduates a better chance of publication. They’d worked for it, sacrificed money and time to fine tune the writing craft. I believed there were gems to mine if I limited submissions only to these students and graduates. But who should find these gems – who would decide what is a gem? Certainly not me – I love a good read but why subject readers to only what I like? It was with this realisation that I decided to turn to the people our product is aimed at – readers! And where better to find them than in book groups made up of keen readers who love to dissect the novels they read. They buy more books than the average reader, so why not draw them in and ask whether a particular manuscript brings any joy? Being in a book group means that these readers are used to sharing their opinion, therefore they are happy to tell you whether a character works or a plot strays.

Fiction is subjective – what pleases one reader, makes another groan in despair. By listening to readers’ feedback, I am able to hear why a manuscript works or doesn’t work. All feedback is sent back to the author. For them, this can’t be an easy thing to read as, up to this point, many writers have shared their work only in writing groups or with their friends and family. While writing groups can be cruel, friends and family are often nothing but kind – sometimes too kind and their woolly praise can make a new writer feel that they will be the next J.K. So direct and anonymous criticism from those the industry seeks to please can bring a writer sharply back to reality. Sometimes even make them realise where their work has gone wrong.

So what might readers see in a manuscript that those in the profession might miss?

1. Readers don’t care about trends – a genre or sub-genre might have lost favour in the industry, but readers don’t care that it is behind the times. If they like it, they’ll call out its merits no matter how out of fashion. When I saw a historic novel set in fifth century northern Europe come through our submissions, I thought it would never gain approval – the era was unfashionable. However, I was wrong. The Half-Slave by Trevor Bloom became the second novel we published with many readers saying it wasn’t something they would normally read but that they’d thoroughly enjoyed it.

2. Scepticism – the plot might decree a character is brave, haughty, caring etc, but readers will call out “unrealistic” if the action attempts to push a dull character up a steep hill.

3. Honesty – I love when some readers love a manuscript and others hate it – and I mean hate it. Works that elicit a strong reaction are worth pursuing. Calls of, “I couldn’t put it down,” should sit alongside, “It made me uncomfortable.”

4. They have nothing to lose. Their job doesn’t depend on choosing a novel that sells well. However, when they say a plot doesn’t work, they mean that events as depicted didn’t take the story from A to Z. Some publishers might try and plaster those cracks if the writer has a following, but readers often know that no amount of clever editing will gloss this over.

Some publishers are bringing readers into their fold by giving them online access to advance titles or by creating book clubs specifically for their own titles. But this action is really about promoting the publisher’s own titles. At Hookline, we love when readers feel a sense of ownership about our novels. One book club reader told me that when she sees a particular Hookline title, Seven Days to Tell You, on Amazon, she thinks, ‘That’s mine, I helped choose that.’

She, dear publisher, is one of our queens.


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