What do publishers at Random House Australia look for or love to find in novel manuscripts submitted to them?
I run the commercial fiction list at Random House, so I look for three main things: 1) a clever, well thought out plot (even better if its overall premise can be summed up in a punchy line or two); 2) it is well written – i.e. has a clear, easy to read style; and 3) has an obvious market and strong commercial potential.
It is often said that publishers are looking for “a good story, well told”. How would you describe your own idea of a good story, well told? Or what is an example of such a story and what made it good and well told?
One example I would put forward is The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, which I published earlier this year. There is a compelling moral dilemma rooted at the heart of the story (the premise that can be summed up in a line or two, as mentioned above), and that dilemma is worked through with distinctive and interesting characters and an evocative setting (a remote lighthouse island off WA, 1920s era). The author writes with a beautifully lyrical style that really captures the era, but always remains accessible to readers. And I loved the fact that while reading I couldn’t guess the ending – in fact I had no idea how I wanted it to end, as the rights and wrongs around that core dilemma had me switching sides constantly!
Beyond a good story, well told, what else do you ideally look for in a novelist?
I would also look for someone who has a number of clever, highly commercial plot lines in their head! Also someone who really understands their market and what their readers want, while still able to stay true to their own style and goals as a writer.
What are some of the novels you have published this year, and what is it about one or two of these novels that makes them stand out in some respect from the many other novels published in Australia this year?
It’s very hard to single out any books – because I’m proud of all the books I publish and all the authors I work with. But here goes…
I’m obviously very excited by The Light Between Oceans for all the reasons above, and also because it’s been such a success here and across the world!
The Girl In Steel-Capped Boots by Loretta Hill was a delight to publish – it’s a refreshing romantic comedy that gave a different spin on the rural novel by setting it within a mining community in the Pilbara. The plot sees a city girl suddenly having to find her way in, quite literally, a man’s world.
Jaye Ford writes very clever psychological suspense novels (Beyond Fear and Scared Yet?) that tap into women’s darkest fears, and then there’s Absolution Creek by Nicole Alexander, which is the epitome of ‘good story, well told’.
I could go on and on… But I have to mention The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez. This is actually a US novel that we acquired for ANZ – we reinvented it for our market (new title, new cover, extras at the back) and it’s been a huge success. So much so that when the US publisher reprinted recently they changed to our title – I’m very proud of that!
What are a few of the most common things aspiring novelists do which it would be better if they didn’t?
A common mistake is to tell not show. ‘Showing’ (through actions and dialogue) is active and allows the reader to engage with the characters and plot. ‘Telling’, however, puts the reader in apassive position of just listening. Long passages of unbroken prose can be hard to follow and sometimes downright boring.
Overwriting is another common one – the author tries too hard and packs each sentence with adjectives and adverbs and metaphors that ultimately just weigh down the prose and make it hard to read.
Also, sometimes you find an author has had a great idea but can’t sustain it throughout an entire book and the second half is a big let-down.
Finally, it’s a big mistake to ignore the market and think readers will lap up whatever story you want to tell just because you’ve written it well. If you’re writing with the intention of being published you have to keep an eye on the market.
Publishers often turn down manuscripts for reasons other than because they think it is not good enough to be published. What are some of the other reasons a publisher might turn down a manuscript?
Publishers have a certain number of slots on the schedule to fill a year. As most of those slots will be filled by established, repeating authors, there are often maybe only two or three slots available per year for a debut novel. Or we might say no because the novel is too close in subject matter or setting to a novel already on the list. Or the publisher has too many types of that genre on the list and needs to concentrate on other genres. Or that publisher doesn’t publish that type of book (for example, I don’t publish sci-fi or fantasy), so it’s always important to research a publisher before submitting. And finally we might feel that a book, even if it is beautifully written, just isn’t commercial or ‘big’ enough to be sure of a return on investment.
In general, what would you say sets apart writers who become long-term, successful career novelists and those who aim for this but struggle?
That’s very hard to answer – probably 50% talent and 50% luck! I guess I’d have to refer back to previous answers. Someone who can balance their own style and the ideas they want to explore with the demands and trends of the market. And of course someone who can come up with cracking plots time and time again!
Beverley Cousins is a Fiction Publisher at Random House Australia (www.randomhouse.com.au), specialising in commercial fiction for adult readers.
The Australian Literature Review