Suzie Dooré, Hodder & Stoughton
Suzie is Editorial director at Hodder & Stoughton. Hodder & Stoughton is a major publisher within Hachette UK, one of the UK’s biggest publishing groups. They publish a wide range of fiction and non-fiction titles and are renowned for passion, quality and delivering bestselling commercial books in many different formats.
When did you come into publishing? What did you do before? And why publishing?
I came to publishing via book retail, which is unusual but not unique. After university I was applying for every Editorial Assistant role I saw advertised, and ended up at BCA (Book Club Associates) as a buyer/editor for QPD, their literary fiction club. That led to a job as the head office Fiction Buyer for Waterstones, and through that job I met lots of publishers including Hodder, where I now work as an Editorial Director on Hodder and Sceptre. My previous roles were invaluable as they taught me how to discern whether a book was commercial – I already knew how to tell if I liked it, but it’s important to know if other people are going to agree and want to spend money on it. Why publishing? Well, books have always been a hugely important part of my life – my library card practically wore out when I was a child. My degree was in Spanish and French, which I chose over English Literature because I knew I was going to be reading for pleasure every day of my life anyway, and I wanted another string to my bow. I did consider becoming a translator, but it’s insanely competitive and I would probably have ended up translating manuals for household appliances rather than literary fiction. It took me five years at BCA and three at Waterstones, but I got here in the end.
What sort of books do you love?
Officially, I acquire ‘reading group fiction’, which is to say literary/commercial crossover – books with a strong voice and an interesting or intriguing subject. If you can describe it as ‘that book about xxx’, it helps – I’d love to have published That Book About the Autistic Boy and the Dead Dog, or That Book About the Woman Whose Husband Travelled Through Time. In terms of what I love – I have to fall in love with the character and the voice. It has to be the double-whammy for me – great plot and lovely writing. Of the books I have edited, perhaps Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand sums this up best.
Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’? What was it about that page which excited you?
Oh, yes. Many times. I haven’t always won the auction, though! It’s about immediacy of voice and great scene-setting. And lack of cliché. In fact, although obviously as an editor I can influence this in the finished book, if the first line of a submission is bad you’re in danger of losing me. If it opens with a character waking up, I’m restless. If they then look at their alarm clock, even worse. If it opens with their name (‘Joe Bloggs opened a bleary eye and looked at his alarm clock’) I’ve stopped reading. Don’t be lazy. You can tell me it’s the morning, and what their name is, later – I want to be intrigued by the first line, not just informed. And at the other end of the book, I can get quite enervated if the big twist you’ve been leading up to is incest or mistaken parentage. If it turns out his uncle was his father all along, that may be important to the plot, but if that’s the big revelation, I’ll wish I hadn’t spent all that time getting there. If it transpires that the reason the protagonist’s parents told her not to go out with that boy is that he’s secretly her half-brother – and now she’s pregnant by him! – then I could have watched an episode of any American daytime soap instead. And if, as happened in a book I was submitted recently, there’s a second post-half-sibling-pregnancy twist that involves Nazi art theft, well, then you’re just being silly.
Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
It helps a lot, as an editor – you’re probably going to be working quite closely together for some time, so if you haven’t clicked it could be an uphill slog. If you don’t think the same way, there’s a stronger chance you won’t agree about the direction in which their book ought to go. I think the connection between author and agent is also vital, and the way in which agent, editor and author work together – you are all on the same side, trying to get the author’s book published in the best possible way, and that can be compromised if (for example, naming no names) the agent is reluctant to help the publisher deliver news to the author in a constructive way. It’s more useful to the author to have an agent who is realistic with them and manages their expectations than it is to have one who promises them the moon and stars and then affects bafflement and outrage if things don’t work out quite that way. Which is not to say that nothing is ever the publisher’s fault – just that an email from the agent saying (again, for example) ‘The author and I are both very upset and shocked that Tesco aren’t stocking the book’ can be a surprise when we have already discussed in detail with the agent the reasons why supermarkets almost never take debut literary fiction in hardback. Realistic expectations are the key to happiness; then, if they are exceeded, your head will explode with joy. And who doesn’t want that?
Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming a publisher? Or are there times it feels like a chore?
It can come to seem like homework if you have a lot of submissions to read – that’s the only downside of the job, really – but it’s all worth it when one of them turns out to be a gem. And when I’m on holiday and can read the non-work books I’ve been saving up, I get really excited. Last time I went away I took the new Kate Atkinson, the new Maggie O’Farrell and the new Barbara Kingsolver – almost more thrilling than the fact of being on a beach.
The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?
Per week, maybe 10 or 20 – we only take submissions from agents, not directly from authors. And I probably take on one every few months, though some other editors acquire more frequently.
Do you like your authors to tweet & blog & Facebook … or do you really not care?
We do, but only if they want to. There’s nothing grimmer than the reluctant Twitter feed of an author who’s been made to join by their publisher. If they like social media, and feel they have something to say (beyond ‘please buy my book’), then that will shine through and they will attract followers, some of whom may buy their book. On Facebook we often run the author’s page ourselves and work with them on it – this works fine for Facebook, but on Twitter, again, it is very evident if a publisher is tweeting and pretending to be the author. A few authors who are very active and engaged on Twitter: Jojo Moyes (@jojomoyes), Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), Sophie Hannah (@sophiehannahCB1), Stuart MacBride (@StuartMacBride), Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat)…
Do you secretly have a book in you?
Good God, I hope not – I’ve seen how painful it is to get them out. If it’s there, it’s staying put.
Suzie is one of the publishers appearing at this year’s Festival of Writing. Each year we invite important publishers who are hungry for new talent and who look after some of the best authors in the business. Don’t miss your chance to book a one-to-one session with a publisher of your choice.