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June 30, 2024 12:00
Publishing Editors on the Books with Hooks They Had to Have
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Publishing Editors on the Books They Had to Have

April 14, 2024
The Novelry
April 14, 2024

If you’re writing a book, you’re probably familiar with the idea of crafting a hook. You might have heard the concept referred to as the hook, the pitch or the elevator pitch. Whatever you call it, the role remains the same: a sentence that sums up the premise of your book in one or two lines and makes your target audience want to find out more.

At The Novelry, we often talk about the importance of having a great hook for your novel. We’ve written articles on how to come up with a great hook and invited guest bloggers from the publishing industry to write about why you need a great book pitch and how it’s used within the publishing house. In a live writing workshop for writers, agents from one of our trusted literary agencies said they’d prefer a great hook to great writing, because the latter can be developed but a story either has a strong hook or it doesn’t.

So what makes an editor at a publishing house think “I have to buy that book”? And how important is the hook or premise, really?

In this article, our book editors at The Novelry—who all joined us from ‘Big Five’ publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan—share the novels they acquired, and what made them want to acquire them.

Turn off your phone, boil the kettle, and settle in for some fascinating insight into publishing acquisitions, straight from the horse’s—sorry, editor’s—mouth! ☕️

“From the moment I heard the pitch for this, I knew it was set to be a heartbreaker...”
“I was immediately captivated by the central premise of the story...“
“The opening chapter immediately had me hooked and remains one of the most impressive first chapters I’ve read...”
“I was instantly intrigued by the concept...”
The Novelry book editors from Big Five publishing houses

Gone by Leona Deakin, acquired by Lizzy Goudsmit Kay

I was immediately captivated by the central premise of the story: what if the missing people aren’t in danger but instead are the dangerous ones? It felt like a very fresh take on a traditional missing-person novel and a unique, clever angle from which to explore some familiar tropes and ideas. The brilliant premise was supported by a series of fascinating characters—the charming psychopath, the determined detective—and an intricate and very well-executed plot. It was so well-received that it was followed by a further three books in the series, all with equally complex and clever plots and the same dazzling cast.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, acquired by Tash Barsby

This came in on submission a few weeks after another mountain-set thriller that I had tried to buy, so I had mountains on my mind and it felt like fate! The pitch here felt even clearer, with the specific setting of the creepy old sanatorium converted into a luxury hotel and all the wonderful historical atmosphere that brought to the reading experience… Throw in a brilliantly flawed detective character—but crucially one who was not in her regular setting, which gave a nice fresh angle—with lots of family tension and a healthy dose of inventive murders, and I was instantly hooked.

The Imposter by Anna Wharton, acquired by Josie Humber

I was instantly intrigued by the concept of a woman who becomes obsessed with a cold case of a missing girl, so answers an ad to rent a room in the missing girl’s family home. It could be the perfect opportunity to get closer to the story she’s read so much about. But as the parents start treating her like the daughter they lost, it’s not long until she realizes this couple aren’t all they seem. And in a house where everyone has something to hide, is it possible to get too close? The voice of this sinister young woman had me hooked from the start, raising so many questions about who she is and what really happened to this girl. It also had a final twist that made me rethink everything I’d already read—something I adore in any genre.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, acquired by Craig Leyenaar

The opening chapter immediately had me hooked and remains one of the most impressive first chapters I’ve read. In one chapter, we follow a man’s life on a backward planet from childhood to death in a series of scenes, each one describing his encounters with a woman from space who doesn’t age due to time dilation. It reminded me of the opening of Up, expertly introducing the setting and themes of the story. I was struck by the emotional isolation of the space captain who travels the galaxy unable to form bonds because every time she returns somewhere, decades have passed, and then, when she is asked to care for a young boy, she finds a family she’s never been able to have. The rest of the book is bonkers, covering centuries of time, the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, oppressive corporations forcing people into servitude, and a grand conspiracy. The thing that really connected was how Jimenez told a grand space opera but kept it deeply personal by centering it on the relationship between the captain and the child. It’s no wonder it was nominated for the Locus Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award!

The Last Goodbye by Fiona Lucas, acquired by Emily Kitchin

I’d been eager to acquire a big, weepy love story, and the moment I heard the pitch for this, I knew it was set to be a heartbreaker. A young woman who tragically lost her husband three years ago finds herself calling his phone on New Year’s Eve. She’s lonely, grieving, and desperate to hear his voice on the mail greeting. But to her shock, a man picks up—the number must have been transferred. At first, she hangs up… but something compels her to call again, and little by little, these two strangers start opening up to one another—and, gradually, falling in love. I’m a sucker for a second-chance love story, and this was so beautifully done. The two central characters are carrying a lot of grief and trauma, but the way they slowly start to open themselves up to love against the odds turns this into a serious tear-jerker—one that really stands out from others in the genre with its detailed characterization and emotional exploration of grief. Tissues were needed!

Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel, acquired by Francine Toon

I read this novel in one sitting and made an offer in a matter of days in what the publishing industry calls a ‘pre-empt’ to take it off the table. The book has a magical combination of a deliciously acerbic narrator and an expertly executed mystery that kept me guessing until its final pages. Other People’s Clothes vividly transported me to a specific time and place (Berlin, 2009) and took me on a wild journey through American art student Zoe’s hedonistic partying. This on its own could have risked feeling a little one-note, however. It is the way that Zoe and her rich, eccentric flatmate Hailey begin to suspect someone is watching them that gives the plot an addictive quality, while bringing in some social commentary on our obsession with true crime and the crime writing genre (the friends rent their flat from a famous, mysterious crime novelist) that I found irresistible. I also loved the fact that under the novel’s cool, glittery exterior, there are some deeper, real-life issues concerning grief, sexuality, and gender that provide potential talking points for readers. I knew immediately that I had a special novel on my hands—one that was quickly adapted for screen after an eight-way auction!

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Degrees of Engagement by Jennifer Hennessy, acquired by Nic Caws

It can be hard to convincingly motivate a fake engagement storyline in a rom-com—how can the stakes possibly be high enough for two characters to pretend to be engaged? I was hooked by Jennifer’s pitch, because it sold me on the reason for this instantly and delivered it in a way I hadn’t seen before. Bianca wants to get a bit of light revenge on the friends and family who didn’t show up to celebrate her getting her PhD, to show them that ‘untraditional’ milestones matter just as much as more commonly celebrated milestones like weddings and having babies—so she cooks up a fake engagement with Xavier to reveal their bias. Of course, romance ensues!

Learn Love in a Week by Andrew Clover, acquired by Gillian Holmes

This was one of the funniest rom-coms I’d ever read; I laughed so much while I was reading it that the kids left the room in a huff (result!). It’s about a marriage that has gone stale, and when our hero’s wife is offered her dream job by her first love, he has just one week to convince her to stay with him. But can they learn to love again? And if they do, will they still choose each other? With a lesson in love for each day, this was such a wise, warm, and touching story about family and marriage, and how easy it can be to let love slip away. It rang true on so many levels that I absolutely had to have it. In the end, it was between me and one other editor, and I pulled out all the stops to get it.  

Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett, acquired by Sorcha Rose

The pitch is what really intrigued me on submission. It was pitched as a family drama in which a young girl, feeling lost in her own life, returns to her small town to care for her father, who is dying from a mysterious brain disease which makes him hallucinate and see small animals. I was drawn into the familiar themes I knew I already loved of family and second chances, but the pitch made it sound fresh, fun, and a little weird, which hooked me in! Also, the book explores the opioid crisis, which was popular with readers at the time, so I knew this added another string to its bow. It was an instant yes from me!

The Novelry book editors from Big Five publishers

The Changing Man by Tomi Oyemakinde, acquired by Krystle Appiah

This was pitched as a dark, twisty YA campus novel in which a new student at the prestigious Nithercott School begins investigating the school’s missing pupils and gets entangled in far more than she bargained for. YA horror isn’t a typical genre for me, but something about this novel stood out. It wasn’t just jump scares, kids lurking in forests at night and dead bodies. It was intriguing, mysterious, and thrilling all at once. The first few chapters introduced me to the main character’s world, and all that followed unraveled the mystery. The stakes seemed to increase in every chapter. It wasn’t just strangers; those closest to the main character began disappearing in inexplicable ways, and I found myself wondering if the decades-old tale of the changing man could, in fact, be true. But then a twist came that threw the narrative on its head! My jaw fell to the ground, and I knew I had to have it. It wasn’t just because the main character had an incredible amount of agency and was always digging, asking questions, and looking skeptically at the people around her, but also because the novel surprised me and had some fantastic themes like being an outsider in a new environment, race and identity, secrecy, family relationships and friendship. Even when I had to switch tasks, the manuscript stayed on my mind. I found myself guessing who was behind it all, wondering who the changing man’s next victim would be, and racing to the end of the manuscript to see if I’d managed to predict the ending or not.  

The Scorpion Queen by Mina Fears, acquired by Simran Kaur Sandhu

This YA fantasy inspired by fairytales and the Mali Empire felt so fresh when it hit my desk. It was pitched as the kind of story that was drawing power from spaces in YA that we haven’t seen all that much of, but was still grounded in really interesting characters facing true danger with impossibly high personal stakes: a disgraced noble girl is forced into the service of a princess whose suitors are put to gruesome deaths to win her hand. Right off the bat, I knew we were handling a complex protagonist with some real history. I love YA characters that are able to toe the line beautifully between having some real competence and knowledge of who they are and still being surprised by what they find they’re capable of doing to save the people they love. It’s tough to pull off and still feel like the character is believably a teenager, but the author had obviously put some real thought into why they were writing this as YA and not adult fantasy and it came across really clearly, which was a huge green flag. The other massive green flags were in the content; forbidden romance, queer romance, betrayal, class politics, revolutions and some ancient djinn-like magic they discover in the desert which meant this pitch was hitting all my favorite spots for compelling YA fantasy. And it didn’t take much to convince the rest of the company they needed to jump on board too!

Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin, acquired by Georgia Summers

I am a big sucker for that razor edge between glamour and darkness, and Daughter of Calamity has this in spades! I was instantly drawn to the spectacle of 1930s jazz-age Shanghai, as a fascinating period of history, full of conflicting dualities. Equally, I was intrigued by Jingwen, who must walk a line between these dualities as a cabaret dancer for the wealthy, foreign elite, and as an errand girl for her gangster-affiliated grandmother. The pitch promised all the things I love—magic, romance, glamour—but above all, it guaranteed tension and action, when these dualities would inevitably clash. From there, it was very easy to say yes, I want this!

I Am Still With You by Emmanuel Iduma, acquired by Sadé Omeje

It could be considered an epic task to try and piece together a civil war—a history of a country so layered and mighty and vibrant as Nigeria—into a single book, where memoir and travel blends with such rhythmic prose, but Emmanuel did just that. The pitch was of his return to Nigeria after years of living in New York, in search of his lost uncle, his namesake Emmanuel, who disappeared during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s. I was steadily drawn in by the political reckoning, about memory, war, loss and grief, and about the silence that exists, nationally and within the interiority of family, from speaking about such suffering. Threaded alongside this is a son grieving his late father, wondering whether, through understanding his father’s grief toward his lost brother, he can come to terms with his own grief about his father. Can he understand a people’s grief toward their own country? Reading this on submission, I was captivated by the triangulation, struck by the premise of such a mammoth task. Considering notions of belonging with a pulse of urgency is something I admire in any book of any genre. It was no surprise to see Iduma awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize.

The Novelry book editors from Big Five publishers

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