Today I’m delighted to welcome Rhea Kurien, Commissioning Editor at Aria, Head of Zeus.
Head of Zeus began in January 2012 and impressively won Digital Business of the Year at the British Book Awards within three years. Eight years on your digital imprint, Aria, was shortlisted for Publisher of the Year in the 2019 RNA Industry Awards, and earlier this month two of your authors won awards at the RNA’s 2020 Romantic Novel Awards! That makes you a good person to ask my first question. Can you tell at once and be able to articulate clear reasons for taking/not taking a submission further?
Yes, it is sometimes much easier to distinguish the submissions I won’t take forward, rather than the ones that I will. Regardless of the genre, a story with a clear hook and a distinctive voice are my two non-negotiables. Make sure those are clear from the very beginning.
I would also advise authors not to try to do too much in the opening chapters. I know a lot of writers think they need to ‘entertain’ readers. What’s more important, in women’s fiction and especially romance, is that you make the reader care about your main characters. It is less about what happens to characters and more about how they deal with no more than one or two catalytic changes in their lives. Their journey is what matters.
So what helps a budding author to get their submission noticed?
Keep your query letter quite short without going too much into the plot – an attached synopsis of no more than two pages is where you should talk about the story in detail.
Read as much as you can in the genre you’re writing in, and use that market knowledge when you’re pitching yourself. Who are the authors you’d sit alongside on the shelf? What genre/sub-genres are you writing within? Be realistic (Nora Roberts has no peer, for example) and also be current: you need to be referencing recent bestsellers rather than old favourites.
Any other practical advice?
Do submit the whole manuscript, rather than just a few chapters. If I like those opening chapters, I will want to keep reading, and the interruption of having to request them is a wasted step and a distraction. I also know that those opening chapters are the ones writers tend to polish the most, so I’m desperate to find out if the rest of the MS is equally as good.
Try not to submit a manuscript until you are completely finished writing it, especially when it comes to digital-first publishers, as we move so quickly from acquisition to publication.
Finally, though this is a small thing, do use a font that is simple, clean and easy to read, and no bigger than size 11 or 12. And please use paragraphs. Even editors will be daunted if they are faced with a wall of text.
I notice Aria publishes a wide range of genres in fiction. How important is romance as a category for the imprint and which particular sub-genres do you think are the more commercial at the moment?
Aria is known for publishing across all the commercial fiction genres, but we do have a lot of women’s fiction and romance on our list. I personally love the romance genre. The sub-genres in romance that we are seeing a demand for are: seasonal romances (spring, summer and Christmas) by authors like Mandy Baggot, Lucy Coleman and Sam Tonge; village and small town romances like Starting Over at Acorn Cottage by Kate Forster; and high-concept love stories like Someday in Paris by Olivia Lara.
Your other fiction categories include crime, thrillers and historical fiction. One of our speakers at our 2019 RNA conference pointed out that romance sales may well be understated because of how a book is categorised. For example a crime story may also have a strong romantic element running through it. How do you make the decision as to which main genre a particular manuscript falls into?
I think that’s very true actually. We publish so many books with strong romantic elements, such as our sagas, historical, mum-lit and emotional women’s fiction. It’s hard to say exactly when the decision is made to categorise a book into a particular genre, but that decision is always informed by current trends in the market: what readers are looking for, what they are reading (by constantly looking at bestseller lists) and how we can market our books to meet those needs.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the romance and crime genres are the two most populated categories. The competition is enormous, and we don’t want titles to get lost. So appealing to readers of other, more niche genres can work really well.
Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)
Social media presence isn’t a dealbreaker at all, but it is a plus if the author already has a following. More often though, we have authors who are familiar with Twitter and Facebook but need some help navigating social media as an author, and so we run workshops for our authors which we pair with afternoon tea and prosecco.
A commercially savvy author who knows and reads the market she writes in is always a boon, as is someone who is happy to develop those vital connections within the writing community. But really, to me, it’s mostly about the book and having a vision for the author brand I want to build with that particular author.
Perhaps I could finish by asking you a little about yourself. What do you like to read? Have you ever tried your hand at writing? What’s your proudest achievement? Or anything else you’d like to tell us.
I am lucky enough to have always worked on the kind of books I genuinely love reading, first with Harlequin, then Headline, and now Head of Zeus. I am also a true romance junkie – there are few pleasures greater than losing yourself in a really good love story.
I used to write as a child, but I was always more of a reader. I probably won’t write now unless, someday, I have a story I’m burning to tell. I’m very happy to help my authors craft their stories instead.
I don’t have any single achievement to highlight; I get a thrill every time I walk into a bookshop, just from the knowledge that I am a part of this incredible world. To be the bridge between writers and readers is a very special thing.
Thanks so much for talking to us today, Rhea.
To learn more about Aria and the books they publish, visit: headofzeus.com
To submit your work for consideration, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Rhea and the Aria team on Twitter: @rhea_kurien and @Aria_Fiction
Rhea was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (Website: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)