Ask An Industry Expert: Kate Mills
17 May 2019
Today I’m delighted to welcome Kate Mills, editor with Harper Collins HQ
Hello and welcome, Kate. First of all, many congratulations that one of the authors you worked with on the editorial process was a finalist in the RoNAs this year. Can I start by asking you what store you set by literary competitions. There seem to be a lot out there!
Yes, it was great to see Jenny Oliver’s The House We Called Home shortlisted for The Goldsboro Contemporary Romantic Novel. It’s always good when writers are recognised, and awards that celebrate commercial fiction are fewer than you might think, given the size of the market and the millions of us who read it. That’s one of the many brilliant things about the RoNAs—the chance to celebrate popular, commercial fiction.
I notice HQ is coming up to its 3rd birthday and has a wide remit in terms of genre. How important is Romance for your company?
Romance is very much the heartland of our publishing and we’re proud of that heritage from our Harlequin days. We work in close proximity to the Mills & Boon team, so romance is never far from our thoughts! It’s been great to see authors such as Sarah Morgan—who’ve learnt their craft writing M&B—transition to mainstream commercial fiction and reach the Sunday Times bestseller lists, as have Liz Fenwick and Miranda Dickinson who also have strong roots in romantic fiction. New voices include the riotously funny Sophia Money-Coutts and Tom Ellen, whose epic love story enchanted the whole team.
And, in the romance line, what type of submissions are you personally looking for at the moment?
I want to be charmed! We’re seeing the return of the rom-com and there’s been some terrific novels on submission with huge heart but very funny too. Something to make you laugh and cry is always the dream for an editor.
I note that HQ is not currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts. What advice do you have for new authors seeking a literary agent?
Find someone you feel you can work with long-term, who shares your vision for your books, loves your writing and is going to help you hone it before it goes out on submission. Ultimately, the agent is working for you, as is your publisher; it should be a three-way collaborative process, so the dynamic has got to work. Most agents I know are open to new projects, and while it can be daunting making those approaches, it’s worth spending the time getting it right.
When a new submission lands on your desk (or in your inbox), what makes you sit up and take notice?
The pitch is important—what is it, have I read this before, is this something we’ve got space for—that’s before I’ve read a word. Some agents are ninja-pitchers and can make you feel it’s exactly what you want, even before you’ve started reading. However good the pitch is, though, I normally look at the opening pages of the manuscript first, to get a sense of what the book is and how quickly it’s likely to move. Sometimes you’re hooked from the first page and can’t stop reading—that happened to me with Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime—how can you not read on when a crocodile snatches a baby in a moses basket? I’d never read anything like it, I could feel the heat on the page and I was terrified. I finished reading it later that day and then rang the agent, asking to go and meet Vanessa for a coffee the next day.
And what about the synopsis? Do you have any tips for writing a really good one?
I love a well-written synopsis, but I don’t like knowing how a book will end, so quite often I don’t read the synopsis at the start. I approach submissions in much the same way a reader would a new book—just diving in and seeing if I’m enjoying it. If I’ve got a third of the way in and I’m not sure where it’s going, I’ll take a look at the synopsis and weigh it up. If I’m loving it, I’ve probably forgotten it even came with a synopsis.
A really good synopsis is like a map of the book—it tells you how things move from the start to the end, succinctly. You don’t need adjectives, or teaser-questions—don’t talk in vague clichés like ‘it builds to a heart-stopping showdown…’
We often ask agents and publishers what they consider to be the next ‘big thing’. What do you hope to see more of in 2019/2020?
More fun, comedy, honesty about relationships, allowing characters to be less than perfect, flawed heroes and heroines, recognising that love comes in many different forms, showing love from the points of view of protagonists who haven’t traditionally be the leads in terms of age, race, sex, pushing boundaries and making us think. Being kind.
Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)
Not really, it’s all about the book and the story for me. Publishers have been accused of seeking ‘promotable’ authors, or ones who will sell the book themselves, but I don’t think that’s the case, certainly not at HQ. A few years ago, I published an eighty-year-old author whose book reached the Sunday Times Number One and she wasn’t on social media in any way, but she was a very good storyteller…
What is your typical working day like?
There isn’t one, and that’s what I love about my job. Every day is genuinely different, there’s always a new book to be thinking about, a different set of sales results coming in to absorb and reflect on, authors are always coming up with brilliant new ideas and you never get tired of the moment when a great book proposal makes you shiver when you hear it. It helps to work with a fabulously creative team, who also make it fun.
What’s the funniest or most embarrassing moment you’ve experienced in your work?
Back in the 1990s, starting off my editorial career, I worked on True Crime books for Little Brown, one being The Diary of Mad Frank, the autobiography of the torturer to the Richardson Gang. Despite everything I’d read, I found him a very nice and helpful author. A few months later, enjoying supper with my sister at a Chinese restaurant in Elephant and Castle, a waiter came over to invite me to join Mad Frank and his guests for dinner—an invitation you didn’t refuse! We found ourselves amongst a variety of thieves, train robbers and murderers for dim sum.
Can you tell us the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?
Veronica Henry’s Christmas at the Beach Hut. It’s just glorious—one of those books to make you curl up and want to live in the very pages of it. Another favourite this year was A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne, which pokes fun at publishers and an author’s relentless quest for new stories at whatever cost…
Thanks so much for talking with us today, Kate. You can contact Kate on:
Kate was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk