Romantic Novelists' Association

Ask An Industry Expert: Keshini Naidoo

19 July 2019

Today I’m delighted to welcome Keshini Naidoo, Co-Founder and Publishing Director of Hera Books.


Hello, and welcome Keshini. I notice we’re just a week or so away from Hera Books’ first birthday. Very best wishes on that! Can you tell us what your main priorities have been in this inaugural year?


Thank you for your good wishes! It’s been a wonderful, tiring (!), exciting first year. Every day has brought new challenges and new triumphs. In the first twelve months, we’ve focused on commissioning and we’re now proud to have sixteen wonderful authors (including some RNA members!), writing across the genres of crime, thriller, women’s fiction, historical romance and romcom.


We’ve also been working on getting our getting our books into other platforms and are delighted to have started both a paperback and audio programme, as well as digital editions.


What is involved in your role as publishing director?


Every day is different and that’s what I love! Typical duties include writing a retailer description with punchy taglines to really hook the reader, briefing a cover look to a freelance designer—we work incredibly hard to ensure our jackets have amazing ‘shelf appeal’ and love it when readers say they picked up a book because of the cover! I check metadata to ensure that our books will appear in retailer charts in the right categories, read submissions to find new talent, and of course, do lots of editorial work, such as check copyedits returned from freelance editors, book an external proof reader, or create the structural/initial edit covering the overarching issues that can turn a great book into a brilliant one!


I believe in making the editorial process a collaboration between author and editor, and am very much a hands-on editor who likes to offer a lot of guidance and nurturing. I read all the submissions we receive and then pass any with potential on to Lindsey – we always agree a strategy on how to publish a book before we even get to the commissioning stage.


I notice your website introduces the company as a female-led, independent digital publisher. How does that ‘label’ show itself in the day-to-day operations of the company?


Lindsey Mooney and I are the co-founders of Hera Books – women with different responsibilities and backgrounds but very passionate about women reaching the top in publishing. Publishing is very female until you reach boardroom level. It was partly our frustration with the status quo that led to the creation of Hera.


On a personal level, I am a mum of two young boys (hence the eye bags!), so I do understand the pressures facing some of my female authors who might be balancing emotional labour and work and hopefully that makes me more empathetic. My authors and I exchange a lot of late-night emails after our kids have been put to bed!


What type of submissions are you personally looking for at the moment?


Lindsey and I would dearly love to find a great saga author! However, we are very open to all kinds of women’s fiction—from contemporary romcoms with an exciting original narrative voice to high concept romance with a stand out hook.


Your submission guidelines ask for a one-page synopsis plus the manuscript. Which do you normally look at first, and which carries more weight?


Firstly, I look at the cover letter as that’s my little insight into the writer. You can learn a lot from what the writer chooses to add in the letter. Things that always pique my interest are author comps—if you tell me your book is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine meets Milly Johnson, that shows me you have a great awareness of the current market and know the reader you are writing for. If you are a member of the RNA or other writing body, that shows me you’re serious about your craft (although it is not essential to publication of course!).

I would then read the manuscript and, if it piques my interest, go back and read the synopsis.


Can you give any tips as to how to grab your attention in that first chapter (or even first page!) of the novel?


For me, particularly in women’s fiction, it’s all about the voice. What makes your main protagonist stand out? As a commissioning editor, as well as a reader, I need to want to go on a three-hundred page journey with this person. What is it about their life and the main plot of the book that’s going to enthral me and make me keep turning the pages? Not that all main characters have to be likable of course. Some of the best books feature people you would never want to meet in real life, but they must have that indefinable, innovative appeal that makes me want to read on from the first page.


And what about the synopsis? Do you have any tips for writing a really good one?


Cutting your 90k manuscript down to one page is not an easy task and I’m appreciative of you doing it! In the first instance, try and distil your book down to the very barest parts—think of the elevator pitch, in which you describe in one line the plot of your book. This can sharpen your thinking as to what is crucial and what you can leave out. You can then build it up to create the synopsis.


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?


I’d love to see more fiction for women in their 40s and 50s, dealing with the vagaries of life as a woman who knows herself, is perhaps in a long term relationship but is possibly reassessing her life? As we live longer and there’s more pressure on us to stay relevant culturally, women’s fiction is an ideal medium to explore this.


I’d also love to see more commercial fiction that centres on characters from traditionally marginalised parts of society, such as LGBTQ romcoms or Black British sagas.


Is there anything you or your publishing house wouldn’t accept right now?

At present we don’t publish erotica, or historical fiction set in eras before the twentieth century.


Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)


A social media presence is always great! Really helps if you’re active on Twitter/Facebook etc and then can get involved in cover reveals/promoting the book etc. However, it’s not a must—the most important thing is that you write a fabulous book.


What’s the best/worst part of your job?


There are so many highlights, but I do absolutely love emailing or calling people to tell them we’d like to publish their book. I’m mindful that every book we receive is the culmination of months, sometimes years, of very hard work and it is absolutely wonderful to let an author know that you believe in them enough to publish it.


Similarly, the worst part is sending rejections – if you do receive a rejection (from me or any other company), please know that it is rarely to do with your book but a set of factors ranging from list availability to the editor just not clicking with your book. Once you find the right editor/agent, things will fall into place!


Can you tell us the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?


I really enjoyed Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane. She’s so good at writing real characters with heart and humour, her HEA don’t feel in any way forced and her love interests are always drop-dead gorgeous.


For more about Keshini and Hera Books:


Twitter: @KeshiniNaidoo   @Herabooks



Keshini was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: