Ask An Industry Expert: Sara-jade Virtue
21 August 2020
Today I’m delighted to welcome Sara-Jade Virtue, brand development director for fiction at Simon & Schuster UK
Hello and welcome, Sara-Jade. Could I start by asking about your fairly new role as brand development director?
Hello, and thank you so much for having me! Yes, it was November last year that I moved over from 13 years in the Sales team to my new role in the Editorial team. My core responsibility is to help shape our commercial women’s fiction list and develop strategies for growth for all our fiction authors.
I guess it’s been quite challenging coinciding with the C-19 crisis.
It has, yes. We started working from home on 16th March, so it’s been both exciting and challenging, but my colleagues have been incredible – helping me to learn the ropes ‘virtually’ on endless zoom and Teams video calls!
I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how quickly we’d need to make so many fundamental changes to our schedule – or how brilliantly our authors would cope with the impact of so much change. We worked together to refocus our short, mid and long term plans for many of our Spring, Summer and Autumn releases, both in terms of publication dates and formats, and all our marketing, publicity and sales plans for those titles affected. As you can imagine, when bookshops were forced to shut their physical doors, our ‘routes to market’ were fundamentally altered – so our relationships with our supermarket and online retail partners had to work twice as hard to fill the gaps. Someone likened it to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and at times it did feel super scary, but as the weeks have gone on, I think we all feel confident that the changes we implemented were the right ones and that we’ve done our very best by our authors and their books in the most challenging of circumstances
What have been the high spots?
What’s been brilliant to see is just how innovative and creative this industry is when the chips are well and truly down. Booksellers delivering books by bike, along with a pint of milk and a loaf of bread. Literary festivals, events and launches moving online to zoom video calls and other digital platforms. Printers going above and beyond to keep operating. Authors adapting to the constantly moving goalposts with a shrug and a smile… it’s been incredible.
Could you tell us more about the Books and the City initiative, which I understand is coming up to its 10th anniversary?
We will be celebrating our 10th anniversary on Valentine’s Day 2021 and I have to say it’s one of the most satisfying projects I have worked on in my entire 18-year career in books. It’s fundamentally a community of readers, authors, bloggers, librarians, retailers, industry influencers and partners who all share a love for commercial women’s fiction – comprising of our website, social media channels, a dedicated newsletter and an events platform.
S&S publish close to 50 authors writing in this genre, and we were the first publisher to actively connect with their readers in such a way. The responses over the years from readers, authors and the industry has been amazing, and we’ve constantly asked our audience what they’d like from us to ensure we keep our community fresh and relevant, including launching industry first initiatives like our Heat magazine free eBook offer, our ‘Great British Write Off’ writing competition in partnership with the Hearst magazine group, our Creative Writing Masterclass specifically for authors writing in this genre, our RNA Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller of the Year award, our exclusive WHSmith ‘Stories to Fall In Love With…’ bay in 200 stores, and our famous on-pack competitions to win holidays and hotel breaks etc.
How does the DigitalOriginals brand fit in?
The #DigitalOriginals brand, and our #OneDay open submission day which we launched in 2014, fits in to the project by enabling us to bypass some of the usual processes associated with acquiring novels and look at digital-first or digital-only in a very different way. Initially we were inspired by the success of digital-only publishing in the US and the shift to eBooks in this genre here in the UK, and could absolutely see that a digital list would complement our already successful publishing in this area.
Books and the City is subtitled the home of female fiction. Congratulations on having five authors shortlisted for various categories in the RNA’s 2020 Romantic Novel Awards. How important is romance for the imprint compared to other categories of women’s fiction? And are some romance categories more marketable than others at present?
Thank you! We are so proud of all our authors who made the shortlists this year, including Milly Johnson on her Outstanding Contribution award. Her ‘glorious counterbalance’ speech was reported widely in the press and on social media, and I think it beautifully captured what so many of us who love the genre believe. If you haven’t as yet read her speech, I really do urge you to do so – http://booksandthecity.co.uk/glorious-counterbalance-climate-hate/.
Championing the varied and diverse work of romantic fiction authors is at the heart and soul of everything we do here – we are suckers for a great big love story – whether that’s historical, contemporary, comedy or saga, but we do all have personal favourites. For me, a romance is of less importance – I like original takes on universal themes with some big hitting emotional heft – so as long as the story is fresh, original, will either make me laugh or cry (or preferably both!), and introduce me to characters I believe in, then I’m happy.
Like many RNA members, I also came through the wonderful New Writers’ Scheme and was interested to learn that BATC is holding a special OneDay submission on 15 September for NWS members to submit their m/s. Could you tell us more about it?
This has been the first year, since we launched our #DigitalOriginals publishing programme 7 years ago just for writers of commercial women’s fiction, that we’ve held #OneDay open submission days across other genres (crime thrillers, contemporary, historical and reading group), so hosting a day exclusively for members of the RNA New Writers’ Scheme is something I’m really excited about.
What’s great about our #OneDay initiative is that there’s no one ‘winner’ as such, and we have no limit on the amount of titles we can acquire for our #DigitalOriginals programme, so who knows, maybe we’ll be able to announce a new acquisition or two in the next few months! All the details members need can be found here http://booksandthecity.co.uk/rnanwsoneday/
Participants are asked to submit a synopsis, a self-introduction and the first 3 chapters. Any advice on how to produce a gripping synopsis, how to make yourself stand out from the crowd and what the opening page of the m/s needs to demonstrate to make your assessors want to turn the page.
Ah, that really is the million-dollar question. I approach every pitch, synopsis and first three chapters as if I’m a reader who’s just picked the book off the shelves of my local bookshop, and would encourage all authors to think of their pitch in exactly the same way. As for your introduction to yourself, I would think of it as less of a CV and more of a dating profile. Keep it brief, but include the details that make you YOU.
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA and I see Books and the City aims to build a culturally diverse publishing list. Can you share a little on how you make this happen?
We are, as you say, absolutely committed to building a culturally diverse #DigitalOriginals list – and we have always strongly encouraged authors of all ages, races, colours, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, social circumstances and disability statuses to submit their manuscripts to us – we want to hear everyone’s voices and everyone’s stories, and this is a big focus for S&S as a business moving forwards.
Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)
It would be really flippant for me to say, nope, a brilliant book will always find its audience, but for our #DigitalOriginals list, we do hope those authors will already have a social media presence – as the readers who are most engaged with the eBook world are absolutely to be found across all platforms, especially Twitter and Instagram. You don’t have to have a presence on all of them, but readers very much expect to be able to connect with authors on social media these days.
What is your typical working day like?
Oh gosh. Right now every day is a seemingly never-ending schedule of zoom meetings! We have regular weekly meetings that have moved out of our office boardroom and into our WFH virtual worlds – acquisitions, jackets, editorial, production, scheduling and trading, and then a whole other schedule of monthly focus meetings, creative sessions, metadata best practice and contracts – so most days involve at least 4 or 5 hour-long zoom calls. Outside of that, I spend a few hours every day on general admin, paperwork, process and procedures that have to be actioned, a couple of hours reading manuscripts, and the rest of the time working with my colleagues in the Sales, Marketing and Publicity teams to ensure everything we CAN and SHOULD be doing, we ARE doing.
What’s the best/worst part of your job?
Like most people in publishing, I would say the very best part of working in the industry is that I get to do something I absolutely love for 10 hours a day, and even get paid for it. I would never have imagined, before I joined the industry, that I would be in this position – and I count my lucky stars every day and certainly don’t take any of it for granted. Of course, that’s not to say that every single minute of every single day is full of puppies and roses. I have bad days the same as everyone else does. But the good certainly outweighs the bad.
Working those hours, this may be a silly question, but can you tell us the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?
This year so far I have four books on my Books Of The Year list – The 24hr Café by Libby Page – a super sharp dissection of the strength of female friendship and the true power of kindness, The Sight of You by Holly Miller – a beautiful big love story with a really poignant message and two central characters I adored, The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside by Jessica Ryn – an incredibly moving novel wrapped up with a wonderful heart-warming bow, and the new book coming next year from Sarra Manning called Rescue Me that I read on submission – a really up market, intelligent novel with all the feels you would want to back up the fun elements.
If you took up writing yourself, what genre would you be most likely to choose?
I wouldn’t! I like to think I can be mildly amusing in 140 characters for a tweet, or a short 500 word column for our website, but I’ll leave the novel writing to the professionals.
Thanks so much for talking with us at this challenging time and all good wishes for continuing success in your new role.
For more on Sara-Jade’s role, see:
Sara-Jade was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: (Website: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)