Romantic Novelists' Association

Ask An Industry Expert: Sara-Jade Virtue

18 December 2022

Today I’m delighted to welcome Sara-Jade Virtue, Brand Development Director, Fiction, at Simon & Schuster  who was named by author, Jennifer Bibby, author of The Cornish Hideaway.

Hello and welcome, Sara-Jade. I believe you’ve been in post as Brand Development Director at S&S for three years now. In your last interview on Ask an Industry Expert you said your core responsibility is to help shape S&S’s commercial women’s fiction list. Could you explain to our readers what that entails, please?

Hi Judith, thank you for having me back! Yes, I’ve been in the Fiction Editorial team for three years now, having transferred from our Sales department where I was Special Sales Director for 12 years. Essentially what I do is work with my Publishing Director, Managing Director and Senior Commissioning Editor, together with the Sales, Marketing, Publicity, Art and Production teams, to set goals, objectives and publishing strategies for all of our commercial women’s fiction titles, about 60 authors in total – a mix of Sunday Times bestselling authors like Santa Montefiore, Milly Johnson, Heidi Swain and Rachel Hore, debuts like those I’ve acquired through our #DigitalOriginals eBook first programme including Claire Frost, Laura Bambrey, Jackie Fraser, Florence Keeling, Jennifer Bibby and Julie Haworth, and rising stars like Eva Verde, Rosa Temple and Sharon Gosling.

The ninth year of #DigitalOriginals open submission day was on Friday 15th July 2022 Do you have any news you can share with us on authors whose careers Simon & Schuster are launching?

Ah, unfortunately not. We’re still reading all the manuscripts that we called in, but hopefully we’ll be able to share some news soon!

Can you tell us a little more about Books And The City @TeamBATC

Books and the City is the women’s fiction community we launched on Valentine’s Day 2011. At the time of launching, we were the only UK trade publisher reaching out to readers of the genre with such a 360 vision – bringing authors and their readers together via a dedicated website and newsletter, social media channels, partnerships and events. At its heart is a gang of incredibly passionate, knowledgeable and supportive bloggers, retailers, media, reviewers and readers, and they’re awesome.

Do you think it essential that an author should have a brand and use social media channels

If I’m being honest, the word ‘brand’ can be a tricky beast when applied to authors. If you asked anyone outside of the industry to name a ‘brand’, they would likely say a company like Coke, Nike, Apple, Google or McDonalds, so to apply the same rules to publishing you’d have to look at household names like Agatha Christie and Shakespeare, Enid Blyton and Stephen King, or specific books like Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code or Lord of the Rings, where people would recognise them even if they weren’t avid readers. It’s estimated that it takes 10 incredibly successful books – each selling hundreds of thousands of copies around the world – before an author can truly be considered a ‘brand’. Of course there are exceptions, those books that define a generation and break the rules – Normal People, the second novel by Sally Rooney, made her a household name overnight, everyone has heard of Eleanor Oliphant (even if they don’t know she’s completely fine, or Gail Honeyman’s name), and if you said the words Bridgit Jones (Helen Fielding’s second novel),  or One Day (the third novel from David Nicholls) in a room full of non-readers, they’d almost certainly know what you were talking about. My job is essentially working towards securing that kind of recognition for our authors, and/or their books, and, trust me, I spend every minute of every single day plotting, scheming and conspiring to make it happen!

In today’s technological world, it’s true that all authors are encouraged to create some sort of online presence, even if it’s only an amazon author page (which is simple to set up and requires very little upkeep, sign up to Amazon’s Author Central portal here – to give readers who’ve enjoyed your books somewhere to go to. You could have a website, newsletter, TikTok, twitter, facebook and insta channel – but you really don’t need all, or indeed any to be successful. Readers and fans increasingly want to feel like they have a direct authentic route to you, but you should only do as much as you feel comfortable with, or confident in doing. The publishing world is robustly represented on every digital platform, and whilst it can be a really exciting and rewarding way to interact directly with readers, it can also be intensely time consuming, with little to no tangible results.

We seem to be finally emerging out of the Covid crisis. Has it been difficult to make decisions about your plans for future releases? And how quickly have you been able to revert to connecting with bookshops and supermarkets.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, like every other industry, publishing was thrown into a period of panic and chaos. We had to adapt, evolve and innovate, and were forced to pivot on an almost hour-by-hour basis on plans that traditionally take months and years to put into place, having to make some tough decisions that felt scary and monumental. Some publication dates simply had to be moved, as we couldn’t physically get books into shops in those first few days following the WFH announcement, but our connections to our authors, retailers, reviewers and readers never stopped. The industry didn’t stop – most of publishing simply went from working together in offices, to working together at home. Printers kept printing, supply chains kept stock moving, retailers went above and beyond to keep supplying readers with books despite all the challenges of Lockdown 1, 2 and 3 – especially the independents bookshops who were absolutely INCREDIBLE – reviewers kept reviewing, authors kept writing, and luckily, readers kept reading. I worked from home from 13th March 2020 to 17th June 2021, learnt a wealth of new skills, saved a ton of money by not commuting, and put on 2 stone in weight. Everyone’s experience of the pandemic was different – but for me, books were my saviour. They are the reason I kept a job, an income, a roof over my head, food in the cupboard and something tangible to do during those long 12-hour days stuck at home on a very quickly assembled ‘office space’. I know I was one of the lucky ones, and for that I’m very grateful.  

Which social media platform do you use most? Which is your favourite?

I’m a twitter girl and spend far too much time rolling about in the dreamy bubble of the #BookTwitter world. I do have an Instagram account, but it’s mainly photos of my cat, Pepper, who’s the love of my life, and my daily walks down the canal.

What would you say, as a reader, is most important in a story?

Personally the most important thing in any novel is that I feel a connection to the characters and really care what happens to them, why it happens and how. If I’m reading a romance, I want it to be chock-a-block full of love. If it’s a comedy, I want to laugh out loud. If it’s a heartbreaker, I really want to ugly cry.  I also like to see the world the writer is luring me into, so show me the where and when.  

How do you decide which particular events and marketing campaigns will suit the launch of an author and their book?

Together with the author and their agent (if they have one), the editor, publisher, marketeer, publicist and sales team will brainstorm and plan for every single book launched – and creating, tweaking and actioning those publishing strategies is probably the part of my job I spend the most time doing. It’s true what they say, if ‘making’ a book a bestseller was easy, every book would be sitting at the top of the Sunday Times charts. There’s not one person in publishing that doesn’t have huge aspirations for the books they acquire. We all spend an inordinate amount of our time, both during and outside of our working hours, creating and actioning the very best campaigns we can, which we believe will give each book the best opportunities to connect with readers, but despite our very best efforts, not every book IS a bestseller, and that’s as heart breaking for us, as it is for the author.


I’ve noticed that, in the past Simon & Schuster  and some hosted a #DigitalOriginals #OneDay open submission day  exclusive for residents of English counties. Do you think this could be extended to other areas? I’m particularly thinking of areas in Wales.

We have held a few exclusive days with organisations like RNA, Black Girl Writers and Lambeth Libraries where the criteria for submissions is different, but our annual 15th July #OneDay open submission day is open to authors from across the globe, including Wales!

 Thank you for sparing time out of your busy schedule to talk with us, Sara-Jade, and for all your support of romance writers.