Advice From A Publisher: A Q&A with Mary-Anne Harrington

Tinder Press publisher and editor Mary-Anne Harrington called into our online classroom to answer questions from our Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 students on when to work with an editor, where to find an agent, and how to avoid the common mistakes many new writers make.

Mary-Anne-HarringtonQuestion: Can you tell us about Tinder Press, Mary-Anne?

Mary-Anne Harrington: Tinder Press is Headline’s literary imprint. We launched in 2013 and publish 8-10 new titles a year, mostly fiction, and it’s a mixture of brand authors, and authors we’re working to establish. They’re books we’d enter for prizes, and target at high street and independent bookshops.

Q: Tell us about the journey to being published: should you get an agent first, or go direct to a publisher?

MH: This is an interesting one. I have to say the usual route is to get an agent first – all the debut authors I’ve published recently came via that route. It’s not the only way – more houses are doing open submissions, some of the indie houses want authors to go direct to them, and there is always the self-publishing option. But the agent route is the most established, and has quite clear benefits.

Q: How should a writer search for an agent?

MH: Think about writers you love and try their agents with a carefully worded letter about why you loved their client’s work, and why you think they might be interested in yours. Then look to see who some of the younger agents are, on Twitter, etc. These agents tend to be very active and are perhaps more likely to be taking on clients than the agents who have their names on the door at the agency, who will have very big and time-consuming clients, and might be more tied up with managing/running the business than a new agent might be.

Q: At what stage should a writer work with an editor?

MH: I know some authors do work with editors before they approach an agent, or even via an agent before their book goes out on submission. That’s really a case-by-case thing. You want your book to be in the best possible shape when an editor first reads it. But editors also quite like editing, so they don’t necessarily want to feel that an author has come to the end of the road with a book when it lands on their desk – they’ll usually want to work with the author to refine and improve it. At least I know I do.

Q: What makes a novel proposal stand out to you and avoid the slush pile?

MH: As an editor, I am almost always submitted complete scripts rather than proposals, but it is helpful if somewhere in the letter there is a two or three line summary of the book that I know will grab readers’ (and indeed booksellers’, and in the first instance, my colleagues’) attention. These two or three lines don’t need to encapsulate the entire reading experience, they’re just a steer, but in an industry like this we have to depend to a certain extent on shorthand, so a pithy and preferably original pitch stands out a mile.

A really strong title also helps. Borough Press are publishing a debut by Faber Academy Writing a Novel alumna, Joanna Cannon, called The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, and I can’t think of a single commissioning editor who wouldn’t have been stopped in their tracks by that title.

Q: When pitching your book, is there a requirement to reference it to previously published material?

MH: I don’t see the requirement to reference the book to previously published material. Yes, that’s shorthand we use as an industry, but actually I find when I’m pitching books to colleagues and booksellers they want to hear what this author/book is offering as a reading experience that they won’t have encountered elsewhere. So it’s the differences that are important, more than the similarities. I hate the ‘Curious Incident meets Love in the Time of Cholera’ style of pitching. It makes no sense!

Q: How do you feel when you read a new writer?

MH: I think there is something so fresh about reading new writers – it’s very special, and discovering a writer who is genuinely special and at an early stage in their career is an incredibly privileged experience. I wonder how Jeanette Winterson’s agent and editor felt when they first read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which has the kind of exuberance I think you only ever get in first fiction.

Q: What are the common mistakes you see from new writers?

MH: The main mistake I think is not being brutal enough about whether a book ‘delivers’ in the sense of having a narrative or offering a reading experience or a hook that can be summarised or hinted at or alluded to in some enticing way. To ignore that is to ignore so much about the way this industry works.

Other than that, I think it’s important that the opening pages are gripping and propel the reader in some way. Too many authors – even experienced authors – can squander their reader’s attention in the early stages of a book, with set up that doesn’t necessarily have to come right at the very beginning. Take us into the story at an engaging and readily intelligible point, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the beginning chronologically speaking. I’ve seen so many novels turned around by breaking up this linear sense of ‘X happens then Y’, it’s definitely something to consider if you’re finding your book feels slow to get going.

Q: Are there any particular themes or genres that there’s a glut of at the moment and you don’t want to see again – and conversely are there any genres and topics that are particularly popular and you’d like to see submissions on?

MH: There is an awful lot of psychological and domestic suspense around – there’s still room for it, but the bar is now very high in terms of quality/originality. Readers love that genre, and I don’t see it going away soon, but you’re going to need to really put your stamp on it quite boldly to make an impact in that area. That said, look at the success of The Girl on the Train, which has such a simple hook.

In terms of genres I’d like to see, for me it’s less a question of genre. I think so much of life and current affairs is bleak I love to read books that dare to be funny about serious or quite dark things. But that’s quite personal!

Q: Are there any stylistic writing features that you feel have been overdone?

MH: I do now find endless description makes me feel impatient rather quickly, no matter how beautifully it’s done. It’s certainly still out there; I have just become more demanding over time. I do hear editors moan about endless first person child narrators, but if these are done well, I still have a soft spot for them.

Q: Are there any recent books that you would have liked to publish yourself?

MH: I would have loved to have published Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir, Boy With A Topknot. It’s a painfully funny book about an incredibly dysfunctional but loving Sikh family in Wolverhampton in the 80s/90s. Also Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which I think is a work of genius.

Q: Tinder Press partnered with The Reading Agency in March 2015 to accept open submissions for un-agented manuscripts. Was this a success and do you think it’s something Tinder will do again?

MH: In all honesty, we’re still reading. I think we anticipated we’d get about 500 entries and we got over 2,000, so we’ve done an initial sift and have given ourselves the rest of the summer to look at everything else in more detail.

I’m very happy that we’ve tried it, and still hopeful that we’ll find a novel or stories we can publish. If that doesn’t end up being the case, I’m hoping there will be one or two authors we could mentor or start to build a relationship with, and that a ‘gem’ might surface a couple of years down the line.

Will we do it again next year? No, I think it’s a resource issue. But if not we will ensure we’re finding other ways of championing new writers and trying to source new writers more proactively than sitting back and waiting to see what agents send our way. I think agents do a really important job, but publishers need to be seen to be more proactive than that.

Q: To qualify those 2000 submissions, how many new titles do you publish a year?

MH: We publish 8-10 new books a year. We’re small by design; each Tinder book has it’s own slot in a particular month so it can be the focus of our marketing and PR activity. We find it really helps, particularly in terms of making a mark with debuts.

Q: Did you get a different type of book to the sort that agents send you, or broadly similar in terms of style, genre, etc?

MH: It was more scattershot than we’d expected. We hadn’t been that explicit in terms of genre, we simply asked for writing that would likely sit well on our list. It was pretty clear to me that not everyone had put much research into that. We got a fair amount of romance/fantasy/thriller, and that’s not what Tinder Press is really about.

But I also think it’s understandable – there are a lot of people writing, and it’s a good opportunity. If we’d seen one that was brilliant, we’d have pinged it to one of our colleagues on the main list, so I could see why the authors thought it was worth a try.

Q: Was there a particular thread that ran throughout the open submission entries that is not commonly found in agented manuscripts?

MH: I wouldn’t say there was a thread. I was amazed by how diverse the submissions were. I also felt that there were a good number of authors who could clearly write well and thoughtfully, but who hadn’t given a great deal of thought to genre and where their book might sit. For instance, there were a number of submissions that were somewhere between literary fiction and YA, which can work, but can also be a headache as booksellers don’t know where to put the books.

But the whole experience reminded me how gloriously unpredictable writers and people are, and I loved that sense of not knowing what to expect when I opened a file, and I imagine that’s what’s going to keep us going over the summer.

Q: How would you define literary fiction?

MH: We could debate this for hours, but for me it’s writing where the author’s style or voice is at least as significant as, or perhaps more significant than, the genre in which the book is written.

I’m very clear that genre fiction is in many cases every bit as finely crafted as literary fiction, and to write a completely page-turning genre manuscript demands huge energy and skill. But in literary fiction I think readers are looking to encounter something unique – the author’s voice, their words on the page, have a level of prominence they don’t necessarily in genre fiction. All of that said, I have to confess that even in literary fiction, I like to see a plot, or at least a very strong narrative arc.

It’s very interesting to look at the way quite literary lists are now publishing some out and out commercial fiction, and how a number of commercial houses – including Headline – are breaking into literary fiction. There’s a lot of redrawing boundaries just now! Sometimes I think it’s more a question of which publishing style fits a book best, whether it would get reviews, and where it would sit in a shop.

I think there’s a lot to be said for mixing things up a bit – if a book stands out on your list, everyone you talk to will remember it.


Mary-Anne Harrington heads up literary imprint Tinder PressThe next iteration of our online course Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 starts on September 23.

This article was originally posted on the website of the Professional Writing Academy, our online partners.

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