Event Recap / First Friday Club with Catherine Milne

At our First Friday Club in July, Communications and Project Officer, Aurora Scott, chatted with Catherine Milne, Head of Fiction at HarperCollins.

Catherine naturally spends much of her life around words—though not always the written kind. Reflecting on a day at work, she exclaims: ‘All I’ve done is go to meetings!’. Her typical day is divided between working on the current books on her list, as well as looking for new manuscripts to acquire. Somehow she has to squeeze time for reading in there too.

Books have always mattered to Catherine. ‘They take you through the wardrobe door,’ she says. ‘They formulate the world for you.’ This is why she puts her heart and soul into finding great stories that make her feel something.

How can I approach a publisher?
Many authors see publishers as “gatekeepers” who are impossible to approach. But this myth is crumbling—publishers want to find new talent. Catherine recommends taking advantage of events like Open House to make connections.

The most important thing is to nail your elevator pitch. You need to be able to explain the premise of your book in a sentence or two—and make them good ones! Take the time to hone your approach, making sure you’ve distilled the essence of your work as succinctly as you can.

What questions does a publisher ask themselves when editing a manuscript?
In her role at HarperCollins, Catherine does a high-level structural edit of manuscripts. She admires copy editors who tackle the minute details: ‘Editors are geniuses. They are worth their weight in gold.’

As she reads, Catherine is trying to get a vision of what the manuscript could be. She starts at the beginning, reading the whole thing through. That way she can step back, get a sense of the overall rhythm, and ask questions like:

  • What trips me up?
  • Where is the writing flabby?
  • Why isn’t this character working?
  • Is this hinge moment as strong as it could be?

These days, authors are increasingly involved in the editing process. Catherine often finds that when she points out an issue in a manuscript, the writer often knows best how to fix it.

It takes years to develop a careful eye for editing. ‘My best education was reading unsolicited manuscripts at Allen & Unwin,’ says Catherine. It taught her what she likes, what reads well, and what’s marketable.

Do publishers expect authors to get involved in promotion?
In short, yes. As publishers’ marketing budgets are slashed, it’s much harder to get the word out about your book. If you want to sell, you’ll need to pitch in. But don’t panic—publishers don’t expect you to have a fan base already!

Catherine doesn’t have particular requirements an author must meet, but she looks at anything that could help: social media followers (or the potential to gather them), ability to speak well, involvement in writers’ groups, and organisations. Anything you can offer will boost the value of your book in publisher’s eyes.

How much control do authors have over their book cover?
Deciding on a book cover is a big deal. There are so many subtle signals which alter the reader’s perspective on a book. Because of this, publishers will often start talking about the cover around the time of acquisition.

Catherine assures us that she will never put out a cover which the author absolutely hates. ‘This is just shooting yourself in the foot if you want the author involved in promotion,’ she says. If you think the concept designs have completely missed what your book is about, you can push back!

Why do manuscripts get rejected?
‘I’m not someone who says no easily—I hate this part of the job!’

Catherine sees so many submissions which are nearly good enough—but publishers have to think about their current lists, and what they can realistically sell. Even if you’ve written an incredible manuscript, a publisher may have just signed on another author with a very similar book.

Publishers have limited space for debut authors, usually only three or four a year. Once they’ve filled these spots, Catherine has to ask herself the question: ‘Do I love this enough to fight for it?’

Ultimately, that’s the most important thing for aspiring authors to remember. Write something that people will love. Write something that you love. With a bit of luck, you’ll find someone else who’s willing to fight for it.

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