Write Advice: Jacqui Lofthouse on how she became a publisher

In the first of two sessions with our Faber Academy alumni, author and publisher Jacqui Lofthouse talks about writing the perfect synopsis, making submissions to publishers, and how she ended up running her own imprint of an established publishing house.

Jacqui Lofthouse
Jacqui Lofthouse

Q – Hi Jacqui, thank you for joining us! You’ve recently published the debut novel of one of our Faber Academy Writing a Novel online course participants, Sara Bailey. I wondered if you could you tell us a bit about how that came about?

Jacqui Lofthouse – Thanks for asking me along! Well, I have known Stephanie Zia for a long time, and her company is Blackbird Digital Books.

She had often said it might be possible for me to become a commissioning editor for them, but I held back.

The author Sara Bailey was a colleague of mine from my Richmond Adult College teaching days, and I’d read her novel and really liked it – the manuscript that is.

She submitted that to Blackbird, but Stephanie was full and wasn’t able to publish more authors at that time, so it began with me saying ‘well, what if I were the editor, would that help?’ — because I so believed in the novel.

Stephanie immediately suggested, as she hadn’t read the novel, that a new imprint might be the way to go.

In the end, what we agreed was that Nightingale would be an independent imprint of Blackbird, so we have links, but I’m an independent company.

This is the first novel I have published under that imprint.

It’s been a really steep learning curve, but I’ve been working in literature for many years, first as a novelist and as a mentor to writers, so I’ve known the industry from the other side.

Becoming a publisher has been very exciting and I’ve learned so much very quickly.

We decided from the start that I didn’t want to go the ‘print on demand’ route. I wanted a full professional print run for the novel.

For me, it was so important that the book looked good and could compete in a wider marketplace.

Q – Forgive me if it’s obvious, but what exactly is an imprint?

JL – Usually, an imprint is a division of a publishing house, and is part of the same company. In this case, it means that I use Blackbird ISBN numbers, so I’m part of their stable, and I have strong links with them, but it is my company. Blackbird also help with some of the marketing.

Q – What was it that drew you to Dark Water especially?

JLDark Water is the culmination of Sara Bailey’s PhD in Creative Writing, and I think what I loved from the outset was the way she wrote about adolescence.

I felt so totally engaged in the way that she wrote about what it was like to be a young girl on a tiny island in the eighties.

Q – Was it all about ‘voice’?

JL – I did identify with the voice. It’s beautifully written but also very very real. For me, it’s that sense of engaging with the character and being taken to a new place too — so the setting of Orkney drew me in as well.

My own advice for synopses would be to aim for a single page.

– Jacqui Lofthouse

Q – I know Nightingale is very new and not open for submissions yet, but when you do, what will you be looking for, and how many titles do you plan on releasing a year?

JL – The truth is, it’s very fluid. Much will depend on how steadily I can build sales. We might publish just a single book a year, but that might grow. Blackbird is focusing on its current authors at the moment.

We really are very small, but we are also determined to make the books that we do have a success.

In terms of what sort of writing we will be looking for, at the moment I’m keeping it very open. What I don’t plan to do is to work to a formula.

I think it is likely to be fiction or memoir – something with a strong narrative. But — and this is important — it won’t be chosen because it fits a genre that sells well.

Q – I’ve been finding it quite challenging to write a compelling synopsis. Is there a magic formula?

JL – My own advice for synopses would be to aim for a single page. I also think the covering letter is key.

That’s why I always talk about ‘high concept’ — is it possible to encapsulate your work in a couple of sentences, to show its uniqueness that way?

Of course, it’s easier if you have a really original storyline — something that pops out — but I think what also matters is to simply be concise, show how you think your work fits into the marketplace, yes, but let the work speak.

A magic formula? Well, for me, it’s about keeping it tight — really showing that you know how a story fits together. Make it clear from the very beginning of the synopsis what the protagonist wants.

A clear desire there from the outset is essential.

I find it hard because, deep down, I don’t think the synopsis is the key document. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, but we read so many of them that I personally often skip them and go straight the writing.

I’d bet a lot of agents/publishers do the same.

Other advice, on the topic of the covering letter: there’s no need to tell the agent their job, just give them a clear sense of the essential nature of the story, the ‘hook’, where you see it fitting in terms of genre, and why you are well placed to write this.

Keep your experience in there, and keep it factual and professional.

Q – One thing that seems to divide people is whether you should give away the ending. Any thoughts on this?

JL – Personally, I would. It’s a plot summary. Telling the ending won’t stop a publisher/agent from reading on if the voice is compelling.

Q – So I suppose the key aim is to let the work speak for itself, and not detract from it in any way?

JL – To be honest, yes. When I read submissions as a literary consultant, I generally know if I’m excited. I can tell if the voice is special early on, and I also see some common mistakes.

Q – Common mistakes?

JL – Essentially, I often find that there is a distance in some way between the author and the character. Of course, one doesn’t have to write in first or close third, but omniscient is hard to do, I find, and requires a special skill.

Also, there’s often a desire to explain things, but all I want is to be immediately engaged in the moment. I want to believe immediately in the world, so anything that suggests ‘set up’ gets in my way.

Q – Jacqui, thank you for coming along to share your wisdom. This has been an inspiring chat.

JL – It’s been a pleasure, and I hope I’ve been of some help. Thank you all!

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Meet your Guest author

Jacqui Lofthouse

Jacqui Lofthouse

Jacqui Lofthouse is the founder of Nightingale Editions, a new publishing imprint. She is a novelist and runs a mentoring organisation for writers. Her novels including Bluethroat Morning and The Modigliani Girl have been translated into four languages and have sold 100,000 copies. Jacqui has an MA  in Creative Writing from UEA and has taught creative writing in a broad variety of settings from Feltham Young Offenders Institution to City University. In addition to running Nightingale, she is currently writing her first YA novel.

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