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Why your ‘hook’ matters in commercial fiction

The question I probably get asked the most at work about the books I am publishing is, ‘what’s the hook?’ It’s the question that I think about when I am reading submissions, when I’m looking at competitor titles, and when I’m talking to authors and agents about their upcoming works. So, what is a hook and why is it so important?

Essentially, the hook of your book is a one-liner that sums up the book’s USP (unique selling point). The more original and memorable the hook, the better. But why, you ask, do you need this hook? Isn’t it just a commercial term that takes away a writer’s creativity and integrity? Well, yes it is a commercial term – but publishing is a business, and you want your book to sell! And to my mind, it certainly does not need to detract from the author’s passion or from the nuances within their work. A good hook can do wonders for a novel, and hopefully this post will explain why.

  1. A hook helps the sales team to pitch your book to retailers. In a publishing house, there is a dedicated sales team whose responsibility it is to secure support for your novel at retail – by that I mean with places like Waterstones, independent bookshops, WHS, the supermarkets, and special sales outlets such as The Works. The sales teams have meetings with the buyers from each retailer, during which they present the upcoming titles for each division. Now, in some publishing houses, there are quite a lot of books. The meetings are not that long – and so the sales people need to pitch the novels to the buyers in as clear, accessible and succinct a way as possible. They want the buyers to love your book and to place a strong order! That’s where the hook comes in. Combined with a strong jacket (jackets are very important too!), a clear hook can help a book secure orders – if the buyer can understand the vision for the book, and see how it could entice and connect with readers, they are more likely to support it.
  2. A hook helps an editor pitch your book internally, and get your book through an acquisitions meeting. When a manuscript comes in to an editor from a literary agent, the editor reads it and tries to assess whether or not they can see a vision for publishing it. In commercial fiction, a big part of this is the hook. What about the plot makes this book feel exciting? What makes it different from everything else on the list? What might make it stand out in the market? What sort of one-liner would really capture a reader’s attention when they are browsing online or in a bookshop? Why would they spend their £7.99 on this book rather than something else? We live in an era where there is a HUGE amount of choice (ok maybe not in 2020, but in less turbulent times!) and we know that readers are not always as loyal to brands as they once were, so we have to ensure that each and every book we publish has a key selling point – i.e. a hook! For me as an editor to acquire a novel, I have to convince the sales, marketing, publicity and senior management teams that it’s a good buy and a good fit for our list. If I like a novel, I ask others to read and see what they think as well, and I put together a vision document for the acquisitions meeting, which contains – you guessed it – a hook. I mean that there is literally a line on the document that asks me to clarify what the hook is, and if I can’t think of one, I start to doubt myself and to doubt whether I will be able to get others to love this novel as much as I do. I have definitely walked away from novels before, even though I love the writing, if I can’t see a clear way of publishing the book successfully – and that all begins with the hook.
  3. A clear hook can kick-start a successful marketing plan. In a publishing house, the marketing team will often use Facebook advertising to drive online sales – especially in 2020 when outdoor ads (tube/bus ads) are a little redundant. The ads will usually use a one-liner as a headline, and we copy test multiple lines to see which ones are the most effective – i.e. which ones readers are responding to the most. Often, these lines stem from the hook of the novel.
  4. A good hook can make your novel stand-out in the media, in catalogues and in buyer’s guides. It can also help with word-of-mouth. Some of the biggest bestsellers lately have been word-of-mouth hits, e.g. The Girl on the Train – you know, the one where she witnesses an attack through a train window. You can hear the way people might have described this to their friends and passed the book on. Also, on a practical note, a lot of the industry media (bookseller guides etc) divides books up into small spaces, so if you can summarise your hook in that little section of text, you might just grab someone’s attention and they then might place an order for your book. The same goes for when your publicist is pitching your novel to the media – they want to be able to capture a journalist’s attention and make them prioritise your book over everybody else’s – and a great hook helps with that too.

So, what does a hook look like? I always think a good way of explaining this is to look at the Sunday Times bestsellers chart, as they will often basically list the hook next to the novel. Sometimes, there will be big brands in the chart so they will flag that instead, or award wins etc. but if you get into the habit of looking at it, you will see that very often they do summarise the story or provide the hook. Let’s take this week (beginning of November 2020) as an example:

1 Find Them Dead by Peter James (Pan £8.99) Roy Grace probes a murder he suspects is linked to the trial of a drug lord.

2 Rag-and-Bone Christmas by Dilly Court (HarperCollins £7.99) A daughter takes up her father’s trade as a rag-and-bone man after he falls ill.

3 Walk the Wire by David Baldacci (Pan £8.99) Amos Decker investigates a gruesome murder in a thriving North Dakota oil town.

4 One More for Christmas by Sarah Morgan (HQ £7.99) A mother and her daughters embark on their first family Christmas together in years.

5 Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Corsair £8.99) The coming-of-age tale of a reclusive girl abandoned by her family.

6 Fifty-Fifty by Steve Cavanagh (Orion £8.99) Two sisters on trial for murder accuse each other of being the real killer.

7 Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella (Black Swan £8.99) Becky Brandon has to host Christmas for the first time.

8 Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin £8.99) Joint Booker winner following the lives and struggles of 12 characters.

9 Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris (Zaffre £8.99) The tale of Cilka Klein, sent to a gulag after surviving Auschwitz.

10 The Guest List by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins £8.99) A murder mystery set during a glamorous wedding on an isolated island.

You can see that for each of these, you quickly and clearly understand the genre of the book and very roughly what it is about. Other examples of brilliant hooks are below (these are just my examples and I hope the authors won’t mind my using them!):

Our House by Louise Candlish – A woman comes home to find strangers have bought her own house.

The Holiday by TM Logan – Three families go on holiday – but one of them is a killer.

What You Did by Claire McGowan – A woman accuses her best friend’s husband of rape.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides – A woman shoots her husband and then never speaks another word.

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams – Two people meet through the Rush Hour Crush section of the paper.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena – A child disappears when its parents go for dinner next door.

The Flat Share by Beth O’Leary – Two people share a bed but have never met.

Vox by Christina Dalcher – Women can only speak 100 words a day.

I could go on, but hopefully these examples show you what I mean – I don’t think it is a coincidence that they are all bestsellers.

The thing I want to make very clear is that of course, your book is MORE than your hook. As publishers, we want to find talented writers, those who can bring passion and nuance and detail and colour to the page. We want your plots to feel layered, we want your characters to feel real and 3D and memorable. But in commercial fiction, we do also value the hook, and I think it’s helpful to know why. Sometimes, I might get a manuscript in that I love but that doesn’t really have anything that makes it feel different. If that happens, I might spend a few days brainstorming possible ways into the book – and then potentially discuss with the agent and author. I’d never want to make an author hook a novel on something they were not comfortable with, but I have at times suggested making changes to a manuscript in order to pull out a more hooky proposal. It’s also worth saying that when I receive emails from agents, I am more likely to push the manuscript up my to-be-read pile if the hook feels clear and accessible to me from the pitch.

I hope this is helpful, and remember, you are more than your hook, but it is worth thinking about!

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