What Makes a Good Author?

by Ventura’s Director, Jane Curry.

Writing is a solitary and fiercely intellectual craft that is also a sheer slog. To hand over your work to a third party is an act of deep trust and one that good publishers do not take lightly. A writer becomes an author only when they are published, and because publishers and authors both need each other, ours is the ultimate symbiotic relationship.

So what makes a good author?

Well, the most important attribute is clearly the writing. It should be writing that inspires and transports the reader. It should be stories that you don’t want to finish, as you love the alternative world they create: the imagery, characters, plot twists, pace and revelation. For nonfiction works, it should be ideas that challenge and change our worldview. Good writing creates the lodestar of publishing: word of mouth. Good writing can create the kind of buzz that drives people to bookshops in a way that advertising and publicity alone cannot achieve.

So assuming an author writes well, what else makes a good author?

The answer at Ventura is ‘author DNA’: an expression coined by the wonderful and much-missed Simon Milne during one of our strategy workshops. We had conducted a deep dive into the performance of our titles over the previous 12 months, which included reviewing the genre, price, positioning and author. We found that one of the key factors in the success of a book was the right author DNA.

This means that the author must be the unabashed champion of their own work, with a strong commitment to success and the motivation to support their work long after the launch champagne has gone flat. A healthy ego is also important: if the author is to really shine on the platform we publishers create, they have to enjoy the limelight.

I often refer to publishing as an energy transfer—our passionate belief in the book must be transferred to sales reps, booksellers, the media and ultimately the reader. It is impossible to achieve this without the author being a key partner or, dare I say, a stakeholder. Maria Katsonis, the author of our bestselling book The Good Greek Girl, has gold-standard author DNA. Maria worked every facet of the market upon launch and continues to promote her books many years after publication. We call this the long tail: library talks, book clubs, events, articles—they all contribute to backlist sales and provide a platform for future works.

The book market is flooded with 5000 new titles every month, so much is made of ‘author platform’. What is the author’s background, their profession, their story? What makes them different to the rest? These details can provide the key to achieving cut-through at retail. Publishers seek this information to see if there is a hook on which to hang a marketing campaign or start an author profile. Authors with a strong social media presence provide a ready market for their books and are largely published because of it. But for other authors, social media is irrelevant—it is their very gravitas that impresses.

In small companies such as Ventura we view our stable of authors like our kin. We seize every chance to promote them both here and overseas, whether frontlist or backlist, at book fairs or in impromptu settings. We maintain a very strong sense of alliance and collaboration, and I am convinced this commitment has contributed to our success, as we genuinely believe in every author we publish.

There are some potential authors who do need a reality check, so that their expectations of our publicity campaign are realistic. When meeting a first-time author I always say, ‘I cannot make you famous’ before we sign, and remind them that becoming a household name takes many years. When I published Robin Barker (Baby Love) at Macmillan, sales were slow initially but after I negotiated a monthly column at the Australian Women’s Weekly her name slowly built to become the brand that it is today.

I also say to authors that I cannot dictate to booksellers what books they should stock—it is ultimately the bookseller’s choice. We publishers can persuade with the strength of the concept, the profile, the marketing and the writing itself, but being stocked in bookshops is not an automatic right just because the book is in print—a fact we clearly articulate with authors.

As a career publisher, I can say that the best authors are the ones that submit a stunning and compelling manuscript, take a receptive position on editing and cover design, have a healthy sense of self to cope with the publicity trail, and the stamina to keep going into the backlist years. And a new book every other year please!

This article was originally published in Books + Publishing.