Why do I even need a publisher? How do I write for kids? What are publishers looking for right now? Should I send a sample chapter? Do you accept science fiction books?
Penguin Random House is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest local book publisher. In this article, the company’s top fiction, non-fiction and children’s publishers discuss the best ways to get your book published and answer your frequently asked questions.
What we publish
“Our team is absolutely, actively and enthusiastically seeking new books by new New Zealand authors, all the time,” says Head of Publishing Claire Murdoch. “That’s why we get up in the mornings. We have an active, in-print list of over 1,700 New Zealand books and we publish new ones every month to bring great books and writers to new audiences.”
At Penguin Random House New Zealand, we are hugely proud to build on our legacy and whakapapa across Random House, Penguin, Reed, Raupō and all our imprints, to publish New Zealand’s most celebrated writers of fiction, non-fiction, children’s and Māori books alongside international Penguin Random House authors in every genre. We have a special commitment to publishing Māori and Pasifika writers, as well as new authors reflecting Aotearoa New Zealand’s diverse population.
For adult readers, our publishing focuses on both literary and commercial works.
“We are publishing first and foremost for the New Zealand and Australian market, and we are looking for writers from our part of the world,” says Fiction Publisher Harriet Allan. “New and fresh voices are constantly sought after.”
Our extensive non-fiction publishing caters to the general market and encompasses a wide range of subjects: memoir, biography, Te Ao Māori, cookery, gardening, art and architecture, history, self-help, true crime, sport, humour, inspiration and current affairs – just to name a few.
For children, Penguin Random House New Zealand publishes baby board books, children’s picture books, junior fiction, young adult fiction and occasionally non-fiction for children.
Our local and international reach
We produce, publish, market and distribute these books extensively throughout New Zealand and Australia across all the major chains, independent booksellers and online retailers, as well as non-trade and specialist shops, and also to businesses, government departments and other organisations.
Our market share and reach are the largest in New Zealand and the world, supported by the largest local sales team covering the entire country, and a significant digital and social media presence.
In addition, the PRH Rights team actively and successfully sells film, translation and publishing rights for our authors’ books throughout the world through our powerful network of agents and partner publishers and at international book fairs, taking them to the widest possible audiences.
“It’s always exciting when others see what you first saw in a book – whether it’s Kiwis responding to Jazz Thornton’s powerful suicide prevention message, Ruby Jones’s luminous images of hope travelling around the globe, or Taika Waititi’s genius adaptation of a book like Caging Skies into Jojo Rabbit,” says Murdoch. “Our authors love seeing the foreign editions of their books.”
Why not self-publish?
You might feel you already have the tools to self-publish your book, so it is reasonable to question whether you need a professional publishing house.
When you publish through a recognised professional publishing house like Penguin Random House, we provide your book (and you as an author) with support at every step of the way, from shaping your initial idea to publishing your book, and beyond.
Of course, this includes us expertly editing, designing, proof-reading and printing your book to the highest standard, at our own expense. It also encompasses every aspect of marketing, publicity, promotion, sales and distribution to ensure your book reaches the widest possible audience.
Uniquely in New Zealand, PRH has a full-stack editorial, design, marketing and publicity team in-house right here in Aotearoa. As well as our own in-house publishers and editors working closely on each book with our authors, we employ New Zealand’s best freelance editors, photographers, proofreaders, indexers (and more) to get the perfect team for every title.
Do I need an agent?
Short answer? No. While we do work with many excellent agents, here in New Zealand we are in the unique position of having a small enough market that you do not need an agent to represent you to get published. You can submit directly to PRH and one of our publishers will consider your submission for publication.
Check out our submissions guidelines for details on how to submit your proposal – but first, read on for advice on how to make that submission – and your book – the best it can be.
What is Penguin Random House New Zealand looking for?
“As far as fiction goes,” Harriet Allan says, “we are looking for exceptional writers with fresh perspectives. Be wary of following the latest trend because it could easily go out of fashion by the time you complete your manuscript. Besides, what we want is your unique voice and approach, not a rehash of what has already been published.” Keep in mind that the New Zealand fiction market is very small, which means we are not considering adult fantasy or science fiction.
Children’s books are some of the most submitted manuscripts that get sent to PRH, so the publishers are looking for submissions that are so original they haven’t even thought of it yet. PRHNZ Children’s Publisher Catherine O’Loughlin says she’s looking for subjects that are different, plots that have a major twist and stories that stand out. “It should be something that we can’t do ourselves,” she says.
New Zealand readers famously love non-fiction about New Zealand, written by New Zealanders, and non-fiction is a major part of our programme at PRH.
“We are always looking for powerful, inspirational memoirs by New Zealanders with a unique story to tell,” says Murdoch.
“In areas like lifestyle, gardening, or cookery, we love hearing from creative personalities with a fresh point of view or eye for design who can truly engage an audience with their words or images – or both.”
If you’re convinced there is a decent market for a book and you’re an expert in the field, a known brand or a prominent personality but can’t write a full book (or just haven’t got the time to write) then let the publisher know. Penguin Random House is adept at matching you with experienced co-writers or ghost writers to help you complete your project to the highest standard – in your own voice.
While we do publish educational books for the general public – such as books for learning te reo Māori – we are not an educational, academic or technical publisher, so we’re not after text books.
Looking for a publisher for your corporate project? “We partner with corporates, brands, museums, galleries and other organisations of all kinds to make books by, for and about them, ensuring they are produced to a high professional standard and, if suitable, made available to a wider audience through the book trade,” says Non-fiction Publisher Margaret Sinclair.
“With fiction submissions,” Harriet Allan says, “ultimately, it’s your manuscript that has to sell the book, so there are no set specifications for their authors!” However, if you have any useful marketing angles, do include them in your submission, such as personal experience of features in the novel, previously published works, writing awards, creative writing courses you might have attended, anything weird or wonderful that might set you apart from other writers.
When you submit a manuscript in the non-fiction area, we want to know why you are the best author for the job. Margaret Sinclair recommends thinking about these things when compiling your author bio in order to stand out:
- Do you have professional qualifications or training in this area?
- Do you have personal experience in this area?
- If it’s a book about your life, why do you think people who don’t know who you are would want to read it?
- Do you have a following on social media – if so, which is your largest platform and how much has it grown in the last 12 months? If you know, please tell us where your followers are based – in NZ, Australia, the UK, US or elsewhere.
- Do you speak at events of any sort or offer consultancy or courses on your topic or take part in a regular podcast about it?
- How does your experience and the subject of the book relate to New Zealand and New Zealanders? Despite the fact that we are an international company, we publish first and foremost for the local market, so relevance to people in New Zealand is a must.
- Is there anything else about you or the topic you are writing about that would make your book a must-buy for anyone hearing about it or seeing it on a shelf in a bookshop or online?
“I tell people to be immodest!” says Murdoch. “Tell us your credentials, social media numbers (engagement especially), media contacts and connections, public speaking experience, the lot. Nowadays we really need authors to show us how they will help us find an audience for their work, or bring their existing audience with them so we can build a readership and a hard-to-ignore campaign for their book.”
Submitting Adult and Children’s Fiction
With fiction, we want the completed manuscript. It’s useful also to submit a plot summary and some details about the author (that’s you!). Also tell us why you think your book is the next big thing and what gives it the x-factor. If your children’s story is to have illustrations, you do not need to provide them – it is common for the publisher to match up a story with a suitable illustrator (of course if you are a writer AND illustrator, then supplying both is fine – just don’t send originals at this stage).
When you break it down, there are a number of things that most good books have in common, which publishers look for when assessing manuscripts. The following tips are culled from our Fiction and Children’s Publishers on how to write (and do it well):
People often submit ideas that have been done many times, for example, children will always love stories about dogs, cats, pirates, witches, aliens and monsters, but new books need to stand out to sell. You can do this by using a new idea, or reinventing an old one, like how The Paperbag Princess reinvented the traditional princess character.
If you’re feeling stuck for ideas Catherine O’Loughlin says a helpful tip is to get connected with other writers, “Get stimulation from your peers.” Sometimes just talking about what you’re stuck on can clear the mind and get you back on track.
Have characters with character
Characters should be vital entities in their own right, not just a means for the plot to unfold. Strong characters often have peculiar traits of speech, likes and dislikes, insecurities, hobbies and senses of humour.
Every character should have a good reason to be in the book and be well-rounded, even minor characters. A good measure of how well you’ve captured different voices is to remove the “he said/she said” tags and see how easy it is to differentiate your dialogue, then put some tags back in so the reader doesn’t stumble.
As Catherine O’Loughlin asks, “How many children have you met without a sense of humour? Young readers love material that is naughty, subversive and often just plain rude.” Even if you are writing about quite dark, serious issues there is always room for lightness.
Obviously, humour has to be far more sophisticated for adult and young adult fiction – and is far harder to write successfully than many people think. Many novels for older readers are serious, so laugh-out-loud humour would jar, but do bear in mind that unrelenting gloominess is not easy to read.
Sweat the small stuff
Consider all aspects, from the micro (syllables and sentences) to the macro (the flow of the chapters and the work as a whole).
- For picture books in verse, have imaginative rhymes and a strong rhythm.
- For dialogue in novels, give characters different patterns of speech and vary their idioms.
- For prose, consider your sentence structure, figurative language, word choice and rhythm. Even for prose it matters how your writing sounds. (Harriet Allan suggests that it can be “helpful to read your manuscript aloud to yourself to pick up phrasing that doesn’t work, repetitions of the same words and convolutions that are crying out to be truncated”.)
- A vital element to nail is narrative voice. Once you’ve got that established, a lot else will fall into place. If the ideas are all there but your manuscript feels like it's wearing scratchy, unfitting clothes then it could well be that the narrative voice isn’t quite there yet (it can be frustratingly elusive).
- Consider the overall shape of your work – is it pleasing, does its ending fit the beginning, does the structure work with your themes?
Use detail to your advantage
Too much detail can kill something as much as too little, but we often receive manuscripts where everything is very general. Writers will tell you there is a bird, but not what type, they will say a character touched a surface, but not what it felt like. The way a character drops something or walks might tell us a lot about them – but only use the details as much as they add to your story or character.
The old line ‘show don’t tell’ is always something to be aware of. It usually works best when writers weave description, gesture and character background into the plot as it is happening. And if you find yourself lecturing the reader, stop and rethink: can your points be demonstrated some other way? We are often sent manuscripts that the writers claim will teach ‘good morals’ or convey a strong message. If you have a message, bury it in the story – even better, don’t think of it as a message but a conclusion that readers will probably draw themselves if they enjoy the narrative. Let the reader do the work, rather than spelling out everything for them. Be aware: readers want to make up their own minds, they don’t want to be spoon-fed points and they want to be entertained not hectored.
Understand your subject’s world
“In our search for new authors, we’re suckers for vividly imagined settings and scenarios,” says Harriet Allan.
The reader is generally drawn in when the writer makes it seem like the character is seeing and experiencing things for the first time – if you are writing a teen romance, for instance, there should be an excitement and freshness to everything. If you’re tackling a historical setting, Google is your friend to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of anachronisms: from dress to transport, language use to opinions, make sure your work is historically accurate.
Margaret Sinclair suggests not to write the whole book, as your publisher is likely to have ideas on how best to tailor it for the market. Provide a proposal that gives an outline of your book. Explain the reason for the publication and your vision about what it will deliver to the reader: is it revelatory, instructional, aspirational; is it a new idea, or a new take on an old idea; will a reader finish the book better informed, having learnt a new skill or new insights?
Supply a proposed contents list, with a short description of what would go into each chapter. A single book cannot necessarily cover an entire subject, so be clear about the scope you can cover, explain the rationale for your selection of topics. Think from the user’s perspective: what would a reader be looking for?
Write a sample chapter to show your writing style and demonstrate the tone and approach you intend to use in the majority of the book (this may mean you submit a chapter from later in the book, and that’s fine). Exhibit how you intend to convey your information: will it be through extended prose, or bullet points, tables, etc.? If, for instance, you plan to have multiple levels of headings and subsections in much of the book, then supply a chapter that showcases this. If you are wanting the book to include illustrations, outline what you have in mind and whether you can easily supply these, or whether permission would have to be sought. Whatever your approach, aim for clarity and lack of ambiguity – and even add a dash of personality.
Indicate when you could deliver a finished manuscript. Be realistic about how long it will take you to write the book. Contracts are often signed allowing a year or two for writing, so don’t feel obligated to rush. However, if the subject is topical, then it might need to be written speedily. Be honest about what is feasible so potential publishers can find solutions up front if timing is going to be an issue. (It is much harder to resolve late delivery if there is no forewarning.)
Be original. Make sure that whatever you submit is in your own words. Take care to avoid plagiarism. You cannot cut and paste material from online sources and pass it off as your own; this includes recipes, cartoons and photographs.
Please credit all quotes and images and provide details of their sources. If the material is still in copyright, permission will need to be sought for prose quotes longer than a few sentences and for poetry and song lyrics of any length. You don’t need to have permission granted before you submit your proposal, but be aware that seeking permission can be a lengthy and costly process, so it is best to limit the use of material that is not your own.
Help us to think about the market for your book and whether it is right for us. “First, look at the books that are similar to the one you want to publish,” says Murdoch. “Publishers love to think about what books are similar to (or might compete with) yours, what point of difference your book offers, or what genre (you think) your book will fit into. It really helps to have done a bit of homework here.”
Whether it’s fiction, a cookbook, or a story for children, ask yourself: what trends can you see? What books seem to be doing well? Would your book work because it fits among these or stands out from these? You can check out the local bestseller charts online, or talk to one of New Zealand’s many brilliant booksellers or librarians. Have a look at the websites of the publishers you’re interested in or whose books are like yours. If there are no local history books on their list, and your book is a local history, odds are it’s not the right home for you!
Consider who will read your book: what level of expertise is the reader expected to have, how big is this interest group, how broad? If there are societies, websites or social media pages dedicated to your subject, list the main ones and, if obtainable, detail the size of membership or followers. List what competitive (or similar) books are already in the market and clarify why your book will be different and why there is a need for it.
Researching these elements will help you shape your own work and ensure it hasn’t already been done. It will also give you the opportunity to grow and expand on your ideas by seeing what is already out there.
If you find your concept is too close to another recent title, then use this as an opportunity to reconsider how yours could be better, fresher and more appealing. Even if the subject is an established one, what we are after is your original take. Don’t just trot out the usual examples and clichés, but push yourself to provide a fresh voice that helps the reader see the subject anew.
We recommend that writers visit the New Zealand Society of Authors website for wide-ranging advice and information about writing and getting published in New Zealand. If you are interested in writing and need general advice on how to begin, browse the internet or your local library for books that will help you with your genre of interest.
Writers’ groups can also offer assistance with the writing process and manuscript assessment.
What happens when I submit a proposal?
You will receive an automatic acknowledgement of receipt of your submission.
Once we have read, considered and discussed your work, we will be in touch with either a rejection, a suggestion for further work to be done for reconsideration of the work, or an offer of publication.
It can take up to four months to reach that point, particularly when we have a lot of submissions arriving at once. But, rest assured, we take each one seriously, so please be patient.
Why does it take so long?
We receive literally hundreds of proposals every year. While we do make the effort to read every single manuscript that gets sent in, there is no time to give individual feedback on every manuscript we receive.
However, there are many professional assessors all across New Zealand who (for a fee) will give you specific feedback on your work. The New Zealand Society of Authors has a list of assessors you can reach out to, as does the NZ Association of Manuscript Assessors.
Acceptance or rejection
If your book is accepted, the following process will be followed:
- You will be sent a contract, then the publication date will be scheduled.
- Once the final manuscript is submitted, we may request some rewriting or major points to be addressed.
- Next, the manuscript is edited.
- We take in the changes and design the book into pages along with any illustrative material.
- We send the page proofs to the author for a read and another set goes to a completely fresh proofreader.
- Once that round of corrections is done, we send the next lot of proofs to the author again and also to another fresh reader.
- There is often another round of proofs and corrections after that.
- In the interim, we will have also consulted the author on cover designs, and sent the final design and blurb for approval.
- The book will go off to print and then the publicity and marketing departments start developing their strategies, our sales team sells the book to shops around the country, and when we have the rights our rights department pitches the book to film makers and other publishers offshore.
If your book is rejected, take heart - it may well still be a viable book.
We are a commercial publisher so we are seeking books for the general market that will appeal to a wide readership. Other publishers may have different benchmarks or audiences in mind.
It may be that your work is too academic or specialised for our list – and that definitely doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to other publishers. Maybe it’s just not right for us at this time, that we are already publishing a book or books that are too similar in the same period, or simply that we don’t appreciate what another publisher might.
If in doubt about whether your idea is right for our list, send in a submission.
Above all, don’t be disheartened if we turn you down — we publish a limited number of books each year so we have to be highly selective.
Need more help?
These New Zealand organisations have advice on how to get published
Here’s a very subjective list of some of our favourite how-to-write books and resources:
- First You Write A Sentence by Joe Moran
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Carr
- Light the Dark by Joe Fassler
- Out on the Wire by Ira Glass
- Write from Guardian Books
The Society of Authors also has some resources: https://authors.org.nz/
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