This is the third in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the independent publisher and Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was kind enough to give up her time to answer my questions.
Karen is the powerhouse behind Orenda Books which she launched in late 2014. Renowned for the way she supports her authors Karen is a master of social media, plays football for England in the annual ‘Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Football Match: Scotland v England’, is a talented baker – providing themed cupcakes at her authors’ launches and even finds time to support authors outside her own list with a section on the Orenda website.
Was being a publisher something you imagined you would do when you were at school?
Well, apart from wanting to be a nurse or a fire-fighter, a ‘books’ career has always been on the radar. I remember reading a novel (the name escapes me) when I was about twelve or thirteen, and the protagonist was a young woman who read slush piles for a publisher. I couldn’t believe it. Reading books could be a JOB? I wrote short stories throughout my teenage years, and read voraciously from the moment I could do it myself. I also had a habit of making notes in the margins of books. I think I might have been made for this job! When I moved to the UK from Canada after university, my first ‘real’ job was with a publisher.
What prompted you to start Orenda Books?
I worked at the job above for a few years, moving from secretary to the editorial director to commissioning editor. I then left to become freelance, and ended up writing books about raising children, discipline, emotional health, education, etc., and did some TV and other media. I actually became tired of writing about the same type of thing, and when I was offered a job in a small independent, working a day or so a week writing press releases, jacket copy, etc., I leapt at it. It was an interesting and intensive experience, and I ended up working about seven days a week, not one! When a decision was taken by new shareholders to slash the list, I didn’t feel comfortable being there. After lying on my bed for about 24 hours, I made the decision to start my own publishing company. Towards the end of my former tenure, I was doing almost everything anyhow, so it wasn’t an entire leap. A month later, Orenda Books was born, and I haven’t looked back.
How would you describe the ethos of Orenda Books and the titles you choose to publish?
We publish literary fiction (and I use that word deliberately, because I have a very firm belief that you must never underestimate readers of genre fiction, and assume that they all want the churn-em-out stuff), with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half in translation. There are some exceptionally wonderful aberrations on my list, and it is honestly a huge relief and source of excitement to be able to publish exactly what I want, with no one to whom I have to account!
I believe in a lot of things. We publish across many formats, including audiobooks with the wonderful Audible, a few in hardback, all in ebook and in paperback. But I firmly believe that people who choose a physical book over an ebook want something beautiful – something that is a joy to read, to hold! We use great paper, have fantastic jacket designers, truly wonderful typesetting with lots of little details, and I think it makes a real difference. In less than two years we are competing well with the conglomerates, and producing books that certainly match theirs, in both look and feel, not to mention content.
The writing REALLY matters to me, as does a tight, seamless plot. All Orenda authors are exquisite writers – that is essential. And I love the idea of pushing the boundaries of a genre – bringing something new or different to it, upholding its greatest traditions, enlightening, drawing attention to social or other issues while entertaining. It’s a vibrant market and it’s an honour to have the opportunity to bring some truly amazing authors to readers.
I don’t care about becoming rich or famous; I care about doing this job well and doing justice to my increasingly BRILLIANT stable of authors!
What has been the biggest challenge for you and what has been your biggest success to date?
You know what? I would say that EVERY book has been a success in its own way. To date, our runaway bestselling titles are Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout, and Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake, but in Scotland David F. Ross’s books (The Last Days of Disco and The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas) have received unbelievably wonderful critical acclaim and sold both in other countries and (secret) formats! We’ve had rights sold, books optioned for film and the stage. We’ve won prizes, had seven number-one kindles, achieved excellent review coverage in the papers, been incredibly well supported by the all-important blogging community, been shortlisted for the IPG Best Newcomer Award, got a Bookseller Rising Star this year, got authors into over 40 festivals. I could go on! Every author on my list is magnificent, and their achievements never fail to astound and excited me. Having wonderful new authors keen to join is also a success. We have a team that people want to join, and I LOVE that!
Challenges. OK, well it’s hard to make a name for a new company and I also have a LOT of debuts, which means that it can be even harder to persuade booksellers to take us and our authors seriously. We do a lot of translations, so cash flow is always slightly alarming (we spend probably £15K per book for a translated title before it even hits the shelves, which is considerably higher than it would be for a book in English). I am the only employee in this company, and luckily have a brilliant team of freelancers who sort me out with jackets and editorial things (I would be remiss if I did not mention West Camel here, who is my second eye and the best editor I’ve ever met! Plus Mark Swan, who does my jackets and Liz Wilkins and Anne Cater, who have done other magnificent things), but the amount of work is sometimes terrifying! We’ve gone from six books in the first year, to almost triple that this year, with the same again next year. I often feel faint!
Another challenge is an obvious one. The bigger companies tend to be more risk-averse, and often watch smaller companies to see which authors are performing well, before swooping in with a big cheque. This is a frustration, but I suppose that’s business. The irony is, of course, that bigger doesn’t mean better and being published by someone completely passionate about your books can equate to very strong sales. That’s certainly happened here.
How might being an author with an independent publisher differ compared to a major publishing house?
I think the main thing is the personal approach. I work closely with my authors from the moment they are signed onwards. I attend events and festivals with them, edit, promote, pitch to the sales teams around the world, and that’s something that I think authors enjoy. Having been an author myself for many, many years, I understand that everyone needs to feel valued and know that they are getting full support. I don’t know about other independents, but we are very much a team here at Orenda. We are growing together. We support each other. Celebrate the successes, and push when things are trickier. It’s just the BEST environment to nurture some incredible talent, and I think we are all happy and home, and all working VERY hard to achieve the best. Being a big fish in a small pond, or even a noticeable fish in a pond, is something that attracts people to small publishers. Plus independents tend to be more nimble, able to take risks and act quickly, and generally do things with authors that might never get past a big acquisitions meeting at a conglomerate. We’ve had a number of very big-name authors interested in joining us, so that probably says something about the ‘small town’ approach.
What impact has the rise of self-publishing had for smaller publishers?
I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I’ve signed two self-published authors and would actively encourage authors who are struggling to get an agent or a deal to consider this approach. There is no shame in doing it yourself, and some very good writers have their roots in the self-published world. It does, of course, mean that the market can become quite saturated, and the quality is, unfortunately, not always there. I worry sometimes that books are devalued by the number of free and very cheap ebooks available, and becoming strongly geared towards disposable reads. After all, if you pay only 99p or get it free, who cares, really? I never lower prices on our ebooks unless they are supported by a major retailer (or they reduce it them themselves) because I am well aware that authors need to earn a living, and we need to survive, too. Having said all that, our ebook sales are increasing month by month, and we know that people are happy to pay full price (not expensive by any means) for wonderful, readable books!
What one piece of advice would you give to an author who is trying to get their first publishing deal?
I would suggest that you get and take every bit of constructive criticism that you can. Beta readers (first readers) are invaluable, and although it is very painful to cut words, plotlines, characters and even passages of prose, you need to trust the opinions of those who know what they are doing. In particular, agents, or publishers who take the time to point out where there might be weaknesses. There are some incredible mentoring programmes for aspiring authors, courses (sometimes expensive, but possibly worth it) and other authors who run these courses or will do a report for a small fee. I DEFINITELY don’t like to promote anyone in particular, but Amanda Jennings is very involved in the Womentering scheme, and Michael J. Malone actually earns his living sorting out people’s books (around writing his own). If you can’t get a publisher or an agent, and feel that your book is as strong as it can be, then go ahead and self-publish. But get yourself out there, too. Attend fairs, festivals, events where other authors in your genre might be. Make friends. Network. Get some support and help. Use social media wisely – to befriend and let people know your book is there, without repeating messages and becoming annoying. It’s a close and supportive community, this book world, and I think that if you make friends and attract potential readers, you’ll be in with a chance. But don’t forget how important it is to get your book right before you submit it. And learn the art of writing a blurb – a summary of your book, much like what appears on the back of the books you pick up in the bookshops. If you can sell your book in a paragraph, you’ll attract notice.
Finally, I REALLY dislike it when a writer compares themselves to someone on my list. It’s nice to have an idea of the type of reader it might attract (for example, I am publishing a book called Sealskin next year, and a few wonderful comparisons came to mind, such as a book called The Year of Wonders and the author Angela Carter), which is very useful for the sales team. But if you tell me that you write exactly like Amanda Jennings or Michael Malone, chances are you aren’t going to get very far. I HAVE those authors. I don’t want copycats. Every author has to bring something new, special and different to the table.
Without giving away any trade secrets – what are your ambitions for Orenda Books?
My ambitions are to carry on exactly the way we are at the moment. Acquiring authors that fit the list and will add to the company – and the genre and industry in some way – while keeping it small enough to maintain the personal touch I mentioned above. My authors didn’t buy into something grand and big, and I will ensure that we are always a team, and that everyone is important. Having said that, I publish wonderful books, and I expect to win prizes and sell lots of them. These authors are magnificent, and I will be sticking by them as they soar. And I fully expect that all will do so. And that’s also what they bought into. A great future.
Another ambition is to demystify translated literature. While there is a thriving niche market, there is no reason in the world why the average reader wouldn’t enjoy books from other countries. I’ve got some of the MOST amazing translators in the business working with me, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find even one of our translated titles that feels awkward. We cherry pick the VERY best books from other countries, and that’s something that we want to continue.
Have you ever been tempted to write yourself?
I was a writer for many, many years, and I also ghostwrote a lot of books (for quite famous people, too!). I can write a blurb and a nice advance information sheet. I can pull apart a book and put it back together again in the BEST way. But could I do what my authors are doing? No way! They are imaginative, smart, brilliantly creative and talented, and I never buy a book that doesn’t give me at least four goosebump moments. And that doesn’t mean just plot. It means writing, too. I truly believe that I have some of the best writers in the genre on this list, and the stuff that is happening around them – awards, fresh talent picks, prizes, TV deals, reader and blogger top reads, review coverage, festival and event invitations, bestseller lists – it all confirms that we are on the right track. While I can fix books that need attention, I would be a complete fool to think I could write anything like the books that appear on my list!
What are you reading at the moment?
Ooh, OK! It’s a mix! I am a person who has books all over the place. Beside my bed is Craig Robertson’s Murderabilia, and I am LOVING IT! Today I got a copy of Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah, and that is going to be my downstairs, on-the-sofa read. In my handbag, I’ve got more, including the OMG BUY IT Fiona Cummins’ debut Rattle, and, similarly, the new Erin Kelly (He Said; She Said, gasp!), which I should pass on, but can’t bear to. The new Ian Rankin is buzzing in my bag.
Then on my computer, it’s all about submissions and editing. We’ve just finished Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. And for the first time, we’re experimenting with bound proof copies. This is ONE book you won’t forget in a hurry!! But I’m also reading the beautiful, mesmerising Sealskin by Su Bristow, a debut author retelling the Selkie legend. Again, oh WOW! Something always on the go, and fortunately not only are my personal reads all different, but my authors are absolutely different! My last ‘non-crime’ read was Schtum by Jem Lester and it would not hesitate to recommend it. There are LOADS more in the pile.
I do a ‘community blog’ on the Orenda website, and we feature Q&As with ‘other’ authors. So I get sent a WHOLE load of books with a view to doing just that! On the horizon are books by Anya Lipska, Eva Dolan, Michael Wood, Doug Johnstone, Derek B. Miller, Ali Land, Erin Kelly, Mark Hill, Joseph Knox, Luca Veste and more … I am SO busy, so I only read the ones that hook me with the blurb, the jacket or the premise. Aspiring authors, take note!
You can find Karen on twitter under the name @OrendaBooks.
I’d like to thank Karen for taking the time to give such candid answers to my questions.