I am so honoured to host an interview today with Karen Sullivan, publisher and founder at Orenda Books, a fantastic independent publishing company based in London. Orenda Books published one of my favourite books this year, How To Be Brave by Louise Beech and in less than a year has achieved great success. Karen is a wonderful person and clearly a talented publisher. Here Karen discusses her journey into becoming an independent publisher and what independent publishing can bring to the industry…
Please can you introduce yourself and give a brief overview of your own career.
I’m Karen Sullivan, publisher at Orenda Books. I moved here from Canada when I was 21 (ostensibly to travel around the world) and worked for a small publishing house for a couple of years, before leaving to forge a career as a health editor and writer. I wrote quite a few books about raising children, emotional health, discipline, bullying, nutrition, and that sort of thing, while having three children of my own, and did some TV. I unexpectedly arrived back in publishing when I took a part-time job in a small independent, which soon became full-time. That move was more about a need for change than anything else, but I realised how much I’d missed ‘front-line’ publishing. When a restructuring of the list took place about a year ago, I decided to set up my own publishing house, and the rest is history!
Orenda Books is just under a year old. How did the company come about and how many staff do you have?
The company came about when the shareholders at my previous job (where I worked for about 18 months) decided to undertake a restructure of a list in which I had not only an enormous amount of faith, but a personal sense of responsibility. I chose this time to go out on my own. It was a long-held ambition, in fact, dream! I have no staff, as such. My husband looks after the contracts and finances in his spare time. I have a brilliant freelance editor, West Camel, who works alongside me on some of the titles, doing second reads of submissions, helping with structural and copy edits, and generally covering when I am away, which is frequently the case. He knows my taste completely, which makes things much, much easier. Liz Wilkins (Liz Loves Books) helps to arrange blog tours and provide feedback on potential titles, as well as other useful things. A wee girl, Emma Clifford, has helped out when she can to chase up publicity things. The community in general has been amazingly supportive, and that is the reason why things have gone in the right direction.
What kind of literature do you publish?
I publish literary fiction, with a heavy emphasis on crime/thrillers, about half in translation. Having said that, I have two books on my list this year that fit in neither category. They resonated and I loved them, so I put them on the list! Next year I have a couple more, and you’ll see why I bought them. Great books deserve to be published, and that’s what I’m aiming to do.
What would you say has been your biggest success so far?
I would love to narrow it down to one book, but the truth is that every single book has exceeded expectations. I have four debut authors on my list (of six), and the reception has been astonishing. My first-ever book was Paul E. Hardisty’s exceptional thriller, The Abrupt Physics of Dying. Not only was it shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, but it’s gained over 150 five-star reviews online, and hit the ‘best book of the year’ spot for a number of bloggers and hopefully also reviewers. I don’t think that I’ve read anything like it, and I don’t think I could ever forget it!
David F. Ross’s wonderful, music- and politics-driven debut novel The Last Days of Disco, has not only been a massive bestseller north of the border, but he’s been called the most ‘exciting new Scottish voice’ and compared to John Niven and Irvine Welsh. Rights were almost instantly sold to Random House in Germany. Funny, sad, heartwarming, it’s just amazing – coming of age cum humour cum WOW.
Snowblind, by Ragnar Jonasson (translated by Quentin Bates) has been our bestselling title this year to date. This unknown, completely amazing Icelandic crime writer managed to hit the number one spot on Kindle, knocking off The Girl on the Train, for the first time, and selling brilliantly in all markets. He blends Golden Age crime (a la Agatha Christie) with the modernity if Nordic Noir, and it’s created a storm!
And then there was Gunnar Staalesen’s We Shall Inherit the Wind, translated by Knausgaard and Nesbo supremo, Don Bartlett. Gunnar is not only one of the fathers of Nordic Noir, but an internationally famous author whose time for recognition in English has come. I breathe a sigh of pleasure when I read his books! We’ve had brilliant reviews, and very strong sales, and his festival appearances and the tour we took in September were sell-outs!
The autumn brought Kati Hiekkapelto’s stunning crime-thriller The Defenceless (translated by David Hackston). Not only did this win the Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2014, but Kati is also up for the coveted Glass Key (previous winners include Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo) for a book that is scarily timely. This book takes crime fiction to a higher level, and I am so proud to publish Kati, whose distinctive voice has already earned her a spot on the Petrona shortlist!
My final book of 2015 is another aberration. A compelling, moving, astoundingly evocative debut novel called How To Be Brave, by Louise Beech, which weaves together the contemporary story of a woman struggling with a seriously ill child and a true story from the author’s own past (think survival on a lifeboat for 50 days during the Second World War). Just out two weeks ago, we’ve had dozens of online reviews and, more importantly, many bloggers calling it their book of the year.
Everything has gone better than I could ever have dreamt.
What book are you particularly looking forward to publishing?
That’s rather like asking me who is my favourite child! I am looking forward to publishing them all, and my 2016 list and the beginnings of the 2017 list are simply brilliant!
I’ve got second novels for all of my existing authors (The Evolution of Fear, by Paul E. Hardisty; Nightblind and Blackout by Ragnar Jonasson (trs Quentin Bates); The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, by David F. Ross; Where Roses Never Die, by Gunnar Staalesen (trs Don Bartlett); The Mountain in My Shoe, by Louise Beech, and the third in the Anna Fekete series, by Kati Hiekkapelto (trs David Hackston).
As well as that, we’ve got Deadly Harvest and A Death in the Family from the magnificent South African crime-writing duo Michael Stanley (the Detective Kubu mysteries, set in Botswana);In Her Wake, a gorgeous, chilling psychological thriller based around an abducted child from the inimitable Amanda Jennings; an unputdownable, exceptional Homeland-style thriller from debut author Yusuf Toropov, entitled Jihadi: A Love Story; a page-turning, gritty and authentic thriller by ex-Met Police officer, Matt Johnson; Epiphany Jones, an extraordinary thriller cum dark comedy by journalist Michael Grothaus – simply amazingly written, it’s got sex trafficking as its theme, but some fabulous humour and a deeply moving emotional core; Norwegian author Agnes’ Ravatn’s absolutely exquisite, Rebecca-esque The Bird Tribunal (trs Rosie Hedger), which has been a massive success in her own country and put her on every ‘author to watch list’ there is; TWO brand-new Nordic Noir thrillers (Coat of Arms and Mortal Wound) in the Henning Juul series by bestselling, talented Norwegian author Thomas Enger; an absolutely stunning retelling of the Selkie legend, Sealskin, by newcomer Sujata Bristow, and a couple more up my sleeve that will be announced soon. I love every single one of them, or I wouldn’t be publishing them.
What were some of the risks you had to take into consideration when starting your own independent publishing company?
Starting any business is a risk, particularly in an industry that is in a state of flux, with many independent publishers being swallowed by conglomerates or closing their doors completely. I was aware of my responsibilities to my authors, whose blood is in their books, to their agents, to my distributors and sales team, booksellers, to everyone, and worried that an unknown company with a fairly unknown publisher and a host of debuts on the list, could fail to make any impact at all. I also have a family, and had to be sure that I wasn’t going to end up homeless and penniless because of my determination to follow my dreams. More than a few people said I was mad, but a lot more than that believed it could be done. Ultimately I reckon that people always read great books, and if I could find them, publish them and market them, then I stood as much chance as anyone else. It’s a difficult business, with tiny margins and many nail-biting moments, but I have fantastic authors who work so hard to promote their books and ultimately, as I suspected, good books will sell! And the truth is that many big companies are struggling in a market that is ever-changing, and I might as well throw in my lot with them.
What does Orenda Books have to offer that others don’t or what do you feel makes your company unique?
The nice thing about being an independent publisher is that we can probably take risks that other, larger companies can’t. While we have hopeful sales targets, they aren’t deal-breakers, and we can invest in authors while they find their place in the market (and the bestseller lists!). In many larger companies, an author needs to reach a certain level of sales or risk being dropped. Our overheads are low, and we can take a punt where other companies might not. More importantly, we can do something different and create or cater to a niche community. I love publishing translated fiction, for example. It’s hugely expensive, with the cost of the translation to take into consideration before you’ve even edited, jacketed, printed, marketed or sold a single book, and on paper it doesn’t look very promising; however, there is a community of avid readers out there and I take huge pride in bringing to English some of the finest international authors there are. We can cherry-pick from the very best! Every publishing company differs according to who is buying the books, and what you get at Orenda is my taste. I always worry that people won’t see what I saw, but so far that has not been the case. There has been resounding enthusiasm and support. So I guess the answer is that we just publish good books. We take risks with debut authors, with translated fiction, with books written in Scottish vernacular (for example), with sensitive themes, with authors who have been rejected in lots of places before finding their home on a team. We are growing together as a company and I think that harmony, that shared belief, is what will shine through. Well, that and the great books!
Why do you feel that independents are good for the publishing industry?
For most of the reasons above, really. Bringing something different and new to the market, taking risks that bigger companies can’t accommodate because of accountability to shareholders or targets, and publishing passionately. This might sound odd, but in larger companies, the enthusiasm, excitement and commitment of a great commissioning editor will get a book commissioned, but by the time a book heads down through various departments, even the greatest energy can be diluted. Here, as in many independents, a few people (in our case, just me) do everything from commissioning and editing to pitching for festivals and reviews, marketing, selling rights and even accompanying authors on tours and to events. The initial excitement is always there, and that helps. I can’t tell you how many authors from bigger companies have approached me. They aren’t after bigger money; they are after a continuing relationship, personal care, continuity, and the belief that their book will have more than a week in the sun.
Independents also tend to cater to niche markets, which are rich and vibrant communities, with avid readers who appreciate the different things we bring to the market. There should be books for all types of readers, and in an industry increasingly dominated by conglomerates and chains, with the obvious repercussions, it’s nice to offer something new and to give perhaps less catered-for markets what they want.
You can follow Orenda Books on Twitter @OrendaBooks
Find out more about their company and their books at http://orendabooks.co.uk/