Today I am pleased to welcome Karen Sullivan to the blog. She is a very busy woman so it has taken a few weeks to get this together. But it has been worth the wait. I hope you agree.
Hi Karen, thank you for coming on the blog to talk about books, crime fiction and publishing.
For anyone who might not know who you are, can you tell us a little about yourself please?
Thanks for having me, Rebecca! I’m Karen Sullivan, publisher and founder of Orenda Books. We publish literary fiction with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half in translation.
What made you decide to set up your own publishing company?
After years of writing my own (non-fiction) books, I started working at a small independent, ostensibly for one day a week, writing jacket copy, press release, advance information sheets … that sort of thing. Just a change. My first ‘real’ job was in publishing, so I knew a little bit about the industry and had worked on the other side. I ended up working there pretty much full time for just over a year. When a change in shareholders brought about a change in direction for the company (including shelving books for upcoming authors), I took the opportunity to leave. I don’t know what made me decide to set up Orenda Books. I suppose I just felt there was (and is) a market for intelligent, beautifully written and produced fiction, particularly in translation. I wanted to create something a bit special … something that stood out from what is out there. I wanted to work super closely with authors, and to create a ‘brand’ that was synonymous with great quality, genre-pushing, absolutely readable and unforgettable books!
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
That’s a good question. This is an ever-changing industry and I don’t think anyone can predict the future at the moment. I would like to think that Orenda Books will still be the same … a small, carefully curated list of some of the best international authors around. With some bestsellers on that list, of course! I’d like my authors to earn some money! So big sales are critical to that! It’s certainly achievable! The most important thing is to retain our integrity, and only publish the best books. If everything is consistently great, the reputation of the company and the ‘brand’ will be maintained and hopefully readers will actively seek us out!
You have a strong crime presence on your lists, can you tell us what it is about crime fiction that you love?
I think all of us have cut our ‘reading teeth’ on crime fiction to some extent … in my case, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, then Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A Whitney, Ruth Rendall and onwards. My reading of choice was probably literary women’s fiction, but of course there is darkness and suspense at the core of most novels, so it isn’t a crazy idea to love ‘literary’ mysteries, if you like! I love exploring evil … why people perpetrate crimes, their motivation, their mind set. I love guessing ‘whodunnit’ or ‘why whodunnit’! I love books with atmosphere … darkness, brooding, claustrophobia, creepiness, perhaps even a little bit of horror. There are societal issues at the heart of most crime fiction; people don’t commit crimes or operate in a vacuum. There is always a pressure there, and I find it fascinating to interpret and understand what makes people behave out of character, to kill or injure, to visit taboos. Crime fiction, therefore, often offers a snapshot of our society and its inherent problems and through the medium of entertainment we can highlight them, understand and get to grips with them. Perhaps see the world in a different way. All books can do that, of course, but we unpick the fabric of society and look underneath its sheen in crime fiction.
What is it you look for in a crime submission you are considering taking on?
Something fresh, different and new. I love debuts. I love authors who find new ways to tell a story … who push the boundaries of the genre. New insights into familiar tropes, sophisticated plotting, relevant messages. We’ve had a few with some dark humour recently, and they are wonderful! Most of all, I look for beautiful writing, and authors who have a career ahead of them … authors I can grow with the company.
You take submissions direct from authors, not just agents, what can an author do to get your attention in their submission letter?
The most important thing is to make it clear that he/she knows my list. Showing me how their book would fit into and add to the list is pretty critical. One thing I don’t do is publish authors who are similar in any way. They are all different and bring something new. So pointing this out is a good first step. I also like to know a little about an author. We are very much a team here, and spend a lot of time together. Getting a sense of the author really helps. So who are they and why is their book special? Some publishers and agents hate being given comparisons (i.e., Gone Girl meets Rebecca), but I don’t mind that. It makes it very easy to visualise what the books sets out to do/be.
Can you tell us the process a book has to go through from initial submission to being a published book? Who is involved in the decision-making process? How long does the whole process take?
I’m afraid that it can take a very long time here! There are three of us who read submissions, and we get hundreds every month. This reading has to fit in and around all of the other work, so time is at a premium. I have a first reader who looks at everything, and knows my taste completely. She pretty much divides things into Yes, No and Maybe. She’s been with me from the beginning, and has never once been wrong. The list is SO small, though. Even obvious yeses can’t be accommodated because we can’t fit them in.
Most authors who submit hear from us within eight months (fingers crossed). From there, we have a pretty long structural editing process, to ensure that the book is absolutely water tight. This can take anything from a month to six or more months, depending upon how much work needs to be undertaken. While this is going on, we’ll often work with our amazing designer to get a jacket sorted, and prepare advance information sheets for the sales team, and probably get the book up for pre-order. The book is then copyedited, typeset, often printed in the form of bound uncorrected advance proofs, proofread, ebooked, audiobooked and then printed. We send the proofs out to the press and to bloggers and other authors for quotes or an early buzz. It is currently March and 2020 is pretty much scheduled. Anything new would probably now fit into 2021. It can be a long time for an author to wait!
What is currently on your wish list?
Nothing in particular. Just something that stands out from the crowd. We have published a couple of ‘spooky’ crime novels, and I really enjoyed that! But anything goes, really. International crime with a strong sense of place is always on my list. And looking at issues in a compelling new way.
What’s the last crime book you read for pleasure?
I have just finished reading Ragnar Jonasson’s The Island, translated by Victoria Cribb. I loved it! We published Ragnar’s Dark Iceland series, and it’s so wonderful seeing him go from strength to strength. Before that I read Fiona Cummin’s The Neighbour, which was fabulously chilling. She’s a brilliant writer.
Are there any secrets the publishing industry hides from authors that you can inform us about?
I don’t think any author would want to know what can go on behind the scenes! The ranking of marketing spend, etc. I try really hard to avoid a lot of the ruthless bits, treating every author equally, absolute parity amongst them all; however, it does seem like a flawed business plan sometimes!
You work long hours. What do you drink while you’re working?
In the day, one coffee, one Pepsi Max (too much caffeine makes me crazy) and lots of water. At night, if I’m just doing social media or reading, I might drink wine! Usually water, though!
What does your workspace look like?
I have a study rammed with books, with piles of paper everywhere. Despite my best efforts, it is never tidy. I have a big-screen computer, which is essential when I have a million files open at once … everything from my Twitter feed to sales reports to metadata for ebooks, jacket copy I’m working on, marketing ideas, straplines, jacket roughs, and the current edit. I’ve been experiencing really awful neck pain recently, so I’ve moved downstairs to a sofa, working on my laptop, in the short term. This seems to help, but my laptop doesn’t show all my files in such a convenient way!
What keeps you so motivated?
Oh, that’s an easy one. I am totally passionate about books, about working with authors to create incredible, beautiful books. Bringing international books into English. Marketing and selling in the books. Getting attention for authors who really deserve it! I love editing and fine-tuning books. I genuinely adore all of my authors, and I am completely determined to do them proud, even if it sometimes takes longer than planned. I will stick with them, no matter what! It’s a hugely friendly, supportive community, and that’s what keeps me going. Early reviews of new titles … praise for the books from unexpected quarters, a big order from a retailer. It all motivates me. My job is super stressful, but it’s also immensely rewarding and fun! I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me and for giving us a little insight into the world of publishing.