Bonnier Zaffre’s editorial director spoke to Claire Coughlan about the future of the psychological thriller, and why we’re in the midst of a new golden age of crime fiction
When I met Bonnier Zaffre editorial director Katherine Armstrong at the publisher’s offices on Wimpole Street in late June, 2018 has already been a seismic year for the company, with the departure of ceo Richard Johnson in February, and group coo Sharon Parker earlier in the summer. In the month since our interview, Mark Smith has stepped down as chief executive of Bonnier Zaffre after selling his equity stake in the firm, and Perminder Mann has been appointed to head of the UK group.
In the midst of all these changes, for Armstrong and her small, committed editorial team it appears to be very much business as usual in the day-to-day running of things.
When we meet, Armstrong is just about to celebrate her ‘bonniversary’ – marking two years since she joined Bonnier Zaffre as senior editor, subsequently being promoted to editorial director last year. Before that, she worked for Sphere at Little, Brown and, before that, at Faber.
"This [Bonnier Zaffre] has a nice feel of both," she says. "It’s got the nous to go for bigger books but it’s also got that small, compact feel."
As part of the fastest-growing publisher in the UK, Armstrong believes that Bonnier Zaffre’s "tight list" makes it stand out from its competitors. Major successes since the company’s inception in 2014 include LS Hilton’s thrillers set in the art world, as well as Caz Frear’s debut Sweet Little Lies, which was a top 10 Amazon Kindle bestseller. It is being published in the US this year and has been optioned for TV.
"We’re not in competition with ourselves," Armstrong explains. "We’re only in competition for each retailer slot with the other publishers, not within our own lists. I know other publishers who’ve got a lot of imprints and publish similar things on the same day, so some have more airtime than others. When Mark Smith came on board and brought Zaffre to Bonnier, that was one of the things he wanted to do. Which does mean that sometimes you have to make that decision: 'It’s a really good book, but I’ve got one similar.' It has to earn its place on the list."
New psychological twist
Armstrong published Sweet Little Lies after finding the author through Richard and Judy’s Search for a Bestseller competition, which Frear won in 2016. "It ticks so many boxes, that book; we were just so lucky to find it," she says. Increasingly, psychological thrillers have to do something different to stand out in a saturated market. Sweet Little Lies is a police procedural, but it’s also has suspense and family drama elements, which meant that it "really resonated".
Armstrong says of the genre: "It can’t be domestic set, it has to have some USP to it, more high-concept and we’ve seen more supernatural elements coming in. It’ll be interesting to see what publishers will buy and what readers will want. There’s been a lot of psychological thrillers which are similar, and have had a lot of success, but you can’t just repeat the sameness of it, you have to say, 'What else can I do with it?'"
Another noteworthy Bonnier Zaffre title, Killing It by Asia Mackay, came out last month. Armstrong jointly acquired it with colleague Eleanor Dryden, publishing director for women’s commercial fiction, as it straddles both the thriller and women’s fiction genres.
It has an unusual USP: it’s about a woman who goes back to work after maternity leave, but with a twist. As a government assassin, she has to infiltrate a group of West London mums, as part of a plan to assassinate a Russian oligarch, with her secret weapon: her baby. It seems to have struck a nerve, receiving generous advance praise from, among others, Marian Keyes and Sophie Ellis Bextor.
Turning to crime
Armstrong started her publishing career at Faber as poetry editorial assistant, and then worked across fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry. When Faber started to develop its crime list in 2007 she was able to channel her interest in crime fiction, later becoming a commissioning editor in 2011. "Faber always had crime – they had Michael Dibdin, PD James – so it was really interesting to see how to do it now that crime was burgeoning again in the UK market, and to do it with a slightly more literary feel."
At Faber, Armstrong worked with James Carol, whom she is now publishing at Bonnier Zaffre. She says it’s nice, as Carol puts it, "to get the band back together".
Data released at LBF in April revealed that crime is currently the most-read genre in the UK. Why is this?
"Mark Billingham said recently that this is a second golden age of crime writing, and a couple of other people have said it. If you look at the first 'golden age' it was between the wars, when there was a period of instability; it [crime fiction] was a way to put order back into a world that had been completely disordered. In our current climate, it’s escapism, but it’s escapism based in reality."