The BookBrunch Interview: Karen Sullivan, Orenda Books

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews Monday, 24 April 2017

Jasmin Kirkbride talks to Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books about the slush pile, the frisson of finding the right book, advances, and giving attention to everything on the list

Two and a half years on from its launch, Orenda Books is going from strength to strength. Run by its founder, Karen Sullivan, Orenda publishes literary fiction, as well as "the high end of genre fiction", with an emphasis on crime and thrillers. About half the list is translated fiction, and Sullivan is always keen to push the boundaries.

Striking out alone
Though Sullivan started in publishing at Sidgwick & Jackson, working her way up to commissioning editor, for much of her career she has written books on parenting. As her own children got older, she took what was supposed to be a one-day-a-week job at a small publisher; it turned into 15 months of non-stop work when it became clear all was not well with the business.

Eventually the company ended up with a group of shareholders who had lost faith in the list. The list was cut, and contracts were cancelled. "I just couldn't sit there and watch that," remembers Sullivan. "Having been an author myself, I'm very aware that you've got your blood in these books. So in 2014 I left. I lay on my bed for 24 hours, then I went downstairs and said to my husband that we were going to re-mortgage our house and I was going to start my own publishing company."

She needed all her determination. "The truth is, I had hardly any experience," she confesses. "But I reckoned that in an industry that is changing literally daily, there was no harm in throwing in my lot. Maybe a lack of experience would be an asset, because I wouldn't have preconceived ways of doing things."

Two and half years on, Sullivan is delighted in her choice. "The very nicest thing is that I don't have to account to anybody," she says. "I can choose the books that I like or that I think readers are going to enjoy reading. I can stick with authors that perhaps might be dropped at other publishing houses."

Sullivan is the only employee at Orenda Books, working with a network of freelancers. The result is that she builds strong relationships with her authors. "There really is a team mentality," says Sullivan. "That is something that gets me up in the mornings."

It is not just these relationships: Sullivan is excited by the entire process of publishing. "I can't think of a part of the job which I don't love. Well, maybe not metadata," she clarifies with a grin.

The slush pile and the frisson
From a young age, Sullivan appears to have been destined to be a publisher. "I'm not a big TV watcher. My whole life, my greatest relaxation would be to go and find a book, so doing what I do sort of validates that. It seemed like the obvious next step. I remember being about 12 or 13 and reading a book in which the protagonist got a job at a company reading through the slush pile, and I thought, 'That's a job?' From that point on, I've always wanted to be in publishing, even though I knew nothing about it."

Perhaps partly because of this enthusiasm, and unusually for a publisher, Orenda is open to unsolicited submissions - though recently Sullivan had to close the mailbox while she and her two readers went through a pile that had grown to 800 manuscripts. "Every time we announce another acquisition, we get another 50 submissions, so we had to just stop it for a while," Sullivan says. "We're spoiled for choice, and you do always run the risk that you're going to miss something fantastic, but the truth is that you do end up publishing what's right for your list. Everything happens for a reason, kind of thing."

Having open submissions has been fruitful for Orenda, with some manuscripts even coming in from Twitter or Facebook. Sullivan estimates that a third of her authors don't have agents, and they get exactly the same deal as everyone else. "We're very fair like that," says Sullivan, who nevertheless admits that Orenda's advances are modest: she says that the company prefers to invest funds in author PR such as the Orenda Roadshow events, nationwide tours that involve as many as 10 authors.

"I probably talk to each of my authors at least twice a week," Sullivan says. "We have a genuine relationship and we work together to make sure every book is given the best possible chance. I never call any of our books backlist. You never miss an opportunity to go back and publicise them." It might take an author five or six books to become successful, but Sullivan says her authors know she will stick with them.

"It's really hard to choose the right books, but it's an instinctive thing," Sullivan says when asked about how she knows a book should be commissioned. "But I absolutely know when it's going to be The One. It's a funny feeling. I've had books where I've read three pages and I just knew. It's like a frisson. The hairs on my neck stand up."

This instinct is particularly important when it comes to working with books in translation. "I'm sure a lot of publishers who work with literature in translation have an instinctive way of commissioning, because often the sample translations are rubbish and generally you don't get to meet the authors."

As Orenda is currently set up, Sullivan can afford to have this feeling about 20 times a year. It is always a joy - and a relief - when the reviews and jacket quotes come in. "I do often feel quite exposed, because the list is entirely my taste," she says. "So it's hugely gratifying when other people like it too."

Pushing boundaries
For books to retain their importance, Sullivan believes it important to keep pushing the boundaries of story and genre. For example, one of Orenda's most successful books is How To Be Brave, which was a Guardian Readers' Pick for 2015, but which had received numerous rejections before Sullivan picked it up. "It was right for it to come here," she comments. "Often people who haven't had much luck with lots of agents or other publishers will come here because I'm trying to do something very slightly different. I've never minded creating demand."

Because of this philosophy, Orenda has started being approached by authors from bigger publishers who are fed up with what they call "midlist hell" - where, in spite of larger advances, they get little support in trying to achieve sales. Orenda, Sullivan says, works hard for every book.

So she gets upset when her authors are poached by bigger companies. "I don't blame the authors. They've got to make a living and a bigger advance that I can't afford to match is obviously something they have to consider. They know that the door is open if they ever get stuck in that hellish midlist place. But I feel that so many of the big companies lack imagination. Instead of going out there and finding their own talent, they're cherry-picking the bestselling authors (because it's all about sales figures in the end) from the independents. I find that hugely frustrating.

"A lot of the neat new stuff is coming from the independents, probably because they're willing to take the risk. You know, 200 people's jobs are at stake in a bigger company, so there's a lot more involved and there's a lot more at risk. Still, not enough people are giving new authors a chance. If they did it would make the industry so much more exciting and give it more variety. You only have to click on the Amazon charts day after day to see the same thing. Maybe in a year's time there'll be a new much of a muchness but it's not hugely imaginative and it's not exciting, when there are so many truly exciting books out there!"

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