The BookBrunch Interview: Ruth Tross, crime and thriller publisher, Hodder

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews Friday, 07 April 2017

Ruth Tross, crime and thriller publisher at Hodder, has an obvious passion for her work, and she loves the genre she works with. 'I love story,' she says. 'With crime and thriller, you just have this really great intersection between exciting plot, characters at their most extreme states, and the intellectual puzzle of trying to figure out what's going on before the author lets you in on it. Crime tells you a lot about the world and societies we live in, their stresses and pressures, because in a broader sense, crime is an interruption of society. It's what happens when things are going wrong, and that's quite revealing'

But it isn’t just about genre, as Tross discusses diversity in publishing, the growth of digital, and the secrets to a successful list.

She started at Hodder 11 years ago as an editorial assistant at the Sceptre imprint. Though working in literary fiction, she soon showed her passion for crime and thrillers, and when in 2011 the chance to launch the Mulholland crime imprint came up, she leapt at it. In January, as part of a department-wide reshuffle, Tross stepped into the role of Hodder crime and thriller publisher, taking on a list that includes authors such as John Grisham, Jeffery Deaver, Sophie Hannah and Erin Kelly, all brought in by various editors.

"The restructure tried to give our publishing a bit more focus and let people have their areas of expertise," she explains. Non-fiction was split into two units - general non-fiction, and lifestyle, cookery and well-being; and fiction was divided into general fiction, and crime and thriller - the latter now taking up about half of Hodder's fiction publishing.

General fiction side is run by Kate Howard. "Pretty much all the fiction editors will publish some books that fall under my responsibility and some books that fall under Kate's," Tross says. "It's very collaborative, but it's not like co-managing, because the books that we're responsible for are quite different."

"Collaborative" is a word that comes up regularly in Tross' account of her work. "It is how Hodder works, generally, even before this new structure," she says. "Everything that we do involves so many people, it seems silly not to get everyone's point of view from the outset. Our editors have a fair amount of autonomy, too, so if they get something in and they love it, they run with it and they persuade people, then we all talk about it together and decide how to go for it and at what level. Hodder encourages that kind of discussion and shared focus."

Tross continues to acquire and edits books. "I wouldn't want to give that up altogether, because I think that moment when you read a new book and you think, 'This is it, this is the one I want to publish', is still the most exciting thing you can do in a job. It’s a real emotional high."

Even so, Tross always has to consider whether she has the time to give a book as much attention as she feels it deserves or needs. "You can publish more books now, and publish faster, because of digital, but that ability needs to be balanced with making sure you have the time to spend on each book. It’s true that agents have taken on quite a lot of the editing, at least at the initial stages, which is probably because they're aware that publishers, like everyone really, are under a lot of time pressure. I do most of my editing from home or at the weekends, but that has probably always been the case in publishing."

The importance of a plan
Maintaining that balance is not the only challenge ahead for publishing, however. "I think the biggest challenge is that there are a lot of distractions out there," Tross says. "There's a lot of pressure on people's time. Books aren't just competing with other books, they're competing with TV and video games and Twitter. Making a case for why books are important, and why people should still read, is going to be pretty critical as we go on.

"Interestingly, having said that, there are lots more books being published, and there are lots of different ways to read books or listen to audiobooks, so you're also struggling to make sure that the books you publish are the ones that stand out and get talked about in a world where there's a lot of pressure on space in retailers and on review pages."

Tross is uncertain about whether working at a big publisher is an advantage in battling these obstacles. Despite having larger publicity and sales teams, as well as bigger budgets most of the time, they know that the biggest factor in the success of a book remains its content. "I think bloggers, reviewers and readers are fairly discerning. Readers aren’t very conscious of who publishers are, they're conscious of who authors are, and reviewers will review books they think are good regardless of where they come from. We have to have those individual relationships with retailers still, because it's that one-to-one thing that really makes a difference. Ultimately if the book's no good, or it doesn't connect, then you're not going to be able to punch through, however much weight you've got."

Running a successful list takes careful planning. "For me, it's all about a combination of planning and instinct. You've got to have the instinct to pick the right book, and then you've got to have the plan to be able to push that author's career up. You set a goal, then you just follow it all the way along, being very clear about what you expect to happen and what you need to do to make that happen. Even though a publishing campaign for a big brand author is very different from one for a debut author, they both take a lot of time, thought and planning. It's making sure you have taken that time, thought and planning for every publication."

Equally important is the ability to identify brilliant new writers, acquire them, and acquire them quickly. "You need to have an understanding of what books and genres we maybe don't have on our list," says Tross, "so that we will know to go after them when a good one comes along."

Nowadays, this always involves a digital plan as well. When Tross started 11 years ago, Hachette did not publish ebooks at all. "It's really strange to think back on that and how quickly everything's changed," she reflects. "Print and digital definitely interact, I don't think you can separate them out easily. If a book does really well and appeals to the print market, then you'll see the ebook sales grow, and vice versa. It comes back to that concept of visibility, and the more visibility you have in whatever market, the better it is for the book as a whole. I think the growth of ebooks has been a real growth, and there are more readers out there in general as a result.”

Climbing the ladder
Though benefiting from Hodder's support, Tross says that career advancement such as hers is not straightforward. "I think it's tough to go from being an editorial assistant to being an editor. You can get lucky, find a good project, and make a name for yourself that way. You can just do a really, really good job and an opportunity will open up, though editorial teams tend to be a certain size, and if it's a bit of a one-in-one-out situation, it can take a long time."

One of the things that has been weighing on Tross' mind is the question of how we can built greater diversity within the publishing work force. Hachette launched its Changing the Story directive to help tackle this issue late last year, and Tross' first Creative Access intern has just started. "I feel quite conscious that if publishing is going to thrive for the next 20 years, we all need to make sure that we're commissioning and hiring the right people to represent the way the world is changing. So that we're not too London-centric, or too white, or too middle-class, but are publishing books that will speak to as many people as possible."

Steps to correct this range from blind CVs, to improving the representation in schools of publishing as a career. Paying interns is key, so that a greater diversity of socio-economic backgrounds can access the experience still considered required for many publishing jobs. Hachette has also just raised its starting salary.

"We need to get better as an industry at not just going for the easy pick," Tross says. "You just constantly have to ask yourself if there's a better way you can find new applicants, through outreach or looking at CVs in a different way, than supporting people to come and work here in a very expensive city."

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