The BookBrunch Interview: Trailblazer winners Anna Russo, Heather McDaid, and Željka Maroševic

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Two months on from the second annual Trailblazers Awards, organised by London Book Fair (LBF) and the Society of Young Publishers (SYP), we catch up with three of the five Trailblazer winners - Anna Russo, Željka Maroševic and Heather McDaid - to find out what they’ve been up to and their plans for the future. They provide a snapshot of an industry, not just expanding outside London, but around the world

A digital future with Anna Russo
Anna Russo moved into an executive role when she took over Hodder Education’s Caribbean list two years ago, as the small Hodder Caribbean list merged with the larger Pearson list, acquired in January 2015. Russo manages the different agents and employees in the Caribbean region, develops new sales and marketing strategies, and works with local bookshops, ministries and schools.

"The Pearson acquisition was a huge move for us, going from a handful of Caribbean-specific titles to over 500," Russo explains. "So even though the first year we had lots of teething issues and those have been ironed out more or less, I’m still keeping an eye on it, making sure everything is running really smoothly and that the transition is going well, so that we not only took over the list but can make it grow and develop all our staff."

Russo is based in the London office, but travels out to the Caribbean four or five times a year. "It’s very nice to be in different environments and contexts, I find that really motivating," she says. "It’s interesting speaking to people in other countries, because everyone has a different approach and mentality. It keeps you on your toes and makes you really rethink and question."

Russo was on business in the Caribbean at the time of the Trailblazers Award ceremony, but she is thrilled to have won. "I woke up in the morning and I had emails saying congratulations. Everyone was a couple of hours ahead of me, so it was exciting."

Moving forward, she can only see this kind of international business expanding. "From our perspective at Hodder Education, international trade is becoming more and more important. Our focus is moving more towards international markets and we see ourselves as a global publisher."

The big watchword in education publishing, however, is digital. "There’s been a lot of discussion in education publishing about moving into the digital realm," she says, "about whether textbooks can be replaced by ebooks and whether kids need to be coming to school with tablets and laptops.

"I can only speak specifically for the Caribbean, but there’s kind of a move for print to be replaced completely with digital in education. A lot of customers and schools are very keen to move forward in that direction. We’re keen to support them as well, but it’s a big step and it is a challenge because it’s not as easy as it may appear." Despite the challenge, Hodder Education already has its own digital platform, Dynamic Learning, which houses its interactive eTextbooks.

Bursting the London bubble with Heather McDaid
Heather McDaid is a freelancer publishing professional and writer. Last year, she set up new independent publisher and literary magazine 404 Ink with her friend Laura Jones, whom she had met when working with Scot Lit Fest. "We actually launched 404 Ink anonymously at first, because we wanted to see if the idea that we had was of interest," McDaid says. They had a good response, and have been going strong ever since.

However, winning the Trailblazer Awards has special significance for McDaid. "Winning the Trailblazer was really good because A, I'm in Scotland and B, I'm a freelancer and work from home, so I don't really see other people. It was nice to feel like I was on the same level as the people who work full time jobs down in the south."

There is, she says, a London bubble. "It's never felt weird to be in Scotland, and I love Scottish publishing. There's so much going on here. But it does feel like there's definitely a London bubble. It's really hard for Scottish publishers to break outside of Scotland - not through any fault of what they're publishing, but because sometimes there's a weird perception about Scotland. Some people seem surprised when they hear how much amazing stuff is going on here."

Scottish publishing seems to be in good health at the moment. "It's taking risks on lots of exciting projects, like Saraband being shortlisted for the Man Booker with Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project," McDaid says.

Scotland is also leading the way on festivals, with dozens of events and a hard line on author treatment and payment. "In Scotland, paying authors is just a normal thing. Scotland's got a really great, strong literary community that treats authors really well."

Since the Trailblazer Awards, 404 Ink's first book was released to roaring acclaim: Nasty Women, an essay collection on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century. "It's been pretty much constant events," says McDaid. "They've all been sold out and the book's amazing so it's been a really fun month. Between our literary magazine and Nasty Women, we've currently worked with about 60 authors, but with Nasty Women in particular, it feels like we've just got a new group of friends. We have a Facebook group and group emails... Discovering so many amazing people and actually getting to work with them and become friends with them has been amazing."

The biggest challenge will be in ensuring that 404 Ink becomes a stable business. "We wanted to start off quite small and build it up, but Nasty Women kind of exploded, which is amazing, but it means we actually need to work out what we're doing to sustain everything."

It’s an interesting time to be commissioning, says McDaid, and Nasty Women is the tip of the iceberg. "In general, I think with Brexit and Trump and everything, there's going to be a lot of uncertainty. It's just going to be everyone working out how to navigate that kind of stuff, on a business level, but also on a moral one. There's going to be a lot more publishing that needs to happen to balance this right wing swing that's going on."

A golden time for indies, says Željka Maroševic
Alongside Karen Maine, Željka Maroševic is co-publisher at Daunt Publishing, an imprint of the Daunt Books independent bookshop chain. Daunt was first set up as a travel specialist, and the publishing wing focuses on books that evoke a sense of place.

"We do everything that a publisher does, but there are only two of us!" Maroševic explains. From acquiring and editing books, through to contracts, sales and publicity, Maroševic and Maine manage and execute everything, though they are distributed by Faber and are part of the Independent Alliance.

"It's a very holistic approach to publishing," Maroševic says. "It's really nice to be working in an environment that's still got books at the heart of it. You're thinking all the time about the bookshop and how people are discovering books, you're not just sat apart from the reader, which is really important. I think finding the readers is always a challenge for publishing. As much as people say they aren't, I think that publishers are good at embracing new technologies and finding new audiences."

Maroševic says that the Trailblazer award was a very unexpected, but welcome, honour. She’s got quite a CV, having been at Daunt for just over a year, before which she set up and managed the UK wing of independent American publisher Melville House - including publishing The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. She says it was a similar experience to Daunt in terms of the holistic approach, but quite different from 4th Estate, where she started out.

"With indies, what I really value is being able to see the whole process of publishing and to feel like I don't just hand that book over once I've acquired it," Maroševic says. "You also have a certain freedom when you're an indie to publish books that perhaps other houses might have missed out on or maybe aren't brave enough to publish. In that sense, there's a real space for indie publishing. It's where all the experimentation happens, which is great for the general ecosystem of the industry. It's a really good time for independent publishing - big and small, from Faber to Fitzcarraldo."

However, finances are a perpetual problem for independents, though even this can be a bonus. "The great thing about indies is that you're used to operating on a shoestring. But I think it is hard to be in London, which is why a lot of indies are moving, and that's going to give more oxygen to them."

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