Corner – folding behaviour, publishing during a pandemic and book chat with Karen Sullivan @OrendaBooks #Orentober #MamaOrenda

Happy Friday dear reader, we hope that you arrived at the Reading Closet well and you’re excited about this Q&A with mama Orenda herself. Today was going to be a break before the final posting tomorrow, but when Karen said that she’d squeeze in my questions into her already busy schedule I had to snap her offer up. It has been a hell of a year for all of us but Karen in this interview enlightens up how it has affected publishing, what she has learnt this year and what is to come for Orenda Books next year.

Karen Sullivan is the owner of Orenda Books, a British-based publishing house that publishes literary and crime fiction. The London-based publisher was established in 2014 and publishes debut and existing authors including Ragnar Jónasson, Thomas Enger, Michael Grothaus, Gunnar Staalesen, and Kati Hiekkapelto.

So grab your drink, settle down and let’s jump straight in shall we?

Hi Karen, thank-you so much for joining me today and for answering all my curious questions. Firstly, you’ve had a bit of a year, how are you?

I’m OK! As you know, I had a nasty bout of Covid-19 early on and unfortunately haven’t been able to shake it. Symptoms return (including a splendid fever) regularly and I am beyond tired most of the time. I’m not a sickly person and I have no underlying health problems, so it’s been tough. Having said that, my job brings great joy and it’s so good to be able to edge my way back into such a wonderful community! Interestingly, I think my answers to your questions would have been wildly different before the virus struck!

It has been one hell of a crazy year, but we are all really happy that you are on the road to recovery, you’ve been terribly missed but Orenda Fairy, Mary has been doing such an amazing job steering the Orenda Books Twitter ship. I hope that you don’t mind, but I like kicking off these interviews with a flash ‘get-to-know’. So…

Tea or coffee?

Coffee in the morning and then endless cups of chamomile and/or liquorice tea throughout the day. I used to drink (a lot of) wine, but I haven’t touched a drop since March and even the thought of it is off putting. I also used to drink a lot of Diet Coke, and that’s off the menu, too. Which is weird…

Bookmark or page folder?

Absolute folder … my books look a bit wrecked when I’ve finished them because I often read in the bath (where they get a good soaking) or while cooking dinner (a good spattering).

I love that you ‘wreck’ books while reading, I think that is a characteristic of a well-read and loved book. I love a read in the bath also, although I have to admit I tend to use my waterproof kindle now – less soggy books!
Morning bird or night owl?

This is one of the post-Covid anomalies. BEFORE CV, I experienced huge bursts of energy in the afternoon and well into the night (wee hours), and could operate on almost no sleep. Mornings are always early because I get up to get my youngest son off to school, and I used to be pretty groggy. Now, however, I am so tired by dinnertime, I go to bed super early and try not to work in the evenings. Which means I am fresh and raring to go in the morning. So, presently, a wee morning dove!

Gosh, CV has changed you, although I am guessing your body still needs the sleep to help itself heal, so listen to it you must!
Print or ebook?

Now this is another weird one. I asked for a kindle for my birthday because I travel so much but when it arrived (January), I couldn’t get on with it at all! I lugged it everywhere, and opened it for a few seconds and then shut it again, picking up a ‘real’ book instead. BUT, when I was so sick and confined to my bed, I brought it out again and it was amazing! I could prop it against a pillow and poke at it to turn the pages. I fell in love with it and now actively looking forward to getting back to it at bedtime. What I really love is the ability to finish a book and start a new one without budging from my bed, and also to explore the books of authors whose books I’ve enjoyed … instantly! So, I guess, ebook!

I too have become an ebook lover, nothing drastic like you caused the love but I find that it is way more convenient, especially when you have no energy.
Tightly organized or messy organized?

Before Covid I was VERY VERY messy organised, but a little switch flicked in my head and I have no idea why. Maybe the newly established order was better psychologically… a modicum of environmental control when I was so powerless in other areas of my life. Or perhaps fear of ‘germs’. So in the little periods where I’ve had some energy, but poor concentration for work, I have torn about this house and reorganised, decluttered and cleaned everything. It is now immaculate and SO CALMING! I redecorated my bedroom, too, having stared at a boring blank wall
for weeks, when I was stuck in bed, and now I actually sigh with pleasure when I get in there at night! I think I’ve had some sort of brain transplant!

Wow, that is so crazy, but at least you have a relaxing haven to read etc. Talking about reading, what is your Current read?

I’m reading book two in Gytha Lodge’s series, Watching from the Dark. She was one of my ‘kindle’ finds, and I read the first one and then picked up this one straight after. REALLY good writer! I’ve also read Kate Rhodes’ Ben Kitto thrillers set on the Scilly Islands (GREAT!) and recently Will Dean’s new standalone coming out next year, The Last Thing to Burn, and it’s EXCELLENT. I’ve read a lot of
Rosamund Lupton and Lucy Atkins, too.

We have chatted about Covid has affected you this year, but how has the current pandemic affected the publishing sector?

After a seriously rocky start, with print sales down 80 percent because of supply chain issues and the closure of bookshops, it’s actually picked up a lot and our ebook sales are WAY up. It’s been difficult for us because so much of our marketing involves placing authors in front of readers, and we had more than 100 individual events cancelled. There has been a lot of reshuffling and a lot of new ebooks hitting the market (I would actually like to say flooding the market), with publishers racing to take advantage of increased digital sales, so it’s noisy out there and it’s quite difficult to make sure that readers are aware of our books. It’s different, and everyone has to adjust. I suppose It’s just a question of rethinking everything and restrategising. I really feel forbooksellers who have faced multiple closures in some cases, had difficulty sourcing stock even when they were operating, and now have quite stringent distancing requirements, etc. We really need to support them, or we’ll lose them! Booksellers who have faced multiple closures in some cases, had difficulty
sourcing stock even when they were operating, and now have quite stringent distancing requirements, etc. We really need to support them, or we’ll lose them!

I can’t imagine how stressful it must have been for indie booksellers, especially as you’ve said when the reading and publishing world has become more digital due to the widespread pandemic. Following on from the same subject, why is it so important to support independent publishers?

There are a lot of reasons. The first is that indies are often risk-takers, and therefore take chances that bigger publishers might not … thus discovering some amazing
talent that might not have made it past a commissioning meeting elsewhere. The second is that we often run our businesses on a shoestring. When you print lower quantities, the unit cost is higher, which means that we make that much less on every sale. Even little companies have to pay the big discounts required by retailers, so there’s not a lot in it after royalties, print bills, editorial costs, jacket design, commission on sales and distribution, translation fees, etc. are considered. Many independents are in danger of going out of business, and it’s really important to support them/us to ensure that there is some VARIETY in the books being published. Indies don’t play it safe,
and you can get some fabulous, out-of-the-box reads that aren’t the perceived current trends. We don’t have massive marketing budgets or even books that are guaranteed a lot of press because of the hype, so too many gems – immense books – fly under the radar. It’s really not a level playing field. Without the support of readers, there will be no independents, and that would be an
absolute shame. Indies will make the most income when you buy direct from their websites (and we’re about to offer this when our new website is launched) or from their subscription boxes, and if you have EVER enjoyed the output from an indie publisher or even a single book or series, it’s worth investigating what they’re selling and offering support. It would be a very homogenous industry – book market – without independents, and a flourishing industry provides lots of
options, for every kind of reader! Think of only being able to shop at high-street chains, selling the same goods in every store, with no independent companies or shops producing anything else. That’s exactly what the book/publishing landscape would look like without independents.

I also chatted to Cole last year about the importance of indie publishers and supporting them, you can find the Q&A here. You’ve published incredible, unforgettable books during your almost-six years as Orenda Books, what initially gets your interest in publishing a book?

The writing is the very most important thing. You can fix a story but the writing has to be there. So that’s the first criteria. I love beautiful literature … prose that makes me sigh! I love a great sense of place, so international literature definitely appeals, but even homegrown stuff has to transport me. I love issues layered into the narrative, so that I come away thinking differently, or reconsidering, or just more understanding, perhaps. I love originality, quirkiness, hard-hitting prose, off-the-wall, genre-pushing stuff. I love debuts. I love authors who really understand the ‘team’ mentality of Orenda Books. Everyone is equal and we work together to support one another (and have fun, of course). Big egos have no place here. At all.

Oh gosh, all of the books that you have published, that I have read are all those things, from Doug Johnstone’s Breakers, to Michael Malone’s emotive tales and Louise Beech’s genre fluid yet personally raw novels. And don’t get me started on the fabulous selection of noir that you publish, from Iceland to France, they’re all independently exquisite!
It isn’t as easy as loving a submission and publishing it, right? So, what is the process of obtaining a book?

We get a lot of books in on submission … from international publishers, translators, agents and authors themselves. When it gets through the initial sieve that is Liz, my
first reader, it arrives on the desk of West Camel, who will read it and write a report. Liz and West have worked with me from the very beginning and know my taste completely. If it passes their tests, I will read too. Quite a lot get through to this stage, so it’s busy! If I love it (and I mean REALLY love it, or even just see massive potential, an originality there), we will put it in the ‘consideration’ pile. The list is tiny and we stick with our authors, so not very many spaces come up each year. When I’ve planned the schedule for the upcoming year, I look to see what might fit in and where. I have some amazing books still on the pile that just didn’t work for this year. And THEN I’ll put in an impassioned offer, outlining our plans for the book, for the author, and why we want to publish the book. And if it’s accepted (which it usually is), we’re ready to go!

I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes, the process sounds so exciting and gaining a new author is always fabulous! You’re very social in the publishing world, what tips would you give authors who want to create publisher connections?

Be friendly. When it’s possible, come and chat to us at events (without telling us the entire plot of your book), when that’s possible again. Engage on social media …just ordinary talking, not pitching! We get to know a lot of the authors we end up publishing this way, and it definitely works to keep a name in mind. We also really love authors who DO engage, which is an important part of publishing and promotion these days (particularly these days), so being out there and friendly can tip the balance in your favour. Go to pitching events and hone your craft. Attend festivals (when you can). Read and review books. Just become part of the community. It’s small, vibrant and friendly and connections made can definitely work in your favour!

Independent publishing has been said to be a hybrid between traditional and self- publishing. How is independent publishing different from traditional publishing?

We are a traditional publisher … just smaller. We pay advances and the going royalty rate, but what differs from the big companies is probably our selection process. I don’t have to account to anyone, and there is no one telling me what and what I cannot publish. I often publish on instinct and I am very aware that it can take multiple (sometimes many multiple) books for an author to become established. We often swallow losses until that time, and not many big publishers would be prepared to do that. In fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes contracts are even cancelled when a book/author fails to match expectations. We can be bold, and that’s a word I love. I want to publish different things … books that don’t fit niches or necessarily conform, books that are perhaps not overtly commercial or with an obvious genre or even market. If a book is GREAT, none of that matters. We’ll create a market. Being small also means that we can be nimble and work quickly, and that helps, too. I’m not interested in following trends, and I don’t think that many good independents are … we’d rather attract bold (there’s that word again) and intrepid readers!

One of the things I adore about the books Orenda Books publish is that they are daring, out of the box and as you’ve said, bold which makes them incredibly unforgettable. Talking about unforgettable, you have published a superb range of translated fiction. Nordic, Icelandic, French. What is it about this genre that you are drawn to?

I have always loved armchair travel, and I love to be transported to other cultures and countries, so this was a natural starting point. I guess my ‘submission’ process is slightly different for my international authors, and a lot of it is based on instinct. We often get a short sample translation, which is not always very indicative of the book. I can rarely meet authors in advance and if
language is a barrier, there can’t be much early communication. I just get a SENSE of a book when it’s pitched, a sense of the author … I don’t know what it is, but it’s worked so far and my international authors are TRULY brilliant. We are honestly in the lucky position of being able to cherry pick from the finest authors around the world, and I don’t take that for granted. But again, the list is small, and the criteria for publishing remains the same. I just LOVE my international authors and most of them have become very good friends, too. There is often some serendipity involved in the process, but you’ll have to read my blog for Kelly later this month!

As I have recently told you, your translated fiction has been a godsend during lockdown indeed armchair travel – I’ve read new to me authors and especially enjoyed a long stay in Iceland. In terms of submissions, what grabs your attention immediately?

All of the points mentioned above, plus a VERY strong synopsis/pitch always helps. I actually don’t want to know the whole story before reading, because I approach the first read as a reader AND a publisher, and story sense matters. A friendly letter, showing knowledge of and interest in our list, and lots about the author, is important. As I said, we are a small company very much driven by not
just our authors’ fantastic books, but also their brilliant personalities. I’d like to see how an author might fit into the team!

You mainly publish crime fiction titles, but what is your favourite comfort genre and / or read?

I love good writing across all genres, including ‘straight’ literary fiction (not talking about sexuality or gender here, obviously). I can’t read crime when I’m editing because it can leads to all sorts of confusion. Recently, I’ve been reading Kirsten Hannah’s books … historical fiction, and it’s perfect comfort for crazy times! I loved Hamnet, and also read Queenie, a little late to the table on that one, but worth the wait. I loved Convenience Store Woman. So a variety of non-crime comfort reads!

I loved Queenie, I’ve recently read it myself for the Comedy Women in Print prize and I am so glad that I finally got around to it. Like  they say, better late than never! What do you find to be the most pleasurable aspect of publishing?

I just love it all. I love the community … the readers, authors, reviewers, bloggers (readers, too, of course), booksellers, bookshop owners, festival people. It’s absolutely wonderful to be involved in the world of books, and I feel so lucky! I LOVE working with authors to create a tight, utterly brilliant finished product, and I really, really love marketing and selling them, too! I love events (weeps a bit here in their absence), and pitching, and all of the exciting things that surround getting a book out there, and finding wonderful new authors!

I must admit, the book world is a great world to be a part of – the celebration of new books, authors and even talking books is such a joy! With every positive, there is a negative, so what do you find to be the most difficult aspect of publishing?

I guess the fierce competition. There are more and more publishing companies (particularly digital-only) being set up and a lot of them publish genre fiction. It’s a very flooded market and it’s very, very noisy. There is, in my view, too much devaluing of books with super-cheap ebooks and authors not necessarily treated properly. We DO have price reductions for our books, but only ever do so with retailer-supported promotions, to piggyback on their marketing and reach a swathe of new readers. It’s really, really hard to stand out in a crowded marketplace, to get review coverage, get decent shelf space, etc., and that can be quite wearing. But it’s a creative industry and we just have to find ways tobe creative. I would very much like to express how much I hate metadata. EVERYTHING is on spreadsheets now, and with all of our retailers and sales and distribution teams around the world, and it is something I very happily pass on to our assistant (and my son), Cole. I really hate that the competition out there makes it hard for authors to earn a living, despite every effort. It’s just hard! Unfortunately, the best books don’t necessarily get the most attention. Be creative. I would very much like to express how much I hate metadata. EVERYTHING is on spreadsheets now, and with all of our retailers and sales and distribution teams around the world, and it is something I very happily pass on to our assistant (and my son), Cole. I really hate that the competition out there makes it hard for authors to earn a living, despite every effort. It’s just hard! Unfortunately, the best books don’t necessarily get the most attention.

Yeah, the competition can’t be fun at all!! With each year, Orenda Books goes from strength to strength. Where would you like to see Orenda Books in 10 years time?

Doing just what we are doing now, but with lots more sales and lots more money to do all the things we want to do! I would love LOADS of people to recognise Orenda Books as a brand, and just buy every single book because they know it will be great! And that, really, is enough!

Many of us have Orenda Book-shelves and I see it more and more, people buying and loving your books, it makes me so happy! Talking about strength to strength, 2021 is fast approaching and you have already announced some incredible books from Orenda authors and from new authors joining your team. Would you like to give a mini breakdown of 2021 releases announced so far?

I’ll list ‘em!

David F. Ross’s beautiful, heartwrenching and also funny There’s Only One Danny Garvey, about a young football player who had dreams of the big time, which all come crashing down.

The paperback edition of Ragnar Jonasson’s BRILLIANT Dark Iceland thriller Winterkill. We are SO excited about this. Translated from the French edition by David Warriner.

The next in the Blix & Ramm series by Jorn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger. It’s called Smoke Screen, translated by Megan Turney, and it takes place on a snowy New Year’s Eve in Oslo, when there is a terrorist attack. One of the injured is identified as the mother of a little girl who disappeared on her way to kindergarten ten years earlier, and OMG … it’s GREAT! Move over, Jo Nesbo!

Deity … by Matt Wesolowski. Another episode of Six Stories, and it’s a chiller of a read, as Scott King investigates the death of a legendary pop star, who has been named and shamed for serious issues. It’s utterly brilliant, of course, and suitably creepy!

Vanda Symon takes us back to New Zealand with Bound, the next in the sassy, fun and twisty Sam Shephard series, and these books just get better and better. When a police investigation into the murder of a wealthy businessman looks a little too cut and dried, Sam goes vigilante … EXCELLENT!

The divine, whip-smart Queen of Krimi, Simone Buchholz, returns with the next book in the Chastity Riley series, Hotel Cartagena, translated by Rachel Ward. It’s fast-paced, searing, smart and completely gripping, as Chastity and her friends become victims of a hostage-taker, on the twentieth floor of a building overlooking the Hamburg Harbour. Chastity is suffering from sepsis, so there is a lot at stake. Simone’s writing is simply superb. It CRACKLES!

I can’t reveal the schedule for the remainder of the year, except to say that we have new books from Rod Reynolds (editing now, and I’m BREATHLESS), Will Carver (he’s got Maeve at the centre of his next one), Doug Johnstone (the Skelf return for book three … The Great Silence … it’s next on my editing pile!), Michael J Malone (no idea what he’s writing next! I’ll publish ANYTHING!), Louise Beech (fabulous literary/women’s fiction called This Is How We Are Human… also on the editing pile), Johana Gustawsson (Roy & Castells book FOUR!), Lilja Sigurdardottir (a brand new series, starting with Cold as Hell!), Michael Stanley (Kubu prequel, Facets of Death!), Girls Who Lie by Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir (next in the Forbidden Iceland series), Kjell Ola Dahl’s immense standalone historical thriller The Assistant, translated by Don Bartlett, set in prohibition-era Norway … then the beautiful, moving End of Life by Helga Flatland (translated by Rosie Hedger), hopefully a new Antti Tuomainen and West Camel, and three EXTRAORDINARY new authors for Orenda!

Those announced reads sound so incredible and I for one can not wait to read every single one of them. Many of us have already seen that there are some new authors on the Orenda Books list, would you like to talk us through each new addition?

Katie Allen with a mesmerising debut about a young mother who loses her baby and becomes convinced that saving a man from jumping in front of a train on the day she got her positive pregnancy test caused this tragedy. Because Everything Happens for a Reason, right? It’s warm, funny, heartbreaking, and so original. I was entranced … and devastated. Out in June, and proofs soon! Check out the Orenda Books full announcement here.

Sarah Sultoon, an ex-CNN journalist has written a shocking, relevant and emotive … utterly nailbiting … debut thriller The Source, a gritty story of young, under-privileged girls being trafficked near an army barrack, with a dual timeline (one set in a TV newsroom) and some unforgettable characters. The writing is vivid, fresh, original … and the plot is just superb . This is a book that people will talk about. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s already been optioned for TV and it’s out in April. The full announcement can be found here.

Awais Khan’s disturbing, thought-provoking, beautifully written No Honour, which we recently announced in the trade press, is set in Pakistan and tells the story of a young woman and her father fighting against the practice of honour killing. It’s a tremendous, timely and important book and it will open eyes and also hearts. It will be out in summer 2021. You can check out the announcement here!

I’m so excited! I read Awais’ In The Company of Strangers this year, it was actually my first read of this year and adored it so i’m very much looking forward to his, as well as Sarah and Katie’s books. I’ve asked a few questions today, is there a question you wish I had asked?


Okay, my favourite question, can you share a random fact about yourself please?

I really do hand bake and decorate the cupcakes for our author launches, and have a printer that uses edible ink on sheets of icing paper. I secretly think these cupcakes are the reason why authors move to Orenda!

We knew and we love you for it – I’ve heard many things about the delicious Orenda Books launch cupcakes and have yet to taste one. Next year is my year!
Thank-you again Karen for taking the time between Frankfurt meetings and publishing things to answer some of my questions and for supporting #Orentober so wholeheartedly.
Reader, the people who make up Orenda Books are truly the best kinds of people, check out these photos – a picture tells a thousand words!

Categories #Orentober, Q&ATags

2 thoughts on “Corner – folding behaviour, publishing during a pandemic and book chat with Karen Sullivan @OrendaBooks #Orentober #MamaOrenda

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