Interview: Karen Sullivan (Orenda Books)

I spoke to the wonderful Karen Sullivan, head of Orenda Books, about her publishing house, and why she’s passionate about books.

karen sullivan

Tell me more about Orenda Books. What’s the passion behind the publisher?

orendaI started Orenda Books about 16 months ago, with a view to publishing literary fiction with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half in translation. I was working at another independent before this, for just over a year, and when the decision was taken to drop authors and restructure the list, I decided the time was right to strike out on my own. My passion is beautifully written, beautiful, readable books. Great jackets, wonderful stories (many of my authors are debuts), good-quality printing – books that push the boundaries of their genres and say something special. For me to publish a book, it has to move me in some way – fill me with awe or emotion. And for that reason it is VERY EASY to promote and sell the books. I am absolutely passionate about them!

How did you get into the industry?

I started at an independent publishing company when I was 21, working as secretary to the Editorial Director. I worked my way up the ranks to commissioning editor, and then I left to have my first son. For the next years I did some freelance editorial work but mainly concentrated on writing books about raising children – nutrition, discipline, emotional health, that sort of thing. I did bits of TV and radio, wrote some columns. I didn’t really re-enter publishing on this side of the fence until I was asked to work a day or so a week for an independent – writing jacket copy, press releases and that sort of thing. I don’t think I had a day OFF after starting there, as there was much to be done and I fortunately remembered most of it! Although I’ve been in publishing the whole of my working life, I’ve sat on both sides of the fence and I think that makes it easier for me to understand authors!

Do you accept unsolicited manuscripts?

I do accept unsolicited manuscripts, and I have picked up two self-published authors as well. I would always suggest that authors look at what we are publishing. There’s no point in sending in a children’s book or a self-help guide, or even fantasy. I have a very small list and a submissions pile that is some 600-strong at the moment, so it can take quite some time to read and get back to aspiring authors!

What do you look for in a submission?

I love debuts, because I love the idea of growing an author with the company, and we are prepared to stick with them! I look for genres that I can comfortably publicise and market, and we do tend to veer towards crime/thrillers. I love international authors, bringing the very best books from other languages to English, and we’ve had some good success with that so far; for example, Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series. Having said all that, I have two anomalies on my list so far – Louise Beech’s How To Be Brave, which is literary women’s fiction and belongs in no particular genre that I know of, but is so gorgeous I simply had to publish it, and David F. Ross’s The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, which are written in Scottish vernacular and set in 1980s Kilmarnock! They are so funny and heartwarming, I couldn’t not publish them either! Coming up we’ve got Su Bristow’s Sealskin, a stunning retelling of the selkie legend. So they aren’t obvious fits for the list, but in a perverse sort of way, they are. My list reflects my personal taste, so it’s always a bit of a gamble and I live in hope that everyone else will share it!

What, in your opinion, should authors do to make their work stand out?

Authors should provide a good summary of the book, pointing out its USP as clearly and quickly as possible. It’s not a good idea to compare their work to other books, or themselves to other authors, as this usually falls flat or fails to live up to expectations, which makes things worse. Authors need to remember that they are pitching. Write a catchy blurb. I’m buy books like everyone else, and if I read something that catches my interest or sounds compelling, I’m much more like to read on. It’s also a good idea to get it proofread. If I stumble across spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, or continuity problems, it makes the book less appealing. I do, however, look for an engaging story and if it’s there we are always willing to work with the author to polish it to perfection. The opener is critical. I rarely have time to read books to the end, so if the synopsis and the ‘blurb’ grab me, and the opening chapters show promise, an author is in with a chance. If I like a book, I’ll send it for a second read. I work with a freelance editor who knows my taste implicitly, and he’ll often plough through the submissions looking for a gem, and then pass on his comments before I read.

Are you currently accepting submissions?

We are, but see above! With a small list, it’s got to be something exceptional. We are working on our publishing programme for late 2017 now, so it would be a while before it hit the shelves, no matter how good it is.

What do you like to read? Are you reading anything right now?

I read a lot of books for the Orenda Community Blog, which is where we host Q&As with non-Orenda authors. The idea behind this is to celebrate the incredible crime community and give something back. So for this, at present, I am reading Craig Robertson’s In Place of Death. I admire him greatly as a writer, and this is pure pleasure! My own tastes veer towards literary fiction. I absolutely loved A Little Life, and Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. I have the new Margaret Forster on my ‘personal’ pile. And I love a good thriller. My most recent favourites were Antti Tuomainen’s Dark as My Heart(imagine how thrilled I was to secure rights for his next two books!) and Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go. I’m a massive Eva Dolan fan, and Anya Lipska, too. I could go on …

The Bandwagon has featured several of Orenda Books’ wonderful reads, including In Her Wake, Snowblind and Nightblind. To find out what else Orenda Books publishes, visit their website, or connect with them on Twitter, @OrendaBooks.

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7 thoughts on “Interview: Karen Sullivan (Orenda Books)

      1. I’ve recently done my first blog interview ( which doesn’t post until closer to the date the book comes out), so I’m curious how others pick their questions. How did you pick the direction you took?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I usually ask what I would want to know. For example, as an aspiring writer, I’d like to know what a publisher looks for in a manuscript and what their submission policy is. It makes the whole thing a bit more personal, in my eyes. 🙂 Do send the link to your interview once it’s published, I’d love to take a look!

        Liked by 1 person

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