Hi and welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove! Today, on this penultimate day of #Orentober, I’m having a talk with Superwoman a.k.a. Momma Orenda a.k.a. Karen Sullivan. Karen founded Orenda Books in 2014, starting out small and nourishing it into an indie publisher to be reckoned with. The name Orenda, incidentally, refers to Karen’s Canadian heritage and means the mystical power that drives human accomplishment. I’ve always felt it’s Karen’s passion and drive that have made Orenda Books what it is today, and when I thought about what I wanted to do this #Orentober, an interview with Karen was the first thing that popped into my mind. So without further ado, and doesn’t she looks radiant (and very colour-coordinated with the #Orentober logo!), here’s Karen:
Hi Karen! Welcome to my little blog! Such an honour to have you here! How are you today?
As I write, we are approaching the end of summer, and I am very relaxed! I had a wonderful holiday in Canada followed by two weeks at the Edinburgh Book Festival with authors. Bliss!
In the meantime, you’ve been having a few very hectic weeks, so you’re probably feeling a lot less relaxed now 😄 So let’s take a breather together, and think about where we would be if this were an actual meeting in real life. Would we be out for coffee, would we go for a bite to eat? Where would you take me, and why?
If we were having a cup of coffee, I would take you to Söderberg in Edinburgh … It’s a Swedish bakery and café and it’s divine! I think there are branches across the country, but the one near the university is my favourite. If we were having a glass of wine (more likely), we’d visit the deck of my cottage in Canada, where I spent three weeks every summer. We’d stare out over the lake and probably not even bother to speak.
You know what? That sounds divine! Describe yourself in 5 key words. Who is Karen Sullivan?
Mother and publisher, first and foremost! Words to describe me? Generally positive, tenacious, passionate, energetic … probably annoying, too!
That’s exactly how I pictured you 😄 Except for the annoying part, obviously! What quality are you most proud of?
Maybe passionate! It’s easy to be persuasive when you are passionate about something, and it drives everything else, like energy, enthusiasm, determination! And I don’t just mean business … I am passionate about lots of things in my personal life, too, such as my three gorgeous sons! The downside of passion is, of course, emotional investment (or OVER emotional investment) and I tend to respond a bit dramatically to things like critical reviews or an author moving on! Or a son experiencing some sort of disappointment. It kills me.
Passion is definitely a knife that cuts both ways! What is your biggest vice?
Marlboro menthol cigarettes … I know, I know. The health implications are shocking enough, but the price makes this even more shameful. I have a lot of international authors who feed my bad habit as they travel through the duty-free shop.
If you were to find a bottle with a genie willing to grant you three wishes, what would you wish for?
I would wish for the obvious first … good health for everyone I love, and some longevity for me, too. I have a lot of people depending on me. I would wish for more money to build the business. It’s tough out there and we have to compete with publishers that have a lot more cash and a lot more flexibility with cash flow. I can only DREAM of what we could do with even a bit more money! Finally, I would like a castle in Scotland. You can blame Lilja Sigurdardottir for this one … she showed me photographs of affordable, beautiful castles and now I’m dreaming of a real Casa Orenda where we could live, run the business, offer authors a place to stay and write, a writing retreat … everything! And Scotland is important. If they decide to leave the UK, chances are they’ll be straight back in the EU, and both of those things matter to me.
If this ever happens, I’m moving in! I’m sure you’ll find me a job, doing whatever ? Tell me the truth now Karen, do you have a clone? I mean, you’re everywhere! You’re one of the most, if not THE most, supportive people in the (bookish) world. You’re an awesome momma bear to your authors, you’re an amazing cheerleader for bloggers, you read reviews and share them, you’re on Twitter, you film Orenda Book At Bedtime, you go to book fairs and events, you organise Orenda on the road tours, the list is endless! How?! Do you ever sleep?
I don’t sleep a lot … and can generally get by on a few hours, although as I get older I seem to need more! I sort of binge sleep on holidays and then eek it out in between. But, honestly, I love what I do. I love spending time with authors, and going along to events and festivals is fun! I am honestly honoured to publish their books, and it doesn’t feel like work to shout about them and help make readers aware of them. As for bloggers, I firmly believe that they (you) are the life blood of this industry. So many book purchases take place online, and in response to online recommendations. Readers are greatly influenced by people they trust, and obviously take note of the books that everyone is talking about. Bloggers play a huge role in this, as do booksellers!
The rest of what goes on is usually inspired by my overactive imagination, and we have to do whatever we can to ensure that readers know about the books … and how good they are! Sometimes, when I am filming yet another Orenda Books at Bedtime, I grumble to my son, who films them … same as baking cupcakes for launches. Whose stupid idea was this anyhow? Mine, of course! So I can’t really complain! And when I see the response, it’s so gratifying, I forget all about it until the next time!
When you do have some free time, what do you like to do?
I like to read! Definitely my favourite activity. I am not much of a TV watcher, but I like a good drama and enjoy wee binges with my youngest son! And property programmes! I like travelling, too, but I spend so much time away from home for work, it’s nice just to stay put! When it isn’t covered in books and unopened post, I sometimes play the piano.
Imagine you’re off to a desert island for a month and you’re allowed to take with you: 1 Orenda author, 2 Orenda books and 3 Orenda fictional characters. Who and what would you take, and why?
That is like asking me who is my favourite child! I can’t answer this! I love all of them. Every author. Every book. Every character. And I mean that sincerely.
And what if you were allowed to take 1 non-Orenda author, 2 non-Orenda books and 3 non-Orenda fictional characters. Who and what would you take, and why?
See this one will get me in trouble here, too! I can’t pick! I have LOADS of non-Orenda author buddies and I couldn’t pick! Books, too! But if I had to pick characters I would choose Anne (of Green Gables … kindred spirit), bad-boy Aidan Watts from Joseph Knox’s series, and someone like feisty Sarah from the Ambrose Parry series. She’s a nurse, too, which would be useful.
As a reader, what is your favourite genre? Do you have a favourite author, or a favourite novel?
I read very, very widely. Crime fiction is a favourite, obviously, but I also love books considered to be ‘literary fiction’ (the argument is, of course, that crime fiction can and is also literary, but you know what I mean…). I love Margaret Atwood, and always have loved her (a fellow Canadian), and weirdly science fiction, which is sort of what she’s writing these days, is not something I usually read. I really enjoy Joanna Cannon’s books, too. The odd non-fiction book … recently read Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn and also Tara Westover’s Educated. Both fabulous for different reasons. I’m not naming crime fiction … too many to list! And dangerous! My all-time favourite book would probably be Anne of Green Gables … one of the first I read alone, and reread many times since.
What is your favourite aspect of publishing? What is the aspect you would rather forget about if it were possible?
I love marketing and editing most of all … working with the author to create a perfect book. I love working with our jacket designer, and I love chatting about books on social media. I like presenting books to the sales team … and to booksellers.
I hate the stress of the business. It’s really tough out there, and it’s a very mercurial industry. I also hate metadata, but I’m able to pass a lot of that on to my son, Cole, who works with me now. I wish it was a more level playing field. We absolutely can’t compete with big publishers who have the financial means to do wondrous things for authors. That said, however, big publishers have to pick and choose between books in terms of marketing spend, and I would hate that even more. Everyone is equal at Orenda Books, even if it spreads resources thinly. But I don’t publish any book that I don’t absolutely love and believe in, and each deserves the fighting-est of chances!
Is there an evolution in publishing, have you witnessed it changing in the years that you’ve been active in publishing? If so, in what way?
Lots of things change, and constantly, but what I find most frustrating is the devaluation of books and the wealth of digital publishers cropping up with their 99p products. I noticed today that there are hundreds of (even new) paperbacks selling for £2 on Amazon. I cannot even imagine how anyone (most importantly the author) makes any money from this, and it really worries me that books have become what is ostensibly a throwaway product … after all that work by the authors, all the work of everyone involved in making them beautiful books. I have no idea how this is going to pan out, but it’s a very worrying sign because it sends the message to the reader/consumer that books should be cheap. We never discount books unless they are in a retailer-supported promotion, and I want to stick with this. I kind of reckon that readers will eventually work out that they get what they pay for and if they want variety, risk-taking publishers, interesting voices, they have to support the industry by paying full price. Otherwise, we are going to see independent publishers being wiped out … one by one.
Being small means that we are able to be nimble and adjust to changes in market, demand, etc., however we don’t have much room on price.
Is there any author who got away? Someone you wanted to sign but who went with another publisher? Is there any book you wish was an Orenda title?
There are several authors who spring to mind … Alex North (The Whisper Man). I made an offer for this, but it didn’t reach the agent. In the end, it sold for WAY more than I could have afforded, but I loved that book! There is a book coming out with MacLehose next year called The Therapist, and I couldn’t offer enough to get it. Norwegian author, and it sounds AMAZING! Will Dean and Joseph Knox are both authors who write books that are DEFINITELY the kind of thing I would publish. Eva Dolan, too. But I can only watch and sigh!
Can you describe in broad outline the process a novel goes through before it’s out in the world? How does this process differ for new novels by Orenda authors versus novels by non-Orenda authors?
I think the main difference here is that I am VERY hands-on. So we make an offer, I provide editorial notes (the first structural edit), which the author addresses and which we discuss. It can take many, many drafts before everyone is satisfied and then it goes to West Camel, our editor, for copyediting. He also has a great eye for holes or repetition, etc., and another little stage of structural edits normally takes place then. The author is involved throughout! When everyone is happy, it goes to the typesetter. In between all of this, I brief Mark Swan, our jacket designer, and he sends through a series of roughs from which we choose. Almost always there is one that is perfect or can be subtly tweaked. We send out uncorrected bound proofs, send the proofs to the proofreader, and hope for jacket quotes to roll in. We then go to press! We work on marketing throughout the process and Sophie Goodfellow, from FMcM takes over on the publicity front. I used to do most of the publicity, but Sophie is much better at getting results. I still pitch for festivals and some press, and contact other authors, etc., but she does the majority now! Books come in about a month before publication and we’re off!
What was the main goal you set yourself when you founded Orenda Books?
I wanted to publish books that were, as our wee shoutline suggests, beautiful, readable and unforgettable. I wanted to publish new voices, fresh voices, important voices. Exquisite writing. International authors. Great translations. Books that are meaningful … books that leave a person wiser. Books that evoke emotions. Books that really stay in a reader’s mind. Books that address social issues or highlight important issues. Books that entertain from first page to last.
I wanted to create a strong team … Team Orenda … with authors who support one another and have fun in the process. This is a difficult business, and making sure that it’s pleasurable and they feel supported is really important to me.
That’s it, in a nutshell. And so far, it seems to be working according to plan!
It is! Team Orenda is a thing, and it’s not only your authors, but also a whole lot of bloggers and readers (myself included) who are proud to call themselves Team Orenda! Orenda prides itself (with reason!) on its translated literature. But how does that work? I assume you’re not fluent in all the different source languages, so how do you know what’s in the book? How do you sign off on it?
Well, I don’t have to report to anyone, so I can do exactly what I please. There is usually a sample translation available, and in many cases, these are not very strong. I publish instinctively. I hear a pitch. Get goosebumps or a mind racing with marketing ideas. I ask about the author … promotability, the future, etc. I make sure the writing is exceptional and that it fits in with my goals, my list, etc. A lot of it is guess work and a lot of it is gut instinct. I also trust particular international agents, who know what I’m looking for. And I ask other authors, etc. I am not HUGELY worried about ‘home’ sales because international markets don’t necessarily mirror ours. If it feels right, I go with it. It’s not even something that you could call a strategy, but it seems to work.
A good example is Johana Gustawsson. My son Luke was doing his Erasmus year in Lyon and visited Quai du Polar. He saw Johana, thought she was amazing, and read her debut, Block 46. I can read French, but it’s a bit functional and I can’t really tell how beautiful (or not) the writing is. He confirmed that the writing was ‘elegant’. Strangely, Maxim Jakubowski, who went on to translate her first two books, had also stumbled across Johana and he recommended her a couple of weeks after my son sent me a little report. I looked her up, checked out the press she was getting, had a chat with her publisher about what she was like (i.e., would she fit the team?) and I bought two books without ever reading a single word. Best decision ever. I have bought almost all of my international authors’ books the same way … and sometimes with nothing more than a little voice inside saying, DO IT! In fact, I am running all of the authors in translation through my mind now, and although I had the odd report in from native speakers, I think every single one of them was chosen because it felt right.
You know I’m a big audiobook fan. From House of Spines and Deep Blue Trouble over Block 46 and Fault Lines to Inborn and Maria in the Moon, and let’s not forget the Six Stories series, I’ve listened to many an Orenda title. I always wonder: how does that work? Do you and the author have any say in the process, like the choice of the narrator(s), or do you just submit the book and does someone else take care of all the rest?
In most cases, yes, the authors are given some say in the narration … although not always. Audible does most of our books and have been giving options recently. ISIS, WF Howes, Dreamscape and Ulverscroft have done loads and are exceptional at suggesting two or three for an author (and me) to choose from. I have always agreed with an author’s choice! I have to say that some narration has not always matched what I had envisioned (actually, what’s the equivalent term for hearing!), but I won’t say which. Most are just magical. We don’t do any production here yet.
Who determines what will be on the cover, and how?
I brief our brilliant jacket designer and usually give some key images/themes, plus relate the story in a paragraph or so. He comes up with the ideas himself, and he is a genius. Honestly. I am always blown away. Sometimes he asks to see the manuscript … for example, he wasn’t getting the feel for Doug Johnstone’s A Dark Matter (out next January) from my brief, so he read a bit of the book. And nailed it! We get a series of roughs, and decide as a team: author, everyone here (Cole, West Camel), agent, etc. I then run it past our sales team at Simon & Schuster and they throw in their comments. Sometimes they ask for a radical rethink and we almost always agree … they know the market and although I really want to have ‘different’ and perhaps quirky jackets, they also have to tell the reader instantly what he/she is buying, so we have to listen.
I LOVE the Orenda jackets, especially the quirky ones! What are your plans for the future?
Oh, probably more of the same … publish brilliant books until I drop. Or something like that!
Well I for one hope you get to do that for many more years to come! I, and loads of others, will be right here waiting ?
Thanks so much for joining Karen and me today! Follow Karen on Twitter here and visit the Orenda Books website for all information about Orenda books, authors, translators and other news. Don’t forget that you can buy all eBooks directly from the Orenda eBookstore!
Wow amazing interview Kelly! xx
Thanks Nicki! It was great finding answers to everything I had been wondering for so long ?
Such an interesting Q&A! Karen really is the most wonderful publisher I know. And I’m in total awe that so much depends on her instinct. I’ve never seen anyone with such an amazing ‘gut’ feeling :-). Can’t believe Alex North could have been Orenda too, I totally see him fitting in!
Thanks Inge ? I know, her gut feeling is impeccable!
It’s easy with such a brilliant interviewee ?
Best Q&A ever! I’d retire from blogging if I were you. There’s no way you’ll ever top this post ?
I know, I’ve peaked too soon ?
Awesome interview!! Love it! x
Aww thank you ? All thanks to my awesome interviewee ?
Such an excellent Q&A, Kelly. It was fascinating to read Karen’s responses, she has done a great job with Orenda and I love their books. If only I could take part in their blog tours…
Thanks so much Stephen! Aren’t you on Anne Cater’s list? She organises all the Orenda tours.