A Little Bit of Magic: a look behind the scenes at Orenda Books with Karen Sullivan #guestpost #Orentober

Hi and welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove! Boy, do I have a treat for you today! Talking to Will Carver (ICYMI) I discovered that there’s a whole story behind his first book with Orenda Books, which got me talking to Karen – Momma Orenda – Sullivan, founder of Orenda Books, about luck and bookish serendipity.

In between a bazillion Zoom meetings, Twitter notifications, edits and other publishing duties, Karen found the time to let us peek at the story behind some of Orenda’s finest, and it is my absolute honour to hand over the blog today to Karen Sullivan, lady in red!

I am often asked what I’m looking for in a submission, and there is no doubt that I have very defined criteria but a surprising number of books we publish have come to me through less orthodox means. And sometimes I just know that I need to publish an author, even before I’ve seen the book. Instinct, maybe, or a weird little tingle that tells me that it’s somehow right.

Take Will Carver, for example. I’d never read a word of the January David series. I’d never met him. Yet, when we were introduced at a Sarah Pinborough launch and got chatting, I knew that I would publish his books. He was in the midst of getting an agent; his submission email never arrived; there were so many factors that could have made this impossible, but it happened, just like I knew it would. I read about three paragraphs of Good Samaritans and made an offer. And then I persisted until I got it. Sometimes things are meant to happen, and this just felt right.

Sometimes things are a little spookier … I chatted to Louise Beech on Twitter, just after I started Orenda Books and encouraged her to send in her debut, How To Brave. Unsurprisingly, we were inundated with submissions and it went into a pile, neatly organised by date. But that book called to me. I swear it vibrated. There was nothing at all to set it apart from the other excellent books in the submissions pile, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. If you have met Louise Beech, you’ll know there is a bit of magic about her … a bit of white witchery. I don’t know what she did to that manuscript, but it worked. I read it. Cried. Clutched my heart, and signed her straightaway.

Festivals are responsible for a number of signings, and aspiring authors should really take note. Meeting an author can provide that extra edge. I don’t mean following me around the events (this has happened), or providing me with the elongated full synopsis of a WIP or book just written during my one and only break (this has happened). I mean just chatting when the opportunity arises.

Bloody Scotland has a lot to answer for! Just before I started Orenda, I played football for England, in the infamous England v Scotland crime writers football match, and on my team was a youthful Icelandic author, Ragnar Jonasson. I’d seen him earlier in the year at a couple of other festivals, but we’d never spoken. I remember thinking that someone had missed a trick, because this guy was tipping up and appearing on big festival panels and when queues formed to buy his books, there weren’t any. Because he had never been published in English! He gave me a wee presentation with a sample translation and a few weeks later, when I started Orenda Books, I took a look. The translation was dreadful. And yet … I liked this guy. He had translated 14 Agatha Christie books into Icelandic in his teens. His debut Snowblind was set in the northernmost part of Iceland, bound on one side by the sea, on the other by mountains, with a single tunnel providing access. And when it snowed … Absolute locked-room mystery stuff, and I had a hunch that this was really going to appeal to English readers. Fast forward a few weeks, and I made a two-book offer, which was accepted, six months later, Snowblind was published and the ebook knocked The Girl on the Train off the top spot on the charts for the first time in nine months or so. Ragnar is now published in 32 countries and has sold many millions of books. Sometimes things just work out!

Matt Wesolowski pitched Six Stories at Bloody Scotland’s Pitch Perfect event, where I was a judge. I was instantly entranced … and intrigued by the novelty of a podcast-style format. Matt was surprised when I suggested that there could be more ‘Scott Kings’ … more episodes of Six Stories. We are about to publish Deity, book five in the Six Stories series, which pushes the boundaries of quite a few genres in crazy directions. It’s been optioned for TV and Matt has been long/shortlisted for multiple awards, and just won the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Award for Beast.

I made two-book offers for authors I absolutely loved, without even looking at their books … much to the amusement (and sometimes consternation) of their agents. This includes Antti Tuomainen. I met him at Iceland Noir (see, festivals again), loved the one book that had been published in English, loved him, and when I saw his name at the bottom of his agent’s notepad, when that agent was busy pitching me something else at Frankfurt, I leapt in and offered for two books. The first was a more classic Nordic Noir thriller, The Mine. The second, when it came, was, as Antti nervously told me, ‘funny crime’ … in other words, ‘funny FINNISH crime’. Genre-defying, or what? The man can write … I had no hesitation and we published The Man Who Died to huge acclaim a year later. It remains one of our bestselling books ever, and marked the beginning of Antti’s new dark-comedy thrillers that have received rave reviews worldwide. Again … sometimes you just know.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I did exactly the same thing with Thomas Enger, Helen FitzGerald, Doug Johnstone and Kjell Ola Dahl … I was already a fan of their work and, frankly, would be honoured to publish them, no matter what they wrote. Guaranteed originality. Guaranteed quality. Guaranteed brilliance. I could not be happier with those decisions, and these authors are now integral members of Team Orenda.

Want more examples? My son was doing his Erasmus year in Lyon and saw Johana Gustawsson at Quai du Polar. He bought the book, read it, emailed me about this funny, friendly, amazing author. One week later I had an email from Maxim Jakubowski, who had met a French author and was keen to translate her debut, Block 46. Same book, same author. Unbelievable coincidence and immediate proof that I needed to publish her!

I can’t tell you how many books ended up being published by serendipity, too. I got chatting to new signing, Awais Khan, who came to one of our launches. Turns out we went to the same university in Canada. He’s from Pakistan! I loved his book. He was in. Katie Allen, whose beautiful Everything Happens for a Reason, approached me at a street party, mentioned that she followed me on twitter, and had written a novel, but not really an ‘Orenda’ kind of novel. I politely said I would read it, provide feedback, etc., and then I cried my eyes out and laughed out loud while reading it on a train to Frankfurt. What are the chances? I made everyone on the team read it instantly, and worked very hard to sign my neighbour.

So sometimes it’s just luck. Sometimes it’s just goosebumps, which I got when Michael J. Malone, who used to be a sales rep for the company I once worked for, described his first psychological thriller A Suitable Lie. Sarah Sultoon’s debut The Source did the same, as did Eve Smith’s The Waiting Rooms. Goosebumps are an extremely valuable early sign!

There’s more. Every single book we’ve published has brought something special to the list … every author has brought some magic to the team. And although each of these authors’ books more than met my official ‘criteria’, there was something else at work here, and I have no other way of describing it than saying it was meant to be. The word ‘Orenda’ (loosely translated) means the ‘mystical power that drives human accomplishment’, and I think there is something very mystical indeed about what’s happening here at Orenda Books.

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!

Before you go, I would love for you to read this article on The Bookseller, written by Karen in May about Covid-19 and coming back from it, both personally and professionally: Lockdown diaries: the indie publisher.

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