An Interview With… Katherine Armstrong

Hi everyone, and this morning I’m delighted to welcome Katherine Armstrong to the blog. Katherine first started out as a bookseller, before her current role as Editorial Director for Bonnier Books. She joined me for a few questions about what her role entails.

Over to you, Katherine…

1) How did you first come to be involved in the publishing industry? Did you actually have any other career plans?

As a teenager, I really wanted to be a journalist. I did some work experience at a local radio station and a local paper, but for whatever reason I just didn’t feel it was going to be quite right for me. I wasn’t sure after that what I wanted to do until my final year at university – the one where they assume you know what you’re going to do next!

I was doing a degree in English Literature (of course) and wondered about publishing. I did some research and applied for a MPhil in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling, which I started in the October after I graduated from QUB. After Stirling, I worked for Waterstones in their smallest branch in Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh. I enjoyed being a bookseller and I learnt a lot about market trends and what sold – and what didn’t! – but I still wanted to get into publishing. I applied for whatever entry level positions I could and eventually got a three-month contract in the pre-press department at Faber & Faber in London.

From there, I applied for a six-month contract as Poetry Editorial Assistant and nearly eleven years later, I left my first job in publishing – where I’d work across poetry, non-fiction, literary fiction and crime fiction – to take up a Senior Editor role (a nine-month maternity cover) at Sphere. After that, I was lucky enough to get my current job at Bonnier Books UK where I am now Editorial Director, specialising in crime and thriller fiction. This all sounds quite straight forward and possibly easy when I write it out, but it wasn’t as clear cut when I was going through it and I would stress to anyone who wants to get into publishing: Keep at it. Perseverance is key; be useful; be pro-active and above all gain as much knowledge and make as many connections as you can! You will most likely have to start at the bottom but do that job as well as you would if you’d started at the top. Learn from every experience and get to know the industry as well as you can in preparation for that day when you might be in the one in charge and you’ll need to know how it works. Lesson over!

2) What prompted you to become an Editorial Director? Can you tell me a little about your role in the publishing process for the manuscript?

When I started in publishing my goal was to work in the editorial department. As with a lot of people, I really wanted to work with authors on their manuscripts. My current role as Editorial Director has come about from that wish, that original goal. I started as an Editorial Assistant, worked my way up through Project Editor, Editor, then Senior Editor. The title just reflects a level of seniority in terms of my career path. What I do, as opposed to say a desk editor, is that my job is to meet with literary agents and read and assess the manuscripts that they send me from their clients. I then decide if that manuscript is a) one I like; b) one I think fits on my list and c) one I think has commercial appeal. If it ticks all these boxes, then I try and acquire it from the agent and work with the author towards making it the best read it can be.

No editor can publish alone and I’m lucky to work with some great people in other departments – sales, rights, marketing, publicity, export, design, audio, digital – and as a team we work together to publish the book. But the editor is the author’s champion, both in-house and outside. They are the person who knows the book best, and it’s up to them to communicate the vision for the book to the wider team and beyond.

3) How do you know that you have connected with a manuscript? What does an author do that leaves you wanting more?

We read so much that you can tell quite early on if you’re going to enjoy a manuscript. There’s either something in the writing, or a character, that captures your attention. For me any manuscript that makes me feel like this is a book that I’ve bought in a bookshop, as opposed to something I’m reading for work, and that I want to continue reading is a manuscript that I want to acquire. A sales colleague put it brilliantly recently about a manuscript that I’m hoping to acquire (everything crossed!); he said that he resented every minute that he spent away from it and was thinking about it when he wasn’t reading it. That, to me, perfectly sums up what any editor is looking for! It’s that readability factor, that keeping you gripped, turning those pages into the wee small hours. What that is – that essence – is hard to pin down (sorry!). It can be anything from writing-style, to characterisation, to dialogue, just something that marks the manuscript and the author out as a potential acquisition.

4) What advice do you have for any writer looking to submit to agents and publishers?

Be patient. There are lots of apocryphal stories about authors who signed with the first agent they approached, who went from submitting to a massive publishing contract within minutes. It’s very easy for us to compare ourselves to others, but everyone’s writing journey is different. Yes, some people seem to find it easy to get the agent, get the publishing deal, but for every one of those people I can guarantee that there are twenty plus other writers who don’t; who spend years trying to get both.

You will be rejected. Publishing is a business based on opinions and decisions. What might be right for one editor, is not right for another. What any author wants is an agent and a publisher who gets their vision for their work, who are passionate about it, who want to continue with them on their publishing journey. As an editor, I want to take on authors who I think have a lengthy career ahead of them. For me and for the company I work for, that means I have to consider everything – do I love this book enough to champion it to everyone for a year, or more, before publication? Do I think this book can sell in the market? While I don’t make the publishing decisions alone, the viability of a manuscript is my decision – I am the one who decides if it’s right to present to the wider team. Sometimes I can see the potential of a manuscript, but it doesn’t appeal to me, it doesn’t grip me in the way that would make me want to take it on. There’s nothing wrong with it, but all literature is subjective, and I think writers, like all of us, have to get used to rejection butalso know that it’s not them that is being rejected – the rejection is an appraisal, not a judgement – the work just isn’t right for that specific editor, but there are lots of us out there, so you will find the right editor and publishing house for you!

Take on board feedback. If an agent or editor has taken the time to give you specific feedback, please do take it on board. They are doing it to genuinely help you develop the manuscript. No author can write a flawless manuscript and it’s very hard to edit yourself. Anyone who reads a lot of manuscripts and who is immersed in the market knows what sells and knows what makes a good read. There are also literary consultancies where, for a fee, you can get a trained editor to look and give feedback on your work before you submit. An agent or an in-house editor who give you feedback will be doing so for free and because even if your work isn’t quite right for them, they can see what needs to be done to improve its chances of representation. Not all agents and editors can do this as it does depend on how much time they have, so don’t expect it; but you can ask if they’re able to provide limited feedback (it might just be some bullet point notes) if at all possible. If they say they can’t, move on. Not to be preachy, but impressions are everything in this business and editors and agents do talk to each other a lot; and you never know when you might see that editor or agent again, so getting aggressive if they can’t provide feedback does you and your work no good!

5) Are Bonnier Books accepting submissions from unrepresented writers? Do you have open calls?

We aren’t at the moment, but that’s merely because of the volume of manuscripts that we receive from agents. We don’t currently have plans for any open calls on the adult fiction side at the moment either, but we’d announce anything like that on our Bonnier Books UK website or via our social media channels. If any potential writers meet editors at literary events, however, do talk to them. Don’t push your book at them as that can be awkward (sometimes we’re just there to support a writer friend!), but don’t shy away from saying that you are writing. I do know some editors who are happy to ask to see work from unrepresented writers that they’ve met at events and it’s something I’ve done myself on occasion. Again, it’s very much dependent on how much spare time an editor has as we all have authors already on our lists who will be delivering and publishing and then reading submissions from agents alongside that. Editors and agents are asked to attend readings from Creative Writing students and that’s another way for those writers to meet them. Literary festivals are another way to go as you’ll get the benefit of seeing already published writers and hearing their advice as well as potentially meeting other unpublished authors, editors and agents. Networking is a great way to not only build contacts but to connect with other writers in the same boat as you and they can provide a really great support network. Writing is such a solitary job. I think the best way I’ve heard it described is: ‘the great paradox of a writer’s life is how much time they spend alone, trying to connect with other people!’

6) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? In your view, is there a sub-genre you think is in need of more representation?

It’s going to be interesting to see how the current situation shapes the market. I don’t think we’ll see (or necessarily want) a lot of lockdown crime & thrillers in the next year or two, but I can imagine that a few years from now, that will change – the benefit of perspective! What seems to be coming back now is the locked-room murder mystery, as evidenced by the success of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley, among others; and there’s a move, with Alex North, CJ Tudor etc, to mix crime thriller with horror and a touch of the supernatural, which has proven very successful. The wonderful Irish writer John Connolly has been doing that for twenty years and I highly recommend his Charlie Parker series as well. I think writers have the opportunity to play around with the genre more. Take a ‘traditional’ aspect and either subvert it or mix it with something else. Books are competing with readers attention from Netflix, phones, games, etc and we need to keep their attention once we have it. Readers want to see something ‘a bit different’ and this is a genre where you can do that, whilst still engaging them with the elements that they read the genre for.

7) Do you have a genre that you read for pleasure? Is there any genre of book that you wouldn’t read?

I’ve actually always enjoyed crime and thriller fiction. My gran got me into Agatha Christie from a young age and I loved Nancy Drew as a kid. I have a lot of crime & thriller author friends whose books I enjoy reading (quick shout out to Claire McGowan, Angela Clarke, Tom Wood and Rod Reynolds – I do have more friends though, just saying…) and I read around the genre anyway for work. I also enjoy reading group books and women’s fiction. I have a real fondness for books about books – set in bookshops etc. There’s just something about books! I’m not as keen on sci-fi; I’m afraid that I can’t get into it. Ditto dystopian fiction.

8) What was the last book you read, that wasn’t one of your clients, and if so, did you enjoy it?

I’ve almost finished The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Féret-Fleury and I’ve started The Murder Game by Rachel Abbott, both of which I’m really enjoying. The Féret-Fleury is a lovely, sweet, uplifting book and The Murder Game has a great concept and Rachel Abbott really knows how to build the tension. I’m very much looking forward to The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard in August, The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (sadly not out till Feb), The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Sept)and The Readers’ Room by Antoine Laurain (also Sept).

9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/on the weekend, what do you do to relax?

On a Friday I would sometimes go for a drink with colleagues after work, or meet friends for dinner, or I’d go home and put my feet up and watch TV with a glass of wine. Saturdays are usually (in normal times) reserved for boring life admin like food shopping, house cleaning, gardening, but also a run perhaps, definitely submission reading for work, meeting friends or having them over for dinner/drinks/BBQ, going for long walks, meeting at the pub, the cinema, the occasional pub quiz on a Sunday night. Trying to decompress before another usually busy week!

10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would you choose and why?

Hmmm. I guess that would depend on what sort of mood I’m in. If I wanted to go out dancing, then Freddie would totally be my guy. If I’m in more of a wood-fire and night-in, then it’d have to be Rod. I think on the whole though, Freddie, as I’m out most nights every week with friends or at work events and I think he’d keep the energy up and would certainly be entertaining!

Thank you for joining me on the blog today, Katherine. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Katherine Armstrong has worked in publishing for over fifteen years and is Editorial Director for Fiction at Bonnier Zaffre, part of Bonnier Books UK. She has previously worked at Faber & Faber and Little, Brown. Her speciality is crime and thriller fiction. She was one of the founding organisers of First Monday Crime Nights in London and is programme consultant for NOIReland, a new international crime fiction festival in Belfast.

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