An Interview With… James Keane

Hi everyone, and this evening to the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime fiction editor and publisher James Keane.

James is one of the main team of Northodox Press, an independent crime fiction specialist publishing house in Manchester. Practically a stone throw away from my base in Liverpool, Northodox Press takes its namesake for one reason.

It caters specifically for northern writers, northern voices, characters and settings. They are on the lookout for any writer who fits their criteria. Details on how to submit or get in touch are below.

I was delighted when James agreed to answer a few questions on how he got involved in the industry and Northodox Press.

Over to you, James…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Was it something you always wanted to do? Did you have any other career plans?

I approached publishing like most people do. I was an avid reader, worked a weekend job in a bookshop, and dabbled with writing on the side. I applied for a creative writing courseat the University of Derby and while studying, a group of students and myself published a magazine, the now defunct Writer’s Quibble.

After graduating, I searched for publishing jobs in the Midlands and back home in Yorkshire, to little or no avail, as I couldn’t afford to intern or work unpaid for any length of time. For the next year I worked and saved enough money to pursue a masters in publishing. At the time there were fewmaster’s courses in the North of England which compared to their counterparts in London; so I made the decision to move to London and break into the industry.

2) You did a Masters in Publishing. What was your experience of the course like and how has it helped you in your current role?

I studied at City University London which is consistently ranked in the top three publishing courses in the UK. A masters will teach you the A to Z of the industry, help you to understand how every step in the process effects the next, and how the supply chain functions from making the paper to putting the book in the hands of the customer.

My experience was a lot different from most folk. To fund the course and pay rent in London, I had to work obscene hours and split the course over two years to make the most of it. Unfortunately, it meant I couldn’t apply for internships or attend industry events, which would increase my chances of finding a job after the course. I’d recommend that no-one take on a masters lightly, while most publishers state a degree isn’t necessary to success in an application it will set you apart.

However, I managed to find internships which fit around the jigsaw of work and study. Making contacts everywhere I could, freelancing for industry awards and book events, interning for indie presses and digital publishers in various roles, before finally landing a role with one of the big five.

3) You have worked for independent publishers and traditional publishing houses. How did you find your experience? Did you find your previous roles were good experience for Northodox?

The first independent publisher I worked for was a marketing and publicity role. They worked out of a single 20 x 20 metreroom in North London, everyone beavering away, with haphazard towers of books ranging from floor to ceiling. The atmosphere was great and the team we’re instantly welcoming. Even for an indie they were extremely agile and published some phenomenal non-fiction. Small publishers can be as rewarding to work for as the Penguins and Hachette’s of the world, the pay is often comparable and the culture is more social by and large. 

I’ve also worked for one of big five in the production department for around five years. Production is an often undervalued side of the publishing business, typically outsourced to reproduction houses and typesetters, but which rack up the costs if left without due care and a firm hand. If you enjoy fancy finishes, book proofs (galleys/ARCs), and being the first in the team to get your hands on the finished copies, production is the role for you.

The greatest difference between traditional and indie is how grandiose everything feels. The offices are plucked from science fiction or period dramas. There’s always an author event, a birthday, or a champagne moment. It must be said that this was all pre-COVID and at the moment, it’s very much a level playing field for all. Remember publishing is an incredibly small industry, there’s two degrees of separation from anyone in the field, so networking is the be all and end all.

4) Why did you choose to specialise in crime fiction? What do you feel Northodox can offer a new writer?

I was approached by Ted O’Connor and Tom Ashton to set up a northern focused publisher, championing northern voicesand specialising in crime fiction. Quite often, new publishers struggle to develop a brand identity, because their output and audience are too broad and generalised. The decision to concentrate on crime fiction came after a great deal of market research – crime fiction sales represent around 30% of the trade publishing market in the UK, second only to romance.

Northodox Press is digital-first, meaning that the brand centres on eBook and audiobook ahead of print. This means our marketing and publicity efforts will largely focus on social media and traditional media outlets. Our distribution channels offer a global reach within the Commonwealth and the English speaking world.

The team have had successful careers in the publishing industry, for independent and traditional publishers, literaryand marketing agencies, to name a few. We’ve positioned ourselves competitively in the market and carved out a niche we hope will springboard us into sales success. Publishing is a gamble at the end of the day, but with enough marketing impetus, and the support of regional media outlets we’re primed to give authors a comparable offering to the likes of Canelo and Bookouture.

We have plans to expand into other genres in the future. That being said our crime fiction tastes take in the full spectrum the genre has to offer, whether that’s historical, fantast, sci-fi, or romance.

5) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?

A well-conceived cover letter can’t be understated when sending submissions. It’s your template for all future conversations with a publisher and should be viewed as your writing resume. A poorly formatted email will put you in bad stead, a confrontational email might earn you the ubiquitous wall of silence, and a YA novel to a crime fiction publisher might just earn you chirping crickets or a sarcastic cough from the back row. 

It’s imperative you do your research before sending a submission to a publisher or agent. If you’ve spent six months to a year writing and editing a manuscript, you owe yourself a couple of weeks or months to select the right publisher and review their guidelines.

We request the first three chapters or 10,000 words. Make sure the manuscript has been proofread, preferably by someone you don’t know, not a friend or a family member. You can organise a writer’s swap with another author to sense-read or proofread one another’s manuscripts. All of the above assure that when an editor opens a submission they do so confidently and the writing speaks for itself.

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently? Across the crime genre, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?

The fiction market is encouraging at the moment. We haven’t seen a significant lull in sales over the period of lockdown oras the restrictions have been lifted. The bulk of these sales have come through e-retailers and the high street bookstores online. Notable titles over the lockdown include Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race resurfacing following the death of George Floyd. The current crop of Booker/Not the Booker Prize Longlist also peeking reader’s interests. Can Hilary Mantel seal her third Booker Prize for The Mirror & the Light or as I suspect Douglas Stuart’s class-conscious Shuggie Bain will sweep the prize.

The North East is currently dominating with two cracking non-fiction reads from the Ramsey’s Sh**ged. Married. Annoyed and Ant & Deck’s Once Upon a Tyne. We’ve been blindsided the by the response from Liverpudlian and Mancunian authors who have delivered some excellent submissions. But very few submissions from the North East, Yorkshire, and Humberside – don’t let the side down lads and lasses! 

We’d love to see strong female characters dominate the bookshelves, writers of diverse backgrounds, underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ scene, and of course genre defying crime fiction – where are my dystopian detectives, Saxon serial killers, or enchanted private eyes?

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

Friday nights are movie nights with the family, we cook dinner and catch up on Zoom.

Of a weekend, it’s always good to get out for some exercise, I like to listen to a podcast or an audiobook before burning through the submissions pile.

Northodox is my current all-consuming hobby, even if my subconscious or significant other reminds me to stick to normal working hours.

8) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

Tiger King and Love is Blind were binge worthy, car crash television at the start of lockdown, I’m not ashamed to say. I’ve enjoyed watching Disney or Studio Ghibli films with my partner and catching up on the films I missed in 2019.

Great movie night choices I can recommend are, Peanut Butter Falcon and Captain Fantastic for your indie fix. And to top it off, a career-defining film for Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems, one of the most tense and nerve-wracking films you’re ever likely to experience this year.

9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?

My challenge over the past couple of years was to read more non-fiction and more novels written by women, to combat my own biases.

I started lockdown reading Beth O’Leary witty and deliciously re-readable Flatshare and N K Jemini’s Lovecraftian, genre-bending The City We Became.

Then like most people during lockdown and especially after the BLM protests with the broader discussions around privilege and diversity I’ve tried to engage more with writers of colour and various backgrounds dissimilar to my own. I picked up Man Booker Prize winning Girl, Women, Other and Candace Carty-William’s Queenie before devouring both in a matter of days.

An ongoing read which I keep near my bed is David Olusoga’s Black and British, both eye-opening and shame-inducing in equal measures. I highly recommend people read Akala’s Natives and Afua Hirsch’s Brit-ish, to understand the wider context of Britain’s role in the slave trade and the perspective of young black Britons.

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

Freddie Mercury, without hesitation. There’s a line in Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett that every CD left in a car eventually becomes the Greatest Hits of Queen, which sums up the universality of their music quite nicely I think.

As a queer young man, I definitely connect with Freddie on a personal level, and though he died before I was born, I can’t help but feel a close connection.

Thank you for your time this evening James. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

I wish Northodox Press all the best in their hunt for publishing the best new northern crime novels around.

How to contact Northodox…

Website: http://www.northodox.co.uk

General enquires: admin@northodoxpress.co.uk

Submissions: submissions@northodoxpress.co.uk

Twitter: @northodoxpress

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