An Interview With… Karen Sullivan

Hi everyone, this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome publisher and Orenda Books founder Karen Sullivan.

Karen and I first met in Waterstones when Orenda came to Liverpool in 2017, and I was very grateful and pleased when she kindly accommodated an interview. Read on for how she got involved in the industry, what she looks for in submissions and her all important views on the crime/thriller market.

Over to you, Karen…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always want to work in publishing when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I always knew that I wanted to do something with books, and my first job was in publishing. I went on to write books (non-fiction) and then returned to publishing and eventually started Orenda Books. I remember reading when I was a teenager about a girl who got a job ‘reading the slush pile’ for a publishing company, and couldn’t believe that it was possible to have a job that involved simply reading!

2) How did Orenda first begin? What was your plan/vision for the company?

I founded Orenda Books in 2014, and we published our first books in 2015. I wanted to publish beautiful, unforgettable books … books that pushed the boundaries of their genres, fresh, exciting voices, gorgeous writing. I also really wanted (and still do) to demystify translated literature, and bring some superb international reads to English. Because I was an author, it was equally important to me to create a team spirit, and make the publishing process pleasurable for authors.

3) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing? How does an author leave you wanting more?

A bit of everything, really. A generic covering letter does not impress; however, someone who has taken the time to look at what we publish and to let me know where they think their book fits into our list, and what they like about the books we publish is a great starting point. A short synopsis, a killer ‘blurb’ (elevator pitch, if you like) and a full manuscript are essential. We don’t sign on the basis of a synopsis. I often start reading after the first chapter, which many authors find painful to write. Something different, strong writing, a compelling storyline that wants me to read on are all important.

4) When you take on a full manuscript, what is the editing process like with the author?

We go through a number of stages of editing, the first being the structural edits, which can be brutal. We often lose whole plot threads, characters and even points of view at this stage, and there can be a lot of additional writing required. I am absolutely fierce about this process. Every book we publish also effectively bears my name, and I won’t put anything out there that isn’t the best that it can be. After several months, often with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and perhaps brainstorming solutions to problems, we’ll move onto copyediting, which can throw up more of the same! We work closely with the author at every stage.

5) How long does the publishing process take? Is it different with each book?

Yes, it’s different with every book, depending upon how much work is necessary. I would say, however, that the average book will take between eight and twelve months from submission to printed copies, and often longer. We can work much more quickly than big publishers, and we’ve turned around books that didn’t need many structural changes within six months. We need proofs about five months before publication, so the time is pretty much set in stone.

6) Do you have a view of the crime/thriller market at the moment? Is there anything that you haven’t seen in a book before?

There are always new twists and new ideas, and that’s what fascinates me – how a genre can continue to be so vibrant and diverse. I’m not one for ‘trendy’ plots or settings, and there has been, as there always is, a spate of similar books in different locations. I’m sure there is lots to come and many things I haven’t seen yet.

7) What would you do if you weren’t working in publishing? What keeps you motivated on a day to day basis?

I don’t even know! I have spent my entire career working in or with books, and reading is my ultimate hobby. I am motivated by doing something I love, with people that I love, in a community that I love, and that’s every reason to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work! I love the marketing aspect of the job, so perhaps that would be an alternative career! But oh … the books!

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

I mainly read, cook or spend time with my family. Over lockdown, my habits changed completely. I never, ever watched TV, apart from the odd series, and now I am watching a few at the same time, with a long list of things I plan to watch in future. I have also become a bit obsessed with DIY, and have been updating the house over the past few months. But Friday night is pizza and poker night, and we have so much fun! It will be strange when everyone is ‘free’ again and I think I’ll miss this! Chances are that I’ll be travelling again, too, and that will be weird. Over the weekend, I usually work for at least one day … editing or tackling social media. And then just do the stuff we all have to do!

9) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you going back to old favourites or reading new books?

LOADS of new books. I was seriously ill with Covid for several months, and picked up my kindle for the first time, reading book after book by friends in the community, proofs for upcoming books, anything. I think that I’ve read about 200 books in the past year, and loved every minute of it. I just finished reading Elizabeth Haynes’ You, Me and The Sea, which is so beautifully written and moving. Not crime, but I love reading widely. I’ve got Jenni Fagin’s Luckenbooth up next, and I recently finished Ashley Audrain’s The Push and Erin Kelly’s Watch Her Fall. Both absolutely BRILLIANT. I love translated fiction, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir is always a favourite!

10) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

As I mentioned, I never watched TV before and definitely didn’t have any favourite anything! I’m watching Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes at the moment, did a catch-up on Line of Duty recently, and my favourite spirit-lifter is Schitt’s Creek. There’s some amazing drama around. Thank goodness!

11) In lockdown, have you been missing live music? What is the best band or artist you last listened to or wish you had seen live?

We have a shared Spotify account in this house and I tend to be the first one kicked off! I like all types of music. When I’m working, I listen to the exquisite music of one of our authors, Thomas Enger, one of which was inspired by a visit to our family home on a lake in Canada. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I’m working, and I work A LOT, so it’s really just what’s on in the background. The best band? It HAS to be the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, with Val McDermid, Luca Veste, Stuart Neville, Chris Brookmyre, Mark Billingham and our brilliant Doug Johnstone on drums. I have seen an alarming percentage of their live performances, and I always get up and dance!

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

Bio: Karen Sullivan is founder and publisher of Orenda Books, a small independent publisher, based in London. Orenda publishes literary fiction, with a heavy emphasis on crime/thrillers, and about half the list in translation. Orenda won CWA Crime and Mystery Publisher of the Year in 2020, and has been shortlisted for Small Press of the Year in the 2021 British Book Awards. Karen was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016. She is Canadian by birth, and lives in London with her family.

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