An Interview With… Louise Cullen

Hi everyone, and this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Louise Cullen.

Louise is a publishing director for Canelo, a London based independent publisher. I was intrigued by the role so was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to her.

Over to you, Louise…

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

I worked in a number of different roles before I started in the publishing industry, including jobs in travel, project management and administration. A career as an editor wasn’t something I realised was a possibility in my school days. Once I decided it was the career I wanted, I studied part time for a BA in English and applied for internships when I graduated. My first internship was in an editorial department, and it resulted in my first permanent job in trade publishing as an editorial assistant. That was around ten years ago.

2) What books grab you instantly when you’re in Waterstones, WHSmiths or browsing Amazon online? What is it about them that makes you think ‘I’ll buy that!’?

Despite the adage about never judging books by their covers, it is often the look of a book that first captures my attention. I think the quality of designs is better than ever! My taste is varied, so I find things that appeal to me in many sections of a bookshop. That said, I frequently gravitate towards the crime fiction section and may be drawn in by the design, a clever tagline on the front cover or a description of the contents that sound compelling.

I may seek out titles from publishers that I admire, or have heard of from prize nominations or publicity. It’s nice to revisit authors whose work I have enjoyed, however, my reading time is precious so I often try new voices. Amazon, and shopping online in general, is a less instinctive experience. I check reader reviews but aim to keep a balanced view; poor reviews can be down to personal taste rather than the quality of a book. The algorithms do work as I often look at the suggestions of books that are similar, and have discovered some interesting authors as a result.

3) On the other hand, what book doesn’t grab you? Are there any genres that you wouldn’t read? If so, why?

There isn’t a specific genre that I would not read, but it is less likely that I’d pick up science fiction or fantasy novels. I am also not a huge fan of children’s voices in fiction aimed at adults, so I don’t often read novels with a very young protagonist. I do not read many biographies – they’re usually a little too long-winded for my liking – though I like memoirs that tell a story of an ordinary person who overcame something unimaginable, or found themselves in a situation that they did not imagine and had to rise to the challenge.

4) What makes Canelo stand out as a publisher? What is the package that you offer prospective authors? Do you offer advances?

I hope what makes us stand out is our focus on readers rather than trends. Though we do publish books that reflect the zeitgeist, we also publish a lot of novels that may be considered ‘dated’ or less relevant, but we believe that good stories ought to be readily available to all who may enjoy them.

Canelo is proud of the fact that we have made successes of books in under-represented genres, whether that be sea-faring adventures, or crypto thrillers that other publishers may view as unfashionable. We aim to be a broad church with the genres we offer. We also seek to provide a fair, transparent and collaborative experience for our authors and to work with them in a meaningful way.

We do not offer advances, and that is irrespective of whether you are a debut or already a bestselling author. Our model is to offer an industry-leading ebook royalty rate that comes into force from the moment the book is published, and very fair terms on matters such as royalties for other formats, and rights. We are a small company, but with a lot of experience in the industry and a track record of working with successful authors. We are great at spotting opportunities and reacting to them, and we put a lot of work into aspects of publication that we believe make a key difference to an author’s sales and readership.

I absolutely love working directly with the authors to shape their novels and ensure they have the best likelihood of success, and growing their audience over time. There is always more to learn and a lot more for us to do as a company, but I’m proud of the team we have and how many authors we have been able to put on the path to becoming established novelists with career longevity.

5) How do you find your current role as Canelo’s Publishing Director? Can you tell me a little about your role in the publishing process for the manuscript?

As publishing director, I have a range of responsibilities and my days are rather varied. One aspect of the role is to work closely with commissioning editors who acquire books in the genres under my remit. This includes psychological thriller, romance, saga, contemporary fiction and crime.

Making the success of a book is always a team effort, so I attend various meetings with Canelo colleagues throughout the day to discuss new opportunities to acquire books, or perhaps the cover design for books we have rights to publish. There are frequent reviews of sales, marketing and publicity plans.

I am part of Canelo’s senior management team and that involves working closely with the other senior managers to consider matters that impact on our short, medium and long term plans, our ways of working and ensuring we’re heading in the right direction as a company. The other major aspect of my role is to steer the Canelo Crime list. That means looking closely at the crime fiction market and bringing focus to plans for the imprint.

I consider whether we have done everything possible to make a success of the books on that list, what sort of new books or authors we should seek. I also represent the imprint to the wider industry. A significant amount of my time is spent working directly with Canelo Crime authors to edit their books, and make plans for their next book, and the next, and the next!

I love that part of my job, and communicating with agents about new authors they think may suit my taste and our list.

6) What advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out? Would you recommend a creative writing course?

I wouldn’t feel able to recommend a creative writing course one way or another, because I have not undertaken one. I know some authors seem to benefit from them a great deal, and as an observer it seems that being introduced to other writers and a supportive group is a key benefit.

Potentially, that element is as attractive to attendees as the content of the course itself. Without a direct contact within the industry, it may be hard to work out what is to be expected of you as an author, or how best to ensure your work is handled with care and you are treated fairly.

Literary agents do a huge amount to advocate for their authors, but not every author is going to be able to work with an agent, especially when they are starting out. It seems the shared experience of those on a creative writing course may be useful. Also, some agents or editors have links to courses so will be predisposed to consider authors who take part in them.

For what it is worth, I would not in any way overlook an author because they had not done a creative writing course, but I may note that someone who had done a course could be more likely to grasp the requirements of delivering books to a deadline, and potentially be more familiar with taking feedback on board.

The courses can be expensive and I would not by any means suggest that anyone ought to consider that such a course is a ‘must have’. Without a doubt, the key overriding factor in whether I would seek to work with an author is the quality of the novel. My advice to any author would be to write the novel you want to read, and look at those who are successful in your chosen genre. Try to understand why they have succeeded and apply this to your own work as much as you can. Be aware that publishing is a busy, bustling industry and to gain attention for your work it would be useful to have worked out a ‘hook’ – a short phrase or proposition that immediately engages the reader’s attention and explains who the book is for.

Also pay careful attention to any feedback you receive; whether you choose to act on it is your decision, but if you hear the same thing numerous times that may suggest you should take it on board.

7) 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?

I think the crime and thriller market is a really interesting and dynamic area for authors and readers. The overarching theme is giving readers a mystery to solve, and that trait is rather resistant to trends. There are cultural moments, and often tropes and devices that for a while may seem to crop up everywhere, but they always have their roots in something long lasting. Right now, there are any number of novels being published as a new spin on Agatha Christie, and female-led detective series have been extremely popular in British crime fiction for a while now.

It pleases me that many recent crime books offer a broader view of where crimes happen (everywhere), who commits them, and who can solve them. In my teens, I read authors like Jeffery Deaver, Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane. Now, rather than recognition for quality crime fiction being dominated by American, often male, authors, there are different voices telling varied stories.

Closer to home, I love how popular it has become to set a novel in a rural community or a smaller city or town; at one time it seemed London was the only place crimes occured! Not to say that I dislike novels by American authors, male authors or set in London – many that fit that bracket are among my favourite books and highly deserving of their success. Greater representation of characters and stories from a variety of cultures, backgrounds and places is crucial in order to connect with readers. It is no secret that a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that readers and authors from a whole host of different communities see that books, and publishing, are for them, about them, and by them.

Regarding subgenre, I would love to see a greater appreciation for mystery fiction series that involve an amateur sleuth. By this I mean things such as private investigators, journalists, or generally nosey and clever characters! Though police procedurals are a subgenre I adore there is less immediate recognition of novels that don’t feature a police detective, and I think that is a shame. Working to solve a mystery or pursue justice can be brilliantly told with characters who are not constrained by upholding the law. Gristly detail is something I rather like, so I’d be interested in more books featuring characters in forensic pathology, which are less common at the moment. Also books with a pair of detectives working closely together – it’s fascinating to me when this dynamic is explored, and the resulting bonds, tension and dependence on one another that can result.

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

Despite the vast amount of crime fiction that I read for work, I do love to read crime novels for pleasure. There are just so many incredible authors and I cannot get enough of mysteries to solve, or flawed characters, and I like being scared! Anything to get my heart pounding is fun, and I am not averse to gore or violence. The other books I tend to read for pleasure would probably be broadly categorised as literary fiction, though I am not a fan of that term. For me, this probably means a standalone novel, offering a unique character perspective and tackling complex relationships against the backdrop of a moment of change.

That’s not the most eloquent answer but it’s quite hard to define – perhaps that is why ‘literary’ fiction is used! Some stories don’t sit easily in a genre, but I don’t like any implication that ‘genre’ or ‘commercial’ fiction is easier to write, or a poorer standard or in any way less skilful or meaningful. This is far from the case, and labels like ‘literary’ don’t help readers, they’re industry terms. I don’t read as many romance books these days but I have enjoyed many a good rom com.

I sometimes seek out books published long ago that come highly recommended. As mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t rule out any genre, but I don’t think I’d read YA fiction without a very compelling reason, and not much sci-fi or fantasy.

9) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you finding that your reading habits are changing at all?

As a commissioning editor, I am constantly reading manuscripts. That may be the new novels my existing authors have completed, or ones on offer from the literary agents I am in touch with. This means I read a lot of crime fiction, though I do also read the things my team are keen to acquire too, so I dip into all sorts of genres as a result. I always take a break from work reading at Christmas and was able to read a lot of fantastic books this time – the silver lining of a festive break when we weren’t able to spend the occasion with friends and family. I enjoyed We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker a great deal, also The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, which is non-fiction but explores the aftermath of a crime, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell for something moving and highly absorbing.

My reading-for-pleasure opportunities are usually from audiobooks, and I download these via the BorrowBox and Libby library apps. It’s a brilliant way to read while doing something else, such as walking or commuting. Due to working from home now, I have fewer hours in the day to listen so my main change in habit is that I read more slowly. Most recently in audiobook I enjoyed The Survivors by Jane Harper. It is wonderfully tense, as well as being tightly plotted and moving. I felt transported to Tasmania, which was rather nice!

Also recently I listened to Girl A by Abigail Dean, which was wonderfully narrated by Holliday Grainger, and Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore; not an easy tale with it’s exploration of violence against women, mysogyny, racism and neglect, but a powerful story.

10) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Are you finding that your habits are changing? Do you have a favourite drama that you enjoy religiously?

I’m sporadic with my television viewing and not very good at committing to a recurring series. Like many people, I find streaming works well so I can watch at a time that suits me.

I enjoy gritty dramas, often crime (a theme is emerging with these answers), and true crime series. I also like documentaries about things I know little about, such as the financial crash. The most recent series that I have watched are The Queen’s Gambit, The Fall, Line of Duty and It’s a Sin. In documentaries and true crime, I have watched The Night Stalker (it is terrifying but very well made) and Dirty Money.

Bloodlands is also good so far, and I watched Schitt’s Creekthough – controversially – I didn’t like the latter series as much. I tend to find characters less interesting when they achieve their goals of happiness or redemption!

Thank you very much for your time today Louise. It has been a pleasure to interview you and find out more about your job role! I wish Canelo all the best!

Bio: Louise Cullen is publishing director at Canelo, a London-based independent publisher founded in 2015 and nominated for Independent Publisher of the Year by the British Book Awards in 2021.

She heads the Canelo Crime imprint, and publishes bestselling authors including Rachel Lynch and Marion Todd. In the past, she has worked with authors including C. D. Major, Michael Ridpath, Anne Holt, Holly Seddon and Mario Reading. Louise is originally from the Wirral, and now lives in Walthamstow, London.

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