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The benefits and risks of independent publishing: Karen Sullivan interview

Karen Sullivan founded the independent publisher, Orenda Books, a little under a year ago. They publish literary and crime/thriller fiction. Karen moved to the UK from Canada at the age of 21 and worked for a small independent publisher before forging a career as a health editor and writer. Here Stephanie Cox interviews her on the benefits and risks for independent publishers.

1. What were some of the risks you had to take into consideration when starting your own independent publishing company?

Starting any business is a risk, particularly in an industry that is in a state of flux, with many independent publishers being swallowed by conglomerates or closing their doors completely. I was aware of my responsibilities to my authors, whose blood is in their books, to their agents, to my distributors and sales team, booksellers, to everyone, and worried that an unknown company with a fairly unknown publisher and a host of debuts on the list, could fail to make any impact at all.

More than a few people said I was mad, but a lot more than that believed it could be done. Ultimately, I reckon that people always read great books and, if I could find them, publish them and market them, then I stood as much chance as anyone else.

It’s a difficult business, with tiny margins and many nail-biting moments, but I have fantastic authors who work so hard to promote their books and, as I suspected, good books will sell! And the truth is that many big companies are struggling in a market that is ever-changing, and I might as well throw in my lot with them.

2. What does Orenda Books have to offer that others don’t or what do you feel makes your company unique?

The nice thing about being an independent publisher is that we can probably take risks that other, larger, companies can’t. While we have hopeful sales targets, they aren’t deal-breakers and we can invest in authors while they find their place in the market (and the bestseller lists!). In many larger companies, an author needs to reach a certain level of sales or risk being dropped. Our overheads are low, and we can take a punt where other companies might not.

More importantly, we can do something different and create or cater to a niche community. I love publishing translated fiction, for example. It’s hugely expensive, with the cost of the translation to take into consideration before you’ve even edited, jacketed, printed, marketed or sold a single book. And on paper it doesn’t look very promising; however, there is a community of avid readers out there and I take huge pride in bringing to English some of the finest international authors there are. We can cherry-pick from the very best!

Every publishing company differs according to who is buying the books, and what you get at Orenda is my taste. I always worry that people won’t see what I saw, but so far that has not been the case. There has been resounding enthusiasm and support. So I guess the answer is that we just publish good books. We take risks with debut authors, with translated fiction, with books written in Scottish vernacular (for example), with sensitive themes, with authors who have been rejected in lots of places before finding their home on a team. We are growing together as a company and I think that harmony, that shared belief, is what will shine through. Well, that and the great books!

3. Why do you feel that independents are good for the publishing industry?

For most of the reasons above, really. Bringing something different and new to the market, taking risks that bigger companies can’t accommodate because of accountability to shareholders or targets, and publishing passionately. This might sound odd, but in larger companies, the enthusiasm, excitement and commitment of a great commissioning editor will get a book commissioned, but by the time a book heads down through various departments, even the greatest energy can be diluted. Here, as in many independents, a few people (in our case, just me) do everything from commissioning and editing to pitching for festivals and reviews, marketing, selling rights and even accompanying authors on tours and to events. The initial excitement is always there, and that helps. I can’t tell you how many authors from bigger companies have approached me. They aren’t after bigger money; they are after a continuing relationship, personal care, continuity, and the belief that their book will have more than a week in the sun.

Independents also tend to cater to niche markets, which are rich and vibrant communities, with avid readers who appreciate the different things we bring to the market. There should be books for all types of readers and, in an industry increasingly dominated by conglomerates and chains, with the obvious repercussions, it’s nice to offer something new and to give less catered-for markets what they want.

To read the full interview, head over to Stephanie’s blog: Words are my Craft.

Independent publisher, Karen Sullivan, Orenda Books, Stephanie Cox

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