Orenda Books: a small company that has built a big community – interview with Karen Sullivan

Orenda Books

Abbie Headon interviews Bookseller Rising Star Karen Sullivan, founder of Orenda Books, about the joys and challenges of running your own publishing house.

1) In our last interview, you talked about the creative freedom and control that comes from running your own publishing house: is this still what drives you?

Absolutely and it always will. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder telling me what I can and can’t publish, and I am not interested in following trends, or lookalike jackets, or the ‘what’s commercial at the moment’ approach to publishing. My mission is clear: I want to publish beautifully written books by exceptional authors from around the world, and even if they do fall into the category of ‘genre fiction’, they all add something new, offer a fresh take, push the genre in an exciting direction, or simply offer a superlative example of how even tired genre books should be written. I love books with layers, books with a social conscience, books that shock or amaze or teach us something. Books that are bold and unafraid to challenge. And I can do that. Every single time.

2) How important is it to you to attend events such as crime writing festivals? And how do you manage to fit your work commitments around your travels?

I think it’s really important that I attend the festivals, alongside my authors. We publish a lot of international authors in translation, and one big way to demystify the concept of ‘foreign authors’ is to put them in front of readers and include them in the community. Because they are delightful! And fun and funny and talented, and once readers and other members of the community get to know them, we are off! I LOVE spending time with other crime writers, bloggers, readers, press, etc., and I think there is no better way to ‘sell’ an author or a concept than to present it passionately in person. My Mary Poppins handbag is notorious … I usually have loads of proofs of our upcoming releases and finished books for new ones. It all spreads the word. And the other thing is, of course, that it’s a hugely supportive community and it is great to be out there showing support for other authors and to the festivals as well.

As for work commitments … well, it can sometimes be tricky. I am very good at working like a machine when I have bursts of time at my desk, and I just tick, tick, tick off the items on my to-do list. My office is at home, so I can work on weekends and into the night (after household responsibilities are taken care of), and I can usually work on trains and after evening festivities (!) to keep on top of things. My son Cole is our intern, and he is super organized and very knowledgeable and efficient, so I can delegate to him. Also on the team is my brilliant editor, West Camel, who is slowly taking over more of the administrative stuff (and frankly, he’s better at it, too). Anne Cater looks after all things bloggers for me, which is fantastic, and we’ve got great PR support from Sophie Goodfellow at FMcM, which absolutely helps. But the truth is that there is always too much to do. I always do the structural edits on every book and always read the final pdfs before we go to print, and it has to be said that I hold things up from time to time because I’m just not anywhere near a computer! I do all of the marketing, a good percentage of the PR, festival pitching, and as many author events as I can manage. Sometimes some things suffer. I now have to wear a name badge at home that says ‘Mummy’.

3) How would you describe your social media strategy?

We don’t have loads of money for marketing, so it makes sense to get out there and interact with readers and reviewers … influencers, if you like! We run HUGE blog tours, thanks to Anne Cater and an incredible team of intelligent, passionate bloggers, we do competitions, we shout about the books, we chat to readers, support ebook promotions, etc., and also support other wonderful books. This is a flooded market, and it’s nice to point out what’s really special. My authors are ALL very hands-on and genuinely grateful to be published and to have the opportunity to chat to readers. So many book sales are one-click purchases after online recommendations; so many books make it big through word of mouth. That’s what we’re trying to tap into! And if a book jacket is all over Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., there is a wee bit of an osmosis effect … a reader sees it in a bookshop and might just pick it up and turn it over. We’re trying to build Orenda as a ‘brand’, meaning that we’d love people to want to buy an Orenda book regardless of what they usually read, because they know it’s going to be great. So what’s the strategy? Be visible and friendly without being spammy: after all, people can’t buy a book unless they know it’s there!

4) And what are the relationships like between your readers and authors? How do your authors support each other?

My authors are incredible! They support each other always, whether it’s sharing ebook promotions, congratulating them on successes, offering to read their books with a view to offering a jacket quote, just celebrating everything! It sounds SO corny, but we really ARE a team. We spend a lot of time together in various combinations and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. We are all working towards the same goal. My authors enjoy getting to know readers and reviewers, and they are moved and sometimes tearful when they get wonderful feedback.

5) Finally, do you think it’s possible to build a long-lasting buzz around a publishing brand, even if you’re not one of the time-honoured names such as Penguin or Faber?

Oh yes!! We’ve already had some brilliant mentions in the USA press … this little publishing house that has crept onto the scene. Sort of ‘read all their books’ mentions, and that’s exactly what we are hoping to achieve. We would LOVE readers to equate our books with quality, and know that they are going to get something special when they open an Orenda book. There is a lovely #TeamOrenda hashtag used frequently on social media, and that’s a great thing to see. As long as we maintain standards and continue to publish fantastic books, that buzz will be there.


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