“Whether in UK or elsewhere, we all love well told great stories”

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told Sarah Odedina, managing director, Hot Key Books in a tête-à-tête with Janani Rajeshwari S of AABP.

Sarah Odedina, managing director, Hot Key Books Ltd, London, began her publishing career in the rights department of Penguin Books and later moved to the Watts Publishing Group and then to Bloomsbury, where she was the publishing director of the children’s list. During her stint at Bloomsbury, she managed the publication of the popular Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, besides other prize-winning best-selling authors as Jennifer Donnelley, Louis Sachar, Celia Rees, Sharon Creech, Debi Gliori and Neil Gaiman. In September 2011, she moved on to Hot Key Books where she has been focused on creating a company built around the principle that they publish authors not books and their job is to take those authors to readers all over the world. The start of 2013 saw their title Maggot Moon win the prestigious Costa Book Award for Children’s fiction.

In a candid chat, Sarah Odedina, managing director, London-based Hot Key Books Ltd, tells Janani Rajeshwari S all about children’s books and publishing who was recently at Tara Book Building, Chennai.

AABP: You started your career at the Penguin Adult Rights Department, moving from there to Orchard Books specialising in children’s titles. What got you interested in children’s literature?

Sarah: When I moved to working with children’s books, I realised how incredibly important it is for children to have great stories to read. Not just school books or classics but new stories that reflect their lives and also stories that tell them about what children from around the world love. Children who enjoy reading get so much pleasure from stories and being part of the business of giving children pleasure like this was fabulous and remains so till this day.

AABP: When the ‘Harry Potter’ series came to Bloomsbury for publication, did you anticipate that it would garner the grand success that it did?

Sarah: We knew before we published the first of the Harry Potter books that it was a really special book. Original, funny, sad, adventure-driven, great characters … it really does have it all. Clearly, no one could have imagined the scale of the success of the books. But in-house at Bloomsbury, there was no doubt that Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was a real gem in the list.

AABP: It’s been nearly two years since you moved to ‘Hot Key Books’. How has the transition been and what have been your goals at ‘Hot Key’?

Sarah: It’s been an exciting and invigorating two years. We have built a list very quickly and have been so fortunate to be publishing some incredibly exciting authors. I can honestly say that the last two years have been all about looking forward with great excitement and energy as we focus on building our list and getting the work of brilliant authors in to the hands of readers. We have sold many foreign rights across all the books on the list. In addition, we have won the two most prestigious Costa (2012) and Carnegie (2013) Book Awards for children’s fiction for Maggot Moon by Sally Gardener.

AABP: Tell us a little about the book and the whole experience of bringing out the book Maggot Moon.

Sarah: Maggot Moon is a remarkably original book. In many ways, it is unquantifiable in its originality. First of all, it’s written in the most incredible voice. Told through the eyes of the hero Standish Treadwell who has an utterly unique way of understanding the world, it’s in some ways a futuristic fantasy although set in the 1960s in London. It is an imagined setting as the UK is a rather grim Stalinist sort of country where people lead impoverished and oppressed lives. When I first read the manuscript, I knew it was something really special and something that we had to make look different which I think we have with the brilliant cover and great interior illustrative narrative. I also knew it was a book that we would get support from booksellers as it is that wonderful thing of being both literary and accessible.

AABP: Tell us about the publishing strategy at Hotkey?

Sarah: We aim to publish books for independent readers – readers who have some element of choice over what they read. We are interested in providing a range of books bearing in mind that readers are varied. One day someone may want to read a romance and the next day an adventure story. The thing that will we believe unify our books is the fact that each will have a strong author voice, and be unique in terms of how it is written. We are not looking for generic titles or ‘copy cat’ books that publish to a genre.

AABP: As for children’s literature, the field has been an emerging one. What are the kinds of development you see since the days of the Harry Potter series?

Sarah: I think that the world of children’s books is becoming more and more sophisticated with each year. Young readers now have so much choice and such a range of subjects, styles and issues that they can choose from. That is quite right I believe as children, like adults, like choice.

AABP: How important is an author’s role in a book pertaining to children’s literature? How do you select books for publication?

Sarah: It is all about the author! We’re in the business of publishing authors, not books. A book is nothing without an author and the best-seller lists really do back that up when you see that all the biggest bestsellers of the last two decades are books created by one person with a burning desire to tell their story. We select books for publication on the basis of how much we love the author voice, how much we engage with it as readers and how we can see ways in which to ensure that the intended audience of children will be able to engage with it.

AABP: How have digital developments impacted the production of books? What are changes that you have adapted to in this respect?

Sarah: The digital edition of a book is now the third format we have available to us when choosing how to publish a book- hardback, paperback and digital. We publish all our books in both print and e-book format simultaneously. It’s a format that people need to be able to have available to them when choosing to buy any of our books. The e-book sales are aimed at older readers, who are the strongest category for us so far. Also, we anticipate in time that e-books aimed at younger readers will pick up too.

AABP: What was the purpose of your visit to India?

Sarah: I visit India about once a year as Penguin India sells our books for us in India and I come to attend the sales conference and present our books to the booksellers and to the in-house team. This time, I also visited Tara Books as a long time admirer of their list. Also, talking at the Book Building about publishing our new list was one of the most interesting opportunities I have had for a while AABP: You have spoken about the role of the social media in the publishing industry at the Tara Book Building. Could you elaborate on the advent of e-books had its impact on the publishing industry? How is ‘Hot Key’ responding to this trend?

Sarah: As publishers, social media is perhaps the single most important marketing tool we have available to us. It’s a wonderful opportunity to communicate directly with readers, to be part of the reading community and to make sure that our authors are part of the discussion about books. Bloggers are hugely influential these days in that they are independent and their opinion really does carry a lot of weight. Our job is to ensure that our books are part of that discussion. ‘Hot Key’ Books has embraced that whole-heartedly and we are on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. On all these platforms, we endeavour to share our love for reading, authors and books. They are not advertising hoardings. However, when publishers do attempt to use social media to pursue people to buy their books, I think they lose a lot of support.

AABP: In your opinion, what is the difference between the children literature industry in UK and elsewhere?

Sarah: I am not sure I can tell you about the difference between children’s literature in the UK and the rest of the world. But it seems to me that we share more than we differ on. We all seem to love great stories well told. The response to the Hot Key list in India has been extremely positive. I was delighted to see so many of our books in shops from Chennai to New Delhi and Jaipur. We have a wonderful range of books that will appeal to readers everywhere and I am delighted to see how the Indian booksellers and readers have embraced our books.

AABP: What are your future plans?

Sarah: Future plans are to build the list, hopefully publish some big bestsellers and to continue to stick to our core philosophy of publishing great authors and making them available to readers all over the world!

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