Spotlight on local book publishers

Julie Anderson talks to the women who founded successful publishing houses in South London about books, business and being a driving force

Lesley O’Mara has been in the publishing game for most of her life. She and her husband, Michael, set up non-fiction publishers, Michael O’Mara Books in 1985. By 2003 the company featured in the top ten independent publishers of non-fiction, had sixteen titles in the top best selling five thousand and by 2008 had won the Independent Publishing Awards ‘International Achievement of the Year’. Along the way there were best-selling biographies, like Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story (1992), popular science books, such as Infinity in the Palm of your Hand by Marcus Chown (2018) and the launch of two successful imprints, Buster Books and LOMART. Operating from a Victorian workshop conversion in Clapham, Michael O’Mara Books, or MOM, now publishes about 150 books a year with an annual turnover of over £9m.

Karen Sullivan is also steeped in publishing and books. She set up Orenda Books in 2014, to publish high quality, literary fiction, with an emphasis on crime and thrillers. A Bookseller Rising Star in 2016, Orenda has been twice shortlisted for the Independent Publishers Guild Newcomer Award and won the CWA Crime & Mystery Publisher of the Year Dagger in 2020. Last year it had eleven Times Crime Book of the Month listings and a Sunday Times bestseller with Essie Fox’s The Fascination and Doug Johnstone’s The Space Between Us appeared on BBC’s Between The Covers. Orenda is based in a Victorian terraced house in Dulwich and publishes 24 books a year, with a turnover of £800,000. It has a successful track record of publishing fiction in translation, half their list is foreign authored, including best-selling Ragnar Jonasson and Norwegian Agnes Ravatn. Incidentally, Orenda signed Jonasson when Karen and Ragnar were playing football for the ‘England’ team at the Bloody Scotland Crime Fiction Festival (Karen is Canadian, Ragnar is Icelandic, make of that what you will).

Images: Lesley O’Mara (c) Louise Rose Photography / Karen Sullivan at the printer with Antti Tuomainen

Both MOM and Orenda are family firms; Lesley’s son, John, runs the MOM IT and Karen’s son, Cole, is Orenda’s Digital & Marketing Manager.

MOM is almost forty years old, while Orenda is younger, celebrating ten years. Many of MOM’s direct non-fiction contemporaries have ceased trading or been subsumed into bigger entities, Constable & Robinson is now owned by Little Brown, Mainstream is now part of Penguin Random House (PRH) but MOM keeps on going. In fiction, 2023 has seen long-standing Scottish independent, Sandstone Press bought by Vertebrae and crime specialists, Bloodhound Books, which gobbled up Red Dog, being gobbled up themselves by Open Road Media. Even the larger houses are feeling the pinch with job cuts across the industry. So why are MOM and Orenda still thriving given such a landscape?

Lesley says, “The secret is re-invention and being agile enough to identify and follow new trends. MOM is constantly trying new things and we are consciously commercial.” She cites adult colouring books as an example, a trend which MOM spotted very early and which, despite all predictions to the contrary, are still selling well. She stresses the importance of having creative staff and following up on success quickly. Buster Books was a successful departure into the children’s market which has since become half the MOM list, offering picture books, activity and colouring books and jokes and riddles as well as award-winning non-fiction titles such as Am I Made of Stardust? by Maggie Aderin-Pocock.

Karen agrees. “We need to be constantly considering change, to be nimble and willing to adapt.” She has a strong idea of what Orenda is and where it is placed in the fiction market and wants to keep that, but knows they need to be flexible. Orenda talks to readers and sometimes changes things, depending upon what they hear. So, the marketing strategy for Will Carver’s books was totally re-written after an encounter with a large group of Carver fans at a Nottingham Festival. Until then Orenda had targeted younger readers for Carver’s edgy, unusual crime books, but the fans were a different demographic, all in their 60s and 70s. Now Carver is marketed differently.

Both publishers focus on quality, producing beautiful books; the adult colouring books are drawn by first rate illustrators, the crime hardbacks have sprayed edges and embossed covers. This is, in part, their response to new, electronic competitors, especially for Orenda. Production costs are higher, but the sales figures show it’s worth it.

I asked both women what advice they would give to someone starting a publishing house now and their advice was, in some ways, similar.

“Work for someone first – learn the trade,” says Lesley, who worked at Orbis and Octopus before founding MOM. “You must have a passion for books and for publishing books, because there won’t be a lot of money in it, certainly at first,” she adds. “Hire brilliant staff and be creative. Find your niche and stay within it until you have an audience.”

Karen had publishing experience before Orenda, working for two independent publishers earlier in her career. She believes in the importance of having a clear idea of where you want to go and then sticking with that idea, even if other things around it may change. “The vision is all important. I knew what I wanted and I fought for it, I created Orenda’s niche.” Funding is all important. “If you can, get an investor who believes in your vision and is prepared to invest for the long term.” She smiles, knowing that this is what every entrepreneur wants.

Lesley O’Mara and Karen Sullivan have succeeded in an increasingly cut-throat business, in a market which is flooded with books and at a time when changing technology has brought fresh challenges. It has also brought opportunities and free social media platforms are key, Orenda has a presence on all channels and MOM has a social media specialist as well as a three-person publicity team. Both women referenced Artificial Intelligence, but neither believes that it will ever replace editors and translators.

Two indomitable women, heads of their respective south London publishing houses and both relishing the challenges ahead.

Julie Anderson’s latest book ‘Opera’ (Claret Press) was listed for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2023. Her next book, ‘The Midnight Man’, a mystery set in Clapham, in 1946 is published on 30th April by Hobeck Books.