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As you might expect, it’s been a heady time for publisher Sara Hunt and novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet. For anyone who’s been in a cave these last few months and doesn’t know, Graeme’s literary-historical-crime novel, His Bloody Project, a tale of multiple murder set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-late 19th Century, was first longlisted and then shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize.
It seemed to me that this was very much a story of joint success, for Graeme and Sara together. I caught up with them recently to interview them both and trace what I felt to be very much a joint journey to this point. It was only a couple of years ago that Sara’s publishing company, Saraband, which has been publishing quality fiction and non-fiction for a while now, started a new imprint, Contraband, which focused mainly on quality crime. Graeme was one of the first signed up, with his debut novel The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau.
I also wanted to offer an alternative story to the slightly patronising headlines that have accompanied Graeme and Sara’s success: Tiny Publisher Fields Booker Shortlistee Shock! I wanted to show how success comes not just from good fortune – it’s also the product of talent, hard work, expertise and a really good partnership between author and publisher.
So in bright warm kitchen of Sara’s home, I met up to talk to them both about indie publishing, agents, how Graeme came to be with Contraband in the first place and why they work so well together.
LM: Let’s begin at the beginning. Your first novel was The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, Graeme. How did you come to publish with Contraband?
GMB: As you’ll know yourself, all advice you get when you start out is that you have to find an agent to approach publishers for you. So eventually I did and I worked hard with them on the editorial side of things. They were brilliant, they gave me lot of feedback and when they were happy with it, it got sent out to all the major publishers. But none of them wanted it. At that point I approached Sara myself. I’d heard about her but I realised quickly we both used to work in same building when I worked for Hopscotch films. We vaguely recognised each other. That was after she’d accepted it; she took it on pretty quickly.
SH: Adele Bedeau was one of the original three titles for the launch of the Contraband imprint. I just thought it was a brilliant, evocative book. I really felt like I was under Manfred’s skin, I identified with his sense of discomfort. And the setting in the cafe was so realistic. As you read through it, you find it’s full of little surprises, too, it’s such a mixture of suspenseful and gripping but quite charming and occasionally funny too.
GMB: The relationship I had with my agent editorially was really good. I did a big rewrite for them which made it much better by the time it went to Sara.
LM: What difference did Sara make to the book? It sold pretty well for a debut, didn’t it?
SH: Well, at the time we were with the Faber group (Faber Factory Plus) and the London rep absolutely loved it. We sent out proofs very early. Originally Graeme had the translator’s afterword as an introduction but I felt that was too confusing.
GMB: I also felt that when you open a book with an introduction you always tend to skip it. I always intended it to be read after the book so it felt logical to put it at the end. It was just too spoiler-y to have it at the beginning. One of the nicest things about the relationship I have with Sara was that I expected her to ditch that part of the narrative altogether but she didn’t. It did confuse some reviewers and some booksellers who saw it as a French novel – I wasn’t trying to fool anybody, and I felt a bit uncomfortable about that.
SH: With the metafictional wrapper, it just gave the novel that extra something and some people loved it, some were confused by it. The London rep for Faber kept talking it up to all of the major accounts in London like Waterstone’s Piccadilly store and all the major independents like Daunt’s and Foyles, and larger shops, so there were displays in most of those places. It really was through that more than anything that it sold, because we didn’t get big reviews or anything.
LM: That’s relevant for His Bloody Project too, don’t you think, that ‘metafictional’ aspect you have with Adele Bedeau? Because some people have been confused, thinking it’s a real-life story.
GMB: That’s why I put ‘a novel’ on title page. That’s normally a redundant thing to do but at least I said it was a novel. It’s a compliment to the writing that people think it’s a real document but it’s important that it’s understood as fiction.
SH: We never put into anyone’s mind it was true crime, it comes with quite a detailed historical note. When we sent out review copies we also specifically mentioned it was entirely fictional, not true crime.
LM: But the responses haven’t just been to the novel, of course. They’ve been to you both personally, because the Booker nomination has been such a game-changer, hasn’t it?
GMB: When you start out, of course, you talk to other writers and you all gossip about your experiences. I’ve met several people who had said, they wanted to write such-and-such a book but their agent hates it. But surely your agent should represent you, not force you into a box just to make money? I was a bit worried after the longlisting happened about the pressure on the next book. But Sara just said, don’t worry, you don’t have to write anything. Another agent or publisher might have wanted to milk the situation for all it was worth so I think it says a lot for Sara that she didn’t. Sara understands me, she’s never made any suggestion about what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Maybe she will now! I was very happy publishing my two novels, I felt I’d achieved something and I was already very happy that we had a publisher in Germany and the US for His Bloody Project. I thought we were doing really well, and that I was building up my career in a nice organic way. But I got to that point by writing a book set in a small town in France then changing tack and writing a book set in 19th century Scotland. It’s not been an obvious career path.
SH: We did have that chat at one point, thinking about the sequel to Adele Bedeau (which will be published next) that it might make more sense to do that first. But it was up to you. And although it was all going very nicely, you weren’t earning a living, hardly anyone does. That’s where agents and publishers – well, if you’re not offering massive amounts of money that’s enough to do it, it’s unconscionable to push people around about what they’re doing, I hate this idea that they’re giving you this money so that you’re little more than a battery hen: go over there and write!
GMB: But writers have to accept responsibility for the situation they’re in too. If they’re offered a two- book deal and they accept then that’s the situation. Most people don’t choose, I know – they all say, oh, make sure that agent is right for you. But, of course, you only get one call and of course, you take that agent calling on, even if they’re not right for you.
LM: His Bloody Project is with the Contraband imprint, which publishes crime. Is that how you both see the book?
GMB: Well, I’m sure Amanda Foreman (the Booker chair of judges) hadn’t heard of Contraband! The construction of my book is very literary but it’s about a crime. It’s a classic literary crime.
SH: To my mind, the notion put about that ‘a crime novel is on the Booker list’ is simply a function of the fact that almost everything on it wasn’t what the pundits were expecting. So they had to come up with something to say. One critic on Front Row even went on about the length of the novels! Somebody else picked up on the crime thing but I don’t see what the big deal is. Eileen is also on the crime-writer association prize list so clearly it’s been entered by its publisher; Northwater on the longlist is a novel about a crime, too. Whether you choose to put it in for a crime festival or prize is not a big deal in today’s market– some people don’t like their historical novel to have the label ‘romance’, for instance, as they think it’s too generic. But it’s just not a big deal.
GMB: The reception of crime fiction in general has probably shifted a bit, in the way that, say, sci-fi hasn’t. There’s still literary snobbishness about romance, sci-fi and so on. Crime has a broad church of novels about crime, as well as the procedural side of things.
SH: We started Contraband thinking it was a commercial proposition. We wanted a mix of Scottish crime that wasn’t being picked up by the big five publishers, classic Tartan Noir like Neil Broadfoot. But it never seemed to me to be difficult to gain a kind of respectability. Adele Bedeau is about a detective solving a crime, it’s not a genre crime novel but it is influenced by Simenon. That made it a really obvious choice for Contraband. We did discuss a little bit His Bloody Project as it was less obvious but it seemed silly to move between imprints, and it’s only amongst certain kind of readers and critics that allowing it to be thought of as crime or noir is somehow cheapening it.
LM: And how has the Booker nomination impacted on your author-publisher relationship? How do you feel about the way you’ve been written about?
GMB: From my point of view (the nomination) has strengthened it incredibly. Not only do I admire Sara even more than I did before but we’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a wee bit stressful but Sara is so lovely to me all the time. She is! I’ve now been exposed to patronising attitudes who have spoken to me very disrespectfully about my publisher, but the only reason they’re even speaking to me at all is because of Sara. It’s unsolicited but probably well-intentioned advice that’s been coming my way since. People seem to think it’s acceptable now to tell me what to do with my future. I think now I understand the situation Sara’s been in for years.
SH: I don’t mind so much. I have had calls from London publishers wanting to partner us now or take over the rights of the book. That’s perfectly fine – one publisher rang really respectful and nice about it. Others have been less so, not doing any homework, not even knowing anyone’s name. They completely assumed we knew nothing about anything, sales, distribution or anything. They assume that a small publisher means there’s no expertise or infra-structure.
GMB: I’ve certainly started addressing that point more. Although we’re still benefiting from the underdog story, some still think ‘small’ means ‘amateur’, back of an envelope situation. I’ve been asked so often now about being with a tiny publisher, but Sara Hunt has been in the publishing industry for 25 to 30 years. She knows every aspect of this industry. It’s started not to annoy me exactly but… let’s not undersell ourselves for the sake of the story.
SH: It did benefit us to go with that ‘underdog’ narrative but we do have an excellent professional sales team PGUK, strong distribution as well as freelance editorial, publicity, administration, publicity and so on! If you’re working for one of the big conglomerates, you have to fit in with their rules of profitability and how to commission, they can’t just commission because they like it and once they’ve got it, you can forget choosing a cover everyone thinks is appropriate because it will be driven by the sales dept.
GMB: We discussed the cover of His Bloody Project, I love all that stuff and Sara does too. The design, the look of the book was very imp to me. On every aspect, Sara has consulted me. Even when she had a call from another publisher just after the longlisting. I don’t think you were obliged to tell me about that but you did. But it was up to you. If I want anyone to make money out of the book I want it to be Sara, and Saraband.
SH: You can do what you like once you’ve won the Booker, but it’s a very different kind of situation to be in. Obviously now everybody wants to work with Graeme! They’ll want to respect his right to do what he wants.
GMB: They might want to but you actually do respect my right to do what I want and you did before. On the marriage of publisher and writer, it was flattering for me that Sara chose my book to submit to the Booker in the first place, but it’s been a nice confluence of things that have come together.
SH: It’s also that we live close together, our partners get on, we trust each other. We’re a tight little group, and Craig, Graeme’s editor, is good at protecting him too.
LM: There’s a nurturing aspect here that’s been lost in some big publishing, would you agree?
GMB: Other people don’t have a relationship with their publisher, it’s maybe with their editor or someone else who works for the company. But this is a proper fully functioning creative business relationship. Coming through the New Writers award you all discuss things, you’re all at same stage and nobody I know has a relationship with their publisher like this. Nobody wants to be poor but you have to value other things than people waving cheques at you.
And that seems the best point to end on!