Romantic Novelists' Association

Ask An Industry Expert: Karen Sullivan

7 June 2019

Today I’m delighted to welcome Karen Sullivan, founder of Orenda Books


Hello and welcome, Karen. First of all, many congratulations that one of your authors was a finalist in the RoNAs this year. Can I start by asking you what store you set by literary competitions. There seem to be a lot out there!

I love them! They provide a fairly level playing field for authors. A book doesn’t have to have sold millions or hit the bestseller list to be entered—or to win. Awards are recognition, which authors and publishers all appreciate. Some attract bigger sales than others, but all attract attention. I can’t TELL you how excited I was to hear that The Lion Tamer Who Lost had been shortlisted for a RoNA, particularly in the category nominated by booksellers, librarians and bloggers. I am utterly thrilled for Louise Beech, who was previously long-listed for another title in the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

We’re also proud to have had finalists/award winners for Authors’ Club Best First Novel, CWA Daggers, Dead Good Reader, Dublin Literary, Exeter First Novel, ITW Best First Book, Most Captivating Crime in Translation, PEN Translation, and Petrona.


I notice when you set up your agency in 2014 you specialised in literary and crime fiction. How important is Romance for your company?

We publish beautifully written books, and I don’t mind what genre they are, as long as they are different, fresh and exciting in some way. Although our list is predominantly crime/thriller-orientated, a lot have strong elements of romance—and romantic suspense. Classifying books can sometimes do them an injustice and we aren’t given much room for doubling up the markets when we publish and sell to retailers. There are all kinds of love, so there is scope for many kinds of romance literature.

Romance is important, because it’s part of life, and while I am probably attracted to the darker side of relationships, it’s a genre with which we can all identify. When I’m tired or stressed, or have spent too long on the ‘dark side’, I like nothing better than a satisfying uplifting romance—or something that will encourage cathartic tears!


And, in the romance line, what type of submissions are you personally looking for at the moment?

Romances that are not straightforward, where there is a sense of jeopardy. I like to cry a bit, and feel tension. But that is absolutely not set in stone. Louise Beech’s The Lion Tamer Who Lost was unlike anything I had ever read. a gay love story that sweeps from a lion reserve in Zimbabwe to a working-class family in Hull is probably not my usual reading! But I was so invested in the characters and drawn into their plight it was impossible not to publish it! Character-driven romances would be top of my list, and something that isn’t clichéd.


What about that all important submission? What makes you sit up and take notice?

Beautiful writing, the kind that makes my heart sing or gives me goosebumps, and characters who provoke strong feelings (whether I like them or not). I also love to be transported to other places, times and cultures.


And what about the synopsis? Do you have any tips for writing a really good one?

Short, snappy with strong selling points is key. I like a one-page synopsis, with the bare bones of the story, but I don’t even look at it until I’ve read some of the book, to check that it’s worth reading.


We often ask agents and publishers what they consider to be the next ‘big thing’. What do you hope to see more of in 2019/2020?

‘Up-lit’ is supposed to be the newest trend and is attracting strong readerships. I’ve also seen a drift towards witches, the supernatural and even horror, in genre mash-ups (or hybrids), and these seem to be increasingly popular. My main criteria is to publish books I would love to read.


Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)

Yes! We want authors who are good natured, easy to get along with and fun! As a very small publishing company we operate as a team and spend a LOT of time together at festivals and on the road for our Orenda Roadshows Our authors include best-sellers and debuts just starting out, but everyone receives the same advance and marketing spend. There is complete parity. So I always look for authors who ‘get this’, and treat other authors on the team with respect.

Social media is also important. Our authors all engage with bloggers, readers, booksellers, reviewers—everyone! You have to make a bit of noise to get your book noticed. It’s not easy to self-promote, but it’s a necessary skill, and social media is a perfect vehicle.


What is your typical working day like?

Our offices are in my home, which means that I can get my youngest son off to school first thing and do a good long day (14/16 hours is not unusual) and still make dinner and spend some time with my family. I might spend 12 hours straight editing one day, the next on a whole range of tasks like creating metadata for retailers, writing jacket copy, planning a marketing campaign, pitching to festivals, looking at cash flow, booking hotels or trains, attending meetings. Another, I might spend HOURS on social media talking to readers, booksellers, bloggers, etc, reading submissions, planning a launch, doing interviews—anything and everything. That’s what makes the job so exciting.


I guess your travel-to-work time is minimal then! Any challenges with being home-based?

I often get completely drawn into my work and forget to get dressed! Our printer delivers finished copies and proofs, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered the door in my nightie. At the beginning, I used to say: Please excuse my state of undress, I’ve not been well (or the like). Now, the delivery guy says things like Wow, is that a new nightie?

Authors often stay at our home when they’ve travelled long distances. A particularly embarrassing moment occurred when I was saying goodbye to Michael Malone, early one morning, the day after his launch. I stood at the door, in my nightie, and shouted ‘You were AMAZING last night’, just as my neighbour opened her own door. The look on her face was priceless, and I almost died!


Can you tell us the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?

C J Tudor’s The Taking of Annie Thorne, a fabulous, creepy thriller reminiscent of the Stephen King books I devoured throughout my teens. Fantastic writing, an immense sense of unease, a twisty plot and some unforgettable characters. On the non-crime front, I read Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie, which made me laugh and cry and stamp my foot. Her ability to portray the everyday, the minutiae of emotions, of life, of relationships, is exceptional. She writes with such perception that I feel wiser after reading her books. In some ways, her writing reminds me of Louise Beech’s. They both have an extraordinary ability to draw you into the lives of unremarkable people and leave you bereft when the book is finished.


Thanks so much for talking with us today, Karen. Find out more/contact Orenda on:





Kate was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: