A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As the latest in our series of publisher interviews, RosyB talks to Victoria Blunden, Fiction Editor of Brighton-based publisher, Myriad Editions, well-known publisher of political Atlases about their recent move into fiction, their commitment to debut novels and how they are gaining success for their novels despite the difficult publishing climate.
BACKGROUND: ATLASES, GLOBAL ISSUES AND POLITICS
RosyB: Hello! As you are the fiction editor of Myriad Editions, we will mainly be talking about fiction, but first – if I can just get a bit of background on the publisher, as it is fascinating. On the website it says Myriad specialises in “three distinct but complementary genres: topical atlases, graphic non-fiction and original fiction” – a very unusual mix. The atlases, which have been a huge success world- wide are not just cartographical atlases but have titles such as The Cancer Atlas, The Atlas of Women Around the World and the forthcoming Atlas of Human Rights. I think there will be quite a few of the bookfoxes who would be interested in these. I wonder if you could tell us a little about the thinking and ethos behind them and how this maybe affects the company as a whole.
Vicky Blunden: Of course, thank you for asking! Myriad was founded back in 1993 as a packager of political atlases, and this is still our core business. We take topics of global concern and, using the most up-to-date data, present the information visually in map form. Our most famous atlas is The State of the World, which has the broadest scope, and our other titles range from the more political – like our new Atlas of Human Rights and The Atlas of Human Migration, which are both coming out this Spring – to more environmental subjects like The Atlas of Climate Change. We’re extremely proud of the atlases, and they remain at the heart of Myriad’s publishing.
RosyB: Looking through a lot of your titles – including the wonderful-looking Rumble Strip – a graphic novel concerned with the murderous motor car (oh how my father would approve! I’m definitely going to have to buy him a copy) there seems to be a political edge and activism that comes through. Can you tell me more about this?
GRAPHIC NOVELS, EDGE AND ACTIVISM
Vicky Blunden: This really came out of the kinds of concerns we were mapping in the atlases. The exciting thing about the atlases is the way in which the information is presented visually, and also how the authors (who are all experts in their fields) analyse the raw data. In our graphic nonfiction books the artist/authors – Kate Evans and Woodrow Phoenix – are working a similar magic: presenting a subject in an accessible visual form, with a narrative storyline. Kate Evans is an environmental campaigner and cartoonist whose book, Funny Weather, is a really funny and comprehensive guide to climate change (its subtitle is ‘Everything you didn’t want to know about climate change but probably should find out’). We also published her book on breastfeeding – The Food of Love – which is in fact much more than an excellent how-to manual for breastfeeding mums. It’s essentially a guide to early parenthood; thoroughly researched but also full of wisdom, humour and encouragement. Woodrow Phoenix’s book Rumble Strip is a quite unique and powerful polemic on the cult of the road, and it’s hypnotic to read – the book unfolds like one long road trip, but there isn’t a single car or human being in any of the frames. Like the atlases, the graphics are designed to take controversial subjects and open them up for new readers, presenting them in dynamic new ways.
A MYRIAD OF FICTION
We’re looking for what stands out, so it’s essential that the authentic, distinctive and original voice of a novel comes across from the start. (Vicky Blunden)
RosyB: Fiction publishing is quite a recent departure for Myriad, isn’t it? Yet, already you seem to have done really well and getting great exposure for many of your titles: most recently, Isabel Ashdown’s debut novel, “Glasshopper”, which received accolades from the Observer and The Evening Standard, and Sue Eckstein’s comedy, “The Cloths of Heaven” which is being dramatised for Radio Four. Plus, I just read that Ed Hillyer’s debut “The Clay Dreaming” has been shortlisted for Waterstones New Voices, which you must be delighted about. Simply: what is Myriad’s secret?
Vicky Blunden: We only publish a small number of titles each year so we are extremely selective, and fight hard for books we’re desperate to publish. All of our books are lead titles. It’s fantastic when they’re widely reviewed, and receive high praise, but we’re conscious that there isn’t much space in papers and magazines for début novels, so we do everything we can online to promote our list, as well as setting up signings and events to help the books reach the widest possible audience. Having said all that, none of the effort we put in would make any difference if they weren’t completely unique and extraordinary books to begin with, and their success is purely down to the strength of the novels themselves as well as the hard work of the authors. We’ve been thrilled with the response to Glasshopper, which is such a moving and beautifully composed book, and we can’t wait for the broadcast of the dramatisation of The Cloths of Heaven, which will be on Woman’s Hour every day from 15th-19th March. As for The Clay Dreaming being selected for Waterstone’s New Voices… we’ll find out soon!
RosyB: When it comes to fiction, describe a “Myriad Book”.
Vicky Blunden: Such a tricky question! I think many of our books share a social conscience with the atlases. Although they’re not about ‘issues’ they’re not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, and they tend to be rooted firmly in real experiences. They are very much driven by the characters, with all their flaws and their heroism. I may be biased, but for me Ellis, with his paralysing fear of spiders, his love for his dad and his unquenchable thirst for adventure (in Tom Connolly’s The Spider Truces) is as real as Brippoki, the Aboriginal cricketer exploring his dreaming in Victorian London in The Clay Dreaming, and the inept councillor’s nephew in Robert Dickinson’s The Noise of Strangers, who never features in the storyline except through other characters’ exasperated accounts of him. The characters in these novels are complex human beings, and they come alive, becoming known to the reader, when you read their stories.
HOW TO GET TITLES OUT THERE IN A DIFFICULT CLIMATE
RosyB: 2009 was a tough year for many publishers and booksellers – with the sad news about Borders bookshop, amongst others. One of the things a number of smaller or independent publishers have talked about is the difficulty of getting books into bookshops and the pressure put on them by the huge level of discounting demanded by the big chains and Amazon. How does Myriad attempt to compete in this sort of marketplace and what sort of strategies do you use to get your books noticed?
Vicky Blunden: I think all publishers struggle with these problems, as we seemed to be squeezed on all sides but particularly by the huge discounts retailers expect. We just keep finding ways to promote our books, developing our online strategy, offering special deals on our website (like 3 for 2 on all our titles on the website this month!), organising Virtual Book Tours and working with retailers, independent bookshops, libraries and universities to set up author events. We also take great care over the design of the books, making sure that they are beautiful objects in their own right with really eye-catching and attractive covers.
RosyB: How important is the internet for marketing your books?
Vicky Blunden: Very important. It’s such a wonderful, democratic space with so many opportunities for discussions about books. I love the fact that people are using the internet to talk about how important books are to them, and to make recommendations, and it’s particularly great for us that the focus isn’t wholly on what’s brand new. We’ve had requests from bloggers for review copies of all our titles, and we really see the effects that blogs have, particularly because the enthusiasm is so genuine.
RosyB: Many people have said that in this increasingly competitive climate that writers will have to start working harder to publicise their work themselves. Do you think this is the case?
Vicky Blunden: Definitely. It makes such a difference when an author is proactive and takes advantage of the opportunities that are out there – especially online. We encourage our authors to set up and really use their websites, and we see a direct correlation between how active the author is and sales of the books. We know from the kinds of activity on the internet what readers and book groups want, so it makes sense to offer this, especially as it’s so easy to do! Isabel Ashdown has just added a series of questions for book groups to her site, www.isabelashdown.com, and is featuring an exercise each week for writers in need of some prompts. Her website doesn’t just showcase her novel, it’s personal, and above all it’s interesting to read.
COMMITMENT TO DEBUT FICTION
RosyB: It is particularly exciting, at a time where debut novels are being reduced everywhere else, that Myriad has received funding from the Arts Council to publish original fiction – and debut fiction at that. (Big cheer from us!). Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Vicky Blunden: Thank you! The fiction list is a relatively new departure, and it is an exciting time at Myriad. Back in 2005 we published an anthology called The Brighton Book, which was a mixture of reportage, fiction, graphics and photographs, and from there we went on to publish the novels of two of the writers featured, Martine McDonagh’s I Have Waited, and You Have Come and Lesley Thomson’s A Kind of Vanishing. We wanted to publish more fiction and were struck by how hard it seemed to be for first-time novelists to get published – even to get their work read by editors who could consider it. In the South East there are a huge number of excellent creative writing courses and arts organisations helping writers to refine their writing, but many careers seem to stall at that point. What we wanted to offer – which I think has been the key for the books we’ve taken on since our Arts Council award for exactly this purpose – is a really close working relationship with our authors. We’re looking for writing that shows real promise, and we’re prepared to work hard on a book to help it reach its potential.
RosyB: Refreshingly you have an open submissions policy for writers. There are a lot of writers who read this site as well as readers. At the risk of opening the floodgates, what kind of work are you looking for and what is it that really draws you most to a book?
Vicky Blunden We do accept unsolicited submissions, and we read everything that comes in. We receive quite a substantial number of submissions, and given that we publish a small number of novels a year this means that we send a lot of rejection letters, which is definitely the least enjoyable part of my job. Although I’m conscious that publishing houses are built on editors’ tastes I try to read with an open mind, and I never know what I’m looking for until I read it. This isn’t really very helpful advice to writers I’m afraid! I want to be surprised, captivated, and impressed by the quality of the writing, and won over by the characters and the world that’s been created. We’re looking for what stands out, so it’s essential that the authentic, distinctive and original voice of a novel comes across from the start.
FIVE FAVOURITE READS
RosyB: And in time-honoured Vulpes tradition, can I have your top five (non-Myriad) books…?
Vicky Blunden: The Still Point, by Amy Sackville (one of the best books I’ve ever read)
Underworld, by Don DeLillo (or Falling Man, or both – can’t decide)
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
Although if I think about this too long I’ll change my mind, or want to up it to ‘top ten’…!
To explore other Vulpes Libris Publisher Interviews click here
When RosyB takes off her serious Vulpes Libris interviewing hat (which is large and woolly with various earflaps and a pompom on top) she can be found writing comic novels . To find out more go here.