It takes a one-of-a-kind editor to discover and nurture one-of-a-kind writers, and they don’t come more one-of-a-kind than Sarah Odedina, this month’s Industry Insights guest.
After an early career as a freelance writer (during which she interviewed the one and only Maya Angelou), Sarah has played a pivotal role in some of the most exceptional books published in the past decades, among them Holes, The Graveyard Book and Harry Potter. Sarah is currently Editor-at-Large for Pushkin Children’s Books, where she continues to blaze new trails by championing unique new voices - many of which have won major awards. She’s also the co-founder and Editor of Scoop magazine (“a feast of words and pictures for curious kids”), and co-founder of Accord Literary, a ground-breaking project dedicated to developing and publishing African writers for young readers. Read on to enjoy Sarah’s fascinating account of her life in publishing (and beyond) - her passion is infectious, her insights utterly unique.
Please could you share an overview of your career?
After university when I had my first daughter I was doing some freelance writing - mainly book reviews and author interviews (I interviewed Maya Angelou in the late 80’s!). I started studying for a PhD and soon realised that I didn’t want to be an academic - that my love of books would be most enjoyable if I could play a part in getting books made and stories shared with ‘real’ people, so I found a job in publishing. My first job was assistant to a literary agent. I then went to Rights and worked for Penguin Adult, and then Watts/Orchard Children’s. From there I went to work at Bloomsbury as Editorial Director starting on January 2nd 1997, and from there launched Hot Key Books.
I am now Editor-at-Large for Pushkin Press which allows me time to work as editor for Scoop magazine and also to develop Accord Literary. In a way I now have my perfect working situation. Pushkin is a fabulous company publishing wonderful books like Lampie, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and The Murderers Ape, which is quite a wonderful genre-bending book. I commission and edit around seven books a year. I started working with Pushkin in early 2016 and the first book I commissioned, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Prize. In the intervening years my contribution to the list has included prize winners and bestsellers including Boy 87 by Ele Fountain, Bearmouth by Liz Hyder [a LoveReading favourite] and When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten [another LoveReading favourite].
When I got the job at Bloomsbury I had never edited a book - or even commissioned one. But I had quite clear ideas of the kinds of books that I love and I worked on the principal that I am fairly normal and if I love them other people would too. What sells, I maintained then and maintain now, is quality. It’s great stories, well-told, strong characters, books with meaningful themes. Books that have been around for decades are books that carry these hallmarks of quality. I think my career including time in a sales role has really helped me to always remember that someone has to buy the book. I want to make books that move readers and make them happy. When I look at books like Witch Child by Celia Rees, which has sold in something like thirty foreign languages, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the UK alone, I know that commercial and quality can go hand in hand.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in publishing through your time in the industry?
Mainly the fact that children’s books are held in so much more esteem by the industry. Anyone who has worked in publishing as long as I have (my career started in 1990, more or less!) has always known how valuable children’s books are to a company’s profits. The wonderful backlists at places like Puffin and Random House, Macmillan and HarperCollins quietly motor along. And then the amazing successes of books like the Harry Potter titles, Philip Pullman’s amazing Northern Lights, Suzanne Collins, David Walliams … they totally tipped the balance from quiet backlist to sensational front-list. These authors works’ and their huge fan bases made sure that publishers realised that children’s books could - and would - completely change the financial landscape of the companies who published them.
Change has also come in terms of what can be published for children now. I think adults are a lot less prescriptive of what a child should be reading and thinking much more about what a child would like to read. The range of voices, the range of stories, the courageous writers who are pushing the boundaries of form and content ensures that the children’s book world is innovative and challenging.
Finally, I think we are also really waking up to the fact that we have neglected large swathes of the population who want to read outside the traditional white middle class narrative - readers who want stories from writers who represent a different demographic in their stories, and writers whose stories reflect those of people at home and around the world whose voices have not traditionally been given an opportunity to be heard.
What’s the best thing about being an editor?
Working with authors and seeing the alchemy of idea into book. It is quite frankly magical to me. I have to confess to being completely in awe of the skill, determination and talent of writers. People who have an idea and slowly and painstakingly turn it in to a book to be enjoyed by readers potentially all over the world. To turn it in to a book that will move people, make them laugh or cry, and leave them with a memory that will live in them forever. It is magical.
What sets your editorial heart a-fluttering?
I like books that emotionally engage me. Books that introduce me to a challenge and show me how it is overcome. I need positivity in books (as in life!) and love stories in which life is celebrated. I believe in the shared humanity of people and when I read a book set in England, Jamaica, Singapore or Ghana I look for stories that tell me about the specificity of the lives of those characters while also celebrating the things we share as humans - love of family, desire for happiness and security, need for self-expression, and so much more.
What piece of advice do you give writers most often?
Write the story that only you can write! Trying to write like someone else, or to write a story that is focusing on a genre or style that seems to be popular at the moment, never really amounts to anything great. Great books come from the imagination of one person - Harry Potter was written by a woman who lived that world. The Graveyard Book was written by a man who had a brilliant and original idea. It is originality that will ensure longevity.
Do you have any special acquisition stories to share?
I am always delighted by the serendipitous meeting, and quite a few books I have published have come about from meeting someone and listening to their idea for a story and encouraging them to write it. Commissioning and editing Witch Child by Celia Rees was great fun. I had been visiting my mother in Scotland and had heard about a village close to where she lived that had been a place that many people had been burned as witches. I started thinking about the lives of those women and wondered about a book for teens that would explore the theme in a nuanced way. I spoke to Celia’s agent and asked if she knew someone who might be interested in writing this story and she called Celia. Celia had written a book which began, “I am Mary. I am a witch”, and it was lurking in her drawer. She sent it to me. I fell for it from that first line. The book she sent and the book we published were two quite different books. We edited a lot and worked on it a lot, but ultimately it was a wonderful coming together of an idea and an author who had the same idea!
Tell us about the one-of-a-kind experience of publishing Harry Potter.
It was pretty thrilling to be honest. We knew we were involved in something very, very special and we were making the rules as we went along - the embargoes, and secrecy and excitement was entirely driven by the audience who were so excited by the books and a new Harry Potter was absolutely to be treasured and celebrated and marked as a really special event. It was also thrilling to see how a children’s book could so engage people’s imaginations - adults and children. And that was entirely driven by the fact that the writing, the world-building, the imagination of the author, are all just so special.
Which classic novels would you have definitely published back in the day?
I have to be honest and confess that I often find ‘classics’ pretty hard going. I told someone the other day that reading the Brontës, or Shakespeare or Austen has been something that I have in the main fairly successfully avoided. I have memories of sitting in school feeling overwhelmed with how hard they were for me to engage with. I read The Secret Garden recently and was pretty shocked by the racism. Obviously if I was a publisher at the time of Jane Austen sending out her manuscripts it would have been a language and expression that would have been familiar to me, but with my 2021 hat on I think it might be getting a bit of a polite rejection.
The really important thing to remember about publishing is that it works best when an editor is passionate about a book and an author. And we are all different and respond to books differently. There are several best-sellers that I am a bit indifferent to - that don’t ignite in me that passion - but they worked for their editors who took them on to success. It’s one of the best things about this business. Personal taste is still a really important part of the process.
It seems to me that adults miss out on some of the world’s best writing because they don’t read books that are (ostensibly) published for children. Which children’s and Young Adult books would you recommend to adults?
Holes by Louis Sachar. My mother was a voracious reader and she was rather aloof about children’s literature. When we published Holes as an adult edition at Bloomsbury (only a different cover) I gave her a copy and she LOVED it. I know if I had given her the children’s edition she wouldn’t have read it. After that she was much easier to give books to. I would also recommend Bearmouth, which is a tour-de-force. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is also outstanding, and No Matter What by Debi Gliori. Actually, I would recommend any book for children that I would recommend to a child.
Do you have an all-time favourite novel for adults, and for children?
My favourites are fairly constantly updated depending on what I have read. Recently I would say for adults The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, which I found mesmerising. It is a wonderful page-turner of a story with incredible depth and heart. For children it probably has to be Holes, which really does have it all - brilliant plotting, characters who are real and flawed and crazy and compelling, great themes and that clever way of linking the past, present and future.
Which authors would you invite to your dream literary dinner party?
Jean Rhys, Liz Hyder, Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris … quite a conversational cocktail!
Give us an elevator pitch for some of your upcoming books…
In September we publish our first ‘home grown’ picture book at Pushkin called Shoo! by Susie Bower and Francesca Gambatesa about a woman who does not like animals and when a zoo moves in next door her dislike grows. In April we have the third (wonderful) book by Ele Fountain - Melt, a timely teen adventure story with a concern about climate change at its heart. In October we publish a new book by Karen Foxlee called Dragon Skin about a girl who finds a baby dragon on her way home from school, and in nurturing it to health she also finds the strength to heal herself and her mother. I have published Karen for quite a while now, and I do think she is literally going from strength to strength - this book is outstanding.
Can you tell us about the Accord Literary initiative you co-founded to support children’s writers based in Africa?
A few years ago I was in Accra, Ghana attending a literary festival and I was delighted to meet with a great many hugely exciting writers. I also met properly Deborah Ahenkorah. We spent the day together and it was one of those days when you know you have met someone with whom you can start making some changes to your corner of the world. Debbie and I both feel that while there is a lot of space in our literary sphere for African adult authors, children’s authors do not get the same support or interest and we wondered what we could do to help make a difference to that fact. She also made it clear to me that there is a big gap in the African publishing scene for books by African writers for African children. So much of what is available to young readers on the continent is brought in from the USA or the UK and often there is little in those books to reflect and affirm the lives of young readers in Africa. So, our project evolved with the twin goals - to help African writers reach international audiences and to create a stream of writers whose work will find publishers in Africa and be read and enjoyed by children on the continent.
Our work so far has been focused on running both in-person (pre-pandemic) workshops and on-line workshops and inviting writers to send us their work. We are looking for debut writers with whom we can work to help them polish their craft and improve their writing. I believe that writers are NOT born - they are made through long hard work. People learn to write, their skills are developed through practise and with advice and guidance, and that is what we can offer. We signed a deal with Norton Books for Young Readers in North America who are taking the first six of the titles we are working on and the first three of those books will be published this year. We are so delighted to have this incredible support. We are looking for publishing partners in the UK and Europe, as well as submitting the titles to African publishers for them to consider.
When you’re not editing or reading, how do you like to spend your time?
I am quite strict with myself that I have time away from the business of publishing and during that time I enjoy going on very long walks around London which have been a life-line for me during the pandemic, or I can be found gardening - the pleasure of seeing things grow around my little garden is immense. I am also a completely untrained but enthusiastic potter. I work in a studio in Peckham where I tend to make rather strange but hopefully functional pieces. I listen to audio books when I make ceramics and, having been a slow joiner to the audio revolution, can now do a book in a day without any hesitation. It seems even at my most unworking I still want books to be part of my life.
Tell us a secret about books.
There are no books that are better for you than others. Any book that gets in to the heart and mind of the reader is a perfect book.
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