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Industry Insight: Q&A with Hannah MacDonald and Sarah Wray (September Publishing)

Liz Robinson

By Liz Robinson on 10th February 2020

I’m thrilled that we are featuring Hannah MacDonald and Sarah Wray from the wonderful September Publishing this month. I have adored the books I have been fortunate enough to read, as have my fellow expert reviewers. Hannah and Sarah have a unique and rather wonderful touch, each book beautiful, absolutely readable, and fascinating too. I poured over their answers for this piece, they are both interesting and positive influences in the book world. Sarah’s childhood favourite is one of mine too, I reread it not too long ago, and Hannah’s book habit I totally agree with!

A few of the books we have reviewed include: All Good Things by Stephen Ellcock, Rock Pool by Heather Buttivant, These Our Monsters: The English Heritage book of new folktale, myth and legend, Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women, and If Women Rose Rooted, both by Sharon Blackie, there are some more fabulous titles coming soon, including Cat Women by Alice Maddicott.

Tell us about September Publishing and how it came into being:

Hannah: Our first books were published four years ago in 2015. We wanted to build a list of unique authors, pay them fairly and produce beautiful books for curious readers. I had spent 20 years working in large publishing houses and I was keen to make my own decisions.

Hannah MacDonald, Founder and Publisher at September Publishing

When it comes to your particular roles, what makes your heart beat faster?

Hannah: Commissioning an exciting new project – and persuading an author that you are the right editor – gives one a real kick. But when you are commissioning for an imprint you founded it’s even better! Most of all I feel real pride when author’s books find a good readership, when readers let us know how important a book has been to them. We began in a basement, with just a few trusting authors and we have come a long way. It’s very satisfying…!

Sarah: For me, seeing one of our books do extremely well through word-of-mouth – which we can often see in real-time across social media or online reviews – is such a pleasure. I get a sense of purpose from seeing readers discuss how our personal development books have helped them improve their lives, or how our artbooks have brought them comfort and joy.

But this can be baffling as well – anyone tasked with marketing books will know that sometimes your greatest efforts go unnoticed, whilst some titles explode seemingly on their own... One benefit of being totally independent is that we’re able to shift our strategy and be creative with our messaging – both of which are essential in today’s fickle market

Since you first arrived in the industry, what is the one thing that has remained constant, and what has been the biggest change or challenge?

Hannah: Working with authors is a delicate and wonderful thing. Their book is their baby, and writing a book is an identity altering act. The urge to write is a constant for the human race! Not just the urge to read. I wish the price of a book had changed massively in the last 25 years, since I started. The fact that it hasn’t – and that the margins in book publishing are incredibly tight - is our biggest challenge.

Sarah: Since I began my career in 2011, the main thing I’ve noticed is a huge decline of independent niche presses who once served unique interests and minority communities. If they haven’t ceased trading, they’ve been absorbed by large conglomerates and must broaden their appeal to survive. The weird and wonderful often doesn’t stand a chance. 

Happily, it appears the pendulum is beginning to swing back – more and more small presses have sprung up in recent years (albeit, many as ‘side-hustles’ as opposed to profitable businesses) and I’ve just read a report that the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has increased for three consecutive years!

I struggle to think of anything that has remained the same in that time!

Sarah Wray, Publishing Operations at September Publishing

Is there a fictional or historical character you would be thrilled to publish a book for, why is that and what type of book do you think it would be?

Hannah: I would like to have published Charlie Chaplin or David Niven’s memoirs. They are beautifully written classics of a populist genre. Or have been Andre Deutsch who gathered a terrific stable of post-war novelists like John Updike and developed children’s list with books like Thomas the Tank Engine!

Who are your book world inspirations?

Hannah: I worked at Random House for years and Gail Rebuck provided a grand example of female creativity, industry power, cultural influence & business skills. Other editors there were terrific wordsmiths and creative editors like Jenny Uglow and Robin Robertson who both write and publish brilliantly. I watched Jamie Byng at Canongate start and grow with admiration too. 

Sarah: I don’t know either of them personally, but I adore Aki Schilz of The Literary Consultancy for her #BookJobTransparency campaigning, and Sam Missingham of The Empowered Author for being so incredibly dynamic in business. She’s also seemingly the only person in the industry with the guts to call out corporate BS! 

Describe your favourite place to read:

Hannah: In the garden or on a train.

Sarah: Preferably on a very comfortable sun lounger next to a lake or by the seaside, or even in a picnic blanket under the shade of rustling trees. But most of the time I read while snuggled up in bed!

What’s your favourite book from childhood, how did it make you feel?

Hannah: I was a big fan of Alison Uttley, E. Nesbit and Nina Bawden. But I was an only child in the seventies so I read everything I could! I read series greedily - Enid Blyton and then Agatha Christie and Dick Francis and Dorothy L. Sayers. And Jilly Cooper and Judy Blume too. I think Rosamond Lehmann’s novels and Philip Roth’s had the biggest impact on me as a teenager though. The common feeling – the important thing - was escape.

Sarah: My favourite book from childhood is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet, which I was given by my grandmother when I was around 9 or 10. It opened my eyes to a world outside the American Midwest, where I grew up. The Yorkshire moors and country estate were unlike anything I knew existed, and I was also exposed to the idea of different classes for the first time through Mary’s relationship with Dickon.

I felt a sense of wonder at the idea of this little girl having her very own, very special secret (privacy being something that is often not offered to children). I desperately wanted a secret garden – or any secret! – of my own. 

Hbk, pbk, ebook, discuss: 

Hannah: Mostly HBK and PBK. I don’t object to ebooks at all – I just broke my kindle and don’t seem to have replaced it yet.

Sarah: ANYTHING but an eBook! I will nearly always await a paperback unless there’s a very good reason for something to be in hardcover (like artbooks and something very collectable). Paperbacks are light enough to hold comfortably and carry in a bag, and they’re often cheap enough that I don’t feel terrible for breaking spines and dog-earing pages.

Any strange book habits?

Hannah: Not sure about strange – but I am quite bold about not finishing books if I don’t get on with them. I think it's okay to not finish things. 

Sarah: I must always, always have at least one graphic novel, one prose fiction and one non-fiction book on the go at all times. The only time I can remember ever just focusing on a single book was when I wanted to read Infinite Jest in under 3 months (it took me 4 in the end).

What would be your desert island book?

Hannah: I have a real urge to reread David Copperfield – so maybe that.

Sarah: I’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand about a dozen times and will probably read it many more times in my life!

Fun book fact:

Hannah: AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble are sisters. How extraordinary is that? Both such brilliant writers. And important in terms of female writing. I just finished AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book and it blew me away. Another? William Carlos Williams’ poems are very short - perhaps because he was a doctor and wrote them on prescription pads.

Sarah: Not quite sure if this is a fact, but something amusing I’ve noticed over the years is that people go absolutely wiiiiiiiiiild for books with ribbon bookmarks!

Keep up to date with September Publishing.

Website: https://www.septemberpublishing.org

Twitter: @septemberbooks

Facebook: @septemberpublishing

Instagram: @septemberpublishing

If you enjoyed this article why not check out our other Industry Insight Features?

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