books · Publishing

Thrillers, Suspense, and International Publishing: An Interview with Editorial Director Alison Hennessey

As I hinted several weeks ago, I am beginning an interview series with editors, marketing folks, designers, writers, and other people in the books industry. It is with great excitement that I present the inaugural post in this series with the brilliant Alison Hennessey, Editorial Director of Bloomsbury’s Raven Books. She provides some great insight into what it takes to publish thrillers, suspense novels, and international literature and offers some exhilarating upcoming publications to keep an eye on.

Alison Hennessey.jpgBio: Alison Hennessey has an extensive history working in the publishing industry. Her first editorial position was at Penguin Books, working on the reference and classics lists. She moved to the Vintage division of Random House in 2005 to work on the Vintage paperbacks list, before being appointed to the newly created position of Senior Crime Editor at the Harvill Secker imprint, which specializes in international writing,. There she acquired and edited authors writing in the English language and in translation, including Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Ruth Ware and Denise Mina. In June, she moved to Bloomsbury to set up a new imprint, Raven Books, to publish literary crime, thrillers and suspense.

You can follow Alison on Twitter at @Alison_Edits.

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1. You crafted a new imprint, Raven Books, that will begin publishing works in 2017. Can you tell us a little about what goes into developing a new imprint? Why did you decide that 2017 would be a good year to launch a new list of crime titles?

Naturally there are a lot of business decisions that are involved in setting up a new imprint which would be less interesting for general readers! But to break it down to its simplest form, Bloomsbury had already published some titles in this area before, but knowing this was an area they wanted to develop, they approached me for my experience in publishing extensively in this area as well as in building up a list; when I started at Harvill Secker, they did very little crime publishing in the English language, whereas I introduced authors such as Ruth Ware, Eva Dolan and Abir Mukherjee.

What was important to us was creating an imprint that was reflective of Bloomsbury’s existing literary reputation and was guided by my experience and expertise. As many people know, publishing can be a slow process – it’s generally a year from the point you acquire a book to when it is finally published, so joining mid-way through 2016 meant our first titles would come in 2017.


2. So far the list of titles that you have chosen for Raven Books is fairly varied; Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night is a thriller; Eva Dolan’s books are full of suspense; and Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is a Gothic ghost story. What are you looking for when you acquire a novel? Do you plan to follow any guiding principles when building your new list?

I have intentionally acquired a varied list of titles because I want each book to stand out on the Raven list, to reflect the diversity of the genre and to give us all at Bloomsbury the The_River_at_Night_Raven_Books.jpgchance to say something new about each book on the list. Much as Raven Books is not a ‘crime imprint’ these are not just crime books, in fact only Eva Dolan’s new book is really a straightforward crime novel; we also have a thriller, a ghost story and a high concept murder mystery.

We are aiming to publish between 8 and 10 hardbacks a year and, pragmatically, I also don’t want my own books to be competing with one another for the market; there wouldn’t be any point in me publishing 4 or 5 new detective series, when realistically, readers may only read 1 new series. We want to be catering for many readers, some of whom may be hard core crime fans while others may not be interested in the area at all but can’t resist a good ghost story, for example.


3. In one of your previous positions at Harvill Secker, you worked with several wonderful international novels. What unique facets does internationalism add to fiction?

I love international writing because it’s a glimpse into a world I may not be familiar with; I have always loved books with a strong sense of place, and working with translated literature can be a wonderful stepping stone into a new world. It offers you an insight into a culture that could be very different to your own and, as a reader, I love books that broaden my mind and inspire me to travel.

However, I think it’s very important not to divide the world into books written in English and books written in other languages; the process for publishing a book in translation is the same as for one written in the English language, the editor needs to fall in love with the book, understand how it might fit on to their list, assess its potential, look into the author, etc, etc, just as they would with a book written in the English language. There are other factors to consider – what material is available to read before acquiring the book, the cost of translation, the availability of an author, for example – but I am always wary of creating an artificial distinction between the two.


4. Recently you acquired the rights to several of tech journalist Stuart Turton’s upcoming novels through a contested auction. What makes a book worth competing with other publishers, and in particular, what made you so excited to produce Turton’s manuscript, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle?

I was so excited to publish Stuart’s book because to me it felt fresh and original, and was a thoroughly satisfying murder mystery that did something different to all the other submissions I was sent. I could completely see how it would fit on the Raven list, and how inventively we could publish it.

What I am looking for in a submission is a book I fall in love with and can’t wait to talk to the world about, but it doesn’t matter whether 10 other editors feel the same and it goes to auction, or whether I am the only editor who feels that way; what is important is matching the right book to the right editor.


5. What helped you succeed in the publishing industry? What advice such as seeking out mentors or locating learning opportunities do you have for anyone interested in working in publishing?

My advice would to be as open-minded as possible; when I first started work in publishing, I thought I wanted to work with children’s fiction or very high end literary fiction. It was only when I first started to look after the crime paperbacks at Vintage amongst the other titles I was working on that I saw how exciting and interesting good crime can be, how many of my favourite books had a crime strand to them (Bleak House, Fingersmith, The Secret History…) and what a fascinating area it is to work in.

Please don’t underestimate the importance of being nice, polite and interested; most people in publishing love their jobs, so will be happy to talk to you about theirs but not if you’re pushy or demanding. I would also say don’t be too grand, most people started out doing basic admin tasks but these can still be very useful; reading the correspondence I filed when I started out gave me a valuable insight into how the industry works and those all-important relationships between authors and editors and agents.


6. Lastly, can you share any upcoming publications, either yours or another publisher’s, that you are especially eager to see in print?

The_Long_Drop.jpgI am so looking forward to seeing Denise Mina’s absolutely outstanding The Long Drop being published next Spring; it was one of the last titles I acquired and edited at Harvill Secker and deserves to do brilliantly, as does the next book in Abir Mukherjee’s series (and not just because he promised me to introduce a cat, named by me, into it.)

From other publishers, I shall be cheering on Emma Flint’s wonderful Little Deaths, which is an example of great writing and brilliant plotting. And I’m sure there will be many more very exciting novels to come…

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Thanks again, Alison for that enlightening look into the role of an editorial director.

I hope the rest of you have the chance to check out some of the books that Alison mentioned. Since my own thriller is coming out in just a few days, I’m especially excited to read The River at Night, to be released January 10. There is nothing like a fast-paced read to start off the new year. (Though I will admit that I am also intrigued by the next book in Mukherjee’s series; I have to know what Alison named that cat.)

18 thoughts on “Thrillers, Suspense, and International Publishing: An Interview with Editorial Director Alison Hennessey

    1. Alison gave some great insight into upcoming books. I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard much about Denise Mina before now. Though I blame that on the fact that she hasn’t been marketed very heavily in the US. (…I may just be looking for excuses.) I’m excited to explore her work more now!


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