A clear desk, an empty inbox - and a whole load of rights to sell
As Hot Key launches its first titles, Rights Director Ruth Logan reflects on the excitement and anxiety of her move from Bloomsbury, where she grew up in publishing, to a specialist children's start-up.So how exactly did I get to Clerkenwell?
Leaving anywhere you have worked for half your life is tricky, but leaving Bloomsbury was for me almost inconceivable. I'd joined soon after its inception and, from the moment I'd heard about it from Liz Calder, I knew it was the place I had to be… It was love. And I'd remained in love as I watched it bloom and grow… and grow… But as it became ever bigger, a global and multi-limbed publishing creature, I found myself feeling oddly out of synch. Bloomsbury had come of age, the child had grown up - but it was I who needed to leave home.
And so I did.
When Sarah Odedina let slip that she was starting a new publishing venture, it sounded amazing - wild, challenging, and maybe a tiny bit mad. I fantasized about the endless possibilities: the dream authors, the beauty of the books, the rights, the rights… Sarah's vision was daring, uncompromising - utterly inspiring. It would be a great adventure - almost irresistible. And here I am, at Hot Key... falling in love again.
To be publishing only children's books felt slightly radical and quite daunting, both to lose the adult side but also to be completely immersed in the dedicated children's world. I'd been a bit of a dilettante - dabbling in both worlds, but now I would have to sharpen up and shed any residual adult-centric prejudices and misconceptions… would I stick out? Would everyone know and catch me looking for reviews in the wrong places?
So, what's the extra appeal of children's writing? "You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it's going to be too difficult for grown-ups, you write it for children." That's Madeleine l'Engle, and, as anyone knows who's ever read to a child, children are the most demanding audience. If the narrative doesn't grab, if the voice isn't real, there is no second chance. But they are also the most appreciative and imaginative readers - words are transformed and become magical. What could be more exciting than to work with books that are preparing the way for a love of reading for the rest of their lives, and with books like Maggott Moon changing the way children think and feel about the world and themselves? That was enough for me.
Stepping into the Hot Key offices on that first day back in the springtime, when the sun always shone, was like entering a parallel publishing universe. Northburgh House was once a printer's warehouse (not the home of the Venetian ambassador) but there were no books, no proofs, not even much paper; all was air, space and light. My office (with opening and closing door and window) had bare walls, empty shelves, a phone that wasn't yet functioning, a computer and a vase of flowers from my lovely new colleagues on an otherwise pristine desk. I logged on - there was one message. I closed my eyes - it would never be like this again.
I had walked away from a job where I was only selling a limited corner of rights… but now I was back doing everything, from Pashto (ever hopeful) to large print. And even America, which had been out of bounds at Bloomsbury because of our sisters in New York. This was bliss - to be able to match-make authors and editors everywhere. It's one of the pleasures of selling rights, spreading the word and sharing your favourite books with the disparate band of passionate, inspiring and challengingly well-informed publishers that you come across - it was a bit of a privilege. And they would be all mine…
There had been months of planning and strategising, acquiring and designing, blogging and tweeting and by the time I arrived - the eleventh member of the team - everything was almost in place for the Bologna book fair, the single most important date in the children's rights calendar. We just needed to make sure that everybody there would know who we were - so the emails flew and appointments and meetings were fixed.
Sarah Odedina, Sara o'Connor and Emily Thomas had been busy in those few months since Hot Key had been born - they had already acquired our launch list of nine books, nine key books which would carry the message of who we were and what we were trying to achieve. The first book I'd read was Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon - an extraordinary novel, tender and brave, lyrical and shocking. You couldn't have wished for a more inspiring and original book to start with - and we had rights. It was too almost good to be true.
One crucial first test for any book on the rights circuit is to gain the much-coveted good opinion of the august circle of scouts whose influence reaches much further than their foreign clients. Their responses were gloriously positive, verging on the passionate in the most discriminating cases…. So far so good. But then there was the economy. Aargh - even Brazillian publishers were cancelling contracts. This wasn't the easiest time to be launching a new company. (Maybe there were enough good books in the world already?) And then it happened, our first offers arrived - from Germany and France, then Italy and Israel, and we knew that all would be well. There was joy in the office on that day, and that was only the beginning. Bologna just confirmed that there is always a hunger for great storytelling and original narrative voices. Our wonderful editors were choosing the right stories and voices and I was going to have a ball selling them. We were on our way!
We're at the point in our very short (pre-)history where anything is possible. Poised on the verge of publishing our first list, we face a nervous market which isn't exactly begging for more players. It's challenging, but it's magic too. We have an incredibly creative and collegiate team here, and the place sparks with a positive energy that's almost palpable. Because we are starting from nothing, we have the heady luxury of only looking forward, and we're making so many things happen so fast - ibooks, tweet books… dead tree books. We are working hard but with consummate pride in what we have, in the dream authors, the beautiful books, the on-line community that's building… the rights, the rights. I think it might just come true…