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Wednesday’s Interview with #Honno: Today With Caroline Oakley, Editor for Honno

Today I’m really pleased to be chatting with Caroline Oakley, Editor for Honno (and,  by the way, Editor of  two of my Pattern trilogy)  Besides letting us learn a little about herself and her career as an editor, Caroline gives us an insight to Honno. It’s fascinating, I promise.  

Please introduce yourself

Hello, I’m Caroline. I’ve been working in publishing since 1985, after studying English and Drama in London. I’m from Staffordshire, originally, and moved to Wales in 1999. I was taught to read by my librarian mum before I went to school at four…which was just as well because when I got there I had learn all over again through ITA, or the initial teaching alphabet, which was an innovative and not wholly successful 1960s initiative supposed to introduce children to reading and writing before moving on to standard spelling. Some of my fellows never quite got the hang of it! However, once we got back to normal English I throve and my nose hasn’t often been out of a book since.

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What brought you into editing as a career?

An advert in one of those freebie magazines they used to give away outside Tube stations in London… I’d been working in Bond Street for a cosmetics company (though one of my tasks was to buy crime novels for the boss’s wife from Hatchards!) when the opportunity came to move on. I was interviewed by one person but offered a job with another. It was a joy to be paid to read books for a living – rather than pay for books and try to find time to read them outside of work!

Life before Honno?

Ten years at the Centre for Alternative Technology as Publisher of their small list of ground-breaking titles on renewable energy, sustainable water provision and treatment, organic growing etc. Before that, 20 years in London culminating in a position as Editorial Director of Orion Paperbacks editing luminaries such as Ian Rankin, Michael Moorcock and writing cover blurbs for Maeve Binchy.

How long have you been Editor for Honno?

I started part-time in 2005 and full time in 2008 – so around ten years overall, including a year out to do an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University (which Honno kindly allowed me to take and then return to my job – a literary sabbatical, if you like). I thought I’d better see if I could ‘do’ it myself having spent decades telling others how to ‘do’ it!

Please tell us about the background of Honno. When and how Honno was founded?

Honno is a mutual and provident society – a non-profit organisation – founded by a group of women interested in promoting Welsh women’s writing to a new audience in the mid-eighties. They began by publishing one book at a time and sold £5 shares in the company to fund their publishing activity. After a couple of successful years they got funding for titles on a book by book basis from the Arts Council of Wales and then, with the founding of the Welsh Books Council, a revenue grant to enable the publication of seven books per year and the employment of permanent staff – as opposed to the volunteers that had begun the Press, who continue to manage the company on a voluntary basis today.

What are the philosophies/principles/objectives of Honno?

To publish great writing, by great women born or living in Wales… The ethos of the founders was to provide a publishing space for Welsh women writing in the English language – and of women of previous generations whose published works had fallen out of print. Also to provide work in publishing for women in Wales. Honno publishes genre and literary fiction and non-fiction; its authors have been awarded prizes and shortlisted by the Crime Writers’ Association, The People’s Book Prize, the Theakston’s Old Peculier Award for Best Crime Novel of the year and the Wales Book of the Year among others.

Do writers come to you or do you deal with agents only?

We have an open submissions policy – anyone meeting Honno’s criteria (you must be female and born or living in Wales, or writing work of interest to women in Wales) is able to submit work to Honno year round. This means we still source most of our writers and books through the ‘slush pile’, as it’s known in the trade. In this way we are able to spot talent at an early stage and often work with writers on several titles before they receive an offer to publish. You’ll remember this process well, Judith, as that’s how you came to Honno! As did Thorne Moore – who is now reaching the giddy heights of top ten best-seller for eBooks in trade magazine the Bookseller. We also offer workshops and ‘meet the editor’ mentoring sessions which bring new writers to our attention. On occasion literary agents will send us work and we’re always happy to liaise with them, too. Sometimes I or another Honno member will approach a writer with an idea and commission a title that way.

What advice would you give to a writer about to submit her work to Honno?

Read the submission guidelines on the website carefully – this applies to all submissions to any publisher. Also take a look at the range of books we publish – do we have anything similar on the list in terms of genre or tone? Have you read any of our books and, if so, do you think your work will appeal to our readers? These are the questions a writer should ask herself.

How do you decide that a manuscript is one you can work on?

That’s a tricky question – it depends on the material. I would usually read all of the fifty pages asked for before making a decision. It’s not often I reject something after a glance at only a page or two. I always try to include a tip or two on how to improve the work when I return it, or give a reason for not taking it further. If I like the material, I will either write and ask to see the balance of the book, or perhaps call the author and ask them to meet for a chat about the book and how we might work together. Very rarely I might write with an offer of publication after reading a full manuscript and then discussing it with my colleagues and the Honno Committee.

In the main, I’m looking for a genuine feel for the genre the book is written in, a winning voice, a great sense of place, a twist in the tale; something that makes me want to read on, whether that’s a character, a plot line or beautiful writing – which of those makes it a winner will depend on the sort of story it is.

How do you feel when you first discover a talented author?

Excited! And interested. I want to know how they got here and what motivates them.

Has there ever been a writer whose work you had to reject but who later found great success elsewhere.

Lots of them. There won’t be an editor who can honestly say no to this questions. J K Rowling was turned down many times before a junior editor at Bloomsbury took a punt on her. The same is true for all of us. There are lots of books I offered for and didn’t win, too. You have to concentrate on the ones you won not the ones who got away. I wanted to offer for Lesley Pearse’s first novel, but was told no by my bosses at the time. She didn’t do too shabbily. Another one that got away was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

Does Honno deal only in hard copies of authors’ novel or are they produced in different forms? For example, eBooks, audio books, large print?

Honno publishes across all formats, but some of them, such as large print and audio, are not produced by Honno but by specialist companies who purchase from us the right to publish in that format. All our titles are now published simultaneously as print and digital (or eBook) editions. Our titles are distributed in Wales, the rest of the UK and internationally by a range of established companies in print and eBook. So wherever you are in the world you should have access to Honno titles and great Welsh women’s writing.

How do you see the publishing world progressing?

That’s interesting. I wish I knew…that way we could make a fortune! I don’t think the book as ‘big papery thing’ (to quote Blackadder) will disappear, but the formats might change. It could be that the paperback is priced out by the eBook, but that the hardback remains and becomes much more of an elaborate gift object or beautiful self-purchase. Something like the leather-bound editions the Folio Society has been printing for eons. You might read the ebook, love it and the author and then move to buying beautiful, enhanced hard-cover editions to keep on your shelves and admire, reread. Collector’s editions if you will… After all, lots of people said DVD and video would kill the cinema, but in fact more people now watch films at home and at the cinema than used to when the new formats were released. Perhaps the children growing up today will become a generation of avid short story and serialised fiction readers on their phones and notebooks (don’t forget that Dickens’ classic works of literature began life as serials in the London Daily News). Short fiction has languished in the sales doldrums for some time, as has poetry, but there are now new and growing markets for these genres on-line and for download; their time to shine may be coming round again.

How do you see Honno progressing in the future?

I’d like to see the organisation become financially sustainable – funding can never be truly guaranteed – and growing eBook sales are helping us towards that target. I’d also like to see Honno grow its commissioned non-fiction list: so if any of you out there have a fascinating untold story of a forgotten woman, town or trade from, in or relating to Wales do get in touch! We’re after great stories that demand to be read rather than celebrity biogs. What have you heard about that’s incredible and little known? Honno has just published the amazing story of Lily Tobias, a little known Welsh-Jewish writer who took an active role in some of the most famous movements of the 20th century from women’s suffrage, to supporting conscientious objectors in WW1 and the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1930s; she lived through a momentous time writing political polemic and gripping fiction. She deserves to be read and known about, and not just for being the aunt of more famous men (her nephews Danny and Leo Abse are known for their writing and politics, why not Lily?)… http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?lang=en&ISBN=9781909983236

Thank you for your time, Caroline. Is there anything you’d like to add?

 No, not really, just that Honno is the only remaining UK independent women’s press in existence and that we aim to stick around for at least another 30 years publishing great writing from women in Wales. If you can help us do that – either by writing for us or joining Honno Friends (http://www.honno.co.uk/friends.php) – please do get in touch! You can find us at www.honno.co.uk

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